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Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North): Will the House get an opportunity to discuss the Assembly's decision, if it decides to admit Russia? Many of us here feel that it would be the wrong decision in the current circumstances. Many people throughout eastern Europe-- Poles, Hungarians and Czechs--feel that it will be seen as a stamp of approval for Russia's brutal campaign in Chechnya, and another sign that the west is ignoring that campaign. They feel that it would be a dangerous move, which we would come to regret in the long term.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor: I shall come to Chechnya in a moment. It is not within my power to decide whether the House has a debate on the issue. My hon. Friend will have to take that up with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the business managers.

Whether Russia should be admitted into the Council of Europe is, of course, a political judgment. On balance, the Government think that the arguments for Russian membership next month outweigh the disadvantages, and we welcome the prospect of early membership for Russia. Given the necessary political will, Russia seems more likely to try harder to meet the Council of Europe's standards if it is a member of the organisation than if it is kept outside. Membership would help to underpin Russia's commitment to political reform and democratic principles, and to the observance and protection of human rights.

In dealing with the preparations for Russian accession to the Council of Europe, we are facing a difficult task. The very size of Russia and its needs will make new and

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varied demands of the organisation as well as of the Russian Government. In this, Russia should be able to count on the firm support of its fellow members of the Council of Europe for encouragement, as well as advice and practical assistance.

For its part, the United Kingdom offers all three types of help. We sought to encourage Moscow most recently by supporting the EU statement of 2 October which welcomed the resumption of the procedure for Russian accession. We have offered advice to the Russians at both ministerial and official level to co-operate fully with the Council of Europe rapporteurs who are preparing the opinion on Russia's accession. We also offer practical assistance in the areas relevant to that application. In the last financial year we put almost £2 million of the know-how fund's resources to good use by funding projects ranging from reform of the criminal justice system to providing training courses for journalists.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East asked about the next phase of the BBC's Marshall plan of the mind. We received last month the BBC's £5 million proposal for phase III, which includes programmes on the rule of law and the individual's right of petition. We have already funded phases I and II of the Marshall plan of the mind, to the tune of approximately £4 million, and we are currently considering the latest proposal. I am afraid that I cannot at this stage give my hon. Friend the assurance he sought, but I promise him that we will consider the proposal carefully.

Within Russia itself, there are those who are unlikely to allow the Government to forget their commitment to improving the human rights of its citizens. My hon. Friend has drawn the attention of the House to the numerous and articulate non-governmental organisations in Russia. Nor should we overlook the power of a free media to open up to public scrutiny the actions of Government.

To be made to wait uncertainly on the sidelines would not strengthen Russia's interest in the Council of Europe, or help the democratic process. It is worth noting that a number of countries, already members of the Council of Europe, similarly use their membership to reinforce their commitment to democratic principles and human rights. Constructive dialogue from within the organisation can provide a way forward for each of these countries. Russia should not be an exception to this approach.

In this respect, however, the Government are opposed to the suggestion contained in the political committee's opinion that some form of special control body be set up to monitor Russia's performance with its obligations. Monitoring will be important, but it is just as important to treat all member states equally. We hope that this can be achieved through the existing Strasbourg monitoring mechanisms. Dialogue and co-operation, not accusations and confrontation, should be our watchwords.

My hon. Friend asked about the power of the Committee of Ministers over members which fail to honour their commitments. I can confirm that, if any member state seriously violates article 3 of the statute of the Council of Europe, it is within the powers invested in the Committee of Ministers to request that member to withdraw from membership under article 7.

If the member fails to comply with this request, the Committee of Ministers may decide that it has ceased to be a member, under article 8 of the statute. That is the ultimate sanction available to Government, and one which

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we would not lightly contemplate. We expect and hope that the existing monitoring mechanisms will be sufficient to ensure that any required improvements in democratic standards are achieved without recourse to that severe form of action.

We are under no illusions as to the significance of the decision that Council of Europe parliamentarians will need to reach shortly. There are developments that continue to provoke disquiet, some of which have been mentioned. I shall mention two.

The first is Chechnya. We all recall the horrors of the Russian intervention in Chechnya that began just over a year ago. There was something particularly shocking about the brutality of the assault, the disregard for civilian life, the wanton destruction and the sheer incompetence with which the operation was carried out.

It is most regrettable that a negotiated settlement has still not been reached in Chechnya. All hon. Members will be aware that fighting of varying degrees of intensity continues. Particularly violent scenes occurred recently with the capture and recapture of Chechnya's second city, Gudermes. We deplore the civilian casualties which arose from that incident. At the same time, we condemn the most recent terrorist incident in Kislyar. It is welcome news that the majority of the hostages have been released. We hope that the rest--I believe about 150--will also be released unharmed. Those incidents underline the need for a negotiated solution, and also serve to emphasise the difficulties in reaching one.

We shall continue to deprecate violence, and call for a peaceful settlement. We shall continue to call for human rights abuses to be investigated, but the plain fact is that the conditions for a settlement acceptable to both sides have still not been found. Fears for its security made the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe assistance group withdraw to Moscow, but I am pleased to inform the House that it returned to Grozny last weekend.

The second area of concern is Russia's political future. To put it simply, there are those who would prefer Council of Europe membership to be put off at least until after the Russian presidential elections in June. However, despite gloomy predictions to the contrary, the parliamentary elections were held in Russia on 17 December, and they have been unanimously judged as free and fair.

Both my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) and the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) can testify to this. They were official British monitors and Government observers. What is more, assertions about Russian apathy and lack of interest in democracy were confounded by the very substantial turnout of 65 per cent.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East has referred to the dangers from nationalists, and in particular from Mr. Zhirinovsky. The communists under Mr. Zyuganov were even more successful in the recent elections. There are very real dangers, and we should not attempt to hide them, but equally we should not adopt an alarmist approach towards them.

While we wish that the Communist party was readier to accept the need for further economic and political reform, it appears to accept the democratic process and the need for Russia's leaders henceforth to be chosen by the ballot box. As long as its leaders do that, there is no reason why the possibility of their coming to power should present an obstacle to Russia's membership of the Council of Europe.

Indeed, to postpone again Russia's membership after elections judged as free and fair would be a humiliating rebuff. It would be bound to strengthen the hand of those who argue that Russia demeans itself by attempting to enter the Council of Europe. It would give fresh force to those Russians who argue that it is not right for Russia to participate in bodies which give foreigners the possibility of interfering in its internal affairs.

Our hope and intention is that membership of the Council of Europe will provide a catalyst for further progress on human rights issues. More generally, both we and our European Union partners favour early Russian accession. The Council of Europe has a crucial role to play in bringing Russia into the European family of nations and as a means to provide practical support in entrenching western values.

It is, of course, for the parliamentarians of the Council of Europe, not for the United Kingdom Government, to determine the outcome of Russia's application during their debate on 25 January. That debate will be conducted with the full participation of the United Kingdom delegation, led by Lord Finsberg, to whom I should like to pay great tribute. I had many dealings with him when he was a Minister in the House. He was a superb Minister, and he does this job equally well.

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