Graham's blog Friday 3 October 2008

October 3, 2008 12:30 PM
By Graham Watson MEP

My week again started on a Sunday, when I left home for Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. This week the European Parliament has been in recess and I often use these occasions to take a delegation of LibDem MEPs somewhere interesting. In view of the recent conflict in Georgia I felt it would be useful to repeat a visit I made 30 months ago to three Southern Caucasus countries: Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.

The Azerbaijani President decided, just a couple of days before we left, to call an unscheduled three-day public holiday to coincide with the end of Ramadan. Nonetheless we managed to meet the Speaker of Parliament and three of his deputies; the leadership of the Musavat (Equality) Party, to whom we are linked through Liberal International, and three liberal-orientated youth organisations.

Azerbaijan is enjoying the kind of economic boom it last saw at the beginning of the twentieth century, when so much of the impressive belle epoque architecture in and around Baku's citadel was commissioned. Now, as then, the exploitation of oil reserves is behind it. Caspian oil (and now gas too) is fuelling double digit economic growth and the construction boom which accompanies it. Sandwiched between Iran and Russia, yet crucial to the west for the energy supplies which flow to Turkey and beyond through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline; and with nearly 20% of its territory under armed occupation by Russian-backed Armenian and Nagorny-Karabakh separatist troops, the chances for freedom and democracy for the Azeri people are not strong. The ruling Aliyev family still has close links to Moscow and a tendency to ignore democratic niceties such as an independent judiciary or a free press. The main Opposition parties refuse to put up a candidate in the Presidential election because they argue there is no chance it will be free and fair. The Musavat party is the major parliamentary opposition but has fewer than 10% of the seats in a parliament dominated by President Aliyev's party. Nonetheless there is hope for change. The younger generation of the middle classes is increasingly English (rather than Russian) speaking, often western educated and western oriented. We learned from EU ambassadors in Baku of the educational and aid programmes we are delivering and of the need not to abandon the country to the ravages of its large and powerful neighbours.

From Baku we flew to Tbilisi in Georgia for a day of meetings in the capital and two days visiting the Russian-occupied Black Sea port of Poti and the conflict-wracked town of Gori. We saw the ministers of defence, EU affairs, Abkhazi and South Ossetian integration and Refugee Resettlement and the Speaker of Parliament, who was foreign secretary when the hostilities broke out in August. All spoke English: most of them concentrated on telling us that they had no choice but to start the recent war with Russia; and asked the EU to come to their aid. We have done, of course, and will continue to. But even the three members of my delegation from countries with recent experience of Moscow - former government ministers from Hungary and Slovenia and a former mayor of Warsaw - shared my view that President Saakashvili was very ill-advised to have started an armed conflict; and that while we condemn Russia's response it was nonetheless utterly predictable.

We met opposition parties and NGOs and noted that the opposition has been rather uninspired, notwithstanding the problems of lack of press freedom or independent judges (and, in all probability, vote rigging) which characterise Georgia's 'democracy'. I suspect the western mind views Georgia and Azerbaijan differently: partly because one is predominantly Christian and the other predominantly Moslem, but partly too because of their names. If we knew Georgia as 'Georgistan' (as Turkey does, for example) and Azerbaijan as 'Azeria' our perceptions might be different.

One late addition I had made to our programme was to request a meeting with Eduard Shevardnadze, former foreign minister of the USSR and Georgia's first President after the USSR's collapse. Now in retirement, he received us at his heavily-guarded home just outside Tbilisi, in a study full of books (including his own recent autobiography) and decorated with photos of the stateswomen and -men he had encountered. Under his leadership, Georgia would never have risked a war with Russia: but nor would it have made such progress in opening up its economy as it has under his successor Mikhail Saakashvili. Shevardnadze told us he thinks Russia made a big mistake in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia, since it will encourage separatist movements in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and other Russian republics.

I had to leave Georgia hurriedly after our first day there, to return to western Europe for an unexpected family funeral. My colleague Istvan Szent-Ivanyi MEP took over the leadership of the delegation for the two days in Gori and Poti and the final day visit to Yerevan in Armenia. I write this newsletter from Florence, where the funeral took place, hoping to learn from my colleagues next week of their findings in the meetings I missed.

One conclusion I reached, however - which will be important as we deploy the 200 EU monitors foreseen under the EU's six-point peace plan - is that armed conflict was utterly predictable (indeed, it was predicted in a report to Parliament in February by LibDem MEP Lydie Polfer, former foreign minister of Luxembourg) and that more active prevention would have been less costly than the cure we are now called upon to provide.