My Lords, if I give the Russians full marks for anything, it is for their success in so largely isolating the Caucasus from the sustained focus of international attention and analysis. With the exception of a handful of courageous and determined journalists and brave NGOs, very few have managed to penetrate life there and to reveal and understand it as it is. I fear that for too many editors and NGOs it may have slipped into the “too difficult” category. They should persevere; they are acutely needed.
Much of the Caucasus is claimed by the Russians as part of the federation. Russia is a full member of the Council of Europe. The raison d’être of the Council of Europe is to strengthen democracy, accountable government, human rights, the quality of justice and the rule of law among its member states. Few member states are without skeletons in the cupboard; none is perfect; and that certainly applies to the UK. However, I hope that, as members of the Council of Europe, we all strive to improve performance. Therefore, when we speak out about the conduct of another member state, we should do so as part of a common struggle by all member states. We should do so in a spirit of humility, aware of our own shortcomings. We see the European convention, based as it is on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as a recognition of the value, worth and dignity of all people. Remembering the realism of those who drafted them in the aftermath of the cruel experiences of the Second World War, we see them as a pillar of sustained, civilised, stable and secure society. Where human rights prevail and freedom flourishes, the danger of extremism and associated terrorism can be marginalised. Where they are absent, there will be alienation, and alienation too easily produces a recruiting ground for extremists and terrorists.
Counterproductivity in the way we respond to extremists, however sinister, blood chilling and provocative they may be, can make an insecure situation still more dangerous. We have to support each other in constantly demonstrating the highest standards and principles not just in rhetoric but in action. The soldier or policeman, immigration official or prison officer who maltreats those with whom they are dealing becomes an agent of instability and insecurity. What they do is not just wrong and a denial of the very principles we claim to hold dear, it is treacherous by playing into the hands of the extremists, and by aiding and abetting them and, indeed, those who manipulate them. Hearts and minds, when on our side, are the cornerstone of our society; when they are not, they become its biggest threat. It is in this context that I move this Motion.
In the Caucasus, Russia is still, by her direct or surrogate action, too often contradicting her commitments as a member of the Council of Europe and driving people into the arms of the extremists. In January 2000, I was part of a Council of Europe delegation to Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya, led by the late Lord Russell-Johnston, who was then president of the parliamentary assembly. In Chechnya, we could not reach Grozny as the security situation was still too grave; we got close and could hear the dreadful bombardment. A couple of months later, as rapporteur to the parliamentary assembly on the conflict and accompanied by a small group of assembly members, I went again. We were among the first from outside Russia to visit Grozny after the bombardment. It was a ghost town. No building we could see appeared undamaged. Most had been totally destroyed. Those that remained standing looked as though it might well be necessary to demolish them before rebuilding. We were all stunned into silence. The few people still in the city were somehow surviving among the ruins. We talked to some of them. There were absolutely no public services. Everywhere the bombardment seemed to have been indiscriminate.
The people of Chechnya have suffered grievously in their history, not least from the brutality of Stalin. However, this was Russia at the beginning of the new millennium and now a full member of the Council of Europe. As we travelled, we became increasingly aware of the indiscriminate and ruthless action of the Russian army and security forces. Within both Chechnya and Ingushetia the plight of the displaced people was terrible.
Over the next few years as rapporteur, I visited Chechnya and Ingushetia seven times. In connection with that work, I visited Russia several times more. I was able to meet officials, senior Ministers and the heads of the FSB. We had very candid exchanges about the situation. I became increasingly disturbed and exasperated by the contradictions that I was seeing and experiencing that were presented for the purposes of the Council of Europe, and by their counterproductivity. The situation was constantly strengthening the appeal and influence of the very extremists who were perceived by the Russians as the threat to Russia. The anguish of the disappearances, the absence of justice, the indiscriminate destruction of villages, the extra-judicial killings, the house burnings, the intimidation of witnesses, the victimisation of the relatives of the accused and the torture were grim.
The coldblooded deliberately targeted assassination of that courageous journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was unflinching and steadfast in her commitment to integrity and truth, speaks for itself. She was a challenge to journalists throughout the world, and she was not the only one who paid dearly for their brave work.
Worst of all and pervading everything was the culture of immunity. When challenged, the authorities would regularly plead that investigations into complaints had been initiated. However, the total absence of any convincing outcomes to such investigations was glaringly obvious. The cynical and fundamentally flawed and imposed so-called constitution came out of no widespread public discussion and with no sense of popular ownership or acceptance. Together with the manipulated elections and the selective electoral roll that followed, this for me became the last straw. This and far more was the story I encountered during my four years as rapporteur.
Of course there has been no monopoly on abuse or atrocities. Totally unacceptable behaviour has also been the story of the rebels and extremists. They have been responsible for reprehensible and counterproductive action, but what they have done has been eclipsed by the scale of the Russian action. That action, and more recently that of its surrogates and tyrannical henchmen such as Kadyrov, the present so-called President of Chechnya, has been out of all proportion. Many of the Chechens who took to arms did so in desperation. As they saw it, it was the only way to defend the nation’s identity and integrity. Others certainly were drawn to wider global terrorism. The ruthlessness of the action by the Russians and their surrogates has blurred the dividing line. It has become a powerful generator of recruitment for the global terrorist cause.
Last year, on behalf of the All-Party Group on Human Rights, together with Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat MP, I visited Chechnya after some six years. Jo Swinson and I cannot thank too warmly Nicole Piché, the administrator of the all-party group who worked so hard to make the visit possible and who accompanied us. I also thank those at the Foreign Office who gave so much practical support, not least financial, at ministerial, official and embassy levels.
On the surface, the physical rebuilding of Grozny and some other prominent places is impressive. It is a setting that totally contrasts with early 2000. However, it is impossible to vouch for the quality of the buildings or the means by which access to, for example, housing can be secured. We heard doubts on both scores. The new mosque in Grozny is formidable, at least on the surface. The school premises and medical facilities that we were able to visit were striking, as was the quality of some of the professionals with whom we were able to speak. However, the packed meeting of students in a main hall at the university was a profound disappointment. With senior university administrators on the platform, try as we did, we could not get the meeting to open up. Subsequently, we learnt that the previous day, students had been cautioned to toe the line.
The physical changes, whatever their real merit, are simply not matched by improvements in the quality of freedom, justice and human rights. Some suggest that there is at least greater stability, but we came away convinced that any stability there was was the sterile stability of tyranny and fear. Indeed, it was sinister. In the North Caucasus as a whole, it has been calculated that more than 1,700 people were killed or injured in 2010 alone. We were apprehensive about the suppressed pressures and the continued, inevitable growth in the influence of extremism, with all its implications for global stability. The disappearances, torture, witness intimidation, victimisation of relatives of the accused, house burning and extra-judicial killings continue. In the absence of a convincing system of justice, so continues the culture of impunity and the failure to call anyone to account, let alone to punishment.
The so-called Parliament is frankly synthetic: 37 of its 41 MPs are drawn from the United Russia Party. There is no evidence of its holding those in power to account. As was found six years earlier, the official human rights bodies are clearly an arm of government. They have a chilling effect on NGOs rather than supporting them. Nobody has yet been brought to justice for the death of Natalia Estemirova, another incredibly brave journalist who refused to compromise on her commitment to truth. A couple of years ago, she greatly impressed those of us who met and heard her here in Westminster shortly before her assassination.
The European Court of Human Rights has made more than 150 judgments condemning the Russian Federation for serious human rights violations across the North Caucasus. As Human Rights Watch and others have established, other than some limited assistance in the form of financial compensation, little has been done to pursue those responsible and to hold them accountable before the law. Still, the argument is too often used that investigations have been initiated without any sign of their being concluded. The absence of a wholesome civil society leaves a gigantic gap. There are a number of NGOs, ranging from the outstandingly courageous and professionally convincing, such as Memorial, based in Moscow itself, and now being pursued by Kadyrov in the courts on criminal charges of subversion, to the relatively tame state groups in Chechnya itself. It must be said that some Chechen-based NGOs strive to be independent, but it is a hazardous road to take.
It is impossible to look at Chechnya or the North Caucasus region as ends in themselves. In too many ways, they are symptomatic of what is wrong in Russia itself. Corruption is another gigantic, all-pervading reality. As the contagious consequences of the political sickness of Chechnya spread across the whole region, not least Dagestan and Ingushetia, the process of generating a recruiting ground for global terrorism continues, with all its implications for global security.
It need never have been so. I believe that there is still a chance to win nationalist rebels into a political process if that process is genuinely inclusive and free of too many preconditions. The process of any solution will have to be owned by a convincing cross-section of the parties. Northern Ireland, while of course in many ways different, illustrates what can be achieved with courage and imagination.
As we seek to build co-operation with the Russians, as we should and must, in meeting the immense global challenges which confront us all, I hope the Minister can reassure us, first, that no stone will be left unturned and no opportunity missed to bring home to the Russians that they are making global security more difficult to achieve by the way they have been handling the Caucasus and they must change course; to persuade them that no sustainable, enduring solution can be imposed by the military and security services and that there has to be a genuinely wholly inclusive peace process owned by the parties.
Secondly, I hope the Minister can reassure us that the UK will do everything within its power to provide effective muscle—which is lacking at the moment—in the Committee of Ministers in Strasbourg to persuade the Russians of the imperative of pursuing to a convincing conclusion the action for which the European Court of Human Rights’ judgment has called, holding to account those responsible for abuses and putting in place effective arrangements to prevent a repetition of those abuses. Thirdly, working with the diplomatic representatives of other friendly countries, our embassy in Moscow should be encouraged to find ways to give all possible support to the building of a thriving civil society in Russia and the Caucasus and to find ways of assisting those who strive for human rights. Fourthly, the Government should ensure with our European Union partners and allies that Chechens and others from the region who are at risk are protected and have access to asylum. Finally, the Government should provide tangible support, both within the Caucasus and in the diaspora, for building up the professional and skilled human resources necessary to build a sustainable future for Chechnya and her neighbours when a stable political solution emerges.
The Chechens and the people of the North Caucasus have suffered for too long. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in this debate, and I congratulate him on having secured it. He and I have known each other well for the past 45 years. All those years ago we took part in Anglo-American conferences on Africa, as did the noble Lord, Lord Howie, whom I am glad to see in his place.
This is an important debate on Chechnya and the North Caucasus. The noble Lord has drawn attention to the extraordinary rise of Mr Kadyrov, who seems to have become a ruthless dictator in Chechnya and has almost totally succeeded in creating a potential Islamic caliphate in that region. The regime clearly suits Russia—to which I want to apply my remarks, because Chechnya is still nominally part of Russia. The relationship also suits Chechnya, as it is only too glad to reap the vast amount of money that Russia is bucketing into the place. However, how long Mr Kadyrov’s admiration for Russia, and for Mr Putin in particular, will last is an interesting source of speculation. However, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the Minister will allow me to talk in broader terms about the Russian approach to the whole of the Caucasus region, and to discuss what should be the response of our Government, and the wider governments of NATO and western Europe, to this situation.
I want to discuss the situation in the South Caucasus—in Georgia, and particularly in the troubled states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I am a member of the United Kingdom delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Last November, in Warsaw, I presented to that assembly Resolution 382, which was extremely critical of Russia’s policies on Georgia and those two territories. The resolution condemned Russia’s failure to allow displaced citizens of the two territories to return to their homes and criticised its failure to comply with the European Union-brokered ceasefire agreement and to withdraw to the positions it held before the conflict with Georgia. It also criticised Russia for blocking the extension of the OSCE and United Nations missions to Georgia into the two regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. An international monitoring mechanism is therefore absent from those two territories.
The resolution that I presented urged the Government and Parliament of the Russian Federation, as well as the de facto authorities in Abkhazia, Georgia and South Ossetia, to reverse the results of what the independent international fact-finding mission on the conflict in Georgia and other international documents have described as ethnic cleansing; to allow the safe and dignified return of all internally displaced persons to their homes; to allow the European Union monitoring mission unimpeded access to the territory of the two regions; and to ensure access to international humanitarian aid by those who need it.
The NATO Parliamentary Assembly unanimously agreed the resolution. Indeed, it followed a previous policy which it adopted immediately after the conflict between Russia and Georgia and removed some of the Russia’s rights and privileges to join in the assembly’s activities. Russia, like a number of other non-NATO member states, participates in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly as an associate member.
Since the assembly took that firm action to remove Russia’s ability to join in the assembly’s activities, I have become increasingly concerned at the way in which NATO member states have progressively softened their attitude to Russia’s aggressive obstinacy over Abkhazia and South Ossetia in this ongoing crisis, as they have previously done to its aggressive attitude to Chechnya itself. This became clear to me a few weeks back, in April, when I attended a meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s standing committee with the leader of the United Kingdom delegation, Sir Menzies Campbell, who is a Member of the other place. A proposal was put before us to restore to Russia most of the rights and privileges that we had removed only a short time before. The United Kingdom delegation voted against the proposal, and we almost found ourselves isolated but for the three Baltic states and Romania. I was shocked at the way in which so many NATO states are softening their attitude to Russia’s continuing aggressive behaviour, particularly in the whole of the Caucasus region. A cynic might say that a vote in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is not all that significant. However, the line taken by various NATO member state delegations is a straw in the wind indicating the views of their respective Governments.
My purpose this morning is to urge the United Kingdom Government to continue to take a very firm line with Russia, even if others do not want to do so. The softer approach that seems to be becoming more popular will only encourage Russia to continue to take an aggressive approach to the problems that we face in the whole Caucasus region.
Russia's policy is well known to us. It is attempting to control the flow of oil from Azerbaijan, the Caspian region and Kazakhstan beyond. It would love to control all the flows and all the pipelines. One cannot help but feel that if it could extend its influence in the South Caucasus area to the whole of Georgia, rather than to the two territories about which I have talked, it would then effectively control all the oil that comes out through Baku in Azerbaijan to the West.
My purpose in speaking this morning concerns the whole of the Caucasus area. I hope that the Government will continue—I am sure that this is their intention—to take a very firm line with Russia, even if some of our friends are falling away in that quest.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Jopling, who has experience and knowledge both of the Council of Europe and the North Atlantic Assembly over many years. It is a particular pleasure to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on taking the initiative, initiating this debate and putting forward his Motion on Chechnya and the North Caucasus.
My pleasure is augmented by a recollection. My noble friend Lord Jopling talked about 40-plus years ago. I will not go back that far, but I am still entitled to go back to 1973, when I first came across Frank Judd MP, as he was then. He was a junior Minister in the Foreign Office and sat on the Labour Benches. He came on the first historic visit that we made in November 1973 to the People's Republic of China, prior to the Edward Heath visit that followed the Nixon thaw with China. I well recollect the awe and inspiration I felt around Frank Judd. I embarrass him deliberately today with this praise, because it is due and I have been meaning to say it for many years. He has a deep knowledge and passion for human rights, international civic rights, the protection of minorities and new techniques for dealing in a kindly way with the international migration problem that we have in many parts of the world. Frank Judd's links with the UN over the years have also been a tremendous inspiration.
In those days in the People's Republic of China, the cultural revolution was still on, although it was fading away at the edges. We saw China in a totally different guise from how it is now, after its tremendous transformation. That experience showed the need for the democracies of the world, and western democracies in particular, to be very vigilant about how countries change internally. China remains a one-party state. There has been some opening out of the National People's Congress and so on, but the country retains a command economy, despite a huge input now of private enterprise.
One only hopes that the fact that Russia achieved democracy in its own form after the collapse of the Soviet Union will lead—it has not happened yet—to the genuine creation of a lasting and durable democracy, which Russia has never had. Because of that, Russia can continue to be tyrannical and brutal, particularly in the more geographically extreme areas of the federation. I share the dismay of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and my noble friend Lord Jopling—and I use his words—at the rage and brutality of the Russian intervention in these areas. The word “overkill” is unfortunate because it can be taken out of context, but we saw almost a deliberate overkill in response to so-called terrorist rebellions—they were immediately classified as terrorism, although some people would say that there were freedom fighters—in Chechnya and elsewhere. There was overkill physically, too. What happened to human beings and to buildings, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, was really disturbing in Russian terms. We know, too, how there was a reaction to some incidents which took place when, tragically, innocent human beings were killed and wounded in Moscow and elsewhere. There was a measured reaction to contain the problem, but when dealing with the human rights aspects either of countries wishing to be autonomous or of regions and provinces seeking more local freedoms within the federation structure, there is the need for Russia to respond to that.
My pleasure is followed by a feeling of great embarrassment on my part about this debate. This is the first time that I have ever pleaded with the House to give me leave, but I have to leave this debate early. I do so with genuine sincerity and I apologise that this is a day of voting on a number of important aspects. The Liberal Democrat Party is particularly concerned with one national aspect, the referendum on AV, and therefore we will all be engaged later on. I am able to go out later than some of my colleagues who have already gone to urge our voters out for the referendum. That is why I have to leave this debate early. I hope that, in future, the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, will continue to speak to me from time to time despite this impertinence on my part. I hope that the Front Benches will grant me leave to leave early today. It was not possible for another of our foreign affairs team to speak in this debate.
I will stay in the debate as long as possible. Unfortunately, my embarrassment is augmented by the reality that I also have a lunchtime meeting with an official who is coming from overseas. That was fixed four and a half months ago, whereas I am standing in for a colleague at short notice in this debate. I have to do that at 1 o'clock but I shall stay in this debate as long as I can. My double embarrassment in that respect is then completely transmogrified into pleasure again that, after my few words about these matters, more expertise will come from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, who knows so much more about them than I do. I pay tribute to him, too, and the work that he has done in bringing the Muslim international community together with the Christian and other faith and non-faith communities throughout the world for peace and general international understanding.
Concerning Chechnya, surely it behoves the Government to be deliberate and emphatic today—even if I am not there right at the end, and I apologise in advance to my noble friend Lord Wallace for that reality. I understand completely what my noble friend on the Bench below the Gangway meant in his intervention. I feel very bad about it, as it is the first time I have ever done it, but I have to persist. However, I ask my noble friend Lord Wallace to reassure us that the Government really will, definitely and emphatically, repeat, reiterate and reinforce our determination to make representations to the leaders of the Russian Federation and to those in the Russian Parliament—particularly in the majority party, which is so dominant in their system after the last election—that they must now begin to indicate that there really will be a greater human rights reform in those outlying regions of the federation. It should be not only in the Muslim parts but in Georgia. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, mentioned the south Caucasus countries, but there is also what will happen in the future in places such as Armenia. All those things have some linkage.
It is very important both for the European Union as a whole and the UK Government in particular, with our interests in those matters, to ensure that we make very strong representations to the Russians and do not allow that softening-down process to which the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, referred. It sounds very sinister and disturbing. I hope, too, that the Labour Front Bench—having I hope forgiven me, in the guise of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, for my impertinence in leaving the debate later—will add its support so that it will be a joint Front-Bench effort to persuade the Russians to be very careful and cautious in future about the way that they handle these delicate and tragic matters.
My Lords, it is my pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dykes. He is a great man and has plenty of work to do this afternoon to convince some of his voters, so I have no objection if he leaves early.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Judd on securing this debate and thank him for giving me the opportunity to discuss the human rights situation in the North Caucasus and, especially, in Chechnya. I express my special thanks to Human Rights Watch for providing me with excellent information for this debate. I am told that first-time visitors to the capital of Chechnya—Grozny—now see a modern city with new construction, high-rise skyscrapers and modern infrastructure, as described by my noble friend Lord Judd. You can easily assume that the people of that city enjoy all the freedoms, rights and privileges enjoyed in any other city in the Russian Federation. However, that is not the case for many Chechens. President Kadyrov’s autocratic rule is described by many as a,
“clan-mafia model of political power”,
that is ruthless, oppressive and corrupt.
Human rights defenders in Russia remain vulnerable to harassment and attacks, and those working to end impunity for abuse in the North Caucasus are especially at risk. While the Russian leadership has spoken out about the importance of normal working conditions for NGOs, it has failed to react to repeated and open threatening statements about human rights groups that have been made by the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and other high-level Chechen officials. In summer 2010, a prominent human rights lawyer from Dagestan, Sapiyat Magomedova, was severely beaten by police in the city of Khasavyurt. Although the alleged perpetrators have been identified, they have not been brought to justice. There has also been no justice for the brazen murders in 2009 of human rights defenders working in North Caucasus, including the murder in July 2009 of Natalia Estemirova, the most prominent human rights activist in Chechnya, and it is unclear whether any of the investigations have examined possible official involvement or complicity in these crimes. Meanwhile, Oleg Orlov, the chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Centre and one of Russia's most prominent human rights defenders, remains on trial on criminal slander charges for saying that Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, bore political responsibility for Estemirova's murder.
Violations of women's rights are another growing concern, with authorities in Chechnya unambiguously condoning the pelting with paintball guns of unveiled women on the streets, resulting in the hospitalisation of at least one woman in summer 2010. In a July 2010 television interview, Chechnya's leader Kadyrov professed his readiness to “award a commendation” to the men engaged in this crime and said that the targeted women deserved such treatment for not being dressed with sufficient modesty. A March 2011 report by Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of women being harassed in the streets of Grozny for not covering their hair or for wearing clothes deemed too revealing. Chechen authorities have also banned women refusing to wear headscarves from working in the public sector or attending schools and universities. Moscow, meanwhile, has remained silent in the face of these blatantly abusive policies.
Fuelling the climate of impunity for abuses in Chechnya is Russia's persistent failure fully to implement the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights on applications from Chechnya, which we have already heard about. The court has to date issued some 165 judgments holding Russia responsible for grave human rights violations in Chechnya. While Russia has generally paid the required monetary compensation to victims, it has failed to implement the core of the judgments, which entails conducting effective investigations and holding perpetrators accountable. The authorities have also failed to take adequate measures to prevent the reoccurrence of similar abuses with the result that a steady flow of new complaints are being lodged with the court every year. The practices described stand in stark contrast with the Kremlin’s welcome rhetorical commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
The UK Government should seize every opportunity to convey, in the strongest terms possible, concern about this inconsistency, along with an expectation that the Russian Government take concrete steps to address it. Such steps should include fostering a normal working environment for civil society organisations and activities, and ensuring that they are protected from persecution and harassment; ensuring a thorough and transparent investigation into Natalia Estemirova’s murder and the other murders of activists, including the possibility of official involvement in these crimes; dropping criminal charges against Oleg Orlov; publicly disavowing unlawful counterterrorism-counterinsurgency practices, holding accountable those who engage in them, and acknowledging the role that they play in destabilising the situation in the region; putting an end to the local rule of forcing women in Chechnya to observe a dress code and acting to protect the rights of women to a private life and personal autonomy; and implementing fully judgments by the European Court of Human Rights on Chechnya, including conducting effective investigations and holding perpetrators accountable, and taking adequate measures to prevent similar abuses from reoccurring.
I should also like to draw the attention of your Lordships to the worsening situation in Dagestan. The law and order situation in Makhachkala is now worse than in Grozny. Corruption from government officials, and from Ministers to school teachers, is ignored. Life for ordinary citizens is becoming unbearable.
Finally, I am invited to attend a peace conference in Grozny later this month. I feel that after my contribution in your Lordships’ House I probably will not be welcomed but if Moscow takes any notice of what I have said, it is a price worth paying.
My Lords, it is rare that we have an opportunity to debate matters North Caucasus and it is a particular pleasure for me in that I have majored on the South Caucasus and central Asia in the years since independence. Therefore, while focusing my remarks principally on Chechnya, I wonder whether I might be excused attempting to put today’s debate into context, particularly the aspect relating to security.
The majority of contributions this afternoon have addressed human rights issues. However, sustainable solutions can come about only as a result of the right political environment on the ground, with all the benefits that flow from that. It is with that in mind that I believe it is important to remind ourselves of some of the background, together with Russia’s long-held vulnerability and policy to protect its core area surrounding Moscow and down into the Volga region, and Russia’s lack of geographic barriers to protect it.
The basis of Russia’s national security have been three expansions to the natural border barriers marked, first, by the Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan; secondly, the Carpathian mountains on the far side of Moldova and Ukraine; and, thirdly, the Greater Caucasus mountains on the southern side of the Muslim republics. The Greater Caucasus mountains, which are separate from the Lesser Caucasus mountains in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, are the most important as they are the closest to Russia’s core and historically have kept out the Ottomans and the Persians. So it always has been a geopolitical imperative to hold the Muslim republics. It is not a perfect plan but it is the basis of Russia’s national security.
The North Caucasus region is a multiplicity of ethnicities split into seven territories including North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. The majority of the northern Caucasus people are Sunni Muslim, but while there are many different blends of Islam as well as pockets of Orthodox Christians, Jews and Buddhists, religion is not the source of discontent in the region. Animosity and disputes are nearly wholly derived from territorial issues between each of the ethnic groups, and with the region being one of the toughest in Russia and then the Soviet Union for the Kremlin to clamp down on.
During the Second World War, Moscow removed hundreds of thousands from the North Caucasus in order to split the populations, ensuring that they could not consolidate with the Germans into a force to rise against the Kremlin. Over the decades these populations returned to the region, and on into the 1990s at the demise of the Soviet Union. The implosion sent shock waves throughout the region, with the first dispute forcing the Russian state to react not in Chechnya, but to an inter-ethnic conflict between Muslim Ingushetia and Orthodox Christian North Ossetia in 1989 with their dispute over territory. The conflict demonstrated to Moscow how complicated it would be to define the status of each of these regions, how much autonomy to give them, and how to prevent them from fighting among themselves, and all of this at a time when Russia was concerned that the region would rise up against the Russian state. These are the issues that haunt the Kremlin today.
Chechnya is the largest anxiety to Moscow, as it has been for more than three hundred years, with the two regions of Dagestan and Ingushetia to a lesser degree, and the remaining four republics even less so by comparison. Chechnya lies on a lowland that, unlike its neighbours, gives it reliable food supplies, and on a bed of relative energy wealth. So no matter if Chechnya is dominated by the Russians, rising up against Moscow rule or aligning politically with the Kremlin, the focus on the Caucasus by the Russians will always be on the Chechens first. The first war ended in 1996 with little more than a stalemate, in effect an embarrassing defeat for the Russian military. This upset was another nail in the coffin of attempts to westernise and democratise.
The Russian people were sick of a chaotic country. It had endured already what many perceived as a weak leader in Yeltsin, a broken economy, a massive financial crisis, its main state enterprises taken up by oligarchs, an invasion of foreign entities, all compounded with defeat in the Caucasus. The Russian people wanted only one thing: change. And so there was the rise of a strong leader who was willing to take back control of the country, no matter what it took. President Putin came into office with a precise checklist: consolidate politically under one party loyal to him, oust foreign influence, seize strategic economic assets, crush the oligarchs and rehash the Chechen problem. Putin reacted to the atrocities and launched the second Chechen war in 1999, but the problem this time was that the Chechen insurgence was nothing like that which took place during the first.
A massive shift had taken place in the region between 1996 and 1999. Chechen militants had been infiltrated by foreign ideology, shifting the militants’ goal from a nationalist strife for independence to a jihad in order to create an Islamic state. With this came new tactics not often used in the region: large-scale terrorism. The Kremlin’s declaration of the second Chechen war brought a string of terrorist attacks across Russia, starting with the co-ordinated apartment bombings in Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodonsk. In the years to come, this terrorism evolved into regular train and subway bombings, the Moscow theatre siege, the twin airline bombings and Beslan.
Islamism in the region gave the Kremlin another tool in order to crush the insurgency. In the early 2000s, Russia began to split the nationalists from the Islamists and set them against each other. Moscow pulled the nationalists into alliances and loyalties with the Russians, offering them power and money in exchange for their help against the Islamists, and so the Chechen nationalists began fighting alongside the Russian forces against the Islamists. Over the mid-2000s, nearly all the Chechen Islamist leaders were killed, thus enabling the declaration of the war being over by 2009. With the war officially over, Chechnya remains today a delicate and complex republic, with its problems and insecurities resonating throughout the region.
The Catch-22 is this: in setting up an alliance with the Chechen nationalists the Kremlin was compelled to empower them. Whereas the Caucasus emirates, representing Islamic militancy, were successfully broken into smaller militant groups with no real co-ordination, the Chechen brigades were given free rein to use traditional guerrilla warfare and—unapologetically—torture, together with specialist training by the Russian military, to squash the Caucasus emirates.
The Chechen brigades are now an elite fighting force in the region, currently numbering 40,000, whereas the Russian forces in the region have dropped from 110,000 to around 50,000, nearly equal to that of the Chechens. The Chechen brigades have also been given licence to secure the neighbouring region of Ingushetia, but here is the rub: the Kremlin has petitioned them to expand their security reach into Dagestan but the bitter rivalry between Chechnya and Dagestan will erupt into war once again if the Kremlin allows Chechen forces to cross the border.
Looking forward, other difficulties in the short term and the long term arise. First, although the rebellion in Chechnya has ended, this does not mean the end of militancy. The militant groups in the Caucasus are fractured and disorganised; however, they still hold the capability to strike at soft targets. So while the large-scale attacks of the past, such as Beslan and the apartment bombings, are most likely over, small attacks such as those on the Moscow subway and Domodedovo Airport will continue. The Kremlin has come to accept this reality, as have most of the Russian people.
This leads to the second problem: whereas Russia has accepted that smaller attacks will occur, Moscow is focusing on preventing any attack, no matter how small, when large international events take place. Russia is hosting two major events in the next decade—the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 World Cup in Moscow. The Olympics in Sochi are of immediate concern as it is a mere 500 kilometres from the Chechen capital. The Russian Government have been considering their choices, with a distinct possibility of a firm military option being implemented. The killing yesterday in Chechnya of a top al-Qaeda militant, who co-ordinated foreign rebels in the North Caucasus, will reinforce this.
The third issue concerns the mid term. Even though the Chechen wars are over, the traditional rivalry between the Caucasus republics remains, with the largest between Chechnya and Dagestan. Dagestan is still without a suitable security plan by the Kremlin, although the current thinking by Chechnya is to set up Dagestani brigades like those in Chechnya. However, there is no real leader in Dagestan under whom to establish such a force. With the strengthening of the Chechen brigades, it has become a real concern in Dagestan as to whether it can trust the Kremlin to control its rival Chechnya.
The last issue is twofold and the most dangerous of them all. While the Kremlin has created an elite fighting force in Chechnya—made out nearly all of former militants—and empowered it with regional wealth, military training, arms and a right to do as it pleases, its forces in the region nearly match those of Russia. The Kremlin is singularly uncomfortable with this but felt it had no other option in order to win the second Chechen war. Russia has a large demographic problem which will particularly manifest itself in both the workforce and military in a decade or so. The effect on the Russian military is the most troubling—the Kremlin is already downsizing its forces and will continue to do so. At the same time, the only population in Russia that is growing is the Muslim population, from the current 12 per cent of the population to an anticipated 20 per cent in 2020. The effect of that will be that ethnic brigades and militant forces in the Russian Caucasus grow rather than decrease and that the balance of power in the region tips in future, unless the Kremlin can devise an alternative. It appears that Moscow is for the moment currently devoid of that strategy.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Judd for bringing Chechnya and the North Caucasus to our attention. As he told us, he was for four years the rapporteur on Chechnya for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, trying in his characteristic way—as we heard in his intervention in the fourth Question preceding this debate—to encourage dialogue rather than conflict between the Russians and Chechens.
Most people in the West associate Chechens with the hostage-taking episodes of the Ostrava theatre in Moscow and the school in Beslan. These acts were inexcusable but it should be pointed out that the deaths in the theatre rescue were caused by the poison gas used by the Russians and that the Beslan rescue operation was handled violently when dialogue might have resulted in the release of some or all of the hostages. Both these operations were masterminded by the notorious Shamil Basayev and were strongly condemned by the late President Maskhadov, leader of the Chechen resistance, and his representative in exile, Akhmed Zakayev, who has given his opinion that Basayev has done more than the Russians to damage the Chechen cause.
My interest in this area comes from a somewhat hazardous unofficial visit to Chechnya with a small health charity in 1995 during the first of the two phases of the Russo-Chechen war. Our safety was guaranteed by General Maskhadov, in charge of the Chechen resistance. We stayed in the homes of ordinary Chechens behind the lines, although there were no established lines. My overall impression was of the generosity and resourcefulness of the Chechen people but also of the corruption, cruelty and unnecessarily destructive methods, particularly in Grozny, of the occupying Russian army. Some of the weapons used by the Chechens had been bought from hungry, underpaid Russian soldiers. We heard eye-witness accounts from former inmates of the so-called filtration camps of murder, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment of arbitrarily arrested prisoners. Families often had to pay a ransom to receive the bodies of their murdered relatives.
Historically, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, pointed out, the North Caucasus has for nearly three centuries been a problem for Russia. The Chechens—only some 1 million—have been the most persistent of the Islamic North Caucasians in their resistance to Russian domination. The worst event in Chechen history came in 1944 when Stalin deported the whole population of Chechnya, Ingushetia and some neighbouring republics—except for those who hid in the forest—to faraway Kazakhstan and Siberia. They were packed into cattle trucks and some estimates say that about half of them died from starvation, privation and disease. As the noble Viscount said, Stalin’s reason for this was that the Chechens were planning to collaborate with the Germans when they reached the Caucasus—which of course they never did. When the deportation took place, they were in full retreat. After Stalin’s death, the survivors were allowed to make their own way back, to find that their land and houses were occupied and had to be bought back or taken by force. Even so, the Russians gave part of Ingushetia to North Ossetia—an act that caused lasting resentment.
This experience of deportation has left a searing folk memory. No family was unaffected. However, Chechens then showed themselves to be astute in business and some became quite well off. A minority resorted to shady Mafioso-style business, including kidnapping and extortion. This has been used by some Russians to blacken all Chechens. They and other North Caucasians have become Russia’s hate objects and are targeted and often beaten up by a racist, fascist youth cult that has recently grown up in Russia.
When the USSR disintegrated in 1991, the Chechens declared unilateral independence. Dzhokhar Dudayev, a Chechen general in the Soviet air force, was elected President in a free, fair election on an independence ticket. However, Chechnya’s independent status was not accepted by the Russian hierarchy. Later, President Yeltsin thought he would gain popularity, particularly with the military, if he regained Chechnya through “a short successful war” in 1994. It did not work out that way. After initially capturing Grozny with heavy losses, the Russians were humiliated by Maskhadov’s skilfully led guerrilla army, who recaptured the city. By then, in 1996, the war had become deeply unpopular in Russia and a peace treaty with Maskhadov was negotiated. In an internationally monitored election, Maskhadov was elected President in 1997 to replace Dudayev, who had been killed by a Russian missile.
There followed an anarchic period with some foreign aid workers, including two British Telecom workers, being murdered. The perpetrators were thought to be a militant Wahhabi Islamic sect from outside Chechnya, wishing to drive all foreigners out—they largely succeeded. Others blame the Russians and their attempt to destabilise Chechnya and give the Chechen Government a bad name.
As the noble Lord said, in 1999 the blowing up of apartment blocks in Moscow and Ryazan, which was blamed on Chechens without any evidence, and a Chechen incursion into Dagestan, which was not sanctioned by Maskhadov, were used by the then Prime Minister Putin to launch a full-scale military assault on Chechnya to assuage the humiliation of Russia’s earlier defeat. Grozny, already half destroyed, was further devastated, to leave the picture that my noble friend Lord Judd found. The Chechen forces were eventually reduced to guerrilla bands based in the mountains and forests. Maskhadov was traced and killed, as was Shamil Basayev, Chechnya’s enfant terrible. The Russians have now reduced their military presence, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, pointed out. The former Chechen resistance fighter, Ramzan Kadyrov, was installed as President by Putin. He now heads the repressive state described by my noble friend Lord Judd.
This time, the Russians have been generous in their support of Kadyrov’s regime as compared with the interwar years when they gave not a penny in reparation for the damage they had done. On the surface, as my noble friend said, Grozny has regained its former handsome status but the absence of the rule of law and arbitrary arrests and disappearances have still carried on, as revealed by several journalists and my noble friend’s human rights delegation.
Russia, as my noble friend said, has repeatedly been found guilty of human rights breaches by the European Court of Human Rights. Putin, however, tries to suppress this information, as indicated by the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova. The perpetrators have still not been brought to justice. Murders have not been confined to Russia and Chechnya; in 2002, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who was Maskhadov’s chosen successor as President, was murdered by Russian agents in Doha, in Qatar. The culprits were caught but released and congratulated when they returned to Russia. His successor, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, was killed in Chechnya. In 2009, a prominent Chechen activist was murdered in Vienna—and so the story goes on.
The most notorious overseas murder is, of course, the polonium poisoning of the former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, where the evidence clearly pointed to a Russian, Andrei Lugovoy, as the culprit. The Chechen connection is that Litvinenko was the co-author of a book called Blowing up Russia, which gave very plausible evidence that the Moscow apartment explosions of 1999 had been carried out by FSB agents and not by Chechens. He also accused Putin of being responsible for the death of Anna Politkovskaya at a public meeting just before he was poisoned.
The conflict has other international dimensions. It has been estimated that there are 150,000 Chechen refugees in the EU. I have personally assisted a number of Chechen asylum seekers in this country. Deaths in Chechnya are hard to measure accurately, but they are estimated to be between 80,000 and 100,000 out of a population of 1 million. My noble friend has always warned that the repressive methods used by the Russians and now Kadyrov will lead to the radicalisation of the Chechens, who normally practise a moderate form of Islam akin to Sufism. This has now happened, with Doku Umarov, who claims he is the true leader of the Chechens but is rejected by Akhmed Zakayev, calling for an emirate of the north Caucasus and a jihad against Russia, Israel and the West. To the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, I would say that what Kadyrov is doing in forcing an Islamic code on the Chechen people is very different from the widespread caliphate or emirate that Umarov is calling for. How seriously he is taken by the North Caucasians is open to question, but there is no doubt that there are frequent violent acts against Russian-appointed administrators and security forces in several North Caucasian states. That was described well by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley. Umarov claims responsibility for the recent devastating suicide bombing at Domodedevo airport in Moscow.
What can we suggest that the Russians do who are faced with this situation? First, there should be greater economic investment and job creation in the area, which is extremely poor and has massive unemployment. There should be an amnesty for the remaining resistance fighters, an end to arbitrary arrests, a return to the rule of law and compensation for those whose homes have been destroyed. As soon as possible, there should be internationally supervised free elections. Then we might see an end to kidnapping and suicide bombing.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and to all those who have taken part in this debate. The noble Lord has returned to these issues very regularly, and the House should feel grateful for the fact that he has. He pressed the then Labour Government in March 2005—I remember the pressure—and has consistently done so since. He has reported today on the key role that he played in the Chechnya fact-finding mission of the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group, which he undertook with Jo Swinson MP in February 2010. It is noteworthy, I think, that all these efforts have consistently met with all-party support. It has been one of the better examples of recognition of a significant problem. I suspect that some of that all-party support has come about because of the depth of knowledge that the noble Lord is able to impart. I know that he has made 11 visits to Russia and Chechnya and is regarded very widely as having excelled in his four years as rapporteur for the Council of Europe. Very much of what he says is accurate and authoritative and should be treated as such.
To paraphrase some of the main conclusions, which have been shared by other noble Lords, the noble Lord has argued that the Government of Chechnya are very rarely held accountable for their actions, however dire they might be; that its institutions have neither the capacity nor the desire to hold anyone to account for those actions; and that the conduct of the Government under law is consistently poor and is undermined by a judiciary that lacks independence and is unable to protect witnesses, and therefore has at its heart a corrosive dynamic that makes the effective impact of the law so much less.
Security forces in effect enjoy impunity. Crimes are committed by them in an open and completely unashamed way. There is consistent evidence from very many reporters of torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. These crimes have allegedly been committed by people who have been named frequently in the European Court of Human Rights and the judgments of that court but who are after being named very much more likely to be promoted in the security services of Chechnya than ever to face any kind of justice whatever. My noble friend Lord Ahmed spoke powerfully on these points as well.
It is very clear, as reports have shown, that the Chechen President encourages the use of any means that deal with those he sees as his enemies. No enemy can escape the environment, which is essentially paranoid in its operation. It is quite right to look, as various noble Lords have encouraged us to do, at Chechnya and Russia together in this. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, made the point with great force that corruption with impunity is a characteristic of both, and there is a deep interpenetration of these facts. I support the noble Lord’s proposition. It would make no sense and would greatly encourage Russia to step back from taking a very clear and principled view about these activities, and I hope that the Government confirm today that that is the view they will take. I broadly agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, about the uneasy coalition between Russia and the nationalists in Chechnya, because it has created an environment of repression in its own right. I hope that I will not embarrass the noble Viscount in saying what a superb overview of the strategic conditions he provided for the House. I greatly appreciate that.
The fundamental conclusion that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and many others come to, including the noble Lord, Lord Rea, is that tyranny generally generates militant extremism as a response. Secure and stable societies based on human rights are, of course, the antidote. It is clear that those who have put that point are far from alone. Leading academic investigators have reached similar conclusions over the years. For example, research at the Free University of Brussels shows that the concentration of power and the brutal exercise of that power by Kadyrov, often in concert with Russia in pursuit of his own material, political, economic and other interests, have produced a response that is itself dangerous to all of us.
That is, without question, a depressing picture. I suspect that those who say that they see more stability must be arguing that that is a relative state. Conflict and terrorism are still there and they are not conducive to stability. Rebuilding and growth have taken place, but they have done so in a grim way and in grim human rights conditions. That is one reason why I think that in our description of this we face a rather more complex picture than we sometimes draw. The UN Commission on Human Rights identified atrocities that have been committed on all sides in the Chechen conflict, a point that I recall was made eloquently in 2005 by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. The pursuit of greater autonomy has been conducted with considerable brutality in its own right, not least in acts of appalling terror against Russian civilians, against schoolchildren at Beslan, against commuters in the attacks on the trains and the metro, and recently, I note sadly, in some of the conflict that is emerging even around events that should be social and enjoyable, like football matches, where groups of neo-Nazi thugs are now attacking each other. I say with the greatest respect to my noble friend Lord Rea that on occasion the Russian authorities might well have dealt with situations—the siege of the theatre and other things—with responses that might not have been the most sophisticated that they could have produced, but they did not instigate the attack on the schoolchildren. That is what we should ensure we condemn.
My Lords, I acknowledge that. I suppose I am trying to make the point that responses to terrorist acts can sometimes be badly planned, misjudged and so on, but they occur in the context of the terrorist attack having taken place. The response overall has been pretty brutal and, in the minds of the Russians, has been seen as directed towards them by forms of extremism, and by al-Qaeda in particular. That is what they have used to justify their actions.
However bleak the situation, the need for further discussions is clear, as many noble Lords have said. The need to abide by international legal decisions of the European Court of Human Rights against Russia in the human rights abuse cases is equally clear. The Government could tell us today how they are pursuing these objectives with Russia to ensure that it meets its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe. Will they sustain their position, as the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, asked, on NATO and its Parliament?
I turn to the wider region. I welcome the general style of the approach that has been taken by this Government, and indeed by the previous one, to regional crises. The ethos is well set out in a response to your Lordships’ European Union Committee report on the EU and Russia following the crisis in Georgia. It is a good model for how to deal with many of these issues, and it is important because it shows that however difficult and modest the achievements were in intervening—to try to achieve, first, a ceasefire in Georgia and then, with much delay, partial withdrawals from Georgian territory, except in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which were followed by all-party talks—we saw that initiatives can, on occasion, bear at least a little fruit.
Both North Caucasus and South Caucasus are of great strategic significance. Both provide bridges between Europe and Asia. The region is in the midst of huge transitions of populations and resources, and I suspect that the consequences have been that that has given rise to many of the ethnic and interstate conflicts, some of those conflicts becoming full-scale wars. The region is important for its natural resources and as an important intersection of energy supply systems. Both the north and the south are central to Eurasia’s energy and transport corridors, hence the strategic importance of what the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said. The issues that must arise about the management of resources, their fair distribution and the way in which the income yield gets passed to the populations of those countries rather than being held exclusively by small elites are vital. Environmental issues are vital. The pollution issues from the ageing industries of those areas are vital. In some cases, uncontrolled urban growth becomes an acute issue. Collapsing irrigation systems—all of them—call for attention. I am interested to know how the Government believe some of this could be done.
We cannot intervene everywhere and I am not advocating that we should try, but there might be some lessons to learn, at least from the efforts made by one of the near neighbours of the regions. I am referring to Turkey. Turkish policy is focused on intensive efforts to foster regional co-operation—understandably, given its location, both in the southern Caucasus and more generally. It has promoted economically independent projects, some of which have huge potential, including in the northern Caucasus. Turkey’s speed off the mark in supporting independence and recognising emerging nations might have pre-empted some of the decisions that people in the region might have taken for themselves about geographical borders. All in all, though, active economic and state-building approaches appear more likely to have some success than a constant lament, however justifiable, about how bad things are in the region. Do the Government intend to engage more with Turkey, either through the EU or directly, on exploring some of the practical programmes that can be developed in this region and which might be an adjunct to peace?
As I said, we cannot do everything everywhere; were we to try, we would certainly fail. We might, however, have other partners with whom we could engage more vigorously. Have the Government themselves identified partners in these circumstances? What do they think of the programmes of some of those potential partners?
I ask these questions fully aware of the complexity of the region and of the issues that we face, which were introduced so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and debated so ably in this Chamber. I am eager to learn how the Government believe they can assist in fostering peace in the region and in seeing the peace that has been achieved in southern and eastern Europe over the past couple of decades extended further south and east for the greater security of us all.
My Lords, this has been a worthwhile debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for securing it. The Council of Europe Assembly and indeed the NATO Assembly play a valuable role in discussing a range of sensitive regional and international issues. I have often felt that Members of both Houses who take part in those assemblies do not always succeed in bringing back to Westminster some of the useful consultations and investigations that they have had there, so I welcome this report. The Council of Europe plays a part in a range of activities, as has the noble Lord himself over the years.
When I first joined this House, I rapidly became aware of how many Members of it are expert on some of the most troublesome regions of the world. Shortly after I joined this House, working for the Open Society foundation, I went to Yerevan and was told in a hushed voice by the key lady on the corridor of my hotel that I was staying in the same room that Caroline Cox had stayed in only some months before. Some years later I went to Sukhumi with Anna Politkovskaya and others, thinking that I had reached one of the most God-forsaken and abandoned places in the world. As we left, the Foreign Minister said to me, “By the way, would you please give my best regards to Lord Avebury?”. I am aware that there are Members of this House, of which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is one of the most determined, who have spent a great deal of time making sure that we do not ignore conflicts that it is very easy to ignore.
We all recognise that what is happening in the north Caucasus—indeed, across the whole of the Caucasus—is very easy to neglect when so much is happening across the Middle East and when the situations in Afghanistan, across southern Asia and in the Persian Gulf are also extremely complex and active. However, we need to be reminded that what is happening in the north Caucasus is a problem that may well spill over across the region. It was quite right that we talked in this debate not just about Chechnya but also about the north and southern Caucasus. These all spill over.
Much of the population of southern Ossetia fled, in the course of the conflicts of the early 1990s, to northern Ossetia. South Ossetia is now an almost uninhabited territory. Some of us remember that, when the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia broke out in 1991, some of those fighting for an independent Abkhazia came from Chechnya and went back to fight for an independent Chechnya afterwards. These things have unavoidable links. Georgia has a long frontier with Dagestan and Chechnya. There have been and continue to be accusations from the Russians that the Georgian Government have been assisting in supporting rebels to the north. Perhaps unwisely, the Georgian Government have now developed a number of services which broadcast to the north Caucasus. So there is an unavoidable overlap between local conflict and the wider region.
Mention has also been made of the Sochi Olympics, coming up in 2014, which, as a number of diaspora groups remind us, will be the 150th anniversary of the final suppression of the Circassians in the north Caucasus. The Circassians’ descendants spread out across what was then the Ottoman Empire, and are now in Libya, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere. There are various threats—how credible they are we do not know—that efforts will be made to interrupt and obstruct the Sochi Olympics. That, again, would be a matter of concern to all those who propose to send national teams there. As Members have mentioned, we have seen bombings in Moscow and St Petersburg, claimed to have been conducted by people from Chechnya and Dagestan. So this is not purely a local conflict. It spills over.
We recognise that the layers of bitterness and historical conflict—stretching back to 1989-1991 and, before that, as noble Lords have mentioned, to the Second World War and beyond to the tsarist conquest of the north Caucasus in the 19th century—are all part of what we now have to address. I am glad that Her Majesty’s Government have issued an invitation to Alexander Khloponin, the federally appointed administrator for the north Caucasus, to visit the United Kingdom and, in particular, Northern Ireland, to discuss how to attempt to come to terms with and overcome conflicts with deep historical roots and layers of grievance on both sides. That invitation has not yet been accepted, but it is still very much open.
We are also conscious that the demographic change across the north Caucasus, with substantial emigration of ethnic Russians and a rising population of many of these local groups, also raises major issues. I read something yesterday which talked about mounting resistance in Dagestan. There have been a number of explosions at ski resorts and at a power station in Kabardino-Balkaria, so, again, this is not purely a local issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, talked a little about the role of Islam in the area. From all that I have read, this is a difficult area to get a grip on. A Caucasus emirate has been announced which operates to bring together rebel groups in the largely, but not entirely, Muslim republics of the north Caucasus. How much influence that has, and what links it has with groups outside Russia, we are not entirely sure. Claims are made. There has clearly been some external support and fighters over the past 20 years. So far as we can see, however, these are local grievances. It is a local conflict, exacerbated by the violence used by the local security forces, which often drives young men into the forests to join the resistance and then use Islam as part of the rationale for their violence. We must all be aware that the use of Islam can easily become part of a more radical internationalist link.
The potential spillover concerns us a great deal. The Foreign Secretary has made clear on several occasions in discussions with the Russians that, for us, supporting the rule of law and protecting human rights are essential and indivisible from our national foreign policy objectives. These values are part of our national DNA. Discussing them frankly and seeking constructive ways in which to co-operate with the Russian authorities in addressing the challenges they face is an integral part of our bilateral relationship.
Some noble Lords may ask what our leverage over the Russians in this is if we are not prepared to intervene. Certainly, one area of leverage is that the Russian elite wants Russia to be accepted as a great power, as a civilised power and as a European state. Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and of the OSCE. Therefore, our ability to say, “You are not living up to civilised standards. You are not living up to European standards,” continues to have some leverage. There is some evidence that the elite in Moscow is now rather unsettled by what is happening across the Middle East. Its preferred model of an authoritarian modernising state is unsettled by the appearance that the Egyptians, Libyans and others prefer a rather more open society than many in Moscow want. The Foreign Secretary continues to raise human rights and rule-of-law issues, including those in the north Caucasus. We are the only Government in the EU to have a formal Government-to-Government human rights dialogue with Russia. Within that, early this year as well as last year, we talked as much about what is happening in the north Caucasus as about other issues.
On my personal view, having spent some time with Anna Politkovskaya in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and having had long conversations with her about the insecurity of being a journalist in Russia, I feel particularly passionate about the extent to which journalists and civil rights activists, not just in the north Caucasus but across the whole of Russia, are taking their lives in their hands as they now operate. I am happy to say that the Russians repealed the most draconian of their controlling civil society organisations laws last year, and it is possible for foreign Governments to provide support for NGOs. Her Majesty’s Government are providing support for a number of NGOs inside Russia, including Memorial, which the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has mentioned. We are doing whatever we can to support the strengthening of civil society in the whole of the Russian Federation.
The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, asked whether we have others with us. We have some evidence that other NATO members are prepared to soften their approach to Russia. I am happy that the German Government are providing as much assistance as they can to civil society groups in Russia. Nordic Governments are actively concerned with strengthening civil society. As I look around the Chamber, I see the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, who I know has been engaged over the years in helping independent academic and other institutions in Moscow.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, that if we are looking for partners, the Turks are very useful partners in the Caucasus. The Turkish Government, as the noble Lord will recall, have made considerable efforts to bring Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan together. Turkey has legitimate concerns. The coalition Government regard Turkey as one of our most important international partners for this and for many other reasons.
Noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, raised the question of Georgia. We are doing our best to assist the Georgian Government in the frozen conflicts. We face many obstacles, sometimes from the Georgian Government themselves, and often from the Russian Government, which has blocked the EU monitoring mission from playing the role that it would like to play in these conflicts. The UK continues to offer its strong political support to the EU monitoring mission. We bitterly regret Russia’s decision to veto the continuation of the UN mission in Georgia in June 2009. We also regret that Russia continues to block consensus on an OSCE mission similar to that which existed prior to June 2009. Russia is a member of the OSCE and a member of the UN. Effective international monitoring of what is happening on these contested borders is itself a confidence-building measure, and is therefore strongly to be supported.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked several questions. I hope I have answered most of them positively. He made the comparison with Northern Ireland. Are we willing to push the Russians to change course away from a military security solution? Yes, absolutely—that is what we are doing. That is partly why we suggest that our sometimes bitter experience in some of our own domestic and colonial conflicts may be of relevance to the Russians as they face a not entirely dissimilar situation. Are we using our muscle with Russia in the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers? We certainly are. The whole question of the European Court of Human Rights is now very much on the agenda under the Turkish presidency of the Council of Europe.
Does our embassy in Russia help NGOs? Yes, we are working to support NGOs and to strengthen civil society. Are we helping Chechens at risk? Yes indeed—we are doing what we can. Several Chechens have been offered asylum in Britain and elsewhere in the European Union. We are willing to offer whatever assistance we can to provide a solution, but that requires our Russian partners to be willing to accept assistance, which is not always entirely easy.
The report on human rights from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in June 2010 called the situation in the north Caucasus,
“the most serious situation in the entire geographical area encompassed by the Council of Europe in terms of human rights protection and the affirmation of the rule of law”.
The Government agree with this assessment. Although the UK-Russia bilateral relationship has been a complicated story in recent years, human rights issues have never been ignored. We continue to press them, as did the previous Government, even though one sometimes gets a stony reception. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, may remember a wonderful and very stormy confrontation that some of us, as a delegation, had with the Russian Parliament’s Committee of Foreign Affairs some years ago on this exact issue. I assure the House that this will continue to be the case. I emphasise that this is not just a question for the Government but something that many of us who are involved in relations with Russia engage in inside and outside government.
The Government take the situation in the north Caucasus extremely seriously, on both human rights and international security grounds. Indeed, our foreign policy recognises the deep link between the two issues. Where human rights violations go unchecked, our security and international security also suffer. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for the opportunity he has given us to pay attention to Chechnya and the north and south Caucasus today.
My Lords, I thank most warmly all those who have participated in today’s debate. I know some have made considerable efforts to be here. That is all the more appreciated; I understand that there are a lot of pulls in other directions today. On that, as we have the opportunity across the United Kingdom, in various elections, to participate in a fully democratic system, the people we have been talking about in the Caucasus would give their right arms to begin to have that same opportunity and sense of genuine freedom. If we have any sense of solidarity with people across the world, this brings home the importance of the debate today.
I realise that it is not the practice in such debates to reply in full. Although we have a little time, I will not be tempted down that road. In particular, I thank the Minister for his positive response to my specific points. I have been in government. I know that while you can have an intellectual and moral commitment to do certain things, it is not always possible to follow them through in practice as strongly as the aspiration perhaps suggests. My noble friend Lord Triesman encouraged us to be positive. I would simply say that the Government should feel that they would have all possible support from across the House in making my noble friend’s points a substantial reality, so that when we make representations to the Russians, they are not formal representations but representations made with conviction, strength and determination.
If I take anything away from this debate, it is, first, the depth of specialised knowledge that exists in this House. I know that we are prone to a bit of self-congratulation in the House of Lords, but that is not a bad thing. It has been great to hear that specialised knowledge being contributed to this debate. I have learnt a lot and listened with great attention.
The second thing that has been brought home to me by the debate—I agree with my noble friend Lord Triesman—is that we must try to be positive and look to the positive things that are happening. However, as I am sure he will be the first to agree, events in the Middle East and the southern Mediterranean, to which the Minister referred, bring home dramatically that all this can turn into a pretty fragile reality with dire consequences unless the foundations of societies are right. You cannot build a sustainable, decent society on rotten foundations. Therefore, it is absolutely essential first to put right freedom, justice and human rights. Then you will have a secure society in which economic and social development in every form can effectively take place and be sustained.
That brings me to the third point that I shall take away strongly from this debate—a point that re-emphasises a conviction that I already have, which is no bad thing. We must all snap out of this tendency to think of human rights as a sort of qualitative extra in society: “There is the real stuff of politics and security, and then there are human rights”. We must not forget them and must bring them on board. If I have learnt anything in 33 years in Parliament—but in some ways even more from my professional work outside Parliament, in Oxfam and elsewhere—it is that human rights are an absolute, essential cornerstone of effective security. They are not an optional extra but a cornerstone of stability and sustainability in any form of society. That point has come across very strongly in the debate, for which I am glad.
The final point that I take away—this is not unique to the Caucasus but applies to so many of the other issues that confront us—is that as we look for solutions, we must learn to forgo the temptation externally to manage the situation. Peace cannot be imposed, it has to built, and it is a painstaking process. Peace has to be built by the people who are the parties to the conflict if it is to be a secure and lasting peace. If we want to talk to our Russian friends about anything, it should be that. I do not use the word “friend” lightly, because I want Russia to be our friend. I do not believe that we can successfully approach the future of the global community, highly interdependent as it is, unless we work closely with the Russians. Therefore, we should forcefully bring home to them our own analysis of the situation as we see it, but with the purpose of strengthening our friendship and collaboration with Russia. That should be the objective. However, the reality is that we can do it only if we talk honestly. I happen to believe—I have come to this conclusion after some years of direct experience—that the Russians do not put up with bullshit. They listen when you are talking sincerely, earnestly and toughly. That is what I believe we should do as good friends. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.