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Mr. Atkinson: Yes, I am aware of the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson), which appeared in The Independent. I read it last night, and I shall respond to it later.

I supported that final draft opinion of the Political Affairs Committee, because it now provides for eight of the 10 outstanding conditions that I regarded as essential, a copy of which I sent to the Minister's colleague, the hon. Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis), in November. The first of those is to ratify the convention for the prevention of inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners, which would end the unacceptable conditions in Russia's prisons. Others are: to effectively exercise those rights enshrined in the constitution relating to freedom of movement and choice of place of residence, which would end Russia's unacceptable permit system; to pursue legal reforms in line with European standards, which would-- among many other things--bring to an end the unacceptable 30-day detention without charge and the unacceptable brutality and violations of the basic human rights of young conscripts and recruits in the Russian armed forces; to adopt a law for alternative military service, as foreseen in the constitution; to relax restrictions on international travel of the remaining so-called "refuseniks" who are aware of state secrets; to negotiate with the Churches the return of property stolen since the 1917 revolution; and to withdraw the 14th Russian army from Moldova within three years of the agreement of 21 October 1994.

Of course, I still want to see legislation to provide for the private ownership of agricultural land, which would do so much to realise Russia's food potential, but that remains a matter for its Government and Parliament.

I shall be proposing that the Assembly establish a special committee to monitor the situation in Chechnya and to come forward with proposals based on our own Council of Europe's expertise on the protection of minority rights, including our new framework convention, which both sides can accept. That committee will certainly monitor reports such as that given by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North, following his recent visit to Chechnya. He saw at first hand brutality not just by Dudayev's forces but by Russian forces, and he accurately reported upon that.

The House must be concerned about what is happening in the Chechen region at present. The holding of innocent patients as hostages by forces associated with Dudayev is

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wholly unacceptable. We regard Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation. As we know, the so-called "Tatarstan solution"--providing for maximum autonomy short of outright independence--is negotiable. That is a clear message that I hope will emerge from the forthcoming debate on the Russian accession.

I appreciate that there will be those pessimists who will regard an imminent Russian accession as premature, a compromise too far, and dangerous for the Council of Europe. There is no doubt that Russian membership will represent the greatest challenge to the Council of Europe since we introduced special guest status for those countries emerging from communist control.

But we should be positive. Full membership will encourage the forces of democracy and reform in Russia, both in Parliament and in government. In the light of last month's elections, those forces need every assistance and co-operation, which the Council of Europe programmes-- along with those of the European Union and our own excellent know-how fund--are providing.

Ratification of our numerous conventions--an essential condition of membership--will further encourage Russia's progress towards our European standards. Most crucially, of course, the ratification of the convention on human rights will provide for the right of an individual to petition the European Court, which--as we know only too well from our own experience--has a jurisdiction higher than any national court or Government.

No doubt it will be said that the ordinary Russian in the street will never get to hear of this unique protection of his rights, let alone about the legal processes which are there to realise it. My experience of Russian human rights organisations suggests a different conclusion. Born during the Soviet era, there are probably more human rights non-governmental organisations in Russia than in any other country, and those organisations are well aware of their rights in the constitution and in law. They will, I suspect, be seeking to put to an early test any violations, and with the utmost publicity.

I learned last night that the BBC's excellent Marshall plan of the mind trust--which provides information and advice to Russia on the consequences of reform--will include in its next phase the rule of law, human rights and the right of individual petition under the convention should Russia join the Council of Europe. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that that is properly financed through the know-how fund.

Should a reactionary, fascist or ultra-nationalist candidate be elected as Russia's next President in June, it will not be so easy for Russia to withdraw from the clear international legal commitments of full membership, amid all the publicity that such an unprecedented move would encourage. I would expect such a withdrawal to end Russia's association agreement with the EU and its partnership agreement with NATO, as well as to create problems for itself within the OSCE.

Let us not forget that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Committee of Ministers have now in place improved machinery for the implementation of commitments entered into by all new member states. My task as rapporteur does not end with accession, but is to monitor, advice, assist, encourage and regularly report to the Assembly with as much publicity as possible. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can

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confirm that it is open to the Committee of Ministers to suspend a member state which is seriously in breach of its obligations.

Alternatively, should the pessimists win and we decide to tell Russia that it must wait--probably for several years--for full membership, I have no doubt that President Yeltsin will feel obliged, as well as being overwhelmingly pressed, to withdraw the application. It would be a slap in the face for him, and for Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and the two Speakers of the Parliament who jointly signed an historic document in January 1995 which committed Russia to satisfy our conditions.

Such a decision would undermine the position of the reformers and democrats, who would be ridiculed by those who have always warned that Europe does not want Russia. It would encourage the forces of ultra-nationalism, racism, anti-semitism, xenophobia and intolerance-- all things that the Council of Europe's summit of 1993 pledged to eliminate in Europe--in the run-up to the crucial presidential elections in June.

Should a candidate such as Zhirinovsky--who does not want Russia to join the Council of Europe, but is pledged to establish a Russian-dominated council of eastern Europe--be elected, we would be plunged back into the division, tension, threat and hostility of a cold war, which can lead only to rearmament. It would demonstrate that we have not learnt the lesson of Hitler, who was no part of an institutionalised Europe.

That is a risk we must not take. The next six months will be a decisive period in Russian history. Russian membership of the Council of Europe now can contribute to keeping Russia on track towards meeting our western democratic values, from which we, Europe and the world have so much to gain. I hope and expect the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to share my judgment in two weeks' time.

1.17 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Sir Nicholas Bonsor): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) for raising this important issue. The relationship of the west with Russia is one of the most critical subjects on which we must make decisions. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us an opportunity to discuss the matter, with particular reference to Russia's accession to the Council of Europe.

My hon. Friend has personally played a most active part in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, both as rapporteur on Russia and as chairman of the committee on relations with European non-member states, in helping to bring Russia to the threshold of membership of this democratic family of 38 member states. My hon. Friend also has a deep experience of Russia and its culture, and his interest goes back to his student days.

It is remarkable to note how the family of the Council of Europe has grown since 1989. The fall of the Berlin wall showed that the former countries of the Soviet bloc were not just willing but able swiftly to embrace the democratic values and obligations to protect human rights enshrined and upheld by the Council of Europe--values almost taken for granted by the established democracies of western Europe. One by one, these countries have sought

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admittance to this unique club. Some have found it harder than others to meet the high standards required of members, which are based on the rule of law, parliamentary democracy and the safeguarding of human rights.

Russia has not found the journey to membership an easy one. It has had to negotiate a difficult road since it applied in 1992, and it has had to answer searching questions, particularly about the rule of law. It cannot have been easy for Russians, steeped in the secrecy of the Soviet and Tsarist traditions, to allow Council of Europe parliamentarians to inspect and check the nooks and crannies of the Russian establishment. For a country so soon out of the stultifying grip of 70 years of Soviet rule, that must have been a bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it did.

As a frequent visitor to Russia, my hon. Friend well knows the inner tensions that needed to be overcome in order to provide the assurances that political, legal and economic reforms in Russia continue to be sustained.

As my hon. Friend has said, the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly is recommending in its opinion to the Assembly in Strasbourg later this month that the Russian Federation should be invited to become a member of the Council of Europe. The Assembly will debate and vote on this opinion, and, if it is approved, will recommend to Governments of the member states that Russia should become the 39th member state in February.

Some argue that it is wrong to allow Russia's admission before it has fully met the entry requirements. There is concern that it will lose the incentive to fulfil its obligations once it has acceded to the organisation, or that Governments will lose the will to monitor compliance with them.

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