LI executive Tbilisi, Georgia, May 2016 report

27 May 2016

Liberal International executive meeting Tblisi, Georgia, May 2016

By Mark Smulian

On one side of the barbed wire are several dozen liberals from around the world, on the other an elderly farmer and in between heavily armed men.

Welcome to the 'line of control' between Georgia and South Ossetia, a bone of contention in this part of the world that formed the main visit organised for those at the Liberal International executive meeting in Tblisi.

As far as Georgia is concerned, this is not a border, since it considers the territory further north to be part of its land, as indeed does the rest of the world apart from Russia.

When the Ossetians declared themselves independent - perhaps out of a concern for their position as an ethnic minority in Georgia, rather than one minority among many in the Soviet Union - Russia recognised them and has since made mischief for Georgia.

A misguided attempt by Georgia to retake the territory in 2008 saw the Russians encroach further into Georgia to within a short distance from the main east-west highway, which is where LI delegates were taken.

Through interpretation, the old farmer on the other side - who was clearly there by arrangement - talked movingly about how he was cut off from his land, healthcare and Georgian pension by the fence and faced an arduous journey to access any services in South Ossetia. It has to be said that no-one on the other side did anything to prevent him from talking to us.

On our side the heavily armed men all had police patches on their uniforms. They looked military to me, despite the guide's insistence that since this was not a recognised border it was not patrolled by the Georgian army.

There is a close relationship between the Liberal Democrats and our hosts, the Republican Party of Georgia, with the former having often sent people to assist them with policy and organisational work.

The RPG was founded in the Soviet Union in 1978, when its leading members were promptly jailed. One described this experience to me as having been his 'university', where dissidents from all over the USSR met in prison, learnt from each other and planned the future.

Freed when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, they returned to their republics and participated in the USSR's break-up.

Georgia's most recent election was won by the Georgia Dream coalition of which the RPG is part and we were addressed by several ministers including defence minister, from whom it was clear that Georgia's geographical situation between Russia, Iran and volatile parts of the Middle East leaves the country uneasy.

Despite this, the curious thing I found as a first time visitor to Tblisi was that it feels an entirely European city.

It is beyond the far east of Asian Turkey, there are motorway signs to Tehran, its about as near to the ISIS controlled areas of Syria as London is to Newcastle, yet there feels nothing remotely Middle Eastern about it - the population is Orthodox Christian and the towns, if anything, look rather like those in the Balkans.

European Union flags are widely flown, even though Georgia is not a member, and it was clear that liberals from other countries devoutly hope the UK remains in the EU after the forthcoming referendum.

The meeting was an executive, so less elaborate than a congress. The first morning was taken up by an administrative session which approved a policy on accepting sponsorship, there having been some controversy over whether LI could suffer reputational damage were money found to come from some questionable source.

Afternoon sessions were on Iran (including a contribution from members of an exiled Iranian liberal party), cyber security, combatting Da'esh and 'Countering expansionism and revisionism of global security mechanisms', expansionism being a particular concern for the Georgians.

There were also visits to the former capital of Mtsheka and to a vineyard near Tblisi and the Georgians' hospitality was excellent throughout.

As often at LI meetings the most interesting parts were the informal talks with liberals from around the world rather than the formal sessions.

The combined LIBG and Liberal Democrat delegation was myself, Phil Bennion, Robert Woodthorpe Browne and Jonathan Fryer.

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