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Armenia: British Trade Prospects

Volume 569: debated on Wednesday 14 February 1996

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2.56 p.m.

What steps they are taking to encourage British trade with Armenia.

My Lords, a British Embassy was established in Yerevan in 1995 with dedicated commercial staff and just last week the head of DTI's Central Asia and Transcaucasia Section, Mr. John Slate, visited Armenia. His week-long programme was specifically aimed at investigating potential commercial opportunities for UK businesses. Later this year my noble friend Lord Goschen intends to lead a DTI-supported trade mission to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that reply, which will give considerable encouragement to the Armenians as they strive to revive their economy, particularly in the wake of the legacy of the earthquake and continuing blockades by Turkey and Azerbaijan. Can my noble and learned friend give further encouragement? Can he indicate when the British Embassy in Yerevan will issue visas for Armenians who wish to visit Britain? At present they have to go to Moscow, which is time-consuming and inconvenient. It is not conducive to the travel which is essential for the development of trade. Can my noble and learned friend give us some good news on that important topic?

My Lords, we certainly recognise that the inconvenience of having to travel to Moscow is considerable. We recognise, too, the importance of the visa service in Armenia. We intend to start issuing visas after the embassy is housed in more permanent accommodation. Regrettably, we cannot install essential equipment in the temporary premises presently occupied.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Helsinki Final Act requires participating states to refrain from acts of economic coercion against one another? Will the Minister therefore raise in the OSCE the continued blockade by Turkey of Armenia which hinders the latter country's economic development?

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord appreciates that we are not members of the Minsk group, but we strongly support the efforts that it is making at the present time. We will encourage every effort that can be made to reach a political agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh. We recognise how important it is to the Armenians that the dual blockade to which the noble Lord refers is lifted.

My Lords, I have been involved with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in the All-Party British Armenian Group. We have seen in the past few years a steady increase in the good relationships with Armenia. Can that be maintained? If necessary, will the Minister be able to see myself and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in relation to some points which we believe would be useful to the United Kingdom and to Armenia?

My Lords, if the noble Lord or my noble friend Lady Cox would like to come to see me about matters affecting my responsibilities in the Department of Trade and Industry, my door is always open. I hope that the visit to which I referred, to be undertaken by my noble friend Lord Goschen, will be a clear indication of the positive efforts that we wish to make to improve trade with Armenia.

My Lords, will the Government actively support full membership for Armenia of the Council of Europe? Is that not rather overdue, considering that both Turkey and Russia are members of that council?

My Lords, we are moving some distance away from encouraging trade with Armenia. But undoubtedly, and as a general proposition, we positively encourage membership of that convention, underpinning as it does human rights across Europe.

My Lords, as my noble and learned friend the Minister will know from the Secretary of State's recent visit to Armenia, that country's economic recovery is very encouraging, with a rise of 10 per cent. in GDP. The Secretary of State recognised then that a political settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh would do much to encourage investment. Can we have an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will be signing with Armenia, as they have with Azerbaijan, a far less stable country, an agreement on investment and that the Secretary of State, when he spoke of the importance of the OSCE in the peacemaking process, was not having in mind that Her Majesty's Government should subscribe to the latest Russian proposal that Nagorno-Karabakh should be an autonomous republic within Azerbaijan?

My Lords, as I have already indicated, we are not a member of the Minsk Group, but we certainly encourage every effort that it can make to bring about a peaceful settlement. As my noble friend rightly pointed out, the visit to Armenia last month by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary should clearly underline the importance we attach to developing relations with the independent states of the former Soviet Union. I do not think that at this time I can offer her a positive assurance that the type of agreement which she would like us to enter into with Armenia will be signed, but clearly we undertake that kind of agreement with a wide range of countries around the world. If that can be achieved, so much the better.

My Lords, while declaring an interest as chairman of the British-Armenia Parliamentary Group, may I ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consider an agreement with Armenia on exemption from double taxation, in view of the fact that such agreements have already been reached between Armenia, the United States of America, France and most of the CIS countries? Will Her Majesty's Government consider financial support for British businesses to encourage them to invest in Armenia? Such support is given by the German Government, which has created funds to assist German businesses to establish themselves in Armenia.

My Lords, I would need notice of a question concerning double taxation arrangements, but I shall look into the matter and write to the noble Earl. He asked about support for British businesses wishing to do business with Armenia. We do all that we can. We have within the DTI a committed set of individuals. As I indicated in my original Answer, we are doing what we can to encourage that trade. It is anticipated that some 15 to 20 companies may go with the mission which my noble friend Lord Goschen is taking to Armenia.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the very considerable esteem in which the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, herself is held in Armenia? I speak as someone who until six weeks ago was responsible for relationships between the Church of England and the Church of Armenia; therefore, the people of Armenia and the Church of Armenia are not strangers to me. The noble Baroness has shown enormous determination and physical courage in the face of considerable danger over these past few years in supporting the people of Armenia, both in Armenia itself and in Nagorno-Karabakh. I believe that she will be a doughty campaigner, too, for developing trade. Perhaps I may ask a second question. Is the Minister aware of the considerable satisfaction with which the establishment of an embassy in Yerevan was met by the Armenian people?

My Lords, I am very pleased to hear of that reaction. I thank the right reverend Prelate for the generous compliment that he has paid to my noble friend. The efforts she has made on behalf of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are widely known and, I believe, very much appreciated.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Armenia is one of the more stable countries to emerge from the break-up of the Soviet Union? It enjoys a high standard of education and is very pro-British. May we from these Benches wish the Goschen mission every success?

My Lords, my noble friend has had a sufficient plug for one afternoon.