Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Steve McCabe.)
I was delighted to secure the debate back in late July and I start by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Streeter. I also welcome the Minister to his new position. I think that he is, remarkably, the 12th Europe Minister in this Government. He changed briefs with Baroness Kinnock on Monday. I expect that that has not given him much time to prepare for the debate, not least because he has, I hope, taken the time to read the Lisbon treaty, which is certainly more than one of his predecessors did. Nevertheless, he and I were previously officers on the all-party group on Russia and I suspect that we may find much to agree about this morning.
Thankfully, there has been some movement in UK-Russia relations since the end of July, when I applied for the debate. Nevertheless, my central premise today is that the Government have failed in most if not all of their foreign policy objectives in respect of Russia in the past three years and that something needs to be done about that. Whatever one’s views on Russia—I suspect that there will be a variety of views in the debate, as always—no one can argue that relations have been a success. UK policy towards Russia has been characterised in the years since the murder of Alexander Litvinenko as one of deep-frozen non-engagement—I would even use the word “festering”.
There are essentially two approaches that one can take towards Russia. One can willingly engage with Russia, with a heavy dose of realpolitik, and seek to get what one can from the relationship—an approach recently described as Schröderisation by Boris Nemtsov, the former Russian Deputy Prime Minister. Alternatively, one can take a critical approach, also engaging but being tough in a way that the Putin-Medvedev duumvirate understands, and taking a long-term view that short-term benefits should be put second to a primary interest of getting Russia to behave more like a normal state.
I had hoped to make a speech, but unfortunately I have another engagement. Whichever of the two approaches is taken, surely the single most important thing to remember is that we need to engage with Russia for trade purposes but also, given the issues of energy security and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, it is better that we have strong engagement and that they are on our side rather than the other side on both those crucial issues for the decades ahead.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has devoted considerable time to these issues. I read his very interesting article about UK-Russia relations last month. He is right to say that whatever one’s views about Russia and whether one likes the current Government or not, one must engage with Russia, because nothing will be gained by what is happening at the moment, which is a policy of complete non-engagement.
As I was saying, our Government take neither approach in terms of how they deal with Russia. They have simply allowed relations to ossify. There is almost no engagement whatever. I was about to contrast the approaches of our Prime Minister with the approaches made by Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, but in fact no approach has been made by our Prime Minister. Incredibly, to the best of anyone’s knowledge—this seems to be confirmed in parliamentary questions—our Prime Minister has never met Vladimir Putin since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister two and a half years ago. The last time that we can be sure that the two men met was in 2006, at a meeting of the G8 Economic Ministers in St. Petersburg. We cannot be entirely sure on this, because 10 Downing street seems to have had a policy in recent times, under the current incumbent, of not answering parliamentary questions about visits or meetings.
I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s argument this morning, but will he confirm that the President of Russia is actually President Medvedev, whom my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has met on a number of occasions, including at the G20? Does he want my hon. Friend the Minister to reassure him that he will be actively engaging with all levels of the Russian Government, including talking about the Khodorkovsky case, which is an important legal test for the Russian Government with their international partners?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which I assume has come from fairly close to Downing street itself. Of course it is important also to engage with the current President, but no one should be under any illusion as to who is really in charge in Russia. I was going to say that our Prime Minister has met President Medvedev at perhaps three different international summits in the past two years, but to the best of my knowledge, there have not been proper bilateral meetings at any of those summits. I shall go on to discuss the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in due course.
Let us contrast our Prime Minister’s approach with that of Barack Obama. The US President recently spent a whole two-day summit in Moscow, having long meetings with both Putin and Medvedev. In fact, with Medvedev, he spent an incredible 10 hours in face-to-face meetings. The President’s top Russia adviser, Michael McFaul, said to reporters afterwards:
“I dare you to find a summit that was so substantial, sustained. We hit all of the dimensions of the US-Russia relationship between the government and society, the security stuff, the arms control stuff, the nuclear proliferation stuff, food, health. I can’t think of a summit which was more comprehensive.”
By the way, the 10 hours that Obama spent with Medvedev is in sharp contrast to UK-US relations, with our Prime Minister’s approaches for a short joint press conference with President Obama being spurned five times after the Prime Minister’s deft handling of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, in August. No one is saying that all is perfect in US-Russia relations, but there is progress and there is dialogue. President Obama also took the opportunity in Moscow in July to spend almost a full day engaging with Russian civil society and business leaders, and he pressed especially for greater press freedom, which has been terribly eroded under Vladimir Putin in particular.
A few days later, Medvedev flew to Munich for similarly extensive head-to-head talks with Angela Merkel. Der Spiegel pronounced: “Medvedev Charms Merkel at Munich Summit”. To her credit and in contrast with the rather fawning approach of her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, Merkel raised various human rights cases, notably the recent murder of Russia-Chechen human rights activist, Natalya Estemirova. Merkel had previously raised with Putin crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators and other cases. Medvedev actually pronounced in Munich his deep shock at the Estemirova murder. He even called her a model for future generations. He said:
“She deserves justice, because she defended our legal system”
“I am sure the person who committed it”—
“will be punished.”
It helps that Merkel speaks Russian well, but she at least shows what can be done with critical engagement. A new German-Russian energy agency was founded, and about 300 delegates from both sides participated in a wide-reaching civil society dialogue.
Where is our Prime Minister in all this? The answer is, nowhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who is with us, attended the 70th anniversary commemoration of the outbreak of world war two at the Westerplatte outside Gdansk in Poland a few weeks ago. Also there were Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. Our Prime Minister was also invited, but declined to go, it seems. It seems as though he is actively avoiding Putin, Medvedev and, indeed, anyone Russian.
Perhaps the Prime Minister’s boycott of Russia is deliberate. Perhaps it is a principled boycott, rather like our approach to someone such as Robert Mugabe. If so, it would be helpful if someone would say so, as if that is the case, no one knows about it and instead we just look weak and ineffectual. While Merkel fights for the likes of the family of Natalya Estemirova, and Obama promotes the rule of law, no one is there to bat for the likes of the widow of murdered British citizen, Alexander Litvinenko—whom I met last year—as we approach the third anniversary of her husband’s death on 23 November 2006.
While Obama generates headlines such as “Obama Resets Ties to Russia” and Merkel gets “Medvedev Charms Merkel”, we have had a series of false starts in recent years. A headline in The Times in 2008 stated: “British-Russian relations in deep-freeze, as summit fails” with a photo of Medvedev holding his hand out to our Prime Minister, but our Prime Minister has his face turned directly to the ground and fails to notice the hand outstretched towards him. An article from the BBC in October 2008 was entitled “Mandelson urges end to Russia row”. That was in preparation for Lord Mandelson’s four-day visit, which also ended in failure.
We now hear that the Foreign Secretary is to visit Russia, which I am sure we all welcome. Characteristically, however, the visit was announced by the Russians, not the Foreign Office. The Times of 3 October told us, “British relations with Russia thaw as David Miliband prepares visit”, but I wonder whether we will ever see the thaw that the Government have promised. If we do, will it help to resolve the major outstanding issues in UK-Russia relations, which I will come to in a moment?
Relations can thaw only if there is a face-to-face meeting between Vladimir Putin and the British Prime Minister. As I said, however, the Prime Minister has yet to meet the Russian Prime Minister, and he took four months to meet Dmitry Medvedev after his election in March 2008.
Is my hon. Friend not also staggered that the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Russia in November is the first visit by a British Foreign Secretary since 2004? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Russians probably look on that as quite a slight on their relations with the UK?
My hon. Friend is of course right. A little later, I will talk about some of the historic precedents in British-Russian relations and about how important sending over the right level of person is to the way in which Russia views its bilateral relations with the UK.
The Prime Minister met Medvedev only at the G8 summit. I would not want anyone to think that I was being excessively political, because our relations with Russia are too important for that, but I would contrast the current Prime Minister’s approach with that of his predecessor. Tony Blair made sure that he was the first western leader to meet Vladimir Putin when he took over from Boris Yeltsin in 2000. Indeed, Blair flew to Moscow in March 2000, while Putin was still only the acting leader, and two weeks before the general election that made him President.
The status quo is very odd. Even at the height of the cold war, there was engagement with Russia. Indeed, one could argue that the engagement led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher 20 years ago was a key part of the background to the fall of the Berlin wall. We are talking about two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council effectively having no bilateral relations at the highest level. There are only 10 sets of bilateral relations between permanent members of the Security Council, and I would put good money on the fact that UK-Russia relations are the absolute worst.
If the Prime Minister were ever to meet the Russian Prime Minister, which issues might need to be debated from the British point of view? The first would be progress in investigating the heinous murder of Alexander Litvinenko in November 2008 and other incidents that put UK-Russia relations in a deep freeze at that time. Second would be the continued detention without proper trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev and others in relation to the break-up of Yukos. Third would be the continuing downgrading of the BBC Russian service at the World Service, partly thanks to actions taken by the Russian Government in recent years. Fourth would be operations of the British Council in Russia, and fifth would be Britain’s conflicting and often counter-productive approach to visitors’ visas for Russian nationals.
I could talk about Georgia, energy security, Chechnya and Russian espionage in London, but I will leave those topics for others to come in on. Similarly, I will not discuss the issues on which UK-Russian co-operation might bear real dividends, such as Iran, North Korea and non-proliferation.
Let me put our relations with Russia in a little context. Russia is going through quite grave economic problems at the moment. Its GDP is set to fall by 11 per cent. this year, unemployment is 9 per cent. and rising, there is 15 per cent. inflation and bankruptcies are increasing. Rather incredibly, the Russian rouble is about the only currency against which sterling has appreciated in the past 12 months, so bad is the state of the Russian economy. Corruption remains a major issue, IKEA has announced that it is pulling out of the country and so on. On the political side, matters could be worse, but they have not really improved in the past three years, and I am sure that others will examine recent activities on the political front and in civil society.
The first of the specific issues that I want to raise is the aftermath of the Litvinenko affair. Despite words of protest, no progress appears to have been made. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister whether, and if so how recently, requests to extradite Mr. Lugovoi have been submitted. I would also be grateful to hear of any other progress that might have been made in solving the murder of this British subject. As we know, Mr. Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, petitioned the coroner in 2008 for an inquest. She did that against the advice of the Foreign Office, which feared that such a move might prejudice any future trial of Mr. Lugovoi or others who might be accused of the crime. Given that the Foreign Office thought at the time that a trial might happen, it would be helpful to hear what progress it is making.
On the ongoing detention of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev over the collapse of Yukos, the background to the case has been well documented in previous debates in the House—notably on 10 March 2004—so I will not recount the full story. However, Mr. Khodorkovsky is on trial again for more or less the same alleged offences for which he was tried in 2004. So far, he has served four and a half years in prison camp No. 13 in Kamenokamsk in Siberia, which is close to the city of Chita—a grim part of Siberia, I can tell you. According to Mr. Khodorkovsky’s interview in The Sunday Times on 13 September 2009, which was secretly transmitted to the west, the court proceedings—we should bear in mind that he is on trial for the same offences that he was tried for and convicted of in 2004—saw him locked inside a 1.5 tonne bullet-proof glass case. When he is not being taken to court, he is in his cell, where he spends 23 hours a day in less than five square yards of space with three to eight men. Ironically, he told The Sunday Times that the rules on his detention were relaxed only for the year that he spent in a penal colony—the quality of detention there was actually better than what he has at the moment.
From time to time, there has been a lot of interest in Mr. Khodorkovsky’s case in the House. Indeed, the most interesting early-day motion on the matter—early-day motion 2176—was tabled on 23 October 2007. Remarkably enough, it was tabled by the Minister, who is responding for the Government. As I mentioned, we were previously officers of the all-party group on Russia, so I know of his strong and genuine interest in Russian human rights. His EDM bemoans the incarceration of Khodorkovsky and
“calls on Russia to eschew totalitarianism and more securely to embrace democracy, the rule of law, political plurality and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.
I say, “Hear, hear!” to that. The US Senate and the Bundestag have tabled similar motions.
We deserve an update from the Minister on the progress that he has made on his EDM and on ensuring that the Khodorkovsky case has been properly raised in the short time that he has been in his post. It is essential for him to tell us that the Foreign Secretary will raise the case when he travels to Moscow next month. I hope that he will publicly condemn the latest trial and that the British ambassador will visit the trial before the Foreign Secretary’s visit. Either way, I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on what actions he has taken.
I want briefly to examine the ongoing controversy surrounding the BBC Russian service, which I raised at some length in a debate on the World Service last December. As we know, the Russian Government closed down a lot of the joint ventures with local Russian FM stations, and the BBC Russian service—at least the radio service—has never recovered. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister what further proposals there are to launch the Russian language TV service that has been talked about at the World Service.
Does the Minister also share my concern about some of the editing on the BBC Russian service and about the way in which the service fails to challenge official Russian Government viewpoints? In recent weeks, for example, there has been intense debate on Russian websites about the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings, but the BBC Russian service has not even mentioned the issue, let alone attempted to analyse it. It seems that certain topics are still too sensitive to be touched.
Similarly, the service’s April 2009 interview with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, is an incredible bit of reading. So positive was it for the Russian Government that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the first to publish it, on its website. It is just a series of about eight one-line questions, to which each answer is about five paragraphs from Lavrov, putting forward the official Russian viewpoint. He comes out with some incredible stuff, and at no point was any of that challenged by the BBC Russian service. He says that Russia is
“an undeviating protector of international law”.
He attacks the colour revolutions in the post-Soviet era, saying they are
“not merely examples of gross human rights abuses”—
the revolutions, not the background to them—and accuses them
“also of trampling upon the norms of ethics and morality.”
At no point did the interviewer challenge any of those views or opinions.
The logic of what my hon. Friend says is that we should be interfering with what BBC interviewers do, across the globe. That is not necessarily a positive route forward. Much as I understand some of my hon. Friend’s concerns, surely we should not underestimate the intelligence of people who read such interviews, and their ability to read between the lines. I wonder whether that is happening only in relation to Russia; presumably the BBC has sensitivities with other countries in its interviews with politicians or leading business folk. It is a slightly dangerous path if my hon. Friend is asking any Government effectively to interfere in the BBC’s operations abroad.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I strongly disagree with him. Members of Parliament should watch carefully the overall direction that the BBC takes in its foreign coverage. It would obviously not be appropriate for us to interfere or intervene at a localised level, but we should all be concerned if the BBC is allowing the unmediated views of someone like Lavrov to be repeated at length.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not take another intervention yet; I want to move on to another point.
I recently met Peter Horrocks, the new head of the World Service, and found him much more amenable than his predecessor at the time of the Lavrov interview. A number of us in this House take an interest in what happens at the BBC Russian service and we look forward to a flourishing future for it.
I want briefly to turn to the issue of visas. I was recently reminded of the effectiveness of the removal of visa rights from individuals, or sets of individuals, in dealing with different Governments. I am told—I believe reliably—by a former senior member of Boris Yeltsin’s Government that effective action was taken at an EU level against up to 500 members of the Nashi organisation, by ensuring that they did not receive visas for the Schengen area. Nashi, hon. Members may recall, is a pro-regime irregular group that was prominent in the very nasty harassment campaign against the then British ambassador in Moscow in 2007. My information is that Estonia cancelled the visa rights of 500 Nashi members, and that that had a knock-on effect in a number of EU countries. I believe that those close to the present regime fear removal of visas for their visits to London. That could be a very effective move in, for example, putting pressure on Russia over other issues that I have discussed.
By contrast, our visa policy towards other, more humble, Russian citizens is sometimes shameful. Since I applied for the debate I have been doing a lot of research on the number and nature of Russians refused visas to this country. I have had representations directly from and on behalf of such Russian citizens. The number of visa refusals of Russians, as a percentage of the global total, has risen relentlessly from 3.3 per cent. in 2002-03 to 6.8 per cent. in 2008-09. Now Russian refusals rank fifth in the world, after India, Nigeria, Pakistan and China—all countries that are more populous than Russia. Some 10,035 visa refusals were made in the last financial year.
I shall not go into detail about some of the cases that have been raised with me, but many of the refusals affect academic and cultural visitors. Those would seem to be precisely the sort of people we should encourage to come from Russia to this country. However, I shall mention one case, which I found particularly shocking—that of Sergei Mironenko from the Memorial organisation, which documents Soviet era oppression. He is the leading editor of documents from the Stalinist past, and was refused a visa to attend the 2009 London book fair. I am not in a position to tell the House everything about that gentleman’s background, but two others from his group were refused visas as well, and I should be grateful to hear the precise reasons for that.
A visa was also recently denied to Yevgeny Tsymbal, a well known maker of documentary films, who has regularly been invited by Queen Mary college as an academic visitor. There has been a surprising number of instances where precisely the more democratic-minded Russians have been the ones whose visa applications have been refused. I was delighted when my great aunt from Vladivostok was granted a visa and came to my wedding in 2005, but I sometimes ask myself whether four years later she would get the same treatment. It seems to me from statistical and anecdotal evidence that the visa situation for more ordinary Russians is rather difficult.
I have a final thought that I want to end on. I mentioned that I would talk a little about the historiography of UK-Russia relations, and I want to contrast two incidents from the past, to suggest how those might provide pointers to approaching a proper relationship with Russia today. The way not to approach matters was shown in the summer of 1939 when Britain explored the possibility of a rapprochement with Soviet Russia, but unfortunately dispatched a middle-ranking naval officer, by sea, to conduct the negotiations. I believe that my information is correct, although I did not quite have time this morning to check it. It took the delegation, at that critical time, three weeks to arrive by boat in what was then Leningrad. I do not for a moment say that the Soviets were a natural ally of this country, then or later, but if the mission was to seek an alliance with them, that seems to have been a rather poor way to go about it. The Soviets, not unreasonably, contrasted the behaviour of the British towards them with their behaviour towards Hitler the previous year, when the then Prime Minister flew out at pretty much a moment’s notice to Munich. They drew the inevitable conclusions about whether Britain was serious about an alliance or relationship with Russia.
The other lesson is from 25 or so years ago, when Margaret Thatcher, who was of course resolute in her approach to the Soviets, nevertheless engaged. She flew to Moscow. She did not take the 21-day boat. She was even cheered by Muscovites in the streets of Moscow on her walkabout. That sort of example, and the recent examples of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, shows the importance of engagement and resolution in dealing with Russia. We must have some hopes for the Foreign Secretary’s visit, and I await the Minister’s views with interest. We should have no illusion, however, that it is a substitute for talks at the highest level. If Obama and Merkel can do it, surely our Prime Minister can finally summon up the courage to do the same, meet Putin and have substantial talks.
Five hon. Members want to catch my eye, and we have about half an hour before Front-Bench speeches begin, so concise speeches would be in order.
We need to look at our relationship with Russia having examined our past. We in Europe have come out of two devastating world wars. We have seen the fall of the Berlin wall, the 20th anniversary of which is approaching. There have been non-violent revolutions in Czechoslovakia and Ukraine, and democracy has spread across eastern Europe. However, there has also been ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and war and heightened tensions in the Caucasus. We are withdrawing from Iraq and sending more troops to Afghanistan. North Korea remains isolated and antagonistic. Iran is a growing nuclear threat and Pakistan is unstable. These are far from peaceful times. There are new threats: terrorism from religious extremism, and the looming threat of climate change, with its impact on the migration of people, water shortage and famine. Energy security is rising up the political agenda, as are cybersecurity, the war on drugs and the threat of nuclear weapons in the control of rogue states.
Russia, a former superpower, wants to re-establish its global presence and is moving into a new era of diplomatic relations that are fraught with complexity. The collapse of the former Soviet Union was not a triumph of democracy, but more one of economic disintegration. As Russia recovers financially, it seeks a new role and status in a changing world. That is seen particularly in Russia’s relationship with China. The fall of the Soviet Union allowed China to grow in influence and power, particularly economically. China and Russia are participants in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which aims to provide a regional, multilateral framework within which mutually beneficial co-operation in economic, political, diplomatic, security and trade spheres can be pursued. It has become known in some quarters as the NATO of the east, with some writers even suggesting that it could develop into a trade bloc rival to the European Union.
The Shanghai co-operation agreement has been used to maintain de facto control over political movements within central Asia, yet Beijing and Moscow diverge on issues such as energy assets and who should become new members of the organisation. There is already a possible Sino-Russian tension. China is buying into Russia’s petrochemical industry, which adds to Russia’s concerns. China has shown a willingness to invest billions of dollars in areas such as the far east and Siberia, and even along the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway. Some would argue that, in that area of Russia, China’s influence is soon to become greater than that of the Russian central Government. There are those, therefore, who argue that China’s rise is as great a threat to Russia’s east as NATO is to its west.
That gives the west an opportunity to develop a different dialogue and a new relationship with Russia. Through its role in NATO, the UK plays a critical role in working in partnership with Russia, in particular on tackling terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, the war on drugs and climate change. The resumption of formal engagement between NATO and Russia on the NATO-Russia council is a positive step and opens up discussions in those areas of potential co-operation. I agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) that other positive steps have been taken recently, with nuclear non-proliferation and missile defence moving back on to the political agenda, thanks to announcements made by our Prime Minister and by President Barack Obama.
Iran is a major issue in terms of political and nuclear threats. It is seeking membership of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, consistent with its “looking east” foreign policy. If we are to have the support of Russia in tackling the threats posed by Iran, it is important that we also tackle Russia’s feelings of insecurity in relation to the west.
For the west and for Russia, Afghanistan, religious extremism, terrorism and drug trafficking are major threats. In Russia, 10,000 people a year die from drugs, with 70,000 people dying drug-related deaths. We have a major opportunity to work together to tackle the problems of drugs that come out of Afghanistan and the chemical processes needed to process those drugs, which are currently trafficked through Russia. We have an opportunity to create joint structures to build on border and police capacity to tackle drug smuggling.
The economic crisis in Russia is expected to last long into 2010, giving increased significance to the UK’s position as the biggest foreign investor in Russia’s oil and gas industry, and the largest source of foreign direct investment into Russia. Russia’s economy is less than 3 per cent. of world gross domestic product, and is forecast to remain below 3 per cent until 2030. Even Russia’s oil and gas companies, whose output is beginning to decline, cannot thrive without foreign technology, expertise and capital. To develop, Russia will need the support of the west and of the UK to develop its legal system, to tackle economic and banking regulation, and to develop its capacity for labour movement—a problem that is holding back its economic development.
Although Russia currently fears further NATO enlargement, especially the entry of Ukraine and Georgia, and seeks to erode the significance of NATO and EU membership, we have to look at the realpolitik of how we develop the relationships between Russia and the UK and NATO. In a global world, our emphasis has to be on our shared problems. We in the west have long believed that capitalism, prosperity and liberalism go hand in hand, but the end of the cold war has shown that belief to be fallible. The solution is political engagement through bodies such as the World Trade Organisation, increased exposure to the European Union and to EU offers and efforts to build Russia’s economy, and work with NATO on joint military developments and exercises.
There is the possibility of a new relationship with Russia in a new global world. We cannot be innocent and deny the risks that Russia poses to the west, but we cannot turn our backs on potential opportunities to bring Russia further into closer alliance with the west, and to understand the opportunities that co-operation and working together can bring for peace, security and financial security for Russia.
I was born when fighting stopped in Europe at the end of the second world war. I grew up in a household, town and country that had learned to hate fascism and hate Germans. Sixty-five years later, western Europe is united, harmonious and making progress. One needs to ask: how did that transformation come about? Clearly, it did not happen overnight. It started very badly, but there was mutual commitment from everybody who had been through a world war on the continent and was determined to do something about it.
The Soviet Union collapsed only 18 years ago. Surely, it is unrealistic to assume that 65 years of progress can be made in 18 years. More to the point, when we have taken 300 years to get our democracy into its present slightly chaotic state, to expect similar progress in 18 years would be to push our luck a bit. I say that because the Russian Federation is a country in transition. It is a new democracy; it is new at all sorts of things. The tsars before the Bolsheviks were not models of democracy, the rule of law and human rights, so the Russians have little to draw on.
In case I am again accused of being an apologist for the Russians, let me repeat what I say to my Russian friends. Of course Russian democracy is far from perfect. Of course the handling of human rights in Russia is not very clever—we have heard examples of that. Of course the rule of rule of law is weak. We know that and we say so, but the Russians know it too.
The challenge is to ask ourselves whether things have improved in Russia, not whether they are perfect. In my judgment, Russia has made progress. Many people, myself included, wish there was more, but we must be fair. What we have to do on occasions such as this is to ask whether, because there are still so many shortcomings in Russia, we should condemn or try to help. I know where I stand on that. I readily accept that trying to help a new or emerging democracy, with all its shortcomings, requires a difficult balancing act for those who want to keep their self-respect, but who also need to be pragmatic and to be prepared to work with the imperfect to try to make it less imperfect. I know that, but it might help to admit it.
For reasons that I shall explain, I am very much involved and committed to helping people in Russia. I am a member of the UK’s Council of Europe delegation and the leader of one of its political groups, a group that has 27 members from United Russia. I have found that progress can be made. My contribution to today’s debate is to say that it is okay to discuss what the Government of the day can do, but it would be useful for a moment to spare a little thought to what we parliamentarians can do by serving as a route to individual parliamentarians in other countries. I shall leave it to the Minister to say what the Government want to do, and I shall leave my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) who speaks for the Conservatives to give our party’s view. My view is that if we can build trust and friendship with members of another parliament, however imperfect, we parliamentarians stand some chance of passing on some of our beliefs and values.
That is what we need to do, but to achieve it, we must understand the Russians. We are talking about a former superpower that has lost its empire, whose rouble has collapsed and which descended into chaos under Yeltsin and at one point even had to rely upon food aid. Is it surprising that such a country should feel humiliated and the need to do something to restore its self-respect? We should be clear about the range of changes that have to be made. When talking about the Russian Federation, we must also remember that it is not some Balkan state. It is geographically enormous, and has an enormous population. Turning around such a country is not as simple as taking action in places such as Kosovo or Macedonia.
We need to help. In my judgment, it can be done at the parliamentary level only through personal contact. We simply cannot afford to leave to Governments, of any colour, the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) wants to see done. We ourselves have to play a part in building those relationships.
With Russia, as in any other case, we need to understand that no Parliament is made up of people who all believe the same, who think the same, and who have the same policies and the same powers. It is not like that. In any Parliament, and certainly in the Russian Duma and the Russian Federation, there are people whose view of Russia’s future is of a country that is integrated into Europe—not a member of the European Union but a European country. We are a European country and some believe that Russia is part of our continent, but others want Russia to stand alone again. That is perfectly honourable, but I believe as parliamentarians that we could usefully help those who wish to see a united continent, with Russia being integrated with the rest of us into a peaceful future. The track record of conflict in Europe—be it Russia’s or anyone else’s—has not gone away. We need to integrate Russia into Europe to stand the maximum chance of ensuring less conflict or no conflict in the future of our continent.
Mr. Streeter, it is a pleasure to see you here. This is the first time that I have spoken under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this debate on an important subject, and I am glad that it is taking place so soon after the recess. I also congratulate the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), my next-door neighbour, on his recent appointment.
Many of us have been engaging with Russia for a long time; some, like the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), through membership of the Council of Europe, and others through the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Indeed, next week in Geneva some of us will be taking part in bilateral meetings with the Russian IPU delegation. Those links are important, and should not be underestimated.
I start with Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian President. Had I realised that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham had Russian ancestry, I would not have spent time in the Library this morning trying to find the correct Russian pronunciations—next time I shall know who to ask. When the President, a lawyer who once spoke out against Russia's “legal nihilism”, took office in 2008, I hoped that human rights and freedom of expression would be strengthened. However, although he has made statements in support of civil society and human rights non-governmental organisations and met their representatives, it would appear that the situation remains largely unchanged.
Seventeen journalists have been killed in Russia since 2000. The killers were convicted in only one case. Those cases include that of Anna Politkovskaya, an internationally known journalist who was a harsh critic of the Kremlin and who exposed widespread human-rights abuses and corruption in Chechnya. She was killed a little more than three years ago, but no one has yet been found guilty of either having killed her or having ordered her killing. They include also the case of Mikhail Beketov, the editor of a newspaper in Khimki, to the north-west of Moscow, who had been reporting on local government corruption and who, last November, was beaten nearly to death and left in the freezing cold; he lost a leg and fingers to frostbite. In February, the editor of a local weekly further north-west of Moscow was found unconscious and bleeding; he had published articles critical of local politicians.
In addition, human rights defenders remain at risk. This summer, on 15 July, Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped in daylight from a street in central Grozny. Hours later, her corpse, with gunshots to the head and body, was dumped by a road in the neighbouring southern republic of Ingushetia. Mrs. Estemirova had been gathering evidence for the human rights organisation Memorial about an alleged campaign of arson attacks by militiamen, backed by Chechen President Kadyrov, against his opponents. House burnings have become a frequent form of collective punishment by local authorities, with at least two dozen incidents in the past 18 months. Suspected militants and collaborators, their relatives and other perceived enemies of the regime are liable to be tortured, abducted and assassinated.
Memorial and Mrs. Estemirova were a constant thorn in President Kadyrov’s side. I met and spoke with Mrs. Estemirova, who was a courageous and principled woman. She knew that her life was in danger, but did not want to talk about that. Instead, she concentrated on raising awareness of what was happening in Chechnya—on stopping ongoing and serious human rights violations and on getting justice for the victims. I understand that President Medvedev has placed the investigation of her murder in the hands of the state prosecutor, who will report directly to the Kremlin. However, the Russian President has already declared that President Kadyrov was not involved.
Only last week, a court in Moscow ruled that Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial, had smeared President Kadyrov’s reputation by blaming him for the death of Mrs. Estemirova. Mr. Orlov had accused the Chechen President of being guilty of Natalya Estemirova’s murder. However, in court, he explained in his defence that he had meant political guilt, telling the court:
“The current situation in the Chechen Republic, where horrendous crimes violating human rights go systematically unpunished, has given me every basis for believing in the unconditional political guilt of Ramzan Kadyrov in the death of Natalya Estemirova”.
Witnesses, mostly colleagues of Mrs. Estemirova, also said that President Kadyrov had personally insulted and threatened her, forcing her to leave Russia for a time. Mr. Kadyrov’s lawyer is reported to have said that violent separatists, backed by western secret agents, were probably responsible for Mrs. Estemirova’s death.
If justice is to be done in that case, all lines of inquiry must be pursued and any subsequent trials must meet international standards. I must emphasise that there is such a thing as state-sponsored violence as well. More generally in relation to all those cases, the British Government must raise them with the Russian and Chechen authorities, and stress the importance of thorough and impartial investigations to ensure that the perpetrators are held to account.
Impunity is a wide problem in Russia and one that undermines reform in a number of areas. The number of cases filed in the European Court of Human Rights against Russia has climbed sharply from 8 per cent. of all cases in 2000 to nearly 30 per cent. last year, with a number of rulings highlighting torture and judicial corruption. In her examination of politically motivated abuses of court systems across Europe, the Council of Europe rapporteur, a former German Justice Minister, found that prosecutors in Russia have “almost unchecked” power to put people behind bars and that judges are
“subject to an increasing level of pressure aimed at ensuring convictions in almost all cases.”
In addition, she points out that the practice of telephone justice—an official calling and telling a judge how to rule—has evolved for the worse. Russian judges are now so worried about making a mistake and being disciplined or dismissed that they pick up the phone themselves to ask for instructions.
A plan to give extra credit to convicts for time spent in notoriously crowded pre-trial detention facilities has been derailed because it might have resulted in the release of jailed former oil tycoon and Kremlin foe, Mr. Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The rapporteur also cited the start of a second trial against Mr. Khodorkovsky in March as one of “two emblematic cases” that cast doubt on the Russian President’s professed commitment to fighting what he called in the past “legal nihilism”.
I call on the UK Government to raise those concerns with their Russian counterparts and to ask the Chechen and Russian Governments to open up Chechnya to parliamentary delegations, international governmental and non-governmental organisations, academics and journalists. The all-party human rights group, which I chair, has been trying to go to Chechnya since 2002—in fact, I was in Moscow with a delegation in 2002 when we were invited to go to Chechnya. That visit has never taken place. I hope that the dates for the delegation’s visit will be agreed very soon because if there is nothing to hide why not open up the area to visitors?
We have six minutes for two speakers.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing the debate and on making a very coherent and well informed case. I say to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) that each one of us could have cited similar stories and, time and again, we have expressed the hope that the Government would take up such matters, but today’s debate is about what we can do to bring back a UK-Russia relationship that will allow the sort of representations that she talked about to be made. All of us welcome the reset button being pushed—if that is the right terminology—by the Foreign Secretary. I am sure that he would not call it that, but it is mysterious that we have heard about his visit from the Russians rather than from the Foreign Office itself. Perhaps the Minister will be able to address that point.
Any attempt to deal with Russia is both challenging and fraught with difficulties. That is the case not just now but traditionally. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said that we cannot alter 70 years of one sort of mentality and 200 years of tsarist rule in just 18 years of a change of mood in a country. The changes that we want to see will never happen quickly in the emerging states of the former Soviet Union, and that is particularly true of Russia, the largest and most complex of those states. The issues in the Caucasus, both in the north and south, will continue to be of concern to all of us. The area is both volatile and very dangerous.
We are right to try to engage with Russia. We need the Russians for a whole series of reasons, not least non-proliferation, climate change, international economic co-operation and regional conflicts in the middle east and Afghanistan. We know how vital their role is in hopefully bringing about some sort of dialogue with Iran and we urge them not to play games on that issue, but to take a firm stance with the west on Iran, but such things will happen only if we are prepared to build a dialogue with them at all levels. It does not matter that the Prime Minister has not had a close relationship with Mr. Putin. What we need to have is a close relationship with the Russian state at all levels—whether it is with the Duma, the Prime Minister or President Medvedev. Too many issues are of mutual benefit to both of us for the stalemate—the vacuum of non-activity—to go on for any length of time.
The Defence Committee produced a very good report on UK-Russian relationships, and the Government response to it is one of the best responses that we have had from the Government on a defence paper from the Committee for some time. It is well worth a read and I commend it to all Members. However, we must deal with a number of issues, including how we get the dialogue back on track. When the Foreign Secretary returns, perhaps he will be able to tell us that he has opened doors that have been closed.
Other key issues include the Nabucco pipeline. Russia has taken one line and the west another, with one going for one pipeline—the south stream—and the other going for Nabucco. It is in the west’s interest, and the UK’s long-term interest, to get secure supplies of gas from Turkmenistan. We must find a way in which Russia can co-operate with making that happen. There is not enough energy coming out of Turkmenistan to supply both pipelines. We must make a decision to back the right one.
In addition, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham said, we must address the problem of visas. I am dealing with a case of a constituent who married a British citizen and has a UK-born son who is now back in Russia, trying to get a visa to come back to rejoin her family. She is having enormous difficulties in dealing with that and it is a nonsense.
Once again, we are pressed for time and I know that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) wants to speak, but I must end by saying that we have to acknowledge that Russia is a big player by any measure that we care to use, and we need to be working and co-operating with that country. It is in our interests and the interests of Europe.
I call Mr. Nigel Evans. You have one minute. I am sorry; you have a bit longer.
My contribution will be more of an intervention than a speech, Mr. Streeter. None the less, I am grateful for having one minute.
In conclusion—[Laughter.] I want to ask the Minister a question. Can the Foreign Secretary, when he goes to Russia, raise a number of issues? First, one issue is clearly the British Council. Can the Foreign Secretary ensure that all our offices are open, to enable cultural exchanges and so that the promotion of education via the British Council is allowed to carry on? Secondly, regarding NATO membership for countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, Russia should not have a veto on that sort of thing.
Thirdly, regarding human rights, a number of things have already been mentioned today. However, may I also say how disturbing it is for us to read in the newspapers from time to time about the situation with gay rights, for instance, in Moscow? When there is a gay pride event, the freedoms of young people that we take for granted in this country when gay marches take place are completely denied in Moscow. The violence that takes place there, when the police turn a blind eye to the type of activities that go on to suppress and oppress young gay people, simply should not be allowed to happen in this day and age.
Fourthly, it would also be useful if Russia officially abolished the death penalty. We know that nobody has been officially executed in Russia for some time—I say officially advisedly—but it would still be useful if Russia now showed itself to be a country that recognises that the death penalty no longer has a role to play.
We know that Russia is important, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned; £100 billion worth of trade between Russia and the UK takes place every year. Russia is an important country—we know that. In the Council of Europe, on which I serve, we have tremendous relations with the Russian Members of Parliament who attend. It is useful that there is dialogue from Government to Government, but it is also vital that politicians have that dialogue, which we hope will continue into the future.
I would like to begin by welcoming the Minister for Europe to his new position in the Government. I know that it is a position that he will very much enjoy, as it goes to the heart of many of the interests and issues that he has raised in his time in the House. I look forward to discussing with him the implementation of the Lisbon treaty, when the Czech Republic has signed it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this debate. I agree with much of what he said, although what he said about the BBC gave me some cause for concern. It is quite right that hon. Members criticise the BBC and the way that it reports things; that is absolutely right in a democracy. However, the argument that the Government should intervene in BBC reporting—as he seemed to suggest—is one that I find myself in disagreement with.
Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman’s overall thesis that the Government should take a different approach to relations with Russia is absolutely right. We have seen a deep freeze. It has not been fruitful for this country, Russia or the wider world. So he is right to stress the importance of the meetings that he referred to. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) that those meetings need to happen at all political levels.
The British Government’s position after the crisis in Georgia sent the wrong signal, too; the Government made the wrong call on that issue. Over a period of years, the uncritical support from this country for the way that President Bush undertook relations with Russia has also hindered the influence that we have, because we are not seen to be an independent critical voice, which we need to be. Therefore, one looks at the success that President Obama has had. If we had been saying the sort of things that President Obama has been saying, perhaps we would have been a bit more successful, although we obviously do not have the influence of America.
I strongly welcome what President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are achieving. I would argue that one of the major steps forward for our relations with Russia would be to support those achievements, because we saw President Bush almost ignoring Russia for many years. In many ways, he was almost insulting the Russians with the lack of attention and the lack of significance that he gave to American-Russian relations. We have seen how quickly a different approach is working and bearing fruit. With this different American President leading the way, there are so many goals that we can jointly achieve.
My hon. Friend must have read my notes, because his speech covered the gamut of the issues. We have seen progress and we are continuing to see progress on the nuclear issue. There are talks about cutting the nuclear arsenals. That is fantastic and critical as we approach next year and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference, which could make a historic step in global nuclear disarmament.
We have also seen the very welcome step forward on ballistic missile defence. My own party was the only party in Parliament that argued that Britain should not be co-operating with the Americans on BMD and instead should be arguing against it. I am glad that we have an American President who has now taken that view as well. I am glad, not only because that will reduce the paranoia in Russia on that issue—it was paranoia—but because a sensible approach was not being taken on BMD.
We also must engage with the Russians on climate change. Everyone talks about the importance of China with regard to climate change, but Russia, with its massive energy supplies, is equally significant.
Other hon. Members have talked about Iran, Afghanistan, human rights and, of course, the significance of relations with Russia on terrorism and tackling Islamic jihad across the world. The Russians understand the dangers that Islamic jihad poses and have a lot to offer, if we can improve our relations with them.
There was an area where I disagreed with the thrust of the argument by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham. He was rightly critical of the Government, but his argument was a little unbalanced; it was almost as though Russia had not played a part in the problems of the relationship. Let us face it; Russia has caused many of the problems. If the British Government had taken a different approach, that might have worked. Equally, however, it appears at times that Moscow has no interest in any engagement from London. It is as though Russia has taken a strategic decision to make Britain the bogey man and to pile its venom on Britain, and that makes any diplomatic overtures much more difficult. I am not saying that we could not do better, but in not focusing on and understanding that point, or at least appreciating it, the hon. Gentleman unbalanced the overall thrust of his argument.
So how do we go forward? I have talked about the significance of working with the Obama team; that approach offers real opportunity. We also need to talk much more about the role of the European Union in this respect. The EU is really important. Other EU leaders are doing much better than the UK’s leaders in this respect, as the hon. Gentleman said. Of course, Angela Merkel is leading that process. However, the problem within the EU, as we all know, is that many different interests are involved in its relationships with Russia. I have seen analysis of the 27 different EU member states that shows that they all have very different interests in their relations with Russia; sometimes there are competing interests. So it is not easy to get a united, concerted EU approach with respect to Russia, and I think that we all recognise that. Equally, however, when we can work more carefully together to get a united EU approach, Russia has to take notice, not just on issues such as energy or trade but on wider issues, too. The EU, with Britain playing a much stronger role and giving a greater lead within the EU on Russia, is one of the ways that we can ensure that Russia is persuaded to engage in the constructive manner that the hon. Gentleman wanted.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). I thought that putting the development of the Russian Federation into a historical context, as he did, was very important. In considering that historical context, I urge other right hon. and hon. Members to view the EU’s role over a period. In my view, the EU is one of the greatest steps forward for humankind in history. What has evolved over a few decades to create that centre of peace and stability is hugely impressive, and it also gives lessons for how we deal with Russia, both in terms of the EU working together and in terms of understanding where Russia is coming from.
I say all that not wishing for a minute that we should pull our punches with the Russians. When they behave outrageously—particularly on human rights, whether with regard to gay pride marches in Moscow, the appalling way that they have behaved over the Khodorkovsky trial and detention, or the way that they behaved over Litvinenko—we must not pull our punches. I urge the Minister to tell the Foreign Secretary that, when he goes to Russia, he should make it clear that we will speak out about these issues; I am sure that the Foreign Secretary would do that, but I believe that he has backing from across the House to do it. British political parties across the board want to speak out on these issues and Russia has to prove itself. That does not mean that one cannot engage as well on all those other joint, shared interests.
I just want to come back to the Khodorkovsky case, however. I hope that the Minister will assure us that that issue will be raised specifically. It is quite symbolic of how Russia approaches law and order, democracy and human rights. If Russia changed its position on the case, it would send a signal to the EU and the west about reform. A reforming Russia is a Russia that we can do business with. One dreams of a position where the strategic EU partnership, over a period of years, can bring about the reform and prosperity that Russia needs. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham said, the rouble and the economy are in a mess. That is in neither Russia’s interest nor ours. I hope that we can build on such moves forward and that the British Government will show more leadership in doing so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this debate, which he introduced very thoroughly. The subject is important and timely, given US Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to Russia only yesterday. I welcome the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) to his new responsibilities as Minister for Europe. His replacement of the previous Minister is marked out as perhaps the first Government appointment in the world to be announced via Twitter. I am sure that his predecessor was interested to be involved in that record.
I should like to mention some of the other contributions from Back-Bench Members. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) spoke about the importance of the Russia-China relationship, which we should note. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) argued for engagement with Russia, including via the Council of Europe, a forum of which he has considerable experience. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) raised a number of important human rights questions, not least in relation to Chechnya. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) did so as well and made a case for the importance of engagement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), in a wide-ranging contribution—[Laughter.] I thought that he crammed a great deal into 90 seconds. He raised a number of issues, including human rights and gay rights in Russia. He was followed by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who also argued for engagement with Russia, particularly under the auspices of the European Union.
Britain’s relationship with Russia is important to this country. Russia is economically important again, is a member of the G8, maintains large armed forces and is one of the world’s biggest energy exporters. On top of that, Russia has considerable diplomatic weight in the world. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has influence in key areas of concern such as Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan. Our two countries have great mutual interests and potentially strong grounds for co-operation. Anglo-Russian trade, for instance, is large and has great potential. Despite the BP and Shell sagas, Britain is the largest foreign investor in Russia. Britain and Russia have joint concerns about Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation and climate change—issues that should be of concern to all of us.
Given that great potential for co-operation, it is regrettable that Russian actions in a number of areas have harmed what could and should be a mutually beneficial relationship. One such area is human rights and includes Russia’s refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi—the man accused of murdering British citizen Alexander Litvinenko in our capital in a particularly cruel and horrifying manner that put many Britons at risk. There is also the continuing detention without trial of business men involved in the break-up of the company, Yukos—a matter discussed in detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham—and the failure to investigate properly the death of Anna Politkovskaya, which we believe the Russians should make greater efforts to follow up. Forgive me if my pronunciation is not correct; the Minister knows who I am referring to. We should also not forget the harassment of the British Council and the British Broadcasting Corporation—a subject raised by several hon. Members during this debate.
A further direct action by Russia that undermines trust is the resumption of Russian bomber patrols close to our coast. In one of the latest reported incidents, a Russian Blackjack—a nuclear-capable and supersonic bomber—flew within 20 miles of Hull. That is an unnecessary throwback to the days of the cold war and does not improve Anglo-Russian relations.
I have touched on the subject of British investment in Russia, but the harassment of BP and Shell investments in that country, which effectively forced those businesses to hand over some of their best assets to Russian companies, might now be seen even in Russia as counter-productive. With Russian energy assets starved of investment and medium-term forecasts of decreasing production, Russia seems to have begun to realise that continuing foreign investment is desirable. Last month, Prime Minister Putin hosted the world’s major oil companies in Siberia, promising them:
“We would like you to consider yourselves participants in our undertaking. The main condition from our side is that partnerships should be stable and long-term.”
President Medvedev’s emphasis on the rule of law for Russia is right, and we eagerly await evidence that it is creating tangible results.
As well as our bilateral relationship, Russian involvement could be influential in a number of global problems. It would be highly desirable to gain Russian support in Iran. The recent discovery of the Qom enrichment plant has heightened fears that Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons capability. It is hoped that further talks, backed up by the threat of further sanctions, will persuade Iran to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency full access to its facilities.
For those reasons, it is welcome that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Moscow yesterday in an attempt to gain Russian support. Russia has a major role to play in the international community’s dealings with Iran and, judging by yesterday’s statements by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, it may have begun to take seriously its responsibilities in that area. Hillary Clinton, for her part, said that the talks were “extremely co-operative”. The next few months will demonstrate whether that is really the case.
Afghanistan is also key to our relationship with Russia. Russia has as strong an interest as we do in the denial of Afghanistan to those who would seek to use it as a base for terrorism. Russia has a unique knowledge of Afghanistan that dates back to the days of the great game and beyond, and it is important strategically as a route for overflights to the UK. It is hoped that Russia will continue to use its influence to aid the international security assistance force mission in Afghanistan. I believe that the Foreign Secretary will take up that issue when he visits Moscow in November. The Minister may want to say a little more about it when he replies in a few minutes.
Few people would contend that the UK’s bilateral relationship with Russia, despite our many mutual interests, has not been somewhat strained over the past few years. It was hoped that the election of President Medvedev would lead to a warming in relations, to the benefit of both countries. Unfortunately, despite President Medvedev’s arrival, that has not happened. A Conservative Government would welcome a positive relationship with Russia based on mutual respect. We respect Russia as a great and historic power, but that respect must be mutual. We do not believe that relationships between countries should be simply a zero-sum game. Those who believe that tend to find themselves long-term losers. In dealing with Russia, it is important to assess her not just by what she says but by what she does. [Interruption.] I wonder whether that noise is the Russians attempting to contact us as we speak.
As the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has said,
“With a Conservative Government, the door will be open to improved relations with Russia. We shall see if a door opens in return.”
It is to be hoped that that door will open, and that we will be able to enjoy an engagement that is to the mutual benefit of our countries and to that of other countries around the world.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), I think this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter, and it is a great delight to see you in the Chair.
It is also a delight to reply to a debate secured by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), whom I consider to be a friend. We have co-operated on many issues relating to Russia in the past, and I hope that we will do so in the future. I note that he adopted an uncharacteristically aggressive and partisan attitude. I would respond in kind and be partisan, but it might be of more use to the House if I were co-operative. It is good to see so many hon. Members present, and I think that they all have a clear understanding of the significance of this relationship and its problems. The path that we must take is not straightforward.
Russia is obviously a great nation. It has a great sense of pride, which we respect. It was fascinating to see how many British people wanted to see the “From Russia” exhibition in 2008, for which we had to change the law so that some of the artworks could come to the UK. Russia holds a degree of fascination for British people, as it has for many centuries. We would never want to alienate ourselves from a nation that has produced such greats as Andrei Rublev—undoubtedly the greatest icon painter in history—and literary figures such as Tolstoy, Chekov, Sholokhov and Solzhenitsyn. We need a firm-but-fair relationship, and that is what we strive for.
Russia and the UK are key allies, but there are undoubted problems, as many hon. Members have said, one of which is the situation with Georgia. Russia’s continuing presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is an ongoing problem for us because we believe, as does the rest of the European Union, that Russia is not meeting its obligations. There are problems in relation to energy security. Although only 2 per cent. of the UK’s gas comes from Russia, the figure for the EU is 40 per cent. Russia is therefore key to the EU’s energy security. There are problems with human rights, which I will amplify later. The most notable problem in recent years has been the Litvinenko case.
The Foreign Secretary’s visit in the next few weeks will be important, and we hope to make significant progress in our relationship with Russia in the near future.
Should the Foreign Secretary raise the Khodorkovsky case on his visit? If so, will he?
Yes, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will. I hope to speak about that case in more detail later. It is an issue that I raised when I was a Back Bencher.
The key areas where Russia and the UK have to work together are climate change, which has been mentioned, and counter-proliferation, which relates not only to nuclear weaponry, but to the security of fissile material, on which the UK and Russia have worked closely for a number of years. It is not only the US and Russia that have moved this issue forward. Our Prime Minister has taken a key role, because we want to see a comprehensive test ban treaty and to ensure that the nuclear arsenals around the world diminish. We have made a significant contribution by cutting our nuclear weaponry by three quarters. We are prepared to go further if it will help the process. Although no one has mentioned it, Russia also plays an important role in the middle east peace process.
The hon. Gentleman started with a broad attack on the Prime Minister, of whom I gather he is not an enormous fan. Unfortunately, he made many errors. He said that the Prime Minister has never met the Russian President.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, because I have only a few minutes and a great many issues to reply on. The Prime Minister has met President Medvedev twice this year; the Foreign Secretary has regular dialogue with Foreign Minister Lavrov; and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was in Moscow earlier this month to build momentum towards Copenhagen.
Will the hon. Gentleman restrain himself and wait for a moment? We try to maintain relations at the highest level that is possible and suitable.
My question was whether, since he became Prime Minister in 2007, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown) has met Prime Minister Putin, including in his previous guise as President Putin. I have been refused an answer on that matter in many parliamentary questions. Has he met him or not?
I am sorry; I misunderstood what the hon. Gentleman was asking. He referred to the President and I thought that he was referring to President Medvedev. I am happy to come back to him on the question that he has raised.
Contrary to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, there has been a great deal of engagement between this country and Russia in relation to climate change and counter-proliferation. We believe that there are important movements in Russia’s position in relation to Iran and North Korea. We welcome those moves, not least the meeting that took place yesterday. However, Kremlinologists have interpreted the meaning of yesterday’s conversations between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Lavrov differently. We have also worked closely with Russia on counter-narcotics and Afghanistan—something that has been very helpful.
The hon. Gentleman said various things about the World Service. Although one wants to be critical of the BBC at times, it would be wholly inappropriate for Ministers to analyse the rights and wrongs of its editorial decisions. The absolute integrity and independence of the World Service is part of what guarantees its reach and its ability to make a difference in places such as Russia.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Litvinenko case. He knows that I have raised that issue many times. The courts have issued a warrant for the arrest of Andrei Lugovoi on a charge of murder. That warrant remains valid. We do not resile from that position. It was a horrific crime that was committed against a British citizen on UK soil. The Government have worked hard to support the Crown Prosecution Service and will continue to do so. We do not believe that Russia has co-operated satisfactorily on our requests. We will continue to seek his trial before the UK courts.
The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) asked about Mr. Khodorkovsky. We have raised that issue with Russia and will continue to do so. We raise the issue of human rights with all countries where there are significant issues.
The speech of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was the best that I have heard today, by virtue of its brevity. He raised the issue of gay rights in Russia. We do raise that matter and our embassy tries to be supportive of British people who try to go there to take part. I think that I am right in saying that the mayor of Moscow, whose comments on these issues are deeply offensive, is in the political party that is aligned with the Conservatives in the Council of Europe. The hon. Gentleman may want to raise those issues in the party grouping, although such groupings are a difficult issue for the Conservative party at the moment.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley asked whether it would be possible to visit Chechnya. I will look into that matter, but it is obviously difficult. She is a very brave woman, as we all know—we certainly know it in south Wales. She visited Iraq when it was very difficult for anybody to do so. She has played an important long-term role in human rights issues. We continue to raise such issues through the EU’s dialogue with Russia. She raised the case of Anna Politkovskaya. Press freedom is vital and it is impossible to have a free society when there is impunity when journalists are killed. Becoming a free society is the best direction in which Russia could move. The problems with Russia’s criminal justice system are well documented.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) raised some of the same issues and has taken a significant interest in such matters. I hope that we can keep up that dialogue. She, too, is a near neighbour in the south Wales valleys, so we are well represented in this debate.