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UK Relations with Ukraine

Volume 572: debated on Tuesday 10 December 2013

I will not start the clock at the moment, because I would like to say something before we begin. I have the Minister and the hon. Gentleman in place. May I appeal to anyone with any electronic gadgets who entered the Chamber since I started to please ensure that they are on silent, because I do not want any interruptions from those devices? May I also make how we will conduct the debate and how I will chair it very clear? The debate is between a Member and the Minister in a very short space of time. There is great interest in the discussion from the public. I am determined to protect the Minister’s time and the Member’s time, to ensure that we have the debate properly and without interference from the Public Gallery or elsewhere. I have agreed that Ms Latham can take part of Mr Whittingdale’s time and speak in the debate. I appeal to other Members to make interventions cogent and short, should you wish to make them. I intend to give the Minister at least 10 minutes to reply.

Thank you, Mr Havard, for your guidance on the debate. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to speak about UK relations with Ukraine. I requested the debate in the aftermath of a decision by the Ukrainian Government not to proceed with the signing of the association agreement, but the topic has become much more urgent in the past few days. A large number of Ukrainians are in Parliament square as I speak, but they are small in number compared with the thousands taking part in the Euromaidan demonstration in Independence square. At the weekend, something approaching 1 million people in Ukraine demonstrated their unhappiness at the turn of events most recently. We have watched the events with growing concern.

Yesterday, there were reports that the Ukrainian Government had taken a decision to use force to disperse the protesters; happily, that has not happened. However, there have been raids on the offices of the opposition and there is no doubt that the situation remains tense and unstable. I hope that the Minister in his response will be able to say something about the latest information we have; I understand that talks have now started between opposition groups, civil society and the Ukrainian Government, which must be welcome, but we are by no means away from the danger that force might be used. I want to return to that later in my remarks.

I had hoped that the debate would take place in happier circumstances. I declare an interest: I am the chairman of the British-Ukraine all-party group; I am a director of the British Ukrainian Society; I was an observer in Kiev for the elections to the Verkhovna Rada earlier last year; and in September I attended the European strategy conference in Yalta.

At the conference, which took place only 12 weeks ago, representatives of all major parties in Ukraine were present. I heard both President Yanukovych and Prime Minister Azarov speak and state very clearly the absolute determination of Ukraine to go down the European path and to sign an association agreement at Vilnius. That strategy had the support of all the parties of Ukraine with the exception of the Communist party.

Of course there were always going to be obstacles. We are aware that Yulia Tymoshenko is still in prison, which was a serious issue that needed to be resolved. There were concerns about the way in which the judicial process had operated in imprisoning her and the claim that it was “selective justice”. There were wider concerns about the level of corruption that still exists in Ukraine and the abuse of monopoly power. But there appeared to be a real determination to make necessary changes. Measures were being tabled in the Rada to meet the requirements of signing that association agreement. It appeared that there might be a way forward whereby Mrs Tymoshenko could perhaps go for medical treatment abroad, and she herself had said that she did not want her situation to prevent the signature of the association agreement.

We always knew that the one obstacle, the biggest opponent, would be Russia. I was in Yerevan, a little while before Yalta, just after the decision had been taken by Armenia not to proceed with the signature of an association agreement. Without question, that decision was taken because of the enormous pressure that was put on the Armenian Government by Russia, in particular over the security problems that the Armenians face and the threat to withdraw security guarantees. But it appeared that Ukraine would stand up to the pressure, despite the economic measures being taken by Russia—import controls and tariff barriers. At Yalta, Ukraine expressed an absolute determination that it would proceed with the agreement. It was therefore a real surprise and a great sadness when the President came back and announced that instead of signing the association agreement in Vilnius, Ukraine would seek closer relations with Russia. I suspect that he cannot have anticipated the reaction to that announcement.

We saw the protests begin in Independence square, and instead of diminishing, they have, if anything, strengthened. Anybody who has seen the film footage of the violence committed about 10 days ago by riot police against innocent, peaceful protesters will have been deeply shocked by it.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate on human rights day. Does he agree that we would be interested to hear from the Minister what pressure the British Government can bring to bear on Ukraine to secure a strong human rights record in future, with a free press and the end of the holding of political prisoners, when the leverage of the EU association agreement is no longer a card to be played?

I shall return to both issues; I agree with the hon. Lady that those are desirable objectives, but there is a more immediate, pressing concern about how the protesters are treated. Their human rights are important at this time. We must not see a repetition of the kind of violence that has been committed by special forces against people. The scenes of people lying on the ground being beaten with batons by 50 or more riot policemen as they ran past were wholly unacceptable. Concerns have been expressed that provocateurs have been placed among the protesters, and that that may precipitate a decision to declare some kind of state of emergency. All of that would mean that Ukraine would slip backwards. I want to hear from the Minister a strong message from the British Government that human rights and peaceful protest must be respected, and that we cannot see any kind of repetition of the violence that has taken place in the past few days.

As someone who was with the hon. Gentleman in Yerevan when we heard the news, I know exactly where he is coming from. Does he agree that the UK Government have persistently and consistently supported Ukrainian EU accession, so we have a moral obligation to those suffering in Ukraine at the moment? Just as the sound of the crowds of protesters outside this building can be heard in the Chamber, the sounds arising from Independence square must be heard across the world, especially in Europe.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is right that representatives of the EU and the United States Administration are in Kiev and will do what they can to calm the situation and find a way forward.

I understand that through the intervention of former Presidents Kravchuk, Kuchma and Yushchenko, talks are taking place with civil society groups and the opposition. That is certainly a much more promising way forward than the reported decision to use force, but the crisis is by no means past. It is important that clear messages go out from European Governments. In particular, I look to my right hon. Friend the Minister to make it clear that we cannot tolerate any violent activity of that kind.

As a fellow member of the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine, does the hon. Gentleman agree that although the Ukrainian Government are under a huge amount of pressure, particularly from Russia, they will never make progress through repression and the suppression of human rights and democratic values?

I agree entirely. I believe that Ukraine wishes for a free society and a democratic future. I regret the actions of the last few days, which are horribly reminiscent of the dark past, but I am still optimistic for the future of Ukraine, as I will mention at the end of my remarks.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this timely debate. Last year, on a NATO Parliamentary Assembly visit to Kiev, some members of our delegation had the opportunity to visit former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that her continuing imprisonment means that Ukraine cannot move forward? If political repression involves imprisoning political opponents, that is a major impediment to Ukraine’s moving forward.

There is not time, nor would it be helpful, to discuss whether Mrs Tymoshenko is guilty of the offences of which she is accused, but the right hon. Gentleman is right that her imprisonment was unquestionably seen by the European Union as an obstacle, and efforts were made to find a way through it. I was optimistic that a solution could be found, and it might still be, but Mrs Tymoshenko has made it clear that in her view, the important priority is to sign the association agreement.

I turn to the longer-term challenges. The immediate challenge is to ensure that there is no more violence, but in the longer term, we must look towards helping Ukraine. There is an immediate economic crisis. The country is massively in debt, and economic threats from Russia have undoubtedly played a part in the decision. We must offer Ukraine some prospect of assistance if it decides to resume the European path.

There is also the political challenge. Elections will be held in due course. It is essential that they should be free and fair, and that all the leading candidates should have the opportunity to take part. Most importantly, the reforms that were under way, including reforms to the judicial process and reforms to root out corruption, must be continued. If those things happen, we can eventually look forward to what the Ukrainian Government tell us is still their ambition: a closer relationship with Europe.

These are exceedingly perilous days, but we have cause to be optimistic, most of all because of the bravery of the Ukrainian people, which they are displaying as we speak, in bitterly cold weather and under the threat and gaze of riot police with their batons and shields. They have not been intimidated. They are still there.

There is a vibrant Ukrainian community in Huddersfield, next to my constituency. I look forward to celebrating Ukrainian Christmas with them yet again in the first weekend of January. Recently, we have been campaigning for recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must continue to urge the Foreign Office to do everything that it can to stop the immediate violence and find a long-term solution? So many Ukrainians in the United Kingdom are deeply concerned about the situation there at the moment.

I agree entirely. That is demonstrated by the large number of Ukrainians who have come to listen to this debate.

I hope that the Ukrainian Government will stand by their assurance and assertion that they still see their future in closer relations with Europe. It is for the Ukrainian people to decide their future, but that is what the Government say. Particularly given what has happened and the bravery being shown by the Ukrainian people, now is the time when we must support them. We must not turn our back on them.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard; thank you for allowing me to speak. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for allowing me to take part in this important debate and for securing it.

Some Members may know that I have tried to raise awareness of the Ukrainian Holodomor and spoken on several occasions on behalf of the Ukrainian people in this country, who also asked me to speak in this debate. Given my friendship with the local community, it goes without saying that I was shocked by the unfolding of the current social and political situation in Ukraine. Like many others, I was optimistic when it was announced that the Yanukovych Administration was to sign the association and deep and comprehensive free trade agreements with the EU. I thought that it might herald a new era of greater respect for human rights in the country. Although I do not presume to pre-empt the Ukrainian Government’s rationale for their U-turn in signing the agreements, I cannot ignore the Yanukovych Administration’s draconian response to the peaceful protests in Kiev.

On 24 November, British television news was full of images of peaceful protesters on Independence square, holding aloft the Ukrainian flag alongside that of the European Union. Those people were out not to cause trouble but gently to persuade their Government to change their mind about signing the agreement. Western media outlets have shown in their coverage of events that the Government’s response to those peaceful demonstrators was to deploy tear gas and truncheons against them. In clashes between protesters and the police on 1 December, an estimated seven were hospitalised.

Coupled with the 35 arrests that took place that day, it indicates a Government who are prepared when threatened to use inhumane and draconian forms of repression to quell dissent. That response seems to have exacerbated the situation. The protesters, who were initially keen to resolve their differences with the Government peacefully, have now resorted to acts of violence, including the felling of a statue of Lenin in the capital. It is clear from such actions that a section of the population in Ukraine is keen to turn away from the influence of Moscow and towards a future in the European Union.

Last night’s events have also made it plain that relations between the police, the Government and the demonstrators have continued to deteriorate. The headquarters of the country’s Fatherland party, the opposition party of ousted and imprisoned former Prime Minister Tymoshenko, were reportedly stormed by riot police, and protesters in Kiev were encircled by police.

With that in mind, I hope that Members here will join me in condemning the violence against the Ukrainian people in Kiev and lend their support to the EU’s efforts to promote communication between Ukraine’s people, the Ukrainian Government and the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union, who is visiting the country today.

I am grateful to you for chairing this important debate, Mr Havard. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) for securing this debate and for his continued engagement and interest in Ukraine and his support for democratic reform there. Given the fast-changing events on the ground, this is a timely and necessary debate.

Ukraine is an important friend and partner to the UK. We work closely together across a broad range of international issues and multilateral forums, and more so in the light of Ukraine’s chairmanship in office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe was in Kiev only last week to attend the OSCE ministerial council. We therefore welcome the latest news that President Yanukovych today agreed to round-table talks with three former Presidents, among others.

This Government have championed Ukraine’s closer integration with the EU, where it has the potential to make a significant contribution to stability, prosperity and competitiveness, and we will continue to support Ukraine’s European aspirations, including eventual membership of the EU, provided that the appropriate criteria are met and provided that it is what the Ukrainian people themselves want.

However, we have been watching recent developments in Ukraine with deep and genuine concern. Several hundred thousand Ukrainian citizens—perhaps more—have taken to the streets to express their views on Ukraine’s future. Also, troubling reports have emerged: of police violence in response to peaceful demonstrations; of journalists being beaten and possibly being deliberately targeted by security forces; and of disproportionate force being used. These things are completely unacceptable.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe raised his strong concerns at these developments in Kiev last week. On 3 December, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, together with his NATO counterparts, issued a statement condemning the excessive use of force in Ukraine, and he called on all parties to refrain from provocations and violence. NATO members also stressed that a sovereign, independent and stable Ukraine, which is firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is a key to Euro-Atlantic security.

We have made it clear that, particularly as the chairman-in-office of the OSCE is Ukrainian, it is essential that the Ukrainian Government demonstrate—through actions as well as words—their deep commitment to OSCE norms and values. We welcome the Ukrainian authorities’ commitment to a thorough investigation of police violence. Those responsible for such violence must be held to account.

We firmly believe that the way forward is through constructive engagement and dialogue, and we continue to encourage the Ukrainian Government and opposition to enter into early discussions. When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe visited Kiev on 5 December, he visited Maidan, or Independence square, and saw for himself the peaceful nature of the protests. He also met opposition leaders and encouraged them to engage seriously with ideas to identify ways to defuse the situation and map out a peaceful route forward.

This House is aware that the protests in Ukraine were triggered by the decision of the Ukrainian Government to put preparations for signature of the EU-Ukraine association agreement on hold. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear to this House and in public statements, this Government’s view is that the Ukrainian Government’s decision represents a missed opportunity.

Have the Government had any opportunity to make an assessment of what measures the Russians may have brought into play to pressurise the Ukrainian Government to change their approach to this important matter?

Not to date, but we—together with our EU partners—had hoped that the EU-Ukraine relationship would enter a new and fundamentally different phase following signature of the association agreement, which includes a deep and comprehensive free trade area, at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius on 28 and 29 November. What we have made a study of is the benefit that the agreement would bring to Ukraine and Ukrainian companies. It would give Ukrainian companies access to a market of 500 million consumers. Reliable studies have shown that GDP and wages would rise, and closer economic integration through the deep and comprehensive free trade area would be a powerful stimulant to Ukraine’s economic growth.

I am fully supportive both of the people in the Ukraine and their democratic rights, and of the policy of Her Majesty’s Government here. However, does the Minister accept that there is some understandable nervousness—I can see it in the Government of Ukraine—that to suddenly change the relationship with the EU to one where there are much more open trading agreements could force tariffs in relation to the trade with Russia, and that therefore the right way forward, given where we are now, is to encourage negotiation between all the parties so that there is an agreed policy, with Russia, Ukraine and the EU growing together in the future?

My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon mentioned the economic troubles in Ukraine at the moment and it is our assessment that an early benefit would be brought about by Ukraine signing this agreement, which would far outweigh any negative impact in resulting loss of trade—as he sees it—with Russia. Approximation to EU legislation, standards and norms will result in higher-quality products and improved services for citizens, and will improve Ukraine’s ability to compete in international markets.

As I say, my hon. Friend mentioned the economic challenges that Ukraine faces at the moment. I hope that the Ukrainian authorities can reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a new stand-by arrangement. That is in Ukraine’s hands, and it is in Ukraine’s interests to entrench fiscal and financial stability by advancing structural reforms. Doing so will increase Ukraine’s ability to withstand external pressures.

The Government and, I am sure, Members from all parties in this House look to the Ukrainian Government—working collaboratively with opposition parties, civil society and business—to show the necessary political will and commitment to enable signature of the association agreement to go ahead in the near future. That means continuing with the reforms that are already under way, and ensuring that the parliamentary elections that will be rerun on 15 December are conducted in accordance with international standards.

When Ukraine is ready to sign, under this Government or a future Government, it will find the UK to be a willing partner that is ready to lend support and assistance on the road to a closer relationship with the EU. As the Prime Minister and other EU leaders made clear to President Yanukovych at Vilnius, the EU’s door remains open; it is Ukraine’s choice whether to walk through it.

Before I close, let me touch on Russia’s role. We have all seen and read reports about the pressure that Russia has been bringing to bear on Ukraine and many of its businesses. Any such pressure is unacceptable. In the modern world, every country should respect the sovereignty of others and their right to enter into the agreements that they consider appropriate. And I hope that Russia can understand that this is not a zero-sum game. The association agreement will help Ukraine to modernise and transform its institutions and economy. Ukraine will become more prosperous. That is in everyone’s interests, including Russia’s.

We continue to follow developments in Ukraine very closely, and we are in touch with the EU institutions and with other member states. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon will be aware, Baroness Ashton, Vice-President of the European Commission and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, has travelled to Kiev and will encourage all parties to engage in constructive dialogue. And as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe set out in his written ministerial statement earlier today, the Government continue to urge all parties to remain calm and to avoid actions that could lead to an escalation of the situation or the restriction of personal freedoms.

I very much welcome the assurances that the Minister has given. I hope that it will be unnecessary for him to do so, but should the situation deteriorate, I hope he will make it clear that if violence were to be used, those responsible will be held personally responsible for it. In addition, there are already some concerns about the fate of some of the people who were arrested in the original protests about 10 days ago and who seem to have disappeared. There is obviously concern about their well-being and I hope that we will apply pressure to try to ensure that they are safe.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—anyone who has orchestrated any sort of violence in contravention of the basic norms and human rights should be held to account publicly, with the full weight of the law holding them to account for their actions.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for his continued interest in Ukraine and the surrounding region, and other Members of the House for their contributions today.

Before we finish, may I say thank you very much for the way in which the debate has been conducted? It is being broadcast and webcast, and the fact that it was conducted with dignity and quality gives it an additional power. So thank you very much for your co-operation. With all the disruption, I intend to allow the next debate to run until 5.10 pm. We will see how the discourse takes us.