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Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Mr. Ainger.]

9.30 am

The debate on Chechnya is timely. Coming down the Mall this morning I saw what I took to be Russian flags flying, presumably in honour of the visit of President Putin next week. It will be the subject of media comment and attention, much of which will focus on what is reputedly the good working relationship between the Prime Minister and the Russian President. The Prime Minister has worked hard to establish and develop that relationship since Mr. Putin first appeared on the scene, and we salute his foresight and energy in doing so. A good working relationship with the Russian Government is a key goal of British foreign policy. It may be 14 years since the fall of the Berlin wall but we are still living in the shadow of the cold war; Russia is not a normal state. The western world, especially Europe, has an interest in encouraging a stable, co-operative and friendly Russia.

It is therefore in the wider international interest for the Prime Minister to have forged a relationship with President Putin and when we discuss matters such as the sensitive issue of Chechnya, we must bear in mind the importance of encouraging and sustaining the stability of the Russian Federation. However, there comes a point when pursuing that objective can conflict with the difficult and unpleasant reality of what is happening in Chechnya. There is a fine line between observing diplomatic restraint for reasons of realpolitik, and becoming uncomfortably complicit in some seriously brutal and misguided policies that are being pursued by the Russian Government.

I am not saying that we have crossed the line from diplomatic constraint to moral complicity, but we sometimes get too close to it. The Prime Minister's reported comments during his visit to St. Petersburg brought us closer still. We need to back away from that fine line, remind ourselves that a friendly relationship can still be robust and make it crystal clear to the Russian Government that the behaviour of the federal authorities in Chechnya has been, and continues to be, unacceptable.

I want to ask the Minister some questions and the best starting point is the briefing paper produced by the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, based on some 50 interviews in Chechnya earlier this year. It was submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in April, when the question of whether to pass a resolution on Chechnya was discussed. I pay tribute to the work of Human Rights Watch in monitoring the situation in Chechnya and feeding back information to us, despite great difficulties and the lack of any co-operation from the Russian Government. It is particularly useful that Human Rights Watch has established an office in Britain, because we can obtain reports and input as quickly and fully as possible.

The report that was submitted to the UN commission concluded that, depressingly, violations of human rights by federal authorities in Chechnya have been increasing in recent months. Human Rights Watch found that Russian troops were abducting and "disappearing" people at a rate of roughly three per week. In fact, that is an understatement of the number, because Human Rights Watch cannot monitor the total number of people who are being disappeared. As I said, it makes the point that the rate has increased while it has been observing the conflict; the rate is now the highest that it has documented since the beginning of the conflict.

In its report, Human Rights Watch quoted two unpublished but official-looking reports obtained from within the pro-Moscow Chechen Administration, which give an indication of the number of abductions and disappearances. The first report recorded the killing of 1,132 civilians last year, and the second said that in the first two months there were 70 murders, 126 abductions and 25 cases in which human remains were found without explanation. The rate of disappearances and abductions compares to that for the conflict in Algeria at its height. That is truly alarming.

The pattern of human rights abuses also seems to be changing. In the early part of the war, from 1999 onwards, most civilian deaths occurred during large-scale military operations, with the military using excessive force against their Chechen opponents.The bombardment of Grozny was the starkest instance. In the past year, however, the abuses seem to have occurred not so much in military operations, but more often during night raids on Chechen homes. People are taken away and in most cases never seen again. Even the pro-Moscow head of the Chechen Administration has recently accepted that in most such cases of abduction and disappearance, Russian forces are responsible.

A recent report in Le Monde—the Minister is an avid reader of that newspaper—also cited what are claimed to be official reports from within the Chechen Administration. Again, those reports said that more than 1,000 civilians were killed in Chechnya last year. It is important to emphasise that that number of deaths does not include civilians who died through being caught up in what one might call normal fighting between Russian forces and rebels. The Le Monde report also said that the authorities discovered more than 3,000 bodies in mass graves last year.

On 14 May, the Council of Europe published a report on the situation in Chechnya from the secretary-general. He said that the issues identified as the most problematic in safeguarding human rights are
"human rights violations committed by members of the federal forces during special operations and when 'targeting measures' are implemented … the disappearance of persons, especially at night",
"the prevailing climate of impunity, resulting from the fact that the responsible persons are not brought to justice".
There is little doubt that there has been systematic abuse of human rights since the start of the current conflict in September 1999, with many civilians being killed, tortured or displaced. Moreover, there are indications that, instead of getting better, the situation has deteriorated during the past few months. It was in response to the crisis that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights examined the situation in Chechnya in 2000 and 2001. It passed resolutions to express its concerns and to call on the Russian Government to take a number of specific steps, including establishing an independent commission of inquiry in Russia to investigate human rights violations by both federal authorities and other forces. That has not been done. The resolutions also asked the Russian Government to co-operate with visits to Chechnya by five specific UN rapporteurs, including special rapporteurs on torture and on extra-judicial and arbitrary executions, and to co-operate with representatives on violence against women, internally displaced persons and children caught up in armed conflict.

The commission asked the Russian Government to accept those five experts and to co-operate with its inquiries, but they have responded by trying to block the visits. Towards the end of last year, the Russian Government issued invitations to two of the rapporteurs—those on violence against women, and on children—but they were withdrawn because of what the Russian Government described as an unacceptable security situation in Chechnya. Furthermore, the Russian Government have consistently refused to arrange the requested visits by those who could be considered the two main rapporteurs—those on torture and on executions.

On top of that, at the end of last year the Russian Government took a further step to limit outside monitoring of the situation in Chechnya. They refused to renew the mandate of the existing mission by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Chechnya, and also denied repeated requests by Human Rights Watch for access to the region. In fact, the only international observers on the ground are three Council of Europe experts, who have to work under the partial supervision of the Russian President's office to produce the report from which I quoted earlier.

Unfortunately, the UN Commission on Human Rights did not repeat its previous resolutions on Chechnya last April, but my understanding is that the resolutions passed in 2000 and 2001 are still in effect and that the requests made to the Russian Government still stand. Getting authoritative international observers into Chechnya is probably the single most important move that the international community, including the British Government, should press for.

My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. Does he accept that the Russian Government's action took place in the context of considerable suppression? I recently did some work on closed cities such as Sarov, and it seems that some of the good work that Yeltsin began in opening up Russian society is being completely reversed under Putin; indeed, things are being screwed down. I do not have my hon. Friend's knowledge of Chechnya, but I believe that the Russian Government are going backwards by not opening up to democratic freedom. That is why the way that we are dealing with the situation is problematic.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the beginning of the conflict, there might have been a case for giving some latitude to the Russian Government, in the hope that stability would be restored in Chechnya without an impact of the sort that he describes on other aspects of Russian politics and the Russian state. Some years into the conflict, that has not happened, and as I have said the pattern of human rights violations seems to be getting worse. That is corrosive to stability and to progress in the Russian political system.

I want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister some specific questions about the UN rapporteurs. Will the resolutions passed in 2000–01 still stand? And if they will, what steps are the Foreign and Commonwealth Office taking to try to persuade the Russians to accept, and to co-operate with, the UN rapporteurs that the resolutions call for?

Discussions are continuing between the OSCE and the Russian Government about renewing the monitoring mission in Chechnya—at least, there is an ongoing discussion about a monitoring mission in the Caucasus. Will the Minister also confirm that the Prime Minister will raise these issues with President Putin when he meets him next week? In particular, will he raise the issues of co-operating with the UN on rapporteurs in Chechnya, and of renewing the OSCE mission in Chechnya? It is tremendously important that the Prime Minister himself raise these issues.

When the Prime Minister met President Putin recently in St. Petersburg, he surprised many people with his comments about the recent referendum in Chechnya, on 23 March. In the 1 June edition of The Observer, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying:
"The referendum is a good step forward."
That was surprising, as we know that the Council of Europe's special representative on Chechnya, Lord Judd, resigned because he believed that the referendum was undemocratic. It could not be proper and democratic because of the conditions in which it was held.

In the 1997 referendum, the majority of Chechens supported the idea of independence, yet only six years later the Russian Government tell us that 95 per cent. of Chechens, from a turnout of 90 per cent., supported remaining part of the Russian Federation. A 90 per cent. turnout does not square with the independent reports from Chechnya. Le Monde, for example, reported that Grozny was practically deserted on the day of the referendum; and at a polling station at which the chief electoral officer declared that around 3,000 people had voted, the Le Monde correspondent counted fewer than 100 people.

Given that background, could the Minister clarify the Prime Minister's comment in St. Petersburg on the referendum? Do the Government believe that the referendum was conducted fairly and was a fair reflection of public opinion, or do they accept the more widely held international view that a referendum conducted under the conditions obtaining in Chechnya on 23 March has no credibility whatever?

The final aspect of the situation on which I would like the Minister to comment is the view—frequently expressed by Russian Government spokesmen, especially since 11 September—that the Russian Government are engaged in a conflict with Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists who have strong political and logistical links with the al-Qaeda network. The Russian Government advanced that argument to exonerate their activities, but few academics or experts on the region accept it.

For example, Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is quoted, in the most recent House of Commons Library briefing note on the matter, as having said the following in October of last year:

"The reality is that while links between Al Queda and the Chechnya conflicts do exist, they are not nearly as central to that struggle as Kremlin propaganda maintains."
Is not the reality that the Chechen war has much deeper historical, nationalist and tribal roots, and that it cannot simply be linked to the so-called war against terrorism? As a consequence of that, is not the correct approach to ending the conflict a political one—through negotiation and compromise—rather than through an anti-terrorist campaign? Again, it would be useful to hear the Minister's comments on whether the British Government accept the Russian Government's analysis.

The Chechen war is one of the saddest and most tragic episodes to affect a European country in the past decade. For many, it is striking how the behaviour of Russian forces in Chechnya and the attitudes of the Russian Government do not seem to attract as much international condemnation or pressure as, for example, the situation in Zimbabwe. Of course, it is invidious to compare two such situations. Nevertheless, there is a widespread sense that we are letting the Russian Government off rather lightly, and that sense grows stronger as the years go by and the death toll mounts, with still no sign of political progress. Indeed, the very opposite appears to be true. The human rights abuses seem to be more widespread, and the damage to and casualties of the Russian military continue to mount. Last month, The Times reported Russian military officials as saying that more than 4,500 Russian soldiers have been killed since the current phase of the war began in 1999. That is equivalent to the number of Russian deaths per year in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

There can be robust arguments and disagreements, even between good friends such as President Putin and the Prime Minister. President Putin certainly did not let his friendship with the Prime Minister get in the way of strongly condemning our role in the conflict in Iraq. It is time for the Prime Minister to start some serious arguments with the Russian Government. The longer we use reasons of realpolitik to turn a half-closed eye to what is happening in Chechnya, the more our rhetoric about policies elsewhere is undermined.

9.53 am

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) not only on having secured the debate, but on having made such a comprehensive case in such a measured way. I recall some years before I became a Member of Parliament being particularly impressed by an article that he wrote for The Daily Telegraph, unusually for a Labour MP at that time, on the double standards that were sometimes applied by some people on the left to the misbehaviour of the Soviet bloc countries and the abuse of human rights there. Therefore, his stance today is entirely consistent with his honourable and long record on such subjects.

In view of the temperate spirit in which the hon. Gentleman made his case, I preface my remarks, which will focus on the narrow aspect of the activities, or possible activities, of the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, by saying that leaders of countries do not always know exactly what their intelligence services have been up to. [Interruption.] I note a few gentle laughs at that point.

I cannot imagine what my hon. Friend is referring to.

President Putin will shortly arrive for a visit, but President Musharraf of Pakistan is in the country. He is a good example of the point that I have just made, because, although he has been at the forefront of the fight against al-Qaeda, it is also well known that the Pakistani intelligence service. Inter-Services Intelligence, has played a large part in generating, sustaining and supporting al-Qaeda over many years. That support is not necessarily known to have come to an end immediately after the events of September 2001.

I am concerned that all is not as clear as it might be in the case of Chechnya and the Russian intelligence service. Ever since Churchill famously described Russia as
"a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma"
one has known that everything should not be taken at face value. It must be said that if the Chechens are entirely responsible for some terrorist activities to which Russia has been subjected, at least since 1999, they have been extraordinarily bad tacticians. I have in mind the terrible explosions of September 1999, which occurred in apartment blocks in Moscow. The explosions were laid at the door of Chechen extremists and happened, conveniently, to provide the perfect casus belli for the second Russian invasion of Chechnya, which took place on 30 September that year.

There have been persistent suggestions—not just from the usual suspects—that the explosions might have been organised as a provocation and a pretext, rather than as a curiously counter-productive activity by Chechen extremists that could serve only to give the Russians the reasons that they might want to renew hostilities, which they did with surprising rapidity as soon as the event occurred.

I am particularly concerned about the events that took place during the siege of the Moscow theatre, which began on 23 October 2002. Something never quite added up. A theatre was taken over by a large number of people, many of whom had explosives strapped to their bodies, yet when that theatre was stormed not one of them exploded the devices that they had brought in. Even more sinister is the fact that not one of the quite large number of hostage-takers was taken alive, even though the point of the attack on the theatre was to immobilise them to such an extent that they would be unable to explode the devices strapped to their bodies.

One cannot have it both ways. On the one hand, the situation could have been so dangerous that, as in the case of the SAS handling of the Iranian embassy siege, there was no question of taking prisoners, because death and destruction might follow unless every hostage-taker was eliminated immediately. If that was the case, however, it is inconceivable that not one of those people could explode their devices.

On the other hand, if those people were so incapacitated, as they evidently were, that they could not explode their devices, why did the Russian authorities not act, if not from any sense of simple humanity, from the common-sense desire for the intelligence that might be gained from interrogating captives who had mounted such a damaging, dangerous and destructive operation in the heart of the Russian capital city? Why were those considerations put aside and the people executed on the spot while unconscious? Make no mistake about it, that is precisely what happened. Those people were out for the count and they were executed in cold blood.

One might say that those who live by hostage-taking deserve what they get, and I have some sympathy with that view, but it does not add up as a rational policy for an intelligence service apparently fighting a war against terrorism unnecessarily to kill every terrorist who comes in its power, when they might be kept alive and pumped for useful information on the terrorist organisation that they represent.

In that connection, I turn to an article sent to me by someone who has learned the hard way a great deal about Russian methods of operation, although, admittedly, Russian methods during the cold war—the famous and heroic Soviet dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky. Members will know that he survived 12 years of incarceration under the Soviet regime, many of them in the notorious Serbski institute, the psychiatric institute for the torture of sane people.

Vladimir sent me a French AFP—L'Agence France-Presse—report dated 28 April this year, which begins:
"Russian media on Monday accused the security services of placing a 'mole' among radical Chechen rebels who seized a Moscow theatre last October in a siege that ended with 129 deaths.
In a report backed by a Chechen rebel spokesman and a Russian former security officer, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta said former Chechen journalist Khanpach Terkipayev had infiltrated and helped to guide the 41-strong Chechen team that burst into the theatre.
The former officer claimed Moscow needed the hostage-taking because Western capitals were talking up prospects of negotiations with the separatist leadership in the breakaway southern Russian republic of Chechnya."
[Interruption.] Of course, I now see warning lights flashing, as everyone says, "Oh, typical. The hon. Member for New Forest, East—a typical conspiracy theorist." All I would say is that that is not my conspiracy theory, and it is not something that should be seen in isolation.

There was a remarkable convenience about the apartment bomb explosions that took place so soon before the second Russian invasion of Chechnya. Here, one again sees a possible, credible and, I would say, quite convincing explanation, which would account for two things. First, it might be seen to be in the perceived interests of the FSB, if not the Russian leadership themselves, that such a siege should take place. Secondly, it would explain why it was not considered necessary, or even desirable, for any of those terrorists—I make no bones about calling them terrorists, and they were undoubtedly Chechens—who took the hostages to be taken alive and interrogated. What they might have had to say on the subject might have been more revealing than the FSB would have liked.

I shall not detain the House for much longer, but I should conclude by illustrating the fact that there is a long and dishonourable tradition of pretexts being found for invasions. If one goes back to August 1968, which I am old enough to remember, one recalls that the line given out by the Soviet propaganda machine was that there was no such thing as the Soviet invasion of Prague, but that the Soviet forces were invited in by the Czechs. I see the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who is a Liberal Democrat, nodding his assent; he also remembers that. I remember a typical east European black humour joke of the time: "What are tanks and 30,000 Soviet troops doing in Czechoslovakia?" The answer was, "Looking for the people who invited them there."

However, the tradition goes back a lot further. For example, had Germany won the war, it would have been said not that the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, but that the Poles attacked the German radio station at Gleiwitz, just on the German side of the German-Polish border. An SS thug called Naujocks mounted an operation in which a victim from a concentration camp was selected, dressed up in Polish army uniform, executed and left at the site of the radio station as the pretext. Even Adolf Hitler sometimes felt it necessary to have an excuse for his aggressions. I am sure that better historians than me could cite many more examples from further back in history.

My theory is not as far-fetched as it seems, and those who wonder whether I am seeing phantoms where there are none must come up with a simple explanation. There was something fishy, strange and orchestrated about the way that that large number of people were able to take over the theatre, and the fact that once they had been rendered unconscious and unable to set off any of the many explosive devices, they were killed in their sleep rather than kept for interrogation. If someone can explain that to me, I will abandon my conspiracy theory. Until then, however, I shall remain cautious, sceptical and cynical about some of the dirty games being played in the terrible war that Russia is waging in Chechnya.

10.7 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) on securing the debate and on drawing attention to this dirty conflict in Europe's backyard.

If, under this Government, we still have an ethical foreign policy, I hope that the Prime Minister and others who meet President Putin draw attention to the United Kingdom's displeasure at what is going on in Chechnya. I endorse the points made by the hon. Members for Western Isles and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis).

I ask the Minister to examine the question of the deportation of Chechen nationals from the UK to the Russian Federation and, in a spirit of joined-up government, to discuss that serious matter with his Home Office colleagues. I raised it in the Home Affairs Committee, during sessions with the Home Secretary, and with a Home Office Minister. I have also tabled parliamentary questions on the subject. There is, however, confusion, or at least a lack of consistency, in the oral statements and written answers that I have received. The Government do not seem to be sure what is happening, although I am sure that the Russian Government know very well what is going on.

In response to a question that I tabled on how many people of Chechen origin were deported from the UK to the Russian Federation, the answer was:
"Information on the number of people deported from the United Kingdom to the Russian Federation, including those of Chechen origin, and on the destinations to which they were deported, is not available."—[Official Report, 3 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 144W.]
I would have thought that the Government knew how many people they were deporting and the destination, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt. They may not be too sure whether those people are Chechens, but I would have thought that that is a material factor. Such people are here, particularly the young men, precisely because they wish to get away from the horror in their homeland.

If the Government send those young men back to the Russian Federation, Moscow or St. Petersburg are the most likely destinations. We have heard what has happened in Chechnya to young Chechen males, and the hon. Member for New Forest, East described what has happened to Chechens who are caught up in incidents in Moscow. Just imagine what happens to one or two lone Chechen males who are deported and fly in to Moscow or St. Petersburg. Are they really put on the inter-city to Grozny? I think not. The Government have a responsibility to find out where those young Chechen males are being sent and what happens to them after they are dumped in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Back in October, I was assured that the Home Office, in conjunction with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, closely monitors the situation in the Russian Federation and the conflict in Chechnya in particular. I urged the Government not to deport any Chechens, particularly young males, while the problems in Chechnya continued. I have to say to the Minister that there is a sporting chance that not all those young Chechen males make it back to Chechnya. There are stories that those young males are taken out; they do not arrive back in their homeland. It is perhaps going too far to say that the Government have blood on their hands, but would it not be best to allow those who seek sanctuary from Chechnya to remain here until it is safe to return or to ensure that they are returned directly to Chechnya via a safe route rather than via Moscow or St. Petersburg?

I hope that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and others who will meet President Putin shortly tell him that they have doubts about whether the Chechens who are returned to the Russian Federation have a safe passage back to Chechnya. If the President cannot give that guarantee—the anecdotal evidence is that he cannot—I urge the Minister to have words with his Home Office colleagues so that no more young Chechen males are sent back to the Russian Federation, possibly to their death and certainly to treatment that he would not wish to have visited on them in this country. It is not good enough to wash our hands of the matter by sending them over to Moscow or St. Petersburg in the hope that the Russian authorities give them safe passage back to their homeland.

Two young Chechen males live in my constituency. They have work permits, they are very hard working, they pay taxes, they are net contributors to the economy of this country, they wish to remain here and their employer wishes them to remain here. The only problem is that the Government want to send them back to the Russian Federation. Those men are in fear of their lives.

10.13 am

I apologise for arriving late and missing the opening speech. I congratulate the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) on securing this debate. I tried to secure a debate on Chechnya, too. I did not link it to President Putin's visit but that link is important. The United Kingdom, as a candid friend of Russia, and the Prime Minister, as a candid friend of the Russian President, have an opportunity to get some unmistakable messages across about the Chechen conflict. That is plainly in all our interests.

My first point relates to the quotation, cited in the Library brief, attributed to President Putin. On the day that he became president, new year's day 2000, he visited the Russian army, then engaged in operations in Chechnya, and said:
"I want you to know that Russia values highly what you are doing, and what you are doing is very necessary for the country, very necessary. We are not talking simply about restoring the honour and dignity of the country. No, we are talking about more serious matters. We are talking about putting an end to the disintegration of Russia."
That touches on what drives President Putin, and many Russians, to continue this appalling conflict in the terrible way that they are. Obviously, there is huge concern that, if Chechnya were allowed to exercise its right to self-determination, for which Chechens would undoubtedly vote if they were not presented with the sort of referendum process that they have just been presented with, it would choose to be an independent republic.

If one looks at the history of Russia's involvement in Chechnya from the 19th century onwards and under the Soviet system, which determined whether it was to be autonomous or a region of the Soviet Union on the same basis as the 15 countries that are now independent republics, one can see that it ended up in its current state by a completely arbitrary process.

There is definitely a case for the Prime Minister to put to President Putin privately the simple point that the awful casualties being suffered by the Russian armed forces and the appalling stain on their reputation left by the way in which they are conducting the campaign, quite apart from the terrible consequences for the Chechens of the dreadful way that the Russian armed forces have behaved, could be dealt with by allowing the Chechens a proper route to self-determination.

The price that the Russians think that they might pay—the disintegration of the Russian Federation—simply does not stand up to analysis. To any outside observer, the cost of trying to hang on to Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation is way beyond any conceivable benefit that the Russians would get from forcing Chechnya to remain part of that federation.

We have had to face up to that in Northern Ireland. Part of the settlement in Northern Ireland is to accept that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to determine their future constitutional status. We have got over the psychological hump of being determined to impose on the people of Northern Ireland a union with Great Britain whether they wanted it or not. The Russians need to make that jump as far as Chechnya is concerned.

The other element of President Putin's remarks concerned restoring the honour and dignity of the country. The tragedy is that the Chechen conflict is doing the reverse. It is besmirching the honour of Russia and the Russian armed forces, through the way in which they carry out their campaign. The appalling treatment that is being meted out to the Chechen people is utterly undignified.

If the hon. Member for Western Isles has not done so already—I apologise if he has—I pay tribute to Lord Judd for the splendid work that he has done in keeping the issue at the forefront of the work of the Council of Europe. He is trying to keep it in the purview of European policy makers, so that it is constantly focused on. That is another reason for it to be high on the Prime Minister's agenda when he meets President Putin during his visit.

The issue that must concern us all, which is a threat to the security of us all, is the potential Islamisation of the conflict. It is a national conflict, as is the Palestinian conflict, and they have in common an attraction for an utterly dangerous element: the religious fanatic. Islamic fanatics are exploiting those conflicts for wider religious purposes. Those causes have a significant degree of legitimacy and justification because of the treatment received by the Palestinian and Chechen peoples.

If we think that the situation in Palestine is bad in terms of the number of people who have been killed, it is many times worse in Chechnya, but the nature of the conflict and the way in which it has been handled has made it difficult for reporters and aid agencies to work safely in Chechnya. It is not at the forefront of the public's mind because it is not reported every day in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. We must attend to that, but it is no reason for Chechnya not appearing high on the list of the Prime Minister's priorities when he speaks to the President of Russia.

The conflict in Chechnya not only dishonours and disgraces the Russians, but is a dreadful tragedy. Parliamentarians who are interested in international affairs and simple human decency should promote and concentrate on our duty, and that falls primarily to the Prime Minister in his talks with the President of Russia. I hope that the Prime Minister will be a candid friend and make it clear to President Putin that, although the course of action on which he embarked and the way in which he presented that to the Russian people may have been responsible for getting him elected, he must find a way to end the dreadful conflict as soon as possible and in the widest interests of Russia and the world. He must allow the people of Chechnya the right of self-determination and give Russia and the Chechen people an escape route from what is an appalling tragedy.

In the interests of equity, it may be appropriate for the three Front Benchers to take no more than one third of the time available.

10.22 am

Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I doubt that I will want to prevail on you for even that long. It is important that the Minister is given as much time as possible to answer the serious points that have been raised.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) on raising an important matter at an important time. He was right in his opening speech to place the matter in the context of the importance of the relationship with Russia overall. We must not lose sight of that, nor should we be quiet about some of the worries about Chechnya to which others have also referred during the debate.

Chechnya, sadly, occupies a desperate place in our thoughts about the world's trouble spots. The bloody history of the past 12 years has regularly shocked us, and the atrocities and tragedies, such as last October's theatre siege, have never been far from our minds. Hon. Members who have spoken detailed much of the history and listed many of the abuses committed by Russians and Chechens alike. I shall not repeat those, but we cannot escape the fact that the situation is horrific.

The Russian position has been clearly stated in many different ways. One of the key clauses in the constitution handed down by the Federation to Chechnya earlier this year says:
"The territory of the Chechen republic is indivisible and is an integral part of the territory of the Russian federation".
The presence of 80,000 troops in the republic sends a very clear signal, as does the completely dismissive attitude taken by the Russian Government towards outside opinion, in the many ways in which it is expressed. That is most evident in their failure to allow the continuation of the assistance group of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which was doing such good work in Chechnya until the end of last year, and their failure, which has been remarked on, to allow United Nations special rapporteurs to have access to the country.

All the Russian Government's arguments tend to be put in the context of the war on international terrorism. No one would deny the potential links between those who fight in Chechnya and the wider international war, but only the most myopic of observers could fail to see the wider desire for political change that exists in the Chechen Republic and the legitimate concerns of thousands who live there. Nor could anyone fail to see the scale of the human rights abuses that have been committed by both sides in the conflict, which are detailed in many sources.

Torture, illegal detentions, hostage taking, the destruction of property and the targeting of civilians have been carried out. Perhaps we are slightly inured to that being done by terrorist groups; we do not condone it, but there is a history of it. The shock here is that many of those abuses are carried out by the Russian Federation, not least the disappearance of so many Chechens, in Chechnya itself and elsewhere in the Federation. What most people find particularly galling and an international disgrace is the degree of impunity that appears to exist in the Federation, and the failure of the Russian authorities to bring to justice anyone in the Russian army who may have been guilty of atrocities. All that has led to a climate of fear and loathing.

Amnesty International's newly published 2003 report sets that out very clearly, saying:
"Russian security forces committed serious human rights violations and breached international humanitarian law in the continuing conflict in the Chechen Republic, with almost total impunity … law enforcement agencies cracked down on Chechen civilians throughout the Russian Federation … An estimated 110,000 internally displaced Chechens lived in harsh conditions in neighbouring Ingushetia. They reportedly faced forcible return to Chechnya, in conditions where their security and dignity could not be assured."
Amnesty widened the scope of its report to highlight abuses by Chechen armed groups. The hon. Member for Western Isles rightly mentioned Human Rights Watch, detailing many of the issues that it has highlighted in Chechnya. I shall not repeat those, but I hope that the Minister will find time to comment on the abuses that have been documented.

No one would deny that the Russian Government have the right, and indeed the duty, to maintain law and order and to tackle international terrorism, but that must surely be done in the context of international law, and that Government should have the confidence to allow international monitors the freedom and protection to carry out their work. Of course, they would argue that some political steps have been taken. The new constitution sets that our reasonably clearly, and there is an expectation of presidential and parliamentary elections later this year.

However, there are serious questions even there. There are real doubts about the legitimacy of the constitutional referendum held earlier this year, although our Prime Minister is reported as saying that that was "a good step forward". The Council of Europe has been dismissive. Few credit the turnout claimed at the time, or still less the 96 per cent. in favour of the new constitution. As the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) highlighted, that was at odds with the referendum six years previously, which sought independence. Washington think-tanks have also publicised a confidential OSCE briefing, which was highly critical of election irregularities. If the referendum was an attempt to win hearts and minds and provide legitimacy, it has singularly failed.

The question for us today is the position that our Government will take, not least when the President makes his state visit to the country next week. The clearest statement of Government policy was made by Baroness Amos in another place when, in her previous role, she spoke on the Government's position last December. She spoke of their requirement to recognise the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. That may be right, but surely the self-determination of the people of Chechnya must count for something as well. She also emphasised the right and the obligation of the Russian authorities to defend their citizens from terrorism. No one would dispute that, but a responsibility surely exists to adhere to the rule of law and respect human rights. The Government have said as much in answers to parliamentary questions and in occasional quotations in the press.

The key question is how vigorously the Government are making their concerns known to Russia. The hon. Member for Western Isles talked about how a friendly relationship should also be a robust relationship. We must hope that the Minister will characterise the relationship in that way when he replies. We all acknowledge the importance of Russia's role in the world, and its importance to the UK. We understand that there are sensitive areas to discuss next week, not least the road map for peace in the middle east and Russia's plan to provide nuclear fuel to the Iranians in the absence of the latter's full compliance with the requests of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Sensitivity to those issues should not mean that we ignore the serious problems in Chechnya.

We ought to be insisting on full co-operation with the United Nations special rapporteurs on torture and extra-judicial executions, and on the renewal of the mandate for the OSCE's assistance group to Chechnya. We should also make the case for allowing organisations such as Human Rights Watch to have access to the republic. In March 2003, it was denied access for the 10th time. As the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said, a proper and legitimate route to self-determination in Chechnya should be provided. Sadly, that is lacking at present.

The hon. Member for Western Isles highlighted the fact that in the dispute over the Iraq war, Russia did not hesitate to set out a position very different from that of the UK Government. In this country, we should not hold back in our criticism of Russia. The matter is not a minor blot on our relations with Russia; it is not something that we can just cast aside as unimportant. We must hope that next week, when President Putin visits this country, we do not tiptoe round the problem, but confront matters head on.

10.33 am

I, too, warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) on securing the debate and putting forward his case in an extraordinarily comprehensive and moderate way, which won the attention of us all. I warmly congratulate also my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), my reasonably near neighbour, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), and everyone else who has contributed to the debate this morning and shown a considerable knowledge of the subject and concern for the situation in Chechnya.

Russia is a country that straddles a number of worlds, in every sense of the word. It is a country of massive economic potential with enormous natural resources, and key strategic influence, counter-balanced by an old-fashioned bureaucratic structure, considerable environmental problems, and the difficult ongoing conflict in Chechnya, which has soured international relationships and brought the spotlight on Russia in a negative way. I will obey your injunctions, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I know how anxious the Minister is to give a comprehensive reply.

We certainly heard from the hon. Member for Western Isles about the need to resolve the Chechnya situation. I will go into that in detail later, but I hope that I will be given a little licence to make a few comments about Russia in the context of the important visit of President Putin to the United Kingdom, and to encourage the positive things that are happening in Russia in the hope that that may lead to a political resolution to the problem in Chechnya. There is no solution other than fresh political development.

President Putin has demonstrated on the international stage that he is a pragmatist. He has committed the country to economic influence and prosperity. In his state of the nation address on 19 May, he talked about taking the next step. I want to cite some of the things involved, because the contrast between what he was talking about in that context and some of the problems in Chechnya is a comparison that needs to be made.

President Putin has talked about the need to reform the economy and the political system in Russia. There are pretty encouraging signs in terms of economic development and investment in fixed assets. Importantly, Russia has ceased to be an importer of grain and has become an exporter. The IT industry in the country is growing. However, the state apparatus remains inefficient, and President Putin has promised to try to deal with the issue. Unfortunately, a quarter of Russian citizens still have incomes below the living minimum. President Putin has also committed himself to a functioning competitive market economy with property rights that are properly secured. It is a positive sign that the EU has granted Russia the status of a market economy. Russia still has much more to do in terms of protecting contracts and investor rights, and upholding the rule of law in that context.

President Putin has also talked about—this chimes in with the debate—the establishment of a civil society and sustainable democracy in which human rights and civil and political rights will be fully ensured. He is well aware of the problems, and he recently described them as follows:
"The institution of democracy has not developed properly in our country yet … Our laws are correct but they either don't work or just disappear".
That is an interesting insight as it applies to Chechnya. Will the Minister respond to that point? It is an important one in the context. I hope that the Prime Minister will remind the President of that important observation during his conversations.

Another priority is improved living conditions. President Putin recognises the need for a substantially higher standard of living for the Russian people. Although there has been much progress on that front, there is still much to do.

Finally, President Putin has talked about the need to improve Russia's international relationships. The spotlight inevitably shines on Russia in terms of human and civil rights because of that issue. I hope that that will be brought into play in the discussions between the two leaders.

On 13 March, my noble Friend Lord Howell sought assurances in another place about the recent referendum on the constitution that cements Chechnya's status as part of Russia, while promising limited autonomy. What form that autonomy will take has yet to be decided. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what his preferences are. Does he agree with the EU that the referendum has had a positive impact in achieving the Government's objectives by promoting human rights in Chechnya? What of the amnesty attached to that deal? The matter is important and echoes the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East. Critics have said that it is meaningless to talk in such terms because clemency is denied to anyone who has tried to kill federal police and servicemen. That issue needs to be addressed.

There is an economic aspect to the conflict in Chechnya. The Russian media have branded the region a black hole. Much of the money earmarked for restoration winds up in the pockets of business men—that might be one way of putting it—and corrupt authorities. Russian auditors examining Chechnya's restoration finances have documented the theft or misuse of more than $33 million in the past two years.

The territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and the right of the Russian Government to defend their citizens against terrorism are, of course, vital and understood. Historically, Russia has always been extremely sensitive about its territorial integrity, but ultimately the conflict in Chechnya cannot be resolved by military means alone.

We have seen on the international stage that President Putin, whom I describe as a pragmatist, is capable of new and original thinking. Examples are the way in which he reacted after 11 September and the offer in respect of US military bases in central Asia. Agreements about that have been reached by the US and Russia. President Putin signed a friendship treaty with China. He has also entered the NATO-Russia Council, which was set up last year. These are good examples of how Russia has adapted. In many respects, President Putin has moved the country forward into a much more modern context. Nevertheless, the problem of Chechnya remains. I hope that, in the conversations that take place between the two leaders, some of the matters that have been raised this morning will be alluded to in a spirit of friendship and candour.

Much of Russian society is still trying to find its bearings. The situation in Chechnya remains an enduring problem and obviously causes the Russian people great anxiety because of the alleged threat of terrorism and the impact on attitudes in the outside world. A political settlement is desperately needed if the violence, waste and corruption that bedevil relations between Moscow and Grozny, while at the same time sapping the Russian economy of resources that it can ill afford, are to be resolved.

We see many hopeful signs in Russia, such as economic reform and greater democratic development, but the picture is still very mixed. The institutions of civil society are taking shape, but the roots sometimes seem to be shallow, and the habits and practices of decades of communism still lie too close to the surface. A resolution of the Chechnya problem for Russia, both externally and internally, will greatly assist the forces of progress that we want to move Russia on and to win the argument within Russia.

10.42 am

I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) on obtaining the debate, and I commend the measured way in which all speakers have contributed. I hope that the Russian authorities read the record of the debate; I am sure that it will be transmitted to them by the first-rate Russian ambassador to London. The strength of the House of Commons is that it allows serious matters to be raised and tough questions to be put in the public domain in a way that conveys the concerns of many Members.

The reason for the debate is President Putin's visit—the first visit by a Russian Head of State since the 1840s. Also, there is the excellent report by Human Rights Watch. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles in paying tribute to that fine organisation, and we are pleased that it is opening an office in London. That reflects the sense that London has historically been one of the world capitals in which, when state-to-state relations between Governments have not always been conducted on the basis of candour—I am looking back over more than a century—there has been a functioning civil society and discussion of human rights. Human Rights Watch is part of that tradition.

It is 550 years since the first British mission went to Russia. It was sent by King Edward VI to Ivan the Terrible, who returned the compliment by sending an ambassador to London in the 1550s and hinting in correspondence at the possibility of marriage to Queen Elizabeth I. That might have been a remarkable English-Russian union—who knows what the history of both countries might have been?

We will welcome President Putin next week, and I have been asked to be a candid friend to him. That relates to a point—it was repeated by the Opposition spokesman on Europe, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring)—made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) in his important speech. I recall the words of a distinguished former Foreign Secretary, Lord Canning:
"But of all the plagues, good Heaven, thy wrath can send, Save me, oh, save me, from the candid friend."
There comes a time in inter-state relations when candour can be counter-productive, and I shall develop that point in replying to the individual questions.

Let there be no doubt that the issue of Chechnya is important not only in London, but in many other capitals around the world. It is discussed at the UN Commission on Human Rights and the Council of Europe, and President Putin is well aware that it is on the international agenda.

I am concerned by the Minister's words, which imply that the Prime Minister might choose not to raise Chechnya with the President. Members who have participated in the debate would find it regrettable if that were the case. Will the Minister make it clear that he is not making that point and confirm that Chechnya will appear on the agenda?

I shall come to that point, which is perfectly fair, after developing my remarks in the generous time left to me.

The problems of all the different conflicts remain as Russia continues to develop and to escape from the evil legacy of its Leninist-Stalinist-Brezhnevite past. It is developing as a modern market economy under the rule of law to escape not only its Soviet past, but the long decades, if not centuries, of autocracy before 1917. We should be careful not to demand tomorrow that Russia live by standards that have existed in, for example, Switzerland and Sweden for 100 years or in Britain for a long time.

We should judge Russia by its own standards. The Russian constitution is clear, and President Putin's insistence that Russia's destiny is European is also clear. Russia should be judged by the standards that we expect all European states that are signatories to UN and Council of Europe conventions to abide by.

We welcome President Putin's commitment to the reform process in the economic, administrative and judicial fields and to tackling the challenges that remain. Significant progress has been made over the past two years. The Russian Government have established macro-economic stability, and they have also passed important legislation to create a market in land for the first time since the Russian revolution and to start work on the reform of their monopolies. An impressive judicial reform package is transforming criminal, civil and commercial law to bring Russia in line with western standards.

The Russian Government are committed to maintaining the momentum of reform. They recognise that they must tackle some of Russia's most difficult and deep-seated problems, including restructuring, reconstruction and poor implementation. Ensuring that the reform process supports the administrative and judicial functions is a major challenge on which the United Kingdom has been working closely with Russia. Our support has included assistance with not only economic targets such as Russia's progress towards joining the World Trade Organisation, but the reform of the judiciary and civil service in promoting civil society and the protection of human rights.

The Government welcome the successful development of our relations with Russia and the progress being made by the internal reform programme. We recognise that there are many issues still to address, including Chechnya, which is the principal focus of the debate, but all those concerns, whether they are about human rights, economic reform or the development of civil society, can best be addressed by dialogue. Maintaining our dialogue at a high level will allow us to continue to support Russia's development into a country that is a genuine partner with shared values.

The debate has focused on Chechnya, and I share all the concerns that Members have expressed. Many tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people have been killed or injured in the fighting over the past 10 years, and nearly two thirds of Chechnya's population have been displaced. Many people remain in temporary shelters that were constructed when the conflict began; many more depend on humanitarian aid. No one, including the Russian Government, has disputed the human cost of this conflict.

Equally, however, it cannot it be disputed that Russia faced a serious security threat in the region before the current conflict began. Chechnya had descended into near anarchy soon after Russian forces withdrew in January 1997. Kidnapping gangs were operating in the republic with impunity. There was no rule of law or state authority. I need hardly remind Members of the kidnapping and brutal murder of four telecommunications engineers, including three Britons, in December 1998.

The influence of Islamic extremists has also been growing in Chechnya. In summer 1999, about 1,000 heavily armed militants, backed by Arab mujaheddin, attacked the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan. Clearly, the Russian Government needed to act to prevent those acts of aggression from happening again.

Russia has consistently presented the war in Chechnya as a counter-terrorist operation, and we recognise the serious threat posed by terrorism in the region. In recent years, the general rule in Europe has been that no state will see its territorial integrity broken under the threat of violent terrorism aimed at killing innocent people to secure political ends. That was wholly unacceptable to the British Government in Northern Ireland, and it is unacceptable to other Governments in Europe.

In the light of the serious matters that the Minister has raised, does he agree that the last thing that this country should be doing is returning Chechen nationals to the Russian Federation? It is clear that the Russian Government believe that any Chechen outside Chechnya must be placed under suspicion. The consequences for those under suspicion in the Russian Federation are not good.

The hon. Gentleman raised issues that properly are questions for the Home Office. I am not seeking to duck them, and we all have difficult asylum cases to deal with. People come to our surgeries after their demands to stay in this country have been turned down. Every Member must wrestle with many such cases; I must have some trust in the authorities. Each case is considered on its merits. The hon. Gentleman asked me, as a Foreign Office Minister, to answer several questions that he tabled to the Home Office. I am happy to write to him, but I suspect that he needs to take up those issues with the Home Office and perhaps secure a debate, if he is so moved.

May I continue? I must answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell).

We remember the horror of last October's theatre siege in Moscow in which a terrorist group, linked to the Chechen extremist Shamil Basayev, took more than 800 innocent people hostage and threatened to kill them if Russian troops did not withdraw immediately from Chechnya. I have no doubt that it would have carried out its threat had the Russian authorities not launched a rescue operation. Basayev has also claimed responsibility for organising a series of suicide bombings in Chechnya and elsewhere in Russia. Nearly 200 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in those terrorist atrocities in the past six months and many more have been injured. We might have some regard for the families of the victims of the terrorist activities.

I am interested in the elaboration on what the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) referred to as conspiracy theories. If terrorists with political aims had taken hostages in a London theatre, it is hard to believe that we would have invented a conspiracy theory to explain that it had all been got up by the security forces. Does he really maintain that the people who threatened to kill hundreds in the Moscow theatre were manipulated by the Russian security forces?

I thank the Minister for finally giving way, as what he said is a perversion of what I said, as he well knows. There is no doubt that the people who mounted the attack were terrorists, but the question is why the unconscious terrorists were eliminated. If that had happened in a similar attack in this country, there would have been a furore over it. Will he answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate: will the Prime Minister put Chechnya on the agenda for discussion with President Putin? Yes or no, please.

I take exception to the nature of these interventions in what has been a well-tempered and moderate debate. Terrorists have been killed during action taken by our security forces to free hostages. I do not remember members of the Conservative party, inside or outside Parliament, raising the matter. The Znamenskoye bombings in May killed 100, and only two weeks ago terrorist bombings in Mozdok, in North Ossetia near the Chechen border, killed 80. That aspect of the issue has not been raised in the debate, and it is important to put those terrorist atrocities on the record.

Basayev and other militant groupings in Chechnya do not operate in isolation; they receive logistical and financial support from Arab mujaheddin operating in Chechnya and further afield. That is why the United Kingdom and other United Nations Security Council members took action against those groups under resolution 1267.

I have no time, as I must put my points on the record. It is important to name the groups, which are the Riyadh as-Salikhin reconnaissance and sabotage battalion of Chechen martyrs, the special purpose Islamic regiment and the Islamic international brigade.

We, and our European Union partners, have been consistent in stressing that any operations in Chechnya must respect human rights and the rule of law. That is the Government's position in discussions with the Russian authorities.

I am not giving way. I am glad to confirm that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will indeed raise the situation in Chechnya again when he meets the Russian Minister next week. The conflict cannot be resolved by military means alone, which is why we called for a political solution and why the Prime Minister welcomed the recent constitutional referendum in Chechnya, in line with other EU partners.

The constitutional process is part of a political process, which is the right way forward. We tried to raise the issue at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, but were unsuccessful. Although we have friends in Europe and the United States, the resolution was opposed by Brazil, China, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Venezuela and, of course, Zimbabwe. However, we will continue to put the issue on the international agenda. I have had some good conversations about it with my noble Friend Lord Judd, and it is a concern for the Council of Europe and throughout the EU. President Putin is aware of that, and when he and his delegation visit London next week, the question will be raised with the Russian Foreign Minister. That is the correct way for a foreign policy issue to be discussed.

I thank all Members for their contributions and for bringing this important issue to the attention of the British people through this morning's debate.