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Government Relations with Russia

Volume 453: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2006

It is a delight to be able to lead a debate on Government relations with Russia, although I note that this is the first time in many years that there has been such a debate in the House and half an hour is probably far too short a time to be able to deal with all the issues that we should properly consider. It might be opportune in the near future to have a longer debate, perhaps for one and a half hours.

Despite the present circumstances, the UK has had extremely strong relations with Russia, although they have varied in their intensity, over the centuries. It is 453 years since Richard Chancellor first sought the northern sea route to Cathay and found himself at the court of Ivan the Terrible, which led to the first trade links being established with Russia, and Ivan the Terrible and Elizabeth I, who were both nervous about whether they might be removed by their peoples, striking a mutual asylum deal. Britain was the first country, oddly, to recognise the Soviet Union in 1924, when there was briefly a Labour Government.

More recently, the Queen made a state visit to Russia in 1994, which was the first time that a British monarch visited Russia. President Putin made a state visit here in the summer of 2003, which was the first such visit by a Russian leader since 1874. On top of that, he visited the UK last year, during our presidency of the European Union.

We also have very strong trading links with the Russian Federation. Ever since the Muscovy Company was founded in 1555, the UK has had that strong relationship, so much so that last year UK exports to Russia amounted to £1.874 billion and UK imports from Russia were worth about one third of that.

The Russian Federation is also a very important ally in many different debates that we have around the world. The previous discussion in Westminster Hall was on the Lebanon and the middle east peace process. Russia is one member of the Quartet and has to play an important part in any negotiations that we have through the United Nations Security Council. It is also an important player when it comes to trying to tackle organised crime around the world.

However, there are many areas in which Britain should have profound concerns about its relationship with the Russian Federation. I could raise hundreds of issues in this short debate. I could raise Russia’s tacit support for Iran and North Korea when it comes to their nuclear ambitions. I could raise the desperate need for police reform in Russia. In the last survey of Russians, 71 per cent. said that they had no trust whatever in the police; only 4 per cent. said that they had trust in the police. Trust in the police force is a cornerstone of a democracy and the rule of law. If there is not rapid police reform in Russia, we will still not see the significant changes in the establishment of the rule of law in Russia that are needed.

I could raise issues to do with penal reform. Many prisons in Russia belong to the dark ages, not to the 21st century. HIV and AIDS incidence in Russian prisons has quadrupled in the past three years. I could raise the matter of lesbian and gay rights. Earlier this year, the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, banned the gay pride march, and the Russian Federation in effect backed him up by refusing to allow visas for a large number of people, including a British Member of the European Parliament, who wanted to travel to Russia to support that event.

I could also raise the matter of freedom of religion. We like to think that, since the Soviet era, all Russians have the freedom to exercise their religion. That is not true. The Jehovah’s Witnesses—I do not hold a light for them particularly; none the less, I believe they should have the freedom to exercise their religion—are banned in Moscow, although not in the rest of the Russian Federation, and are seeking to overturn that decision in the courts.

However, I do not want to raise those issues in large measure; I want to focus on a few other issues. The first is the number of human rights abuses that are committed regularly across the whole of the Russian Federation. It is not just in the north Caucasus that human rights abuses have been documented. Only last week, Amnesty International produced its latest report on arbitrary detention, torture and conditions of detention across the Russian Federation. It says:

“Beatings, electroshocks and even a ‘rape-room’ equipped with metal table and wrist restraints have been reported to Amnesty International, as means to obtain forced ‘confessions’.”

In 2005, Russian non-governmental organisations documented more than 100 cases, backed up by medical evidence, across 11 regions in the country, not including the north Caucasus. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s own report on human rights makes it clear that the issue is much more acute in the north Caucasus than in any other part of the Russian Federation, which is why Amnesty International has not expressly entered into these issues with regard to Chechnya and the north Caucasus. However, Amnesty says that the situation demonstrates the state’s failure fully to implement legislation and to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of torture. Amnesty is particularly concerned about the practice of torture of individuals held incommunicado in unofficial and unacknowledged places of detention in Russia’s north Caucasus region.

We like to think that, since the Soviet era, Russia has been able to make significant strides in its respect for human rights, but the truth is that across a wide range of areas of the Russian Federation, human rights abuses are very much part of the way of doing business in the criminal justice system.

That leads me to the second question, which concerns extradition. One reason why we are unable to extradite people to the Russian Federation is simply that every time an extradition case has come before the British courts, they have adjudicated—in my mind, rightly—that there is no opportunity of ensuring a fair trial for the defendant and no opportunity of ensuring that the person will not be subjected to torture. Nearly all of those cases have been heard before District Judge Timothy Workman. He has presided over several cases, including that of Ahmed Zakayev in 2003. Most extraordinarily in that case the judge said that many of the charges against Mr. Zakayev could not be substantiated and a Russian Orthodox priest whom he was alleged to have murdered gave evidence himself at Bow street during the extradition proceedings. It is fairly clear that the courts here have taken a robust attitude to such cases. Indeed, Mr. Workman said explicitly in the case of Alexander Temerko, who was vice-president of the oil giant YUKOS:

“I am satisfied that the request for the extradition of Mr. Temerko is in fact made for the purpose of prosecuting and punishing him for his political opinions.”

In other words, those are not proper extradition requests, but merely attempts to pursue through a legal means a political avenue.

Some of us are concerned that the British Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, recently entered into a new agreement with his Russian counterpart on how they were going to deal with extradition cases. If that means that we will say clearly to the Russians, “You can’t seek extradition for someone simply because you don’t like their political opinions and you can’t seek extradition for someone when the case is wholly unsubstantiated,” that is fine, but if it means that we will loosen our hold on these issues and encourage more extradition requests, Mr. Macdonald should think again.

I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have an opportunity to reply on the matter of extradition, not least because over the past few weeks many politicians in Russia, in response to the events of last week, have been saying that now is the time for Britain to allow many of the people for whom Russia has previously requested extradition to be sent back to Russia.

Another issue, which is of great importance to us but on which many people in Russia seem to be mistrustful, is press freedom. It is profoundly disturbing that the Russian police investigation into the death of Anna Politkovskaya seems to be going very slowly. We have heard much of her, but perhaps not much of the 20 other political journalists, all of them critical of the Putin regime, who have been murdered during his presidency. Some 42 have been murdered in the past 10 years. If that number of journalists were to be murdered in the UK, there would be an outcry across the whole civilised society in this country. The fact that in Russia there seems to be a casual disregard for the death of a journalist, even a death in suspicious circumstances of one who has been criticising the regime, is a cause for concern.

A wider cause for concern is the fact that recent surveys of public opinion in the Russian Federation suggests that 90 per cent. of all broadcast news output is supportive of the Government. That is for the simple reason that the Government have a stranglehold on news. If in the elections in 2008 there is the same kind of news presentation that was provided in the last set of elections, it is difficult to see how it could be a fair election. Freedom of the press and the media is a vital element in ensuring human rights and democracy in Russia, and at the moment it does not exist.

On communications and press freedom with Russia, may I urge the BBC World Service and the British Council, through the hon. Gentleman, to do everything that they possibly can in the run-up to those elections to ensure that a western, pro-democracy viewpoint is put across? As he says, the BBC World Service and the internet are being blocked, and those organisations must do everything that they can to get around those blocks.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and gives an important reason why the World Service should retain its strong funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Russia is not the only country in which that is true, and often we can provide a cornerstone of democracy that countries are unable to provide for themselves.

I wish also to raise the matter of the role of non-governmental organisations in Russia. Earlier this year, President Putin signed off amendments to the law on non-profit organisations. The Council of Europe and the EU have roundly condemned them, because they are so ambiguous that many NGOs, including human rights organisations that have been critical of the regime, are anxious that they might be cracked down on. In fact, organisations such as Open Russia, the PEN Centre, the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers and the Russian Human Rights Research Centre have all had investigations launched against them by the regime under the new law. We in this country believe that the non-governmental organisations and the voluntary sector play a vital role in maintaining civil society, and we should be making that clear to the Russian Federation.

It is not just in the voluntary sector that there are difficulties. The World Bank puts Russia a long way down its index of corporate governance, which is important for a series of reasons. Not only is Russia on a par with Bangladesh in the rule of law, but, according to the World Bank, it is some way behind Iran and Ethiopia. On the control of corruption, it is a long way behind India, Mexico, Egypt and the Philippines. In the set of measures that the World Bank uses, Russia comes 151st out of all the countries in the world. We like to think of Russia as a big power, and it is one of the largest countries and greatest economies in the world, yet it has significant problems with corporate government. That is important for several reasons, not least because of the Russian energy situation.

As I am sure all hon. Members know, Russia has vast reserves of energy. It is sitting on more than one fifth of the world’s known reserves of natural gas and has at least 75 billion barrels of oil—about 7 per cent. of the total world reserves. Western Europe gets a quarter of its gas from Russia. At the moment, Russia supplies only 2 per cent. of the UK’s gas, but things are set to change rapidly. By 2015, Gazprom, the Russian gas company, expects to supply 20 per cent. of the UK’s gas. Yet many people in the corporate sector in Britain are concerned about property rights in Russia, worrying that, if they make the necessary investments in the Russian infrastructure, their property rights might not be respected. Consequently, investments are not being made that would guarantee the infrastructure for the future. That might mean that gas and oil will simply not flow; it will not be possible to make them flow, because investment will not be sufficient.

On top of that, Russia has been trying to use its petro-confidence as a means of bullying its neighbours. We have known about some of that in the past, such as the bullying of Ukraine. Some of Russia’s neighbours are now members of the EU, and it must be inconceivable for Britain to continue to expect Russia to control 20 per cent. of our energy needs without having a strategy of our own.

I wish to give the Minister plenty of time to reply, so I shall end with a point about Russian operatives working in the UK. During the cold war, counter-espionage was a major part of what MI5 devoted its attention to, representing something between a quarter and a third of its budget. We know that MI5 has now devoted its energies elsewhere, and only 6 per cent. of its budget is devoted to counter-espionage, even though it has publicly said that there are probably between 30 and 60 Russian agents working in the UK. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, has said of counter-intelligence:

“There’s not less of it about, we are doing less work on it, we are being more selective about the priority cases.”

Any sovereign state should be concerned by a significant number of operatives working in the country. In recent years, local police caught red-handed a group of Federal Security Bureau agents as they planted a bomb in an apartment in Ryazan, in central Russia; Omar Ibn al Khattab, a Saudi Islamic radical who had joined the Chechen fight against Moscow, died in mysterious circumstances in 2002 after receiving a letter that allegedly poisoned him when he opened it; and in 2004, a car bomb in the Persian gulf sheikdom of Qatar killed the former separatist president of Chechnya. Two Russian agents were convicted of that crime and then deported to Russia, where it seems that President Putin honoured them when they got back. We need to take seriously the issue of Russian operatives working outside the federation.

I thank my fellow member of the all-party group on Russia for giving way. Will he mention briefly some of the security concerns among my constituents who are Russian exiles here in London, regardless of who was responsible for the murder of Mr. Litvinenko? Is Britain doing enough to guarantee the security of exiles and dissidents of Russian origin?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We need to ensure that those who have come to Britain, many of them seeking asylum, have guaranteed security. I do not make any judgment as to who might have killed Mr. Litvinenko or whether Russian operatives were involved, but it is worrying that agents of some kind who have access to radioactive materials are operating in this country. Without prejudging the process in which the police are engaged, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say something about the matter and ensure not only that Russian émigrés in this country can live their lives in security and peace, without being subjected to extradition requests, but that we do not import into the UK the significant level of criminality that exists in large parts of Russian society.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate. I am pleased that he has chosen United Kingdom-Russia relations as the subject, and I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe. [Hon. Members: “Where is he?”] As the Minister with responsibility for relations with Russia, he is in Riga, trying to persuade a number of countries to give up, among other things, the national caveats for their operations in Afghanistan. Those caveats seem to say that it is all right for British soldiers to die in defence of democracy in the west, but not other soldiers. That is where he is now.

Russia has been on the front pages and on our television screens an awful lot in the past few months, with coverage including global energy security, tensions between Russia and its neighbours to the south—especially Georgia in the Caucasus—and the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Last week, saw the death of Alexander Litvinenko, which the police are now treating as suspicious.

I am sure that the House does not expect me to speculate on the last issue given the ongoing police investigation into the case, although I take the point of the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands). No matter where people in this country come from, they have the right to expect to walk our streets without fear of being murdered. I reiterate that the Government take a very dim view of anyone murdering citizens on the streets of Britain, regardless of where they come from or indeed where their murderers come from.

The fact that Russia is rarely out of the news reflects its important role and impact on many of the United Kingdom’s international strategic priorities: energy security—as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda pointed out—climate change, counter-proliferation, peace and security and the importance of promoting standards in human rights, democracy and the rule of law. A constructive partnership with Russia enhances our ability to achieve those objectives.

I emphasise that the Government maintain close contact with our Russian counterparts at ministerial and official levels. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has met the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, on several occasions, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe visited Russia in September and I keep in close contact with my Russian counterparts in the areas of my portfolio, including the middle east, counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism.

It is in the context of the international architecture I have described that a constructive partnership with Russia enhances our ability to achieve our objectives, but I stress to my hon. Friend and the House that the Government do not engage with Russia uncritically. We engage critically with Russia on issues to which our approaches differ where we feel that a frank understanding of those differences will produce a better result.

I should like to respond to the issues that my hon. Friend raised about human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The Government regularly discuss the progress of democratic reforms and human rights in Russia with the Russian authorities, including issues of media and religious freedoms. As he reminded us, the annual report on human rights sets out some of our major concerns about human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Russia. It details a number of occasions when Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers have raised the issues with the Russian Government during the past 12 months.

My hon. Friend expressed concerns about the ban imposed on a gay parade by the mayor of Moscow in May. In response, the United Kingdom Government took concerted action with its EU partners to present a démarche to the Russian authorities detailing our concerns about the event, at which demonstrators were attacked by extremist groups.

Another example of the Government’s commitment to human rights issues was the meeting between the Minister for Trade, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who has responsibility for human rights, and the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society in June. Representatives of that non-governmental organisation have documented alleged human rights violations committed by federal and Chechen military forces during operations in the republic. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the more transparency on that issue, the better for all of us, whether in the United Kingdom or Russia.

More recently, the prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in her Moscow apartment block. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary condemned the murder at the launch of the annual report on human rights on 12 October, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe issued a statement of condemnation on 9 October expressing sympathy to Anna Politkovskaya’s friends and family and calling for the Russian authorities to bring her killers to justice.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials raised our concerns about the killing with the chairperson of the Civil Society Institutions and the Human Rights Council under the President of the Russian Federation, Ella Pamfilova, on 18 October. The journalist’s murder and wider concerns about freedom of expression were discussed with the Russian authorities at the EU-Russia human rights consultations in Brussels on 8 November.

In addition to engaging critically on human rights issues, we support projects in co-operation with local and international NGOs and the Russian Government to protect and promote international human rights standards in Russia and to improve access to justice at the European Court of Human Rights. We also promote the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s objectives on economic governance, climate change and energy through co-operation projects in Russia. This financial year, the FCO has committed £1.8 million to such project work in Russia.

The Council of Europe is another key forum in which it is possible to engage with Russia on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe gives its 140 million citizens access to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Russia has held the rotating chairmanship of the Council this year. We also engage Russia regularly in discussions on its human rights and democracy commitments, frozen conflicts and other cross-cutting security issues as part of its participation in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Could the Minister say something about corporate governance, which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned? I had breakfast this morning with the Russian ambassador, although I must say that I had the breakfast here in Parliament. The Russian ambassador was quite adamant that Russia has a very good record on corporate governance. He gave as witness the fact that 90 per cent. of all equity investment in Russia is directed through the London stock exchange, saying that that was evidence of strong corporate governance. Does the Minister agree?

If 90 per cent. goes through the London stock exchange, it comes as a surprise to me, but it may well be correct. I cannot confirm it.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda pointed out, Russia occupies such a strategic position—even in just the one area of world energy supply—that corporate governance must be got right. I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman found the discussion satisfactory. I think, however, that some companies—including Shell, which is experiencing great difficulties with the Sakhalin 2 project in eastern Siberia—might have a different analysis.

Next year, Germany will have presidency of the EU. Putin speaks fluent German. Will the British Government do all that it can to co-operate with the German Government to raise human rights issues, particularly the matter of a failing democracy in Russia?

We will certainly continue to do all that we can to raise human rights issues. Germany is in a very particular situation. I hear that Gazprom is providing 60 per cent. of its natural gas at the moment, which means that Germany is very dependent on getting its relationships with Russia right.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.