[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 51, and the Government response, Cm 7305.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]
I welcome this opportunity to debate the report by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs entitled “Global Security: Russia” and the Government response. It is a long time since the inquiry began. We visited Russia in June 2007 while collecting evidence. The period covered by the report straddles a change of Prime Minister in the United Kingdom and a change of ministerial team in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Indeed, at one of our first evidence sessions for the report, in 2007, we welcomed my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe to his post.
We are now debating the report after a presidential election in Russia—I shall say more about that later—and in the context of the change in relations that might come from the new President. The debate takes place on the very day on which President Putin is attending a NATO summit in Bucharest, in the former palace, which is a huge and unique architectural—I nearly said “monstrosity”, but I was thinking in terms of its magnitude—creation of President Ceausescu, the late, unlamented leader of Romania, all those years ago.
If my hon. Friend will allow me to get back to talking about Russia, the situation that we face today has, unfortunately, not changed greatly since we produced the report, which was published towards the end of last year. Indeed, relations with Russia have, in some respects, become worse. In recent months, there has been the forced closure of the British Council offices in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg. Both UK and Russian citizens linked to the British Council experienced something that was clearly a form of harassment. Pressure was recently put on BP in Russia. None of those events could be referred to in the report or in the Government response, because they have happened in the period since those documents were produced.
As well as the changes to which I have referred, there have been changes in personnel. Our ambassador in Moscow, Tony Brenton, who was so helpful to us and our inquiry, is to retire from the diplomatic service. I place on the record our tribute to him and all his work, and not only in Russia. I remember his work in the United States and other parts of the world over many years. It is a sign of the very high quality of the people in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that he has played such a good role in Moscow in what have not always been easy circumstances in recent years.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that certain parts of the Russian media are suggesting that we had to get rid of our ambassador in Moscow to make the peace? There is absolutely no truth whatever in that, and he is simply retiring, as the hon. Gentleman said. I ask him to confirm that those reports are nonsense and the Russia media are about as bad as our media on occasion.
That is a sign that perhaps certain elements in the Russian media have a conspiracy-theory view of events in the world. It is like remarks made by some senior Russian figures, including, unfortunately, the President-elect, who made the totally false allegation that the British Council was a “nest of spies”. The matter raised by the hon. Gentleman, as well as those to which I have just referred, indicate a mindset that unfortunately is not helpful to constructive relations both with the UK and other countries. As ambassador, Tony Brenton was harassed by the Nashi organisation, and certain elements in Russia treated members of staff at the British embassy in a way that was not at all in accordance with the best traditions of how ambassadors should be treated in any country in the world.
The report touches on a large number of issues, and I cannot cover them all today. I am pleased that a number of my colleagues on the Committee are present. No doubt they will wish to catch your eye, Mr. Caton, and supplement what I have said. The real issue that we must confront is the assessment that we should make of Russia in the 21st century. There was a period under the Yeltsin presidency, just after the events of 1990 and 1991, when certain people thought that Russia could evolve rather rapidly into some form of western European, democratic, pluralistic society in terms of its political system. It is clear that that is not the case, and will not be the case.
We must face the fact that what we are dealing with in Russia is what the Russians themselves call a sovereign democracy; it is certainly not a mainstream European-style democracy. The recent elections for the presidency—some people called them selections rather than elections—are an indication of that. A number of senior people who wished to be candidates in those elections did not, in the end, take part. Some withdrew because they were pressurised; others withdrew because they decided that the process was tainted and the election was not, in any sense, free and fair. International observers of those elections were constrained in what they could do. I shall say more about that later.
The key issue that we face is as follows. Despite the difficulties that I have described, and despite the moves towards a more authoritarian political system and centralisation of political power after what the Putin people no doubt regard as the chaotic failures of the Yeltsin period, Russia is now far more assertive, both about its own interests and about other issues in the world. We have seen that, not only with regard to Kosovo and Russia’s attitude to arms control treaties, but in Russia’s belief that it has a different model of how to develop. There is some dispute about whether that will be the case in the long term. My own assessment—and the Committee’s report reflects this—is that much of the change of attitude is due to the revenue that has come from oil and the fact that, under President Putin, the state coffers have expanded because of the high oil and gas prices, which have allowed the country to develop a system of governance in which the role of the state has been strengthened and key state-influenced companies, particularly Gazprom, exert considerable economic and political influence both within Russia and around the region of the former Soviet Union.
The hon. Gentleman will know that much of the investment in the energy sector in Russia is foreign, and he has touched on TNK-BP. In that regard, does he share my concern that more than a decade after signing the energy charter treaty, Russia has still not ratified it? If foreign investors want to continue to invest in Russia, they should have the legal as well as the political and economic framework in which to do so with confidence.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I think that I can take the whole question of energy security a step further. It is widely believed that Russia is able to exert influence over the rest of the world because of its hold over large oil and gas reserves. That is true, but Russia is dependent on its markets in Europe, and on technological assistance to modernise its ageing oil and gas industry. We concluded that Russia needs to take account of the fact that at the moment—although this may change in time—it has few alternative customers to the large markets to its west. The technological progress and the huge investment that would be required to divert resources to the east and south will take a number of years and cost a great deal of money. In that respect, Russia has few alternative customers. We even came to the conclusion that it might have a shortfall in production to meet its export market commitments.
That is linked to Russia’s relationship with neighbouring countries with which Gazprom has some cosy relationships. Clearly, the export of energy supplies in Turkmenistan and in other parts of the former Soviet Union is very important here. At present, Russia benefits from purchasing at below world market prices from a number of neighbouring countries and sells its own products at world prices to Europe. In time, that may be challenged and it may change.
Russia faces a potential shortfall, particularly if domestic demand grows, partly because of the woefully inefficient way in which its oil and gas is used within its own economy. There is chronic energy inefficiency in the Russian economy, so the relationship is not one-sided; Russia needs the co-operation of Europe and the rest of the world to help modernise its oil and gas industries.
My hon. Friend has made a very interesting point. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) referred to the energy charter treaty. Later this month, the European Union will agree a mandate with Russia for the negotiation of a new partnership and co-operation agreement. As part of those negotiations, energy will be debated and arrangements agreed. Does my hon. Friend agree that it should be pointed out that Russia, which signed up to the energy charter treaty in 1994, should still be bound by that treaty? It is still in existence and it is still a viable document. It is extremely important to inward investors to Russia, because it provides for things such as compensation in the event of a trade dispute and so on.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our Committee called on the British Government to keep to their list of things that have to be done. At the top of that list is the question of Russia’s ratification of the energy charter treaty, and the fact that the Government should make it clear that this is a relationship of interdependence, and not of dependence. The Russians need Europe, and the European Union should, in our words, develop a “robust and united” approach to Moscow.
The hon. Gentleman’s comment about tone is important. Does he agree that there is a difference between being a competitor and an enemy? There is also a great deal of difference between strong leadership, which Russia has always had, and aggressive leadership.
I agree. As member states of the European Union, we must recognise that Russia will try to divide and rule, and split EU countries. It is very important that we achieve a common and united approach on energy matters, as well as on other matters. In our report, we recommended that the Government should make the
“development of a united and coherent EU Russia policy an explicit goal of its work in the European Union in 2008.”
In a moment. It was clearly important that at the informal meeting in Slovenia last week, European Union Foreign Ministers spent a lot of time discussing their policy towards Russia. It is crucial that we in the EU recognise that we share a common interest in developing a more coherent and effective approach on such matters.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Will he take his point further forward? I have a constituent who was one of those responsible for dealing with the remnants of Yukos in the west. Since he took on that particular role, he has been harried and threatened with legal action, both in this country and in wider Europe. This man, who is a top lawyer—I will not mention his name because he has had enough hassles—is unable to carry out much of his job because he is frightened that if he goes to other countries, the Russians will serve a writ on him seeking his arrest and for him to be moved to Moscow to be put on trial for something that he has had nothing to do with. That is why the EU must stand four-square with us.
I agree with my hon. Friend. He makes a point that can be generalised out to a number of other cases involving people both within Russia and elsewhere. We must recognise that we are not dealing with a normal European political culture, but with a close relationship between some key people in the energy sector and some big companies. Clearly, although the oligarchs, or some of them, played an important role in the rise of President Putin, some are now on his side and work with him while others are out of favour, in prison or in exile.
My next point, which relates to the EU issue, is on the partnership and co-operation agreement with Russia. The British Government and other EU Governments have been hoping for negotiations to open up soon because they believe that they will help to forge a common EU approach and encourage movement from Russia on issues of concern. Our Committee’s view is more sceptical. On the basis of the evidence that we received, we concluded that any negotiations would quickly get bogged down in highly politicised debates and become a new source of friction without yielding any tangible benefits.
I am pleased by reports that Russia has relaxed its ban on the import of Polish meat. That follows political changes in Poland in recent months, and potentially removes a Polish veto on the opening of negotiations. Nevertheless, the Government need to be careful to ensure that there is a real prospect of progress on the Russian side if negotiations are opened up, and that the forming of a new Russian Administration under the new President in May will lead to an agreement. Otherwise, what hopes there are will be dashed and negotiations will drag on and go nowhere, potentially leading to further frictions.
The report mentions missile defence, which is another potentially difficult issue, but I do not intend to spend a lot of time talking about it. When the report was published in December, it was interesting that the media concentrated entirely on the paragraphs that relate to missile defence and gave virtually no coverage whatever to the rest. I will therefore talk about other aspects of the report, and perhaps other right hon. and hon. Members will talk about missile defence.
The election process and politics in Russia have led to a lot of discontent. The Committee devoted a substantial part of its report to Russia’s performance on democracy and human rights issues. We recommend that the west couches its efforts to encourage better observance of human and political rights in Russia in terms not of the expectation that Russia will meet our standards, but the expectation that Russia will meet the standards to which it has signed up in international agreements and treaties over a number of years. It is important that the issue cannot be portrayed as us putting demands on Russia. Rather, the issue should be whether Russia is complying with the commitments to which it has signed up over many years.
Did the Committee give some thought to the important difference between values and standards when we debate democracy and the like? A lot of the treaties say, “We subscribe to the following values”, which is not to say that the many countries that sign them will commit to standards laid down in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany or like countries. That is an important distinction as regards Russia.
The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a difference between abstract values and concrete, specific measures and standards. However, there is only one universal declaration of human rights. The United Nations or Helsinki obligations, or those that come from membership of the Council of Europe or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, are important benchmarks and they should be applied on the basis that Russia has freely entered into those agreements over many years.
I am pleased that the Government, in their response to our report, said that they agreed with us. We also recommended that they continue to fund projects with non-governmental organisations and others to promote human rights observance in Russia. I should like to take this opportunity to welcome the list of such projects for 2008-09 that was recently sent to the Committee by the Foreign Secretary. I am also glad that he has agreed to inform the Committee of the outcome of the next bilateral human rights consultation with Russia whenever that occurs. I understand that no specific date has been set for it, but it is supposed to take place by the middle of the year. In that context, I want to place on record the Committee’s strong view that the Government and the Foreign Office should maintain the pressure on Russia to ratify protocol 14 of the European convention on human rights. We regard that as an important test of Moscow’s commitment to the European human rights regime to which it has agreed, but which it has not yet ratified.
In their response to our report, the Government referred to the messages that they sent in advance of the Russian presidential elections. Now that those elections have taken place, we asked for an update of the Government’s attitude, which we have received. In a recent letter, following the elections, the Foreign Secretary wrote that the UK
“questioned the degree of democracy exhibited throughout”
the Russian presidential election process. He referred in particular to the conditions set by Russia that made it impossible for the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to monitor the polls; the “lack of democratic choice”, to which I have referred, that resulted from those conditions; the exclusion of liberal opposition candidates; and the unequal—at best—media coverage.
Let me finish this point. Clearly, it is generally accepted and assessed, not only by the British Government but most other countries in the world, that Mr. Medvedev would have won the elections anyway, given the nature of the Russian political system. President Putin enjoys wide support among Russian people according to all the polls, so his chosen successor would, presumably, be supported on that basis. Nevertheless, it is important that we continue to register concerns internationally about the way in which effective monitoring in advance of the elections by election monitors from abroad was prevented by the late issue of visas and other restrictions set by the authorities.
I have mentioned the question of the British Council, and I shall conclude my remarks on the matter. I mentioned the closure in January of the offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, and I should like to place on record, on behalf of the Foreign Affairs Committee, our thanks to all the staff of the British Council, both in the UK and Russia, who have worked so hard for so long to build better relations between the two countries, and for their important work on a variety of things, including the accurate presentation of the English language and the British culture and way of life to many hundreds of thousands of Russians.
Twenty-eight Russians have lost their jobs as a result of the closure of the two British Council offices, and a library in St. Petersburg that was visited by 35,000 people a year has closed as a consequence of the harassment of the British Council by the Russian authorities. Some press reports say that the Russian authorities might allow the reopening of those facilities in a different way but, as I understand it, nothing has come of that. I am told that the lease on the office in St. Petersburg has been given up.
However, there is ongoing co-operation. There is a Russian art exhibition in central London at this very moment in Piccadilly. Later this year there will be a film festival. The British Council has been involved in organising a Turner exhibition to be held in Russia in the autumn. It is important to remember that despite the difficulties to which I have referred, many thousands of Russian citizens are coming to Britain without increasing visa restrictions, and that Russians are doing more business here. Indeed, most of the Russian elite send their children to British schools and keep their money in British bank accounts.
There is clearly an ongoing relationship between our two countries; at a human and personal level, it is probably greater than ever, despite the political difficulties. Relations between ordinary Russians and Britons are good. British people can go to Russia for tourism and other reasons, but we need improvement at the political level.
The unresolved and disgraceful murder on the streets of London of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen, and the introduction of polonium to the centre of London, which could have put thousands at risk, was outrageous. We should keep reminding the Russian Government that it is unacceptable that we are not able to try Mr. Lugovoi, who is accused of carrying out that murder. It is also unacceptable that other related issues cannot be resolved.
Today’s debate is important in that it puts the Committee’s report in the wider public domain. I am pleased that we have had that opportunity. I hope that the Minister will assure me that all efforts are being made to pursue the various issues that I have raised. We should continue to press Russia to comply with the international treaties that it has agreed to and signed. We should also make progress on the various arms control issues, which I mentioned only briefly.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Committee, in the House’s consideration of what I believe to be an important report. I hope that the House will find it well informed and fairly balanced.
I find it difficult to be anything other than extremely concerned about the direction in which Russia has been going under President Putin—a direction that looks set to continue for several years to come, whatever post Mr. Putin holds. I note that in its response, the Foreign Office—in a wonderfully diplomatic Foreign Office-esque phrase—referred to
“the further shrinking of democratic space”
in Russia. I would have used rather plainer language. In my view, what has been going on is the steady erosion of fundamental human rights there.
As the hon. Gentleman observed, the writing is on the wall. The litmus test in most countries in the modern world is freedom of the media. On that test, Russia fails comprehensively. Since the Yeltsin era, one has seen a steady erosion of the media’s freedom, particularly in television and radio broadcasts, which are the main source of information for most Russian people. Those individuals courageous enough to stand out against the regime—those who are seen by the regime to be serious political opponents or serious thorns in the flesh—have been subjected to personal intimidation, harassment, violence against their persons and against their homes, jailing and in some cases straight murder. Such murders have been committed both in Russia and, it appears, outside Russia.
When it comes to democratic elections, Russia’s record is extremely disappointing. In its response, the Foreign Office referred to the obstruction being put in the face of international observers, describing it as
“significant and unprecedented obstruction from the Russian government.”
That, of course, led to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s specialist organisation for monitoring elections, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, withdrawing from monitoring both the Duma and the presidential elections.
When the Select Committee was taking evidence about international election observers, was attention given to the internal feuding between the OSCE and ODIHR? As an election observer, I was in Russia at the time. I do not defend what the Russians did. It might not have been six of one and half a dozen of the other but there were circumstances that made the decision slightly more understandable.
I think that ODIHR has a pretty good record in its independent monitoring and reporting of democratic elections. Its reports are therefore sometimes singularly unwelcome to less than democratic regimes. I believe that ODIHR was justified in withdrawing, given the restrictions put on its participation.
Of direct concern to the Foreign Office and the Committee was the appalling treatment of the British Council, a grant in aid body funded by the Foreign Office. It is utterly appalling that British Council, locally engaged Russian staff should have been subjected to intimidation, harassment and calls in the night from the police. As we heard earlier, the British Council’s offices outside Moscow had to be closed. Those actions were roundly condemned by the Foreign Secretary in a statement to the House on 17 January, and justifiably so.
The question that arises is what can the Government do in such circumstances. It has to be acknowledged that Russia is an independent sovereign state, and we therefore have only a limited ability to influence events there. That is particularly so given that Russia takes the view that almost anything concerned with human rights is an internal matter; it appears to turn a blind eye to the clear UN declaration of human rights, which stresses the total universality of those rights.
I offer the Minister three practical points. First, I hope that the Government will continue to take a positive and sympathetic position towards applications for political asylum from individuals from Russia. They have been extraordinarily courageous in speaking out and standing up to the regime, and they are likely to have to pay a severe penalty as a result. I was glad that earlier this week the Government decided to grant political asylum to Yelena Tregubova, an extremely brave journalist who outraged the Putin regime with her book, and then had a bomb explode at her home in Russia. One doubts whether those events were unrelated. The Government’s decision was welcome, and I hope that it will be their continuing policy.
I listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said and to the example that he gave. I do not doubt for one moment the reasons that were given for granting political asylum in that case, but they must have been volunteered by Her Majesty’s Government. The Government do not do that in every case, and the question is why not. The point is that, although some people should be granted political asylum, grave political misjudgements have been made in granting it to others, but that is never justified.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s views. His point is one for the Minister, who will no doubt wish to respond when he replies to the debate.
My second suggestion to the Government relates to the resources that the Foreign Office devotes to supporting non-governmental organisations and others in Russia that are bravely battling for improved human rights and standards of governance. I have been looking at the Foreign Office’s latest human rights annual report, and the Foreign Office appears to be spreading its available help pretty thinly. The report says:
“FCO project funds provided over £700,000 for 18 projects working with NGOs to promote human rights, good governance and reform in Russia during the 2006/07 financial year. Over £440,000 was allocated for a further 16 projects starting in 2007/08.”
I put it to the Minister that a little more than £1 million spread over two years is a pretty marginal amount of support. Given the key importance of Russia and the human rights battle there, I hope that the Government will see whether they can find additional resources to devote to the issue.
I come now to my last suggestion. Although there is much that we can do bilaterally, we will have to act internationally if we are to stop and then reverse Russia’s downward human rights trend. I therefore strongly urge the Foreign Office to continue to do all that it can in the available international forums to exert additional pressure on the Russian Government to improve their human rights performance. I am referring to what the Government can do at the UN, through the EU-Russia human rights dialogue, in the negotiations on the EU-Russia agreement and through the not inconsiderable contacts that take place between Russia and NATO. All those forums give the Foreign Office an important opportunity to press its human rights agenda.
I turn now to the two biggest bones of contention between what I would broadly call the west and Russia. First, there is the enlargement of NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia. I support making progress on their NATO membership. Both have a clear western orientation and have made significant improvements in democratic and human rights terms. There is more to do in both countries, and more would need to be achieved before they gained NATO membership, but they have made significant advances. They have shown that they are committed to NATO as a defence organisation and have made useful contributions to NATO deployments in operational theatres. For all those reasons, their applications should be supported.
Some say that Georgia should be excluded because of the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but I do not buy that argument. I know that the EU is not the same as NATO, but it has taken Cyprus in despite the frozen conflict there—that particular freeze might be beginning to thaw, but that is the history. I should add that the one absolutely certain way to ensure that the frozen conflicts in Georgia remain frozen would be to tell the Russians that they were the justification for keeping Georgia outside NATO—that would mean a permanent freeze. I am disappointed that the Government appeared from what one read in the press to be sitting on the fence on this issue in Bucharest, but I hope that the Prime Minister can clarify the situation further if he reports back to the House. I would have hoped, however, that the Government were more supportive of these applications.
I turn now to the other bone of contention—ballistic missile defence. In wider security terms, this is far more significant than our difference of view with Russia over the applications by Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership. I have received several briefings on ballistic missile defence from both sides of the Atlantic, although they are, admittedly, all non-classified, as is appropriate for me as a Back Bencher. Although I have an open mind and I am ready to be persuaded, I have so far seen no overall security benefit to western European from the ballistic missile defence deployment proposed by the United States. On any objective assessment, the security benefit to Europe appears pretty marginal. We are talking about a site in eastern Europe with just 10 anti-ballistic missile interceptors. The technology is far from proven and is incredibly demanding—the process has been likened to hitting a bullet with a bullet. Nothing that I have read suggests that anything like 100 per cent. success can be achieved.
One could argue that that does not really matter and that any degree of anti-ballistic missile defence is surely worth having, given the possible threat down the road from the Iranians, but we must look at both sides of the equation and at the downside, which appears considerable. The Russian reaction has been exceptionally hostile so far. The proposed deployment has brought out the Russian regime’s age-old and, it must be said, historically entirely understandable paranoia about encirclement and particularly about threats from the west.
Regrettably, President Putin has already suspended the agreement on conventional forces in Europe, which is a serious step. Much more serious, however, is his threat unilaterally to abrogate the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, which was concluded in 1987. That treaty is far and away the most significant nuclear weapons arms control agreement to have been entered into, and it has operated satisfactorily since it was first agreed. It led to the removal and dismantling of huge numbers of ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 km. Perhaps most importantly, it ended a most dangerous and terrifying situation in Europe, whereby the decision takers with the nuclear trigger at their sides had only a few minutes to decide whether nuclear retaliation was justified.
That was an extraordinarily dangerous position for us to have got into, and was significantly alleviated, in terms of warning times, by the INF treaty. All of us in western Europe must ask whether we want to risk creating the situation from which we managed to escape as a result of the 1987 INF treaty. Do we want Russian ballistic missiles to move west and US and NATO cruise missiles to move east? Do we want to recreate a situation in which literally less than 10 minutes’ warning is available for people living in Europe, including its capitals?
In January I was fortunate to hear someone who has made a remarkably important contribution to arms control issues for many years, former Senator Sam Nunn, in Washington with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s defence committee. In a speech to us on 28 January entitled “The Mountain Top: A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” former Senator Nunn, who is now co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, rightly drew attention to the fact that even today, supposedly after the end of the cold war,
“The nuclear giants, the United States and Russia, continue to deploy thousands of nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles that can hit their targets in less than 30 minutes—a short warning time, prompt launch capability that carries with it an increasingly unacceptable risk of an accidental, mistaken or unauthorised launch.”
He went on to say:
“The United States and Russia should move to change the cold war posture of their deployed nuclear weapons to greatly increase warning time in both countries and ease our fingers away from the nuclear trigger.”
What we must consider is whether, instead of increasing the already terrifyingly short warning time of 30 minutes, which former Senator Nunn is campaigning to change to at least two hours, we want to go in the other direction and get the warning time for western Europe down to 10 minutes or less, with an impossibly short time scale for decision taking to determine whether an alarm is genuine or not. That is what is at stake with ballistic missile defence deployment if it does indeed lead to the unilateral renunciation of the INF treaty.
In my view there has been wholly insufficient disclosure in detail by the Government of the implications for western Europe of the proposed BMD deployment. I strongly urge the Government that they need to repair that and to set out fully what the implications would be for western Europe if the deployment were to lead to the unilateral renunciation of the INF treaty. That is a fundamentally critical security issue for the whole of western Europe and the UK in particular.
First, I join my colleagues in paying tribute to the United Kingdom ambassador in Moscow and expressing my shared concern for the staff at the British Council—both the United Kingdom staff and the Russian staff—who are the meat in the sandwich of the wider bilateral disagreement and conflict between the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom Government. It is a great pity that those staff members have suffered as they have; their careers have been damaged and in some cases truncated, which I greatly regret. However, as I shall explain, I think that there is a way forward, and that the cause of what has happened is not necessarily as has been detailed and enunciated in London.
My joining in those tributes concludes the elements of my speech on which there is a degree of unanimity in the Chamber, as I take a different view from many of my colleagues. I want to caution the House about “groupthink” and the flawed judgment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with respect to our bilateral relations with Russia, both currently and over many years. I interrupted my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) when he mentioned Ceausescu in passing, and I cheekily mentioned that we had given Ceausescu and Mugabe knighthoods. That is not irrelevant, as it is indicative of the flawed judgment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on a range of major matters in years past, and today, particularly in relation to the Russian Federation.
I am not giving references for the Russian Federation. I see the flaws in its democratic procedures and justice system, but it is a country in transition, which has moved on enormously since the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the history of these times comes to be written from a different perspective, it will be recognised that there was an advance for the Russian people, for the wider interests of the global economy, and in other respects, during the period of President Putin. Despite all the deficiencies that can perhaps be attributed to his period of office, we need some balance, and should not be extravagant in our criticisms. It does us no good, it starts to be misleading, and it contributes to the flawed groupthink that is going on in London in respect of our bilateral relations with Russia. I caution the House against taking such an approach.
All too often one hears Ministers, to some extent, but more often diplomats, who still think that they are dealing with the weak Russia of the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is no longer weak. It is justifiably proud, and we should listen to it and acknowledge some of the great contributions that it is making to reducing the potential for conflict in a fragile and dangerous world. For example, Russia was the architect of the idea now being pursued by the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and others, that Iran should be offered a way of having civil nuclear energy through dealing with the fuel cycle outside its territory. Indeed, that might be a way forward for many states that need cheap energy from nuclear sources. Russia initiated that, but we never give it credit for its role as an interlocutor in many parts of the world where we have mutual interests, particularly in conflict resolution between or within states.
My hon. Friend is making an interesting contribution, and he knows that other members of the Committee did not always agree with his view. He has said that Russia’s efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear programme were not given credit, but the report explicitly focused on that issue and drew attention to the point that he makes.
I like to think that in my small way I contributed to that report, and my frustration is that neither my hon. Friend nor I are Foreign Office Ministers. We are today debating the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, but also the stewardship of foreign policy by my hon. Friend the Minister. I am addressing my remarks to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, buttressed by the Select Committee report, of which I am a co-author. There were areas on which I departed from its view, and I may refer to them.
To complete what I was saying, I think that we mistakenly dismiss Russia’s geographical scale and the fact that it is federal. In any federal system—I can think of another great big federal Government—there are flaws and deficiencies in democratic regimes, especially at state level. Justice is not consistent throughout the United States. That is even relevant in a small country like ours, where we talk about parliamentary democracy. I remember one of the criticisms made of Putin was that he appointed the governors of each state. On the face of it, perhaps they should be elected, but we must remind ourselves that half our Parliament is not elected. We cannot see the beam in our own eye. People may say that that is irrelevant, but I say that it is not. We should be cautious lest we trespass and form judgments about other countries’ constitutions, particularly when they are in transition.
At one point, a mood about Russia—a resentment that it was no longer weak—could be found in London. Then we had a change of ministerial team. That, unfortunately, coincided with the Litvinenko case, which we handled badly. I am not minimising the gravity of the crime—it involved loss of life and a threat to Londoners—but the Russian Government were found guilty and condemned by both the press and politicians here, and I think that that was foolish and mistaken. It aggravated the situation. It certainly has not resolved it, as there have been no trials.
We now have frosty bilateral relations, and there has been a vortex of falling-out between us. One of the innocent casualties, in my view, was the British Council; it and its staff lost out. There was also a ridiculous tit for tat of expelling diplomats. If the United Kingdom has four fewer diplomats in Russia, and Russia has four fewer diplomats in London, the only people rejoicing are the taxpayers of the United Kingdom and Russia. Either those diplomats were not fully and gainfully employed, or we ought to end the absurdity of making such meaningless gestures, which grab headlines in the newspapers but do not advance our bilateral relations or capacity for diplomacy.
We were extremely arrogant and dismissive about Kosovo. Many of us have laboured over that dilemma. We desire to permit and facilitate national self-determination and we are fully aware of what happened in Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia, but we dismissed all too easily the Russian Federation’s view on granting Kosovo independence—or rather, acknowledging its independence, as it is arguable whether it is unilateral or whether Kosovo has recognition. It certainly does not have a seat at the United Nations. The Russian Federation’s point was that it was a breach of the Helsinki accords—I think that we must acknowledge that it was—to which it has adhered since the former Soviet Union signed up to them. Even if Kosovo was a one-off—I do not accept that it was, but it is the British Government’s case that it was sui generis—we should still recognise that it is a serious departure, and that the Russian Federation had a legitimate point. However, that was swept aside. Not only was that unfair, it has had consequences: it aggravates the situation.
Now we are paying a heavy price. The Russian Federation is withdrawing from participation in the treaty on conventional armed forces in Europe, and unless we use the window of political opportunity presented by the election of the new President to rebuild relations, there will be further deterioration and loss in our relationship with Russia.
I am fascinated and pleased to discover that in the seven years since I left the Committee, nothing much seems to have changed with the hon. Gentleman. It was enjoyable then, and it is enjoyable now. He said that he doubts that the Kosovo situation is a one-off, and I agree, but would he care to speculate as to what report or statement from the British Government we would have before us if the Russians were to say, “It’s a one-off in Transnistria; what’s the problem? We’re only helping people who want to assert their own independence”?
I am not sure that I follow the hon. Gentleman, but the fact is that there are other conflicts. One is in Transnistria and Moldova, where there is a Russian minority who could say, on the basis of Kosovo, that it, too, is a one-off case. There is a degree of agreement between the hon. Gentleman and me that that is a danger. We can say that it is a one-off, but other states, communities and ethnic groups might say, “Oh no it’s not.” That is why I think the British Government and the Foreign Office have been blind.
The hon. Gentleman says that I have not changed. I am not going to change, but one thing that I have learned in the many years in which he has known me is that some things I say that are scoffed at become fact. I was prophetic, I believe, during the preparation of the report. On the enlargement of NATO, to which my friend, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), referred, the report makes it clear that in our view, if Georgia’s application to NATO is to be advanced, Georgia should resolve its conflicts with national minorities. I moved an amendment, which was defeated—in fact, I think that I was the only person who voted for it—saying that Georgia’s resolution of such conflicts should be a precondition for its NATO membership.
I claim some skill in prophecy because it would appear that our Prime Minister has taken note of what I said. I believe that in his discussions this week with President Sarkozy—the Prime Minister is in Bucharest as we speak—he is following the line that there is no sensible prospect of Georgia entering NATO unless and until its conflicts are resolved. That is why I disagree with the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), with whom I agree strongly on many matters: bringing Georgia in as it is, with its Russian minorities and frozen conflicts, would almost mark the end of NATO. Article 5 says that aggression towards one is aggression towards the whole, and that there should be an appropriate response. One does not invite into one’s club people who have a territorial conflict with their next-door neighbour. It is stark staring bonkers.
We would not, of course, go to war over the frozen conflict in Georgia, but it would mean that article 5, a NATO cornerstone, could never be used as an implied threat. It would be a devalued currency. That is why we should not let Georgia in. It would provoke Russia, create areas of conflict in other states and set unwelcome precedents. Sometimes, even things that I say eventually come to pass, and that is one such thing. I believe that the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy have concluded that Georgia’s membership of NATO would not be appropriate unless and until it has resolved its frozen conflict.
I am also concerned about our double standards. To listen to Foreign Office diplomats, Ministers and indeed Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative spokespersons, it is as though United Kingdom diplomats and our security and intelligence services were like the archangel Gabriel. It is as though we did not spy or engage in espionage. Paragraph 94 of the report draws attention to the accusations by
“the FSB, in January 2006 that diplomats in the British Embassy in Moscow were engaging in espionage via the use of an imitation rock which allegedly hid electronic equipment. The FSB further accused the Embassy of using NGOs to which it was providing financial support for espionage purposes.”
We put that in our report, and I was happy for it to be there, but I moved an amendment—it is in an appendix to the report—to add the words,
“This is of course a preposterous suggestion”,
but nobody supported it. I wanted to add that sarcastic comment, because clearly that rock was planted clumsily by our security and intelligence services. In my view, the suggestion that that was not the case is breathtaking nonsense, and we should not play such games. If we conduct such work, which is probably necessary, we should not pretend otherwise. We should acknowledge what is going on, because sometimes it is clumsy, our security and intelligence services do not work in consort with the mainstream Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, often, it can aggravate a situation, resulting in absurd tit for tats and the expulsion of diplomats. I think that that is a big mistake.
On prosecutions and extraditions, I can understand the United Kingdom Government requesting that the Russian Federation return to this country somebody whom they want to put on trial, but we must acknowledge that our Government have also received requests from the Russian Federation for the return of people from London to Russia. We say, “This is a matter for our courts and certain criteria must be met”, but that is precisely what the Russians say. They, too, must act in accordance with their laws. Absurdly, we try and tell Russians what their laws are and why their legal judgment is flawed. To suggest that the traffic is one-way is insulting nonsense.
I have some sympathy with the Russian Federation, because I believe that we have allowed certain people to enter this country, and have given them asylum or citizenship when that was not always in the best interests of the United Kingdom. Arguably, some of them have entered not with their own money, but with Russia’s money, and now the Russian authorities are catching up with them. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of the UK’s financial regulatory services and oversight of money coming in—I believe that money is being laundered through London from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, and we are not on top of that problem. If we are aware of it, that is even more disgraceful, because we are not facilitating the return of those people to answer in the courts of their land of origin for their stewardship and extraordinary wealth, which it is almost impossible to believe could have been obtained legitimately.
We allow those people to come to this country and then, from London, they wage a war against President Putin and the Russian Federation. That is crazy, illegitimate and foolhardy in the extreme. In the long term, we will lose as a result, and it is time that we examined much more rigorously people who come to this country and claim asylum, although some of those claims may be wholly justified. I intervened on my friend, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, who explained why a recent applicant had been granted political asylum. However, if I ask the Foreign Office, as I have done in the past, to explain why certain people are granted asylum, it resorts to its stock answer: “We never discuss the reasons for granting asylum.” Parliament is therefore unable to scrutinise the stewardship of Foreign Ministers or of the Home Office and ask why they judged a certain person to be fit and proper to receive political asylum. In the vast majority of cases of political asylum, nobody would ask any questions, but clearly some cases, personalities or relationships with certain states justify full, or at least partial, disclosure of the reasons for granting asylum, but the British Government refuse to make such a disclosure. They have therefore failed in their obligations to Parliament and the British people. On the basis of available evidence, I think that their judgments are far too often flawed, wrong and to our long-term disadvantage.
Flowing from this debate, and with the coming of the new Russian President, I hope that there will be a reassessment of what has gone on in the past. The Russian Federation has indicated, both publicly and—I understand—informally, that it would welcome some rapprochement and thawing of this ice-cold situation, which would require the British Government to respond in kind. If Ministers can acknowledge that, we will have an opportunity to draw a line under the Litvinenko case, for the time being at least—not permanently, but we need to agree to disagree—and to move forward. If at this critical moment we make the right signs, signals and responses, I am hopeful about the prospects of a restoration of many of the services of the British Council, in St. Petersburg and elsewhere, and of other things to our mutual benefit over the next 12 months. That would be to the good of both Russia and the United Kingdom.
There is no doubt that, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s foreign policy has been much more blunt and aggressive, which has fuelled a view perhaps exemplified by Edward Lucas’s recent book about a new cold war breaking out between Russia and the west. I think that that view is overdone and I am very pleased that the Committee agreed. The latter took a much more balanced view of the relationship between Russia and the west. Even the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) for once agreed with the group think that that rather apocalyptic view of the Russian situation is overdone. I am glad that he joined the rest of us in taking that view.
The assertiveness of Russian foreign policy during the Putin era—if we can call it that now—is perfectly understandable in the light of its recent history. It was defeated in the cold war, after which it was split—dismembered—into its various parts and practically went bankrupt. During that period—not more than 10 or 15 years ago—the phrase, “Burkina Faso with rockets” was contemptuously used to describe the state of Russia. It is no wonder that, out of simple national pride, which we can all understand, and given its new oil and gas riches, it has reasserted its national independence and defended what it regards as its understandable interests against what had been its mortal foe—the west. Given the history, what has happened over the past few years is totally understandable. Having said that, however, from our point of view, some parts of that have been ludicrous. The whole British Council affair is monstrous nonsense and I fully support the line that we have taken on that. The view about the British Council put, and still being put, across by the Russian authorities is ridiculous and complete nonsense. I am glad that the Foreign Office continues to take a robust line.
I take the view, therefore, that, as in other areas—the Committee produced a report more recently on Iran, in which this view was put forward too—we should continue to do business. Talking is important and is the way to deal with Iran and Russia. It is always sensible to talk and do business, whatever the nature of the difficulties, which of course there have been with Russia. Our report emphasised that point. However, that does not mean that we should not be robust. We should show an equivalent robustness to Russia in our dealings over issues such as that involving the British Council. After the remarks of the hon. Member for Thurrock, perhaps I can praise the Foreign Office for its good response to the British Council affair. I fully support the line that it has taken recently. It would be both naive and pusillanimous to take all that lying down. We must be assertive, as the Russians are. They would expect no less and would be contemptuous of us if we did not take a similar line.
However, I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to two policy areas in which we could show more progress. The first is energy security. As we know, Gazprom has been flexing its muscles in a fairly brutal manner, and the Foreign Affairs Committee went to Bulgaria and Romania last year, I think—
The Committee Chairman corrects me.
The Committee saw at first hand what is happening in those countries: political interference. Bulgarian and Romanian Ministers warned us about the threat from Russia, and it was evident. Equally, Gazprom has been buying up companies in Serbia and Italy, and the attitude of the previous rulers of France and Germany has not been wholly satisfactory from that point of view. Herr Schröder has become the president of Nordstream, the company behind the proposed new pipeline between Russia and Germany, bypassing the Baltic states. Equally, ex-President Chirac was too pro-Russian and too inclined to give in to Russian interests in that area, so I am very glad that there has been a new approach since Frau Merkel took over in Germany and President Sarkozy took over in France—a new willingness to stand toe-to-toe with the Russians, call a spade a spade and not mess around.
We need a new, disciplined and more united approach to energy security in the European Union. I hope that the Foreign Office is doing what it can to bring that about, because it is a significant element of the whole approach. It is very much in Russia’s interests that we do so, because, as one of my hon. Friends pointed out, the Russians are not protecting their long-term interests by being political about the development of their gas and oilfields. They are eschewing proper investment and development, which would be more forthcoming if they did not strong-arm BP and other British and American companies, as they have over the past few years. Russia’s tactics are profoundly counter-productive economically, and we must pay attention to that.
Secondly, our foreign policy should be less subservient to that of the United States. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) rightly pointed out the business of the ballistic missile defence system. I shall not go into that at any length, because he admirably set out his concern about it, which I share. I, too, had a briefing—I do not think that he was present, but the Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) was—by officials from the American embassy in London on the ballistic missile defence system, and at one particular moment, I caught myself thinking about that picture, “Dr. Strangelove”. It was quite extraordinary—the way we were talking about bullet meeting bullet in mid-air at a certain point, and the parabola at which one would intercede with another. The whole thing is a fantastic piece of nonsense, and it is not entirely justified. The Americans insist on it, however. Despite every effort to disengage from, or modify, the situation, it is still a severe bone of contention with the Russians, and fouling up our diplomatic relations with them is an issue.
We should be concerned about that situation. We are aware of how damaging the effect of our recent subservience to American foreign policy has been in the middle east, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. In Europe, we should be no less concerned to strike—when we think it appropriate—an independent line that reflects our own interests as European nations, although, of course, we remain friends and allies of the United States.
That is also true of Kosovo. If I can dilute the particular interest of the hon. Member for Thurrock, let me say that, for once, I share some of his views and concerns. The Kosovo decision was forced through in the final analysis by the United States, and I am not sure that it will play well—so far it has not played well—in the international sphere, because Kosovo has secured less support for its independence than it might have hoped for. It is an issue on which, again, we paid too little attention to the views of the Russians.
I must disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling about NATO, Ukraine and Georgia. He rightly pointed out what those two countries have done to make themselves acceptable to NATO, but once again, we must look at the situation from Russia’s point of view—not simply to take account of Russia’s point of view, but, in our own interests, to have reasonable relations with Russia. Clearly, the situation is provocative from their point of view. If Ukraine becomes part of NATO, Russia will regard NATO as coming right up to its very frontiers, which is something, historically, that it must be concerned about. We all accept that Ukraine in particular, but also Georgia, has legitimate reasons for being part of NATO, and we would welcome it to NATO. The question, however, is when? Our Government and the Governments of the other European countries were right to say, “Not yet.” It may be next year or the year after before those countries start the process of entering NATO, but we must be concerned about Russia’s current interests.
I understand that point, but Norway is not like Ukraine. Ukraine is part of the whole Russian identity. Kievan Rus is part of the history of Russia, and Ukraine is much more immediate to the Russians than Norway, which is a fringe country in European terms. The situation concerns Russia. I understand why, and we must understand their attitude and approach matters carefully. We will get there in the end, and it is right that we should, but we must proceed with caution.
Those are the two caveats about the approach of the Foreign Office. We need to be less subservient to the United States and get together on energy security in Europe. There is a great possibility for a new and much healthier relationship with Russia.
I find myself, unusually, in a unique position, being practically the only person in the room today who is not a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and who has not had the benefit of taking part in this tremendous exercise. I congratulate the Committee on an excellent report, and the Government on their response.
I shall speak about a broader range of issues. I shall not touch on NATO or on any other big issues, because they have already been dealt with. I find myself, again uniquely, in almost complete agreement with all the speeches that have been made so far this afternoon. It has been a knowledgeable and informative display of clear and pragmatic thinking. I particularly endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) said about the necessity for this country to rebalance its relationship with the United States of America. One sad thing about the way in which our relationship with Moscow has festered recently is that Moscow thinks that we are not much use to them bilaterally because we do not have any influence in Washington as it is, which in itself is a rather galling thought.
The reasons for the unsatisfactory state of our relations with Russia are well known and have been well rehearsed this afternoon. Many of them are based on unnecessary misunderstandings and an increasing habit of ill temper and bad communication. There are, and always will be, issues upon which we have substantial differences, including NATO enlargement, all the other issues of international relations, and the other grit in the oyster, the well rehearsed problems that the report highlights.
In spite of that political bilateral coolness, however, British and Russian business—I am glad to say—seems to be flourishing. Russian companies continue to see the City of London as the preferred location for planned public offerings, and they manage to raise considerable sums of money from the capital markets to develop those businesses. Britain also continues to be one of the largest foreign investors in Russia. If the political situation worsens, however, there is a likelihood that Russian companies will be persuaded to look elsewhere to further their business growth, and that the pressure on British companies operating in Russia will grow—for example, as is happening with TNK-BP.
Without a coherent political dialogue, or the means to achieve those ends, it becomes very difficult for both Russian and British businesses to appeal to a higher body to resolve their potential grievances. It is particularly important that the British Government’s policy on Russia should seek to protect and promote those bilateral business interests and capitalise on the fantastic know-how of the City of London in those sectors. That is important if we are to achieve that aim, and other aims that we have, to minimise the political and diplomatic differences such as have occurred over the past two years. The moment has now come when it is in Britain’s interests and, I would like to think, in the interests of Russia, to redefine our relationship together across the whole piece and to make a new and more positive attempt at establishing a consistent and agreed dialogue that has the structure and framework to survive the inevitable shocks that will come along the way.
It is often difficult under this Government to define any clear strategy in British foreign policy, but our national interest obviously dictates that it is foolish not to have a more workable and substantial relationship with Russia. I am not in any way talking about appeasement. I am talking about a more frank, clear-eyed and productive relationship that clearly would be of benefit to both sides.
It is important for us to understand that President Putin is hailed in his own country as the saviour of modern Russia and if that salvation has been achieved at some cost, in my view Russians see that cost as worth while, indeed a price well worth paying. The regime has indeed become more authoritarian. Power has been consolidated in the Kremlin, and of course a relatively small political elite makes all major policy decisions, which is not so different from this country. To be frank, this is a matter for the Russians and not something that we need to have a nervous breakdown about.
Of course we need to continue to make a robust case on human rights and all the other issues that concern us and about which we feel very strongly. However, we need to be more self-confident and open in our dealings with Russia. As I have said, it is essential that our Russian policy is not open to the accusation that we are seeking to appease the Russian Government or that we are apologists in any way for a Government who are rightly described as being extremely authoritarian. Cultural, political and other differences between the United Kingdom and Russia mean that the bilateral relationship will regularly suffer setbacks and be a constant challenge to maintain. A skilful Government, one with a confident, clear strategy, would find a serviceable way to navigate these shoals.
The President-elect should not be regarded as a “softer touch” than his predecessor; indeed, there is every indication that he may well adopt as tough a stance or an even tougher one than that adopted by President Putin. His immediate concern will be to consolidate his power base and to send a clear message to the competing clans within the Kremlin that he is the new boss. In so doing, the perception abroad may well be that Medvedev is no different from President Putin. That is not the case. Medvedev is from the St. Petersburg liberal elite and not, it must be noted, from the security services. Nevertheless, that label should not mislead the west into thinking that there will be an immediate sea change in the Kremlin’s policies. However, a different type of dialogue should be sought and support shown for the President-elect.
This is now the moment when we need to recast our policy and to let the Russians see and know that we are interested in having a better relationship with them. It makes little sense that we are perceived as being likely to treat Russia as a constant adversary. As one of my hon. Friends said, after going to Moscow recently:
“It is more a cold sore than a Cold War.”
We face an assertive Russia which is prepared to flex its muscles on the international stage and to disagree with western policy, particularly American policy. Talk of a new cold war is extremely unhelpful and misleading, and such loose tongues merely inflame the debate and make it much harder to have a sustainable relationship with Russia.
I have three suggestions for steps that I believe we should take to improve relations and to try to restore, at whatever level, some substance to our bilateral engagement. First, we should consider how we can renew attempts at intelligence gathering on a case-by-case basis. Such intelligence gathering fell into disrepair after 9/11, but there are areas where co-operation was extremely beneficial and it could be again. Secondly, this great Parliament does its work very well overseas. However, a much broader series of parliamentary visits and exchanges needs to be arranged. Thirdly, it would be good to create a standing forum of some sort for the exchange of commercial ideas, rules and norms across a broad field of endeavour. I would encourage the lord mayor of London to create such a forum himself.
It should not be beyond the wit of man to manage the disputes and disagreements that, in my view, are caused more by mutual misunderstandings than by anything else. The Government should make a major effort to improve this very important relationship. I also warn the Government that, without a proper strategy, the relationship will suffer, as many others have suffered under the stewardship of this Government, if they just muddle through. That is not good enough.
I would like to conclude by reading a quotation from an article in the Financial Times, written by a great former British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite. Sir Rodric said:
“Although Russians today do not enjoy our kind of democracy, they do enjoy an unprecedented, if precarious, degree of personal prosperity, of access to information, of freedom to travel and even - within limits - to express their views. To argue that they cannot go on to construct their own version of democracy is a kind of racism. It may take decades, even generations; the construction of democracy always does. But if the Indians can do it, so can the Russians. George Kennan, that great Russia watcher, got it right when he wrote in 1951, at the height of the cold war”—
and these are wise words—
“When Soviet power has run its course. . . let us not hover nervously over the people who come after, applying litmus papers daily to their political complexions to find out whether they answer to our concept of ‘democrats’. Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner. The ways by which people advance towards dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign influence can do less good.”
Thank you for calling me, Mr. Caton. It is a pleasure to be speaking in the Chamber, rather than sitting in your chair in this particular room. It is also a great pleasure to meet up again with some old friends who were on the Foreign Affairs Committee when I was a member. I was on the Committee until seven years ago, they still serve on it, and it is a pleasure to be in the Chamber with them today.
I listened with great care to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) I am tempted to call him my hon. Friend if that does not wreck his future career—and I agreed with everything that he said, apart from his comment that his accurate prophecies had not resulted in his becoming a Minister in the Government. I am sorry to tell him—and I hope that this does not hurt his feelings—but I am rather glad that he did not become a Minister, because the first thing that the Government would do is gag him. The one thing that we do not want is that voice of sanity and that willingness to challenge to be quietened. The only other problem that I have with what he said this afternoon is the fact that he pinched most of what I was about to say in my speech, so I shall be briefer than I originally thought.
I would like to explain to the House why somebody whose constituency is next door to Heathrow airport should suddenly turn up to take part in a debate on Russia, as that is not what some people would expect. The reason is as follows; I lead the Conservative members of the delegation to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. I promise that I am not about to make a Conservative party political speech, but the significance of being a Conservative is that we belong to our own separate group, rather than the European People’s Party, or EPP. Before you call me to order, Mr. Caton, I am not going to enter the European Union debate that the Conservatives love to have. I would simply like to say that the European Democrat Group, or EDG, has 27 MPs from Russia, all of them members of the United Russia party, including the leader of the Russian delegation, Konstantin Kosachev, who was mentioned in paragraph 24 of the Government’s response to the report. He is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Duma and someone I know well. For my sins, I have ended up as the deputy leader of the EDG in the Parliamentary Assembly and my boss, the leader of the group, is the other person mentioned in paragraph 24, Mikhail Margelov. I therefore report to a Russian, which is quite curious and very challenging.
I was an election observer in the Duma elections just before Christmas, when I led a small, international team of MPs in far-off Vladivostok, of all places. I reflected on the fact that it was a closed military city until fairly recently, whereas now there is no problem in getting there. Well, there is a problem, because it is in a remote part of the world, but once one is there, there are no problems at all. Indeed, a Pullman train now takes tourists there on the trans-Siberian express. Those who say that Russia has not changed should reflect on what has happened in Vladivostok. There have been criticisms of the elections—we have someone in the Chamber from the OSCE who is far more expert than I: the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George)—but no restrictions or problems of any sort came my way during the inspection of electoral mechanics. Indeed, they were quite good, and have become a great deal better. Given that there were hundreds of thousands of polling stations across the federation, it is hardly surprising that there was the odd hiccup. We get the odd hiccup in the UK with about 40,000 polling stations, so we should be careful about criticising the Russians for that.
I am a not infrequent visitor to Russia, and from time to time, Russian MPs come to see me in the UK, and we talk about things from our perspectives. I hope that does not make me sound like an apologist for Russia and Russians; it gives me an insight, and I thought that it might be helpful to share that insight with the Chamber in this debate. I should like to use the insight that I have gained in the past few years to ask a couple of questions. First, how should we as MPs interact with Russians? Secondly, how do things look when seen through Russian eyes, rather than British eyes?
Those questions lead me to make three suggestions. First, the time has come to ensure that we look forward, rather than for ever looking back and thinking about what went wrong in the past. We need to engage with Russians as well as Russia. All too often in these debates, we talk about Russia and the United Kingdom, but I would rather talk about Brits and Russians getting to know each other, because that is one way forward. We should work with parliamentarians as well as Ministers, diplomats and civil servants. There is a role for parliamentarians in future relationships with the Russian Federation.
On the first question of interaction, I meet a lot of Russians and Russian MPs, and the message that I receive is that they want to engage more fully in the world community. They know that that is important and that they are not there yet, and they accept that it will require change. They also accept, on a one-to-one basis, that they need help. When I talk to Russian MPs individually, they are willing to say that they have much to learn, and they are keen to get help. That is why MPs from the United Russia party come here to talk to people such as me—some might say foolishly—because the British Conservative party can help them to develop their democracy. I am sure that other members of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe do just the same and come here to talk to the Labour party, as they want that help.
When we talk about democracy, human rights and the rule of law, I tell myself that the Russians have not been at all this for long. We cannot quite count the years on the fingers of two hands—but we are not far off. We must look at what we enjoy in this country and in Parliament. One could go back a thousand years, but let us settle for 1688 and the Glorious Revolution, which was neither glorious nor a revolution. What we now have can be traced back at least that far, so we have had 300 years to get into the mess that we are in. Should we be surprised that Russia is in a mess when it has not had 300 years to get its democracy sorted out? We have to put things into perspective.
As I said to the hon. Member for Ilford, South, in an intervention, we need to distinguish between values and standards. We sign up to universal values, and so do the Russians. I know of no dissent within Russia about the values to which the planet subscribes. However, it is a little arrogant for a country, whether it is an important country like ours or a less important country, to lecture another sovereign state along the lines of, “The only standards that you can get away with are those that we lay down for you.” That is arrogant. There are ways of running a sovereign state other than the way in which we run ours, and there are alternative ways of living up to the values to which a state subscribes. There is much more work to be done in that area. I have learned—and I am happy that I did not hear otherwise this afternoon—from talking to the Russians, that if we want to get them to change, we should encourage them, talk to them and make suggestions; I am sure that that is other people’s experience, too. If we want to make matters worse or to sterilise the status quo, we should condemn them and criticise them openly. That applies to all of us, and I worry that we overdo the condemnation.
Secondly, we should consider how things look through Russian eyes. For reasons that I cannot quite work out, I spent my first 10 years in the House being drawn into Northern Ireland politics. Someone once advised me, “If you ever want to understand the IRA, you must think like a member of the IRA and see things as they see them,” and I have done that ever since. When I meet Russians, I try to say to myself, “I wonder how they look at the world,” rather than trying to tell them how I think they should look at the world. My favourite comment from a Russian with whom I had that conversation was: “The one thing you have to understand about us is that inside every Russian is a little Tsar trying to get out.” I thought about it, and I realised that every Russian whom I have come across is perfectly used to being told who the next leader of his country will be. That is normal, and has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, so what is strange about what has just happened there, although we might not like it?
The Russians are also used to the idea of having elections with only one candidate for whom they are allowed to vote, so if something similar happens, what is different? They think, “This is how things have been; we have had Tsars and imitation Tsars.” We all tend to think like that, looking at things through our own history. The Russians have absolutely no history of anything remotely like democracy as we recognise it. They are starting from scratch. These matters are far easier in countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland because there was something there before.
When one talks to Russians and listens to what they say about the 20th century, and when one studies what Putin has done, one finds that Russians talk about stability and strength. The way I see it, the Russian view of the 20th century is that change means chaos. The Bolshevik revolution was chaotic and gave Russians communism. The Yeltsin revolution was chaotic and gave them oligarchs. Is it any surprise that someone should come along and say, “If I stop all this chaos, I’ll be popular”?
I am coming to exactly that point, but may I finish the point I am making? Russia associates rapid change, which we demand, with chaos, so we must not be surprised if its people are reluctant to have another bit of chaos.
As my hon. Friend says, Yeltsin did not bring only chaos and the oligarchs—I suppose that Chelsea football club should be grateful for that, but I am not sure who else is grateful for some of the things that happened then—but humiliation. It is difficult to imagine how Russians see the situation. The country in which they lived was a world superpower. It might not have been a superpower or political system of which we approved, but it was one of only two superpowers. Not long after, its people were dependent on food aid from the other superpower. They had been brought to utter and total world humiliation. We might disagree, but that is how they saw it. Under those circumstances, it is hardly surprising that we should come up against a country that is trying to manage democracy, change and stability. I am not sure that we necessarily ought to applaud the situation, but we should at least make allowances rather than simply attack the Russians on every occasion.
What President Putin—I am not sure whether he is an ex-President yet—has done above all else is restore Russian self-respect. That is not as I see it, but it is what I hear regularly from Russians. There are some technical issues around energy, but they have power again, and their economy has revived. This time, the money is reaching not just Chelsea football club but, as I have seen, places such as Vladivostok as well. Inevitably, the Government are popular as a result.
The only thing that mystified me about the Russian elections held before and after Christmas is why, as President Putin and his party were likely to win a crushing victory over everybody else, they felt the need to overdo things. That is a mystery that my Russian friends have not been able to explain. They smile and say, “Yes, I think we agree with you.” Apart from that, democracy is developing.
May I say something about the need to look forward, instead of backwards? I learned a lesson a long time ago. I was born at the end of the second world war and grew up in a country that demonised Germans in the cinema, on the radio and the budding television service, in books and everywhere. It was not until my son swapped schools with a lad from a German gymnasium—he came to live with us—and I became embarrassed by what he saw on British television that it dawned on me that we ought to look forward. That lad could not be held responsible for the crimes of his parents or grandparents, and it was time to move on.
I hear from parliamentarians from the Council of Europe’s 47 nations who understand why parliamentarians from some countries think in a way that is similar to how I used to think about Germany all those years ago. Under the Soviet Union, people in Hungary, Poland and so on suffered dreadfully, and as a result, some people condemn today’s Russians, many of whom were not born when those things happened. If we want to keep relations cool and distant, we should carry on like that. I hope that we can persuade more people to learn the lesson that I learned from the German lad: draw a line and move on. The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union and we cannot put the clock back.
I looked with some care at the names of those who gave evidence in writing or appeared before the Select Committee. No one on my list of offenders appeared on the Committee’s list, but I think that we need occasionally to advise people who are trying to get their mind around this problem to beware of some of the so-called experts. I will not name names, but I have in mind a person from an American charitable foundation who passes himself off as an academic expert but forgets to say that he is a Moldovan and has a Transnistrian wife. He ought to be more open about why he loathes the Russians with a passion. All too often, evidence from experts is not expert but chip-on-the-shoulder. We need to keep that in the back of our mind.
We must stop singling out Russia all the time. A couple of Members have mentioned Georgia in NATO, and I do not disagree with that. This winter, I enjoyed two Christmases. I enjoyed one in this country, before I went to observe the elections in Georgia and enjoyed another on the Orthodox Christmas day a week or so later. There were problems with the Russian elections, but I have not heard many people say that the Georgian elections were a similar sort of basket case, if that is the right phrase. For some reason, Georgia should be welcomed because it is Georgia and it is useful. If we are going to condemn anybody, let us condemn everybody. If we are going to condemn someone, let us start with ourselves. A little debate is taking place about whether we should detain people for 28 or 42 days without bringing them before a court. That is in contravention of the values and standards of many conventions to which we have signed up. If we are going to lecture people on human rights, let us start by lecturing ourselves.
On the shortcomings of other people’s democracies, let us remember the judge’s comments about how the postal voting system in this country would disgrace a banana republic. That case involved Labour councillors, but I am not biased: in the past week or so, there was a case of a Conservative councillor doing the same thing. We are all up to it, so before we condemn other people too much for not conforming to this country’s democratic standards, for heaven’s sake, let us get this country’s democratic standards correct.
We need to get people as well as Governments involved. Paragraph 47 of the Government’s response suggests that people should get together more often. I say yes to that—that is exactly what we want. It is right to short-circuit some of the involvement of the Government, Ministers and civil servants, and talk to each other as fellow human beings. On parliamentarians, the report rightly refers to protocol 14, but it is tempting to say that the Russian Government are somehow at the bottom of things and absolutely to blame. If I understand correctly Mikhail Margelov and Konstantin Kosachev—two people whom the Government cite as senior Russian MPs who go to their Parliament and say, “Please, please, sign this”—the problem is that the Duma will not give authorisation. It is not a question of whether the Kremlin gives authorisation. We could argue about whether the Kremlin tells the Duma what to do—I pass on that—but, technically, the blockage is ultimately caused by Duma Members not putting their hands up in sufficient numbers. We need to talk to parliamentarians—perhaps we could do something about that.
On the British Council, perhaps I could present Members with an image that they might find hard to believe. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and I make a little pair within the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and we have been working with Konstantin Kosachev to see whether we can make a contribution to unsticking the British Council problem. May I suggest a theory that the Minister has perhaps heard from his officials? It may or may not be true but, from my “cock-up not conspiracy” view of the world, it makes a bit of sense to me. It was suggested by somebody who might know what he was talking about that, after Britain threw out a few diplomats, someone in the Kremlin said, “We have to retaliate,” and some lowly official was dispatched to find a convenient way to do so. He remembered that a long time ago somebody had spotted that the arrangements for setting up the British Council in the then Soviet Union, now Russian Federation, were somehow not right. The situation had been ignored, because it did not really matter if such things occurred, but the person remembered and the rest followed. When the message got back to the people in the Kremlin who had said, “Go and do something,” they were not best pleased, but now the problem involves loss of face. Working with Russian MPs, the right hon. Gentleman and I have been trying to find a way to get back to where we were in the first place without either side having to lose face.
In fact, the problem is that the cultural agreement that allows the British Council to operate in Russia is an old agreement dating back to 1994. There have been efforts over many years to secure a new agreement, but the Russians have been dragging their feet. We commented on that in the report.
Yes, I know, but, similarly, if the hon. Gentleman listens to Russians, they will give him a different version of events in which we have been dragging our feet, not them. It does not matter: my point is that if parliamentarians can work together in a new way, we might save Governments from getting stuck with the debate about how they can get out of the mess that they have got into without losing face. That is all I am saying. Occasionally, there is a role for parliamentarians, not just Governments, in building and improving the situation in Russia.
I have heard it suggested that Russia is a threat to world peace and that Putin wanted to go back to being a Stalin. In Russia, when talking to Russian parliamentarians, I have never found any evidence of that at all. Here is a country trying to overcome humiliation; here is a leader trying to lead through Russia’s history rather than our history. There is a large group of people who simply want to be taken seriously in a way that they have not been. The people I talk to want to build a democracy, but the message I hear is: “Please will you help us do it?”
Russian people want their sovereignty to be respected. They do not particularly want to be lectured. They do not welcome interference in their internal affairs, and I am not sure that we would be any different if people tried to throw their weight around with us. That is what the Russian people ask. In respect of debates about Ukraine and Georgia, I understand why we are concerned, and that it is in our interest and in the Ukrainian interest. However, I can also understand that a Russian gets a little bit twitchy about us messing around in his backyard. That is exactly what happened in America over the Cuban missile crisis. There came a point where someone who wanted to keep their sovereignty said, “I’m not having any of this, thank you very much.” We are only seeing a variation on what has happened many times before.
I find the Government's response to the report exceedingly helpful, but the messages for the future are as follows: the Government—any British Government—must engage, rather than stand back and criticise; they must encourage and help rather than condemn; and above all else, they must remember that Russia is a European country, like us and like others, and it and its people want to become European, like us. It is up to us to give them a chance to do so.
Thank you, Mr. Caton. I am sorry that I arrived late. I have only heard three and a half speeches and, frankly, I am delighted that I arrived as late as did. I would have preferred it if, with your permission, I could have spoken without having listened. I find what has been said quite incredible in many respects.
I say with no disrespect to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) that, if the Labour party was in bed with an authoritarian party in a European institution, I would wonder whether I wished to remain in it. I wonder why the Council of Europe was in Russia anyway, observing what were obviously going to be fraudulent elections on an epic scale. Although the hon. Gentleman did not find any fraud in Vladivostok—I am not sure, because I have not been there—there could very well have been fraud at 92,000 other polling stations, because there was fraud on a systemic, epic basis.
People do not cheat at elections on election day if they have fixed the results beforehand, because the odd election observer will be running around and because they will, of course, know how many observers are on aircraft heading for Vladivostok or anywhere else. Therefore, in the five or six polling stations that anyone could visit we could be certain that were fraud going to be committed it would not be done in front of even a sympathetic ear and eye.
I headed a short-term observation mission to Russia four years ago at the Duma elections and said in my speech, which irritated the Russians, that those elections fell well short of international standards. I will not bore hon. Members with the details of why we reached our conclusions. When I was asked, as president of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly, whether I would observe the following presidential elections, I said, “No, I’m not going to waste British taxpayers’ money, nor will the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, in attending not an election but a coronation.”
No, I have too little time in which to speak. I can speak to the hon. Gentleman afterwards.
It was obvious that the elections were going to be fraudulent. It offends me that an organisation for which I had the deepest respect—the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—has been subject to a persistent and lengthy campaign of abuse in an attempt to diminish its competence and to eliminate it. I have chronicled this campaign in enormous detail, fortunately, in part, with the collusion of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
There was a systematic attempt to prevent proper election observation. Those responsible unilaterally deconstructed ODIHR’s methodology: they would not provide visas until a few days before the election and they would only allow 70 people to turn up. I said that there were 92,000 polling stations and, quite rightly, ODIHR refused to go under those conditions. But, of course, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, followed by or alongside the Council of Europe, went out and observed what were obviously going to be appalling elections.
When it came to the presidential elections, ODIHR was again prevented from observing. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly wisely and belatedly refused to dignify fraudulent elections with their attendance, but the Council of Europe went along on its own, with I do not know how many people. If all the people were as friendly towards the electoral process as the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken, I am surprised that they produced a critical report.
I am not anti-Russian. I went through the cold war. I tried my best after the cold war to engage with the Russians. Yes, it was a corrupt society and, yes, Yeltsin was a flawed character, but his regime was followed by another. That regime is proceeding in such a way that alarm bells are starting to ring for me if not for others. Not only are its elections fraudulent but it is almost a single-party state. Legitimate candidates were barred from standing. One was barred because he did not have enough signatures: 3 million signatures were whittled down to below the minimum. Legitimate candidates, including Garry Kasparov, were prevented from attending. Zhirinovsky’s party, which is not an opposition party, was also there. One other guy stood—he was very much in the Putin camp—and even the other parties are well in the pocket of the Administration. I cannot see why we should be so nice, when Russia is doing something like that on that one front alone.
The Council of Europe has about 3,000 non-governmental organisations accredited to it. What has happened to Russian NGOs? They have been deliberately targeted for destruction. What about international NGOs? Their leaders and characters working with them have been beaten up. What about the BBC World Service and the British Council? What about the overflying or near overflying of British airspace by Russian aircraft? What about all the things that Russia is doing?
Hon. Members may say, “Fine. This is an independent state. They have had one hell of a history.” We can smile and say, “We’ll help you. If democracy comes in 300 years, we’ll be around to help you over that period.” I take a rather different view. If the Russians are playing as they are, we should not go back into a cold war on our side, but we should not be supine. Some countries are being supine, first, because they are natural apologists for anybody and, secondly, because they do not like a fight and prefer the Americans and the British, largely, to do it for them, if necessary.
I am sympathetic towards Georgia and its aspirations. Hon. Members have said that we should not mess in Russia’s backyard. Does that mean that if a sovereign nation was once part of the Soviet Union and wants to get the hell out of it, we can do nothing to assist it because it is in Russia’s backyard? Ukraine may have been the origin of Russia, but it wishes to leave Russia’s orbit.
I headed the short-term observation missions to the rose and orange revolutions three or four years ago. Putin worked hard to support Yanukovych, who was a pro-Russian candidate against the democratic candidates and the party led by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. If Ukraine wants to join NATO, despite the fact that it is adjacent to Russia, and most Ukrainians do not want to be part of Russia, that is its sovereign right. Why consider the Russian position, but not the Ukrainian position? Why consider Russian self-interest, but not Georgian self-interest?
The Georgians make the third largest contribution of soldiers to NATO’s operations, and more than many countries that are part of NATO. They have overcome their problems of authoritarianism, and they are a consolidating democracy, not a consolidated democracy. Exports to Russia have been barred, travel has been greatly restricted, and two areas that are juridically part of Georgia—South Ossetia and Abkhazia—are in essence under Russian control. Do we say to the Russians, “Ah, as this was part of your empire, we will allow you to stop other countries that want to get away from you, and to make them play by your rules in perpetuity.”? The Russians are trying to destroy Georgia, and I could spend ages telling the Chamber how.
The Georgians are becoming more democratic, but they are not yet there. I observed the elections, which were not as good as I had hoped, but to compare the Georgian elections to the Russian elections, and to compare some bad municipal elections in Birmingham and perhaps half a dozen other cities—we know who did the cheating—to elections elsewhere, as though that indicates that as our elections are fraudulent we should close our eyes to massive fraud in Russian elections, is disingenuous. That is as polite as I can be.
I am glad that I shall finish speaking soon, because I am becoming madder and madder about what I have heard. We must try to engage with the Russians, but not on our knees. The argument by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) was like jumping into Dr. Who’s telephone kiosk and going back 25 years to listen to the Tribune-reading, left-wing John Horam trashing America and supporting Russia. If I had to make a decision on our security and where it lies in the next 10, 20 or 30 years, after Bush has gone, I would much prefer to have Europe closer to the United States than toadying up to the Russians.
I thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Caton. It is difficult for a Welshman to make a short speech. I should have congratulated the Committee on its excellent report. We must not become paranoid, but we know who our allies are. Putin is going along to see his mates in NATO. He knows who they are, and he knows who they put pressure on to be nice to Russia, and to keep Georgia out. We can all name those names. No doubt he will be given a warm welcome, and will be thanked for doing a wonderful job before going back.
The main beneficiary of the summit in Bucharest will be Russia, because it will have proven that the west has no bottle whatever and that it is prepared to lie down and to take any humiliation that is heaped upon it. Russia will find its allies all over the place and in many legislatures, and will have succeeded, with our collusion, in keeping Georgia out of NATO. That will be a good day’s work for the Russians, and a bad day’s work for those who acquiesce in that objective in foreign policy.
We must not be supine. We must work with our allies and defend our national interests, even if the Russians are doing us or our allies down. We must robustly defend our position. We must hope that the Russians will not substitute the red army for Gazprom and switch off oil and gas to our NATO and European allies. If I were asked whether they would do that, I would say, as a left-wing Labour Member of Parliament once said, “Why look into a crystal ball if the future can be read in a book?” Russia has done it. It has shut off oil and gas to Georgia and Ukraine, and even to its closest ally, Belarus. When will it be our turn?
I am not a cold warrior. I do not want the cold war to return, but nor do I want an attitude of indifference—or, rather, cravenness—to the Russians because they have a bad history. What about the bad Russian history that impinged on eastern and central Europe and other parts of the world? We must consider countries other than Russia, hope that they will become democratic, and help them as far as we can. But if they seek to damage our interests, I hope that this Government and any other Government will have the bottle to stand up for our interests and those of Europe and NATO.
I welcome the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, and congratulate the Chairman, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and the Committee on producing such a rigorous and thorough report.
The Chairman rightly pointed out that the situation in Russia is incredibly fast moving, and many new aspects in our international relations with Russia have emerged since the report’s publication, and indeed since publication of the Government’s response a few weeks ago. It is particularly helpful to have had this debate today.
We have had a good debate, and I was intrigued by many of the contributions from right hon. and hon. Members, members and former members of the Committee and others who, like me, are not members of the Committee and feel slightly jealous because the inquiry must have been particularly interesting.
The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said early on in the debate that we might all end up being guilty of groupthink. There has been much consensus about Russia’s importance in the global sphere, and the UK’s relationship with it. However, some of the later contributions colourfully ensured that a range of views was expressed, and that we cannot be accused of groupthink.
The Chairman mentioned the context of the debate—the NATO summit and its venue. That brought to mind my visit to Bucharest when I went around what is ironically called the people’s palace, which had nothing to with anything for the people: a year of Romania’s gross domestic product was used to build what is rightly described as a monstrosity to massage Ceausescu’s ego. I am not surprised that the NATO summit is being held there, because the building is so vast. It is difficult to know how to fill the rooms. That provides an important context for the debate, and many hon. Members have stressed the importance of the links between Russia and the UK, particularly between not just the countries, but the people. In recent years, a great number of Russians have come to live in the UK, particularly London, where they contribute to society and the British economy.
There have been rising tensions recently between our country and Russia, and indeed internationally, about energy security, Kosovo, and the conventional forces in Europe treaty. I would particularly like to endorse the Committee’s recommendation that Europe should have a united approach in dealing with these issues. I also welcome the Government’s response in accepting and endorsing that recommendation. Surely, the right way forward is for our country to exert influence on Russia regarding the issues on which there have been difficulties.
A wide range of subjects have been covered so it is impossible to mention everything. I shall focus on UK-Russia relations, energy security and, finally, I will discuss the issue of ballistic defence. Obviously, our relationship with Russia is crucial and we want it to be as constructive as possible. As I mentioned, several incidents over recent years have challenged that. The events leading up to and, perhaps more importantly, subsequent to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko have already been mentioned. Russia’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi to face charges has clearly led to a severe deterioration in relations. The hon. Member for Thurrock seemed to suggest that the situation had reached a stalemate and that the matter remains unresolved. Does the Minister agree with that, or are the Government still trying to take further steps to secure justice for Mr. Litvinenko and his widow, who is still living in Britain? It is unacceptable to leave that issue to one side when such a heinous crime has been committed against an individual, and when, as has also been mentioned, that crime threatened the security of people in this city.
Obviously, that situation led to the deterioration of relationships and to the problems with the British Council. I remember the statement that the Foreign Secretary gave in December, which was updated in January, when Members from all parties expressed concern about the bullying treatment meted out to British Council staff. Sadly but necessarily, that treatment has led to the closure of two British Council offices. I agree with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Russia’s action in relation to the British Council was totally unjustified and, indeed, illegal. It is sad when cultural organisations and institutions are brought into political disputes, and I take the same view when people suggest that there should be an academic boycott of Israel. When there are political difficulties, it is through the cultural world that we should work the hardest to maintain links, so that we still have a relationship that can be used as a foundation on which to rebuild political ties. Can the Minister give us an update on that situation, and tell us whether he expects the offices that are closed to reopen? The suggestion that the lease has been given up on one building is concerning, so it would be interesting to know when the Government think it might be possible to reopen the offices.
Although some hon. Members have cautioned against being too critical of Russia, there are deep-seated concerns about the freedoms afforded to people in Russia in relation to human rights. In particular, I would like to discuss the freedom of the media. As Members of Parliament, the media are not always a friend to us and we do not necessarily have a favourable opinion of them. None the less, I think we would all agree that a free media and press are a vital component of a free society. Even when the media print things that we do not like, it is important that they are able to do so, and are not censored by the state. That is why what has happened in Russia is particularly troubling. In 2006, the journalist Anna Politskaya was murdered and last year there was the suspicious death of Ivan Safronov. The investigations into those deaths were flawed and, although people have apparently been charged with the former crime, there has not been an update on what has happened. That is an example of oppression in Russia and it is one of the barriers to creating a freer society.
A very good Amnesty International report published last month—I declare an interest as a member of Amnesty International—outlined well the difficulties that Russians face in their day-to-day lives in trying to obtain the freedoms that we take for granted. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) made a good point about the issue of human rights and how we are quick to judge and condemn other countries. We talk about problems with elections, but when we see what happened with the Scottish elections in 2007, we realise that we have our own problems. On human rights issues, it is important that we look to our own house and try to put that in order, but I do not accept that we should not fight and campaign for human rights in other countries until we have all the human rights that we want in this country. That is one reason why I am concerned about the Government’s plans to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days when at 28 days we already have one of the longest periods of pre-charge detention in any democratic, civilised society. We need to be aware of human rights issues in our country when we consider human rights abroad. None the less, there are severe concerns about the human rights situation in Russia.
There are also concerns about the electoral process, which is not deemed to be fair and, according to the monitors, is free only to a certain extent. Vladimir Putin is in some way complying with the constitution by standing down as President, but by putting himself in a position in which he can become Prime Minister and potentially have another go at running for the presidency in 2012, he is creating a situation in which he could hold the levers of power in Russia for more than two decades. We should not necessarily regard that as a healthy situation.
In some ways, it is too early to tell what the outcome will be of Russia electing President Medvedev. There have been many conflicting views on that. Some people have suggested that he might be more liberal simply because he does not have a secret service background—to be described as liberal simply for not having been in the secret services is in itself quite shocking. There have been some positive views about what he has been saying. In particular, a briefing from the EU-Russia Centre quotes him as saying:
“what kind of equal opportunity and innovative thinking can there be if everybody knows that rights only belong to those with the sharpest teeth, and not those that obey the law?”
If that is indicative of the way in which he will act, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. He is deemed to be a capable and intelligent individual, and although there has been speculation that he will be under the thumb of Vladimir Putin, that may not turn out to be true. However, at the same time, in some of his speeches, he has described the British Council as being an organisation of spies and so on, so there is cause for concern about how things will pan out. In reality, as the President takes up his post, only time will tell whether changes will occur and what changes there will be to UK-Russia relations. From the Foreign Office’s point of view it is clearly important that we are ready to engage, particularly if there is a shift and some positive steps are taken by the new President.
The issue of energy security has been discussed by other hon. Members, but it is important to note that the report highlights the mutual dependence in the energy market between Russia and the EU. We are one of the least dependent countries in the EU on Russian gas supplies. Energy efficiency in Russia is a key challenge and if we can work to help to improve it, that will go some way to reducing the pressure on diminishing supplies. Indeed, it would also be a positive step towards tackling climate change. This country has the same problem: our oil and gas supplies are in decline. We certainly have a need to invest not just in energy efficiency, but in renewable energy sources and to accelerate progress towards carbon capture and storage. The pilot scheme that is being supported by the Government to have a carbon capture and storage plant up and running by 2014 will not happen quickly enough, and if we really want to tackle the climate crisis the scheme should be progressed faster.
The issue of missile defence has been a huge source of tension between the UK and Russia, and between the US and Russia, particularly in relation to our hosting of the facilities at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill. People obviously have different views on that. I think that the technology is hugely expensive and yet unproven. More than $100 billion have already been invested in it, and that figure is set to rise to more than $150 billion in total over the next five years. Such technology could end up being a costly white elephant, although if it can be proven that the technology works—the two different parabolas were explained well in terms of how difficult it would be to get it to work—it could have some benefits for the UK. However, it is important that the matter is dealt with on a multilateral basis. Although a slight thawing of relations between the US and Russia on that matter is welcome, we must emphasise that NATO should also be involved. We should also involve other EU countries in talking to Russia about the issue. However, although some people are generally more in favour of the missile defence programme, even on a bilateral basis, I consider it difficult for anybody to justify the way the Government have gone about it. At Prime Minister’s questions, Tony Blair said in answer to a question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell):
“I am sure that we will have the discussion in the House and, indeed, outside the House…When we have a proposition to put, we will come back and put it.”—[Official Report, 28 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 919-20.]
However, on 25 July 2007, in the last days before the parliamentary recess, one of more than 40 written statements from the Secretary of State for Defence announced that Menwith Hill would become part of the US ballistic missile defence programme.
I ask the Minister to reconsider. Perhaps he could speak to the business managers and get them to devote some Government time to debating the issue on the Floor of the House and, indeed, initiating a debate about it in the country. The issue is far too important to be dealt with in a written statement at the end of the parliamentary year. I congratulate the Select Committee on coming to a similar conclusion. The fact that we had a debate on the issue in 2003 is no excuse for us not having a debate now. So much has happened in the five years since then.
The Committee produced an excellent report, highlighting a variety of aspects of the important role that Russia is playing in respect of global security and on the international stage. It also shows the challenges that we face. It is timely that we are discussing it today. I am sure that many of the issues raised will, because they are changing rapidly, be raised again in the House. I hope in particular that the Minister will add his support to returning to the issue of ballistic missile defence in a dedicated debate that takes place, in the words of Tony Blair, in the House and, indeed, outside the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I begin by thanking the Foreign Affairs Committee for its excellent report. Informative, thorough and weighty, it deserves to be taken seriously by the Government, the Opposition and those outside the House. It was compiled before the not-unexpected result of the Russian presidential election was known, but it loses none of its force for all that.
The report was ably introduced this afternoon, if I may say so, by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). He was supported, if that is the word I should use, by a number of other members of the Committee who also participated in what has at times been a lively debate. We had contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay)—his speech was in his characteristic style—and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam). Having listened to all those contributions carefully, I should observe that clearly a lively debate was had in preparing the report. To a degree, that was reflected in this Chamber today.
It is a pleasure to be debating opposite the Minister for Europe—it makes a change not to be debating the treaty of Lisbon. I understand that he recently suffered an injury while playing football for his country, in effect, in Bosnia, having organised a match with some Bosnian politicians. Hon. Members may like to know that the injury was not his fault; it was caused by an FCO official who fell on him. I wish that official the best of luck in his new posting, wherever it may be. Seriously, I wish the Minister a speedy recovery.
I will also take this opportunity to pay tribute to our retiring ambassador in Moscow, Sir Tony Brenton, who has done a very difficult job very well. There have been a number of tributes in the House to his performance. I would like to add one on behalf of Conservative Members. I also pay tribute to the staff of the British Council, both British and Russian, who have continued to do an important job very well in what have often been extremely trying circumstances. I place on the record our thanks to them.
All hon. Members who contributed to the debate have acknowledged that our relationship with Russia is of enormous importance to this country. Russia is again economically powerful. It maintains significant armed forces and is one of the world’s most important energy suppliers. As the Committee identified, it is that last factor, at a time of high and growing world energy demand, that underpins Russia’s new assessment of its role in the world and its ambitions. As the Committee rightly points out, the key word is “assertiveness”. There is no doubt that the thrust of Russia’s foreign policy in the past few years has been around one message: Russia is back.
It is also no secret that Anglo-Russian relations are at something of a low ebb. In part, perhaps, that is because the British and Russian bodies politic think so differently, so it is sometimes easy for us to misunderstand each other, rather than see eye to eye. That point was brought out in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who was arguing for greater dialogue at a number of levels.
The Committee was arguing that Russia is something of a hyper-realist while we in Britain believe that our ideals and values must always be taken into account, whether we are conservatives or, like the Foreign Secretary, maintain the previous Prime Minister’s penchant for liberal interventionism at the heart of our thinking. We believe that relations between nations should and can be on a win-win basis, but it is apparent from Russia’s foreign policy behaviour that the Kremlin believes that zero-sum games are more likely to be the norm.
That, in our view, is profoundly mistaken. There are real mutual interests and a potentially strong basis for co-operation. Anglo-Russian trade and bilateral investment is large and growing. Indeed, Britain remains one of the largest foreign investors in Russia—a point emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who spoke knowledgeably about trading and business relationships between our two countries.
It is highly regrettable that Russia’s unacceptable behaviour in a number of areas harms what should be a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship between our two countries. That behaviour includes the harassment of our ambassador and the intimidation and legal bullying of the British Council. It is particularly strange that the Government of a country in which culture rightly counts for so much in its rich history should want to persecute what is essentially a cultural organisation.
There is also the refusal to extradite a man accused of murdering a British citizen in our capital city in a particularly cruel and horrifying manner that placed others in great danger, even though both Britain and Russia are signatories to the European convention on extradition and both signed only some two years ago a memorandum of understanding on legal co-operation, which included an undertaking to
“co-operate in the sphere of extradition and in other issues of mutual legal assistance.”
Everyone understands the gravity of the crime that was carried out in London, but there is something that I do not understand, and this is where I think there is groupthink between the two Front Benches. Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the Russians should extradite someone to London although they cannot have extradited back to them those people whom they want to bring before the courts in Moscow. It is just untenable—unrealistic—to suggest that that can be justified and that somehow their law is different from ours in quality.
Certainly no one would ever accuse the hon. Gentleman of groupthink. Nevertheless, given the severity of the crime, I do not agree with what I think I heard him say in his speech, which was that essentially we should draw a line under this and move on. I hope that I have not misrepresented him.
Okay. I still think we have a difference of opinion. I can look the hon. Gentleman in the eye and say that Conservative Members believe that this is a very important matter and that, if relations between our two countries are to improve, which I stress is what we want, we must have some satisfaction in the matter. We perhaps believe that that should be pursued with slightly more energy than he does.
We are discussing important matters that cannot be overlooked. They remain grave impediments to the improved relationship with Russia that we wish for. Any improvement would necessitate a more co-operative approach by the Russian authorities. As the Minister will know, we have supported the tenor of the Government’s approach on these issues. In our view, our approach to Russia should avoid inflammatory language but must remain firm. I look forward to listening to what he has to say about any progress made on this important matter.
On Kosovo, I should like to put on the record our regret at Russia’s lack of co-operation on that admittedly difficult issue.
We hope that President Medvedev’s election will be an opportunity for Russia to re-evaluate its relations with this country. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s opinion of that and of the prospects for the meeting between the Presidents of the United States and Russia, which is due to take place shortly.
Missile defence will no doubt be one of the issues on the table at that meeting. We fully support the principle of a missile defence system in Europe. The threat of nuclear proliferation underlines the need to look seriously at such a system. Does the Minister share our view that decisions on missile defence should be taken on their merits and that no other country, Russia included, can have a veto over our allies’ or our own security? I will be interested to hear his comments when he sums up.
The NATO summit in Bucharest is discussing, among other things, Georgia and Ukraine’s interest in NATO membership. We hope that the Minister will agree with us in principle that if Ukraine and Georgia decide that they wish to join NATO as democratic sovereign Governments and if they meet NATO’s standards, we should support those applications for membership.
I hope that the Minister will endorse our view that any bullying by Russia, such as talk of retargeting nuclear missiles, will not win it respect. The likely effect of such a threat is to make its neighbours seek to safeguard their security needs elsewhere. Threatening people is not generally a great way to win friends. The extent to which Russia’s treatment of its neighbours has been counter-productive cannot be ignored. As the report notes, a Russia renewed in strength and eager to make use of its energy muscle has not, as one might have expected, drawn its near-abroad closer but has, in fact, done the opposite. As students of Anglo-Scottish history know, rough wooing did not win the bride. The Roman poet Ovid said:
“To be loved, be lovable”.
Russia has been unlovable to some of its neighbours. It is proof of the efficacy of Europe’s soft power and a deep flaw in Russia’s approach to its neighbours that three former Soviet republics are now in the European Union and that Ukraine and Georgia are considering membership. I would urge the Russian Government to consider why that is. In our view, the European aspirations of those republics should not be discouraged. In particular, the Conservative party has supported Ukraine’s right to take the first steps on the accession process since President Yushchenko announced that EU membership was a strategic goal for his country. I hope that the Minister will use his speech to commit the Government to similar support for Ukraine’s EU ambitions and make it clear that no third country has a veto in that area.
On European Union matters, everyone here knows that the Conservative party takes a very different view on many institutional issues from the Government Front-Bench team. For example, we see EU institutional self-aggrandisement as unnecessary, unwarranted, without any democratic legitimacy in this country and damaging to our national interests. We equally strongly believe that, where there is a common European interest, it is right that EU member states should work together to achieve their common goals. Indeed, it is precisely for the matters with which we are now dealing that the second pillar was established at Maastricht.
To some degree, Russia has practised a policy of divide and rule with European countries and the result has not been satisfactory for any of Russia’s European partners, to put it mildly. Therefore, I endorse the Committee’s call for a united and coherent EU-Russia policy to be a goal for Britain’s EU policy this year.
The report makes a number of important points about energy security and supply. If the diversion of Russian energy supplies away from the EU market to China, for example, is not a realistic near-term prospect, that is crucial to any assessment of Russia’s willingness to use energy as a political tool. While we have our anxieties about security of supply, Russia must equally have her concerns about security of demand. I believe that that is a fruitful avenue to explore, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that point.
The Committee is right to draw urgent attention to the prospective shortfall in Russian gas production in the coming decade, which is potentially a very serious problem for both supplier and producer. A chief cause is, of course, lack of investment in Russian energy production. This is a nice illustration of the self-defeating nature of some of Russia’s current policies. A closed energy sector, or one that appears to be closing, tends to prevent, or at least deter, foreign investment, while investors in any case are deterred by Government behaviour that has shown a very shaky respect for the rule of law. I will be interested to hear what assessment the Government have made of the likelihood of such a gas shortfall and what effect the Minister thinks it may have.
Over recent years, we have seen Russia become less free, less open and, unfortunately, less democratic, which is a cause of sorrow among Russia’s friends. Sovereign democracy has come to mean a lot more about sovereignty and a lot less about democracy. We recognise that Russia’s pride was badly hurt in the 1990s and that its restoration matters greatly to the Russian Government and people. To put it bluntly, the loss of empire can be a bruising experience. I hope that the time will soon come when Russia has regained the self-confidence to be a truly constructive partner with Europe, and not least with the United Kingdom. If and when that time comes, she will find those who wish her well, eager to work with her again.
It is a delight, Mr. Caton, to serve again under your chairmanship. We have had a very good debate about an excellent report. I will not be able to respond to every detail because of the time constraints. The Government have already made a considered and substantive response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report. Nevertheless, we have heard a series of speeches today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), whose leadership and skill helped to shape the tone and thoroughness of today’s report, made some introductory comments that helped to frame our careful and considered debate. We have had contributions from a variety of hon. Members and hon. Friends, including the hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and for Orpington (Mr. Horam), my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). Like the hon. Member for Rayleigh, I, too, have enjoyed the fact that, unlike many other debates on the European treaty, we have found common cause in so much today. I thank him for his best wishes for my speedy recovery from my self-inflicted wound. In the absence of a Government Whip, however, I would not like to test the will of the House on that wish in a vote.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). He reflected that he was not yet a Minister, which is a cause of great disappointment. [Interruption.] Not to him, of course, but in some parts of the world. I have reflected before that he and I used to share an office on the roof of the Palace of Westminster some 10 years ago. I am much more reticent about him now taking over my office at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office than his initial contribution seemed to suggest.
Like others, I want to pay tribute to Mr. Brenton, our excellent ambassador in Moscow. He has done a fantastic job representing British interests at a very important time on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. I also thank the British Council staff—both UK citizens and locally engaged staff—for the work that they have done in the past and the work that they continue to do under difficult circumstances.
It is clear that there are many reasons why it is important for the UK to work with Russia, which is a proud and important nation. Close engagement with Russia is important for the successful achievement of a wide range of the Government’s international priorities, including counter-proliferation, conflict resolution, and climate and energy security. The UK-Russia bilateral trade and investment relationship is vibrant and continues to grow. In a recent interview in the Financial Times, the new President-elect Medvedev described the economic relationship as magnificent.
The election of President-elect Medvedev offers a real opportunity to work with Russia on the wider global agenda and to address our bilateral difficulties with Russia. Our Prime Minister told President-elect Medvedev in his letter of congratulations that he wanted to resolve the issues with frankness, but without rancour. Both the Prime Minister and President-elect Medvedev have expressed a desire to meet and to discuss the detailed issues in person.
Russia remains a key player and an important partner in international institutions such as the UN and G8. Although Russia and NATO have well known differences of opinion on some issues, there is a good programme of NATO-Russia co-operation on matters of shared security concern, such as counter-narcotics and theatre missile defence. The EU and Russia share common interests and face many common challenges. We are working towards a new framework mandate for EU-Russia relations and negotiating a successor to the current partnership and co-operation agreement.
As has been mentioned, engagement with Russia does not always mean agreement with Russia. There are important strains in our relations that need to be addressed constructively—my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South and others talked about them in detail. Russia’s actions against the British Council in January compounded our problems. As I said, the Prime Minister noted his desire to resolve the issue with President-elect Medvedev. It is encouraging that in the article in the Financial Times to which I referred, President-elect Medvedev said that an improvement in relations with the UK is in Russia’s interests.
Russia’s status as a global player means that she must abide by international commitments and operate from the same international rulebook. Russia’s membership of a wide range of international organisations comes with obligations, as others have said, so I welcome President-elect Medvedev’s focus on the need to strengthen the rule of law in Russia. That would significantly enhance Russia’s ability to meet the standards that she has set herself—I am talking not about standards placed upon Russia, but those that she set for herself when she joined those organisations—and would make her a more predictable partner to deal with, both for Governments and business.
I should like to address some of the specific points raised by hon. Members. The British Council is a remarkable non-political organisation that works legitimately in Russia, and the Government continue to support fully its work, which has included interaction and activities that last year reached more than 1,250,000 Russians. Cultural activities last year included a British film festival in Moscow and, in the regions, the council taught English to thousands of Russians and helped thousands of Russians to secure internationally recognised qualifications. For those reasons, Russia’s activities regarding two of the British Council offices are deeply regrettable. We continue to support its work and to look at how it could return to offer Russian citizens the level of support that it previously offered because, as we have made clear, they will lose out as a consequence. That argument has had some effect internationally. It does not befit a great nation such as Russia, which has such pride and self-confidence, to behave in such a way to an organisation that provides such support to her own citizens. On the specific point about the lease, I understand that the agreement between the landlord and the British Council has come to an end, which may interest my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South.
The hon. Member for Orpington and others mentioned energy supply. Russia supplies a quarter of the EU’s gas, but almost a quarter of Russia’s gross domestic product comes from oil and gas sales to the EU. Of course, the economics of pipelines make the EU Russia’s only feasible market for much of that gas. From an EU and UK perspective, the UK is not reliant on directly imported Russian gas in the same way as other European states. However, it is in our strategic interests to have a diversity of routes for, and sources of, gas. That is one reason why, for example, it would be significant for Turkey to be an alternative energy hub and route to market for European gas. We continue to discuss that with the Government of Turkey—I was in Istanbul earlier this week to continue that conversation.
On NATO membership and the Bucharest summit, the United Kingdom will continue to support Ukraine’s and Georgia’s aspirations to join. The membership action plan, which has been agreed to, is an important step to that. Both nations have made valuable contributions to alliance operations. We welcome the democratic reforms in those countries and look forward to free and fair elections in Georgia in May. The action plan is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership. I can confirm that we support their application for the membership action plan. The following stage is a period of extensive engagement with both countries at a high political level to address outstanding questions pertaining to the applications.
No country has a veto on the process, including Russia. We can talk about the nature of regional influence, but although the countries are in proximity to Russia, they are proud and independent nations, and should have the right to exercise their foreign policy as such, as determined by democratically elected Governments. That is the context of their applications to join NATO. Another country that is not a member of NATO should not have a veto, nor does it.
On one level, missile defence is primarily an issue between the United States, the Czech Republic and Poland, as regards the current siting of the technical capacity. It is important, however, that that information is shared with NATO, as it is. That is of primary importance, but it is also important that some of the information is provided to, and shared with, Russia. The offer to do so exists. It is important to get across, whether on a political or technical level, that the siting of, and aspiration and ambition for, missile defence cannot on any objective assessment be considered a threat to Russian nuclear capabilities. The siting and scale of the missile defence, even as it is envisaged, could not be seen as a threat to the strategic capacity that Russia retains. It is an investment by the United States to frustrate and prevent potential attacks by rogue nations and certainly not a response to Russia’s defence posture. Nevertheless, it is important to find ways in which to get the message across to Russia in such detailed conversations.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne was right about parliamentary engagement. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the former Deputy Prime Minister, is in St. Petersburg in his capacity as the chair of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; the Home Affairs Committee will visit Moscow next month; the all-party human rights group is looking to visit in the autumn; and the all-party British-Russian parliamentary group is due to visit in September. Importantly, a variety of dialogues will take place in the coming months, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that people other than politicians ought to be having such conversations.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, on his assessment of the Russian elections. It was deeply and fundamentally disappointing that the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights was not able to carry out—
It is deeply disappointing that ODIHR was not able to oversee and monitor the elections. Although parliamentarians can witness and monitor elections, they can do so only for relatively short periods, and there is no substitute for the long-term, detailed, pre-election monitoring, and the monitoring of the election and its aftermath. That work should be carried out by ODIHR. A country as proud as Russia naturally is, with so much to offer the world, is belittled by not being open and allowing such monitoring. It is deeply disappointing.
It is important that we are clear about what we want from our relationship with Russia and that we recognise the wide range of foreign policy and global challenges on which we could make a valuable contribution by working more closely with Russia. Such an open and honest dialogue allows us to achieve our international objectives and to speak up when we disagree with Russia. It is a balanced approach, aligned to British and international interests, and I hope that the House will support it.
The House will continue to return to the issue, and some of the specifics that we have not had the opportunity to discuss today are deserving of further debate and consideration. Finally, I wish once again to put on record the Government’s appreciation of the remarkably detailed work that the Foreign Affairs Committee has undertaken on the matter.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Five o’clock.