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9. Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): What assessment he has made of recent political developments in Russia; and if he will make a statement. [112877]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): I visited Moscow last month and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited St. Petersburg at the weekend. It is in the interests of Britain and the west that we engage with Russia at the highest level. My right hon. Friend and I both expressed Britain's deep concern about the level of military violence in Chechnya and the unnecessary human suffering that it has caused. Mr. Putin assured my right hon. Friend that Russia will permit access to Chechnya by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, and by international bodies such as the Red Cross and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

It is important to our international interests that we are able to talk frankly to Russia about issues on which we disagree, such as Chechnya, and to strengthen our working relationship in respect of matters such as the Balkans and arms control, in which we need Russia's co-operation to succeed.

Mr. Gapes: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's answer. In December, I was in Siberia in my role as an OSCE observer of the Duma elections. Russia is now developing into a vibrant democracy that covers 11 time zones. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital to build good relations between the UK Parliament and the newly elected Russian Parliament, and to build on the

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welcome visit by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the new Russian Duma, with six parties represented and 100 independent Members, will be far more effective than its predecessor? Does he share my hope that that Parliament will ratify the START 2 treaty as soon as possible?

Mr. Cook: I commend my hon. Friend on his dedication in going to Siberia in December. His work and that of many others enabled us to conclude that those elections were free and fair, and I am pleased that Russia has invited the OSCE to monitor the forthcoming presidential elections as well.

We welcome the changes within the Duma, and I agree entirely that more parliamentary exchanges will be helpful in our efforts to support it. In the past year, we have had 14 Russian parliamentary delegations to Britain, but there have been only four from Britain to Russia, so we are behind. The more we do to maintain such contacts, the more able we shall be to support arms control initiatives of the sort mentioned by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): Do not the Government feel some discomfort about breaking bread and sharing salt with Mr. Putin? He is the man who directed the campaign in which Chechnya was turned into a wasteland and innocent men, women and children were subjected to indiscriminate bombing and shelling. Before we offer advice on the reform of the Russian economy, should we not insist on a commitment from Mr. Putin that, both in word and in deed, he and his Government will respect the human rights of the people of Chechnya?

Mr. Cook: I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the situation in Chechnya is deplorable and unacceptable. My right hon. Friend and I have engaged at the highest level in Russia to express that view. If we have criticisms to make, we should not resist making them in person to the people who can change the policy. I share the conclusion of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that Chechnya is a reason why Britain should be more, not less, involved in dialogue with Russia.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Labour Members support that position? We need active engagement in Russia for precisely the reasons that he has just outlined. We must get across to the present Russian Government that there can be no excuse for murder and torture of civilians, and no suggestion that there is a parallel between atrocities that have certainly been carried out by Chechen guerrillas and the actions of the Russia state. It is only by face-to-face confrontation that that message can be delivered to President-in-waiting Putin.

Mr. Cook: I agree very much with my hon. Friend's conclusion. I also share his view that the international community must have greater expectations of actions by a state than it has of actions by individuals. That is why I very much welcome the fact that Russia has indicated that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the OSCE can visit Chechnya. When we visited Russia, my right hon. Friend and I impressed on Mr. Putin the importance of transparency as the best safeguard against violations of human rights.

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Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): There is something not quite right about the answers that the Foreign Secretary is giving us. We know that the Prime Minister prefers to enjoy a night at the opera in St. Petersburg rather than criticise Russian actions in Chechnya. Even the French press have today said that if the Prime Minister

The Foreign Secretary told us that he was frank with the Russians over Chechnya, but the Russian press, which is unspun, told another story. They said that the Foreign Secretary had been

    mild in the highest degree . . . extremely favourable to Moscow

and that he was opposed to a toughening of the stance on Chechnya. Are not he and the Prime Minister making an art form of saying one thing and doing another? Will he be joining the Prime Minister at the basin?

Mr. Cook: If the hon. Lady really believes that the Moscow press is unspun, she should spend more time in Russia. I vigorously rebut the suggestion that I said one thing in private and another in public. I assure the House that what I said at the press conference in Moscow was what I said in the meeting.

It is a bit rich for the hon. Lady to criticise Government Front-Bench Members when the former Conservative spokesman under whom she served until only last month said that the sooner the Russians won the better. At least we have the courage to criticise the Russians, whereas the Conservatives egged them on.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that, in his meetings with the Russian Foreign Minister and the Russian Government, he is demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, the engagement of a political process to bring about a solution there, and a guarantee that they will not engage in military activities in similar situations in Russia? It cannot be said that Russia is a vibrant democracy if it is bombarding part of its country using first world war methods against people who have a different view of the world from that held in Moscow.

Mr. Cook: I did not demand the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, which, as my hon. Friend has just acknowledged, is part of the Russian Federation. The difficulties of the past two years may have arisen because all troops were withdrawn from that area. I concur with my hon. Friend on the other points that he made, and I assure him that I pressed for a political process. Our criticism of what has been done in Chechnya has all along been that military violence alone will not work, far less the excessive military violence that we have witnessed and that has caused the suffering to which my hon. Friend referred.


10. Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): What recent discussions he has had with his colleagues in the United Nations regarding Kosovo; and if he will make a statement. [112878]

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12. Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): What recent discussions he has had with Foreign Ministers of other countries regarding Kosovo; and if he will make a statement. [112880]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): I most recently discussed Kosovo with Kofi Annan this morning. As I said after the meeting, we agreed that much progress had been made. A total of 800,000 refugees have returned to Kosovo; the first 350 local police drawn from all ethnic communities have completed training; and 90 per cent. of children have been able to attend school, something that they were denied for a decade by Belgrade.

Much remains to be done, particularly to tackle crime. Today I have announced that Britain will be responding to the appeal for international judges and prosecutors. Forty British lawyers have expressed an interest, and I hope that some of them will be able to take up their posts next month.

We take seriously the problems that remain in Kosovo, and we will take every responsible step to resolve them; but we should never forget that the problems would be much worse if we had not acted, and had left nearly 1 million refugees without homes during the winter.

Mr. Oaten: Does the Foreign Secretary share Madeleine Albright's fear that the European Community is not pulling its weight in delivering hard cash quickly to help to deal with the reconstruction problems in Kosovo?

Mr. Cook: I met Madeleine Albright last week and we discussed the state of Kosovo at some length. Let me point out that the European Union is funding the majority of UNMIK's administration budget, and that this country, of which the hon. Gentleman is a Member of Parliament, has funded the utilities, the prisons, the transformation of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the formation of the Kosovo protection force and the health service in Pristina. It has provided civil experts for UNMIK, is supporting de-mining and, over the coming year, will fund reconstruction of the health and social services and the registration of electors. We are investing considerable resources and we are working hard to make a success of what we are doing.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): My right hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that last week we heard universal praise for the British contribution--for the professionalism of our soldiers, the contribution of our police and our civil administrators. There was, however, deep-seated concern about what was seen to be the proposed precipitate withdrawal of the team from the Department for International Development in Kosovo, which could, it was felt, lead to a great gap and to great disturbance. Will my right hon. Friend, in co-operation with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, undertake to review the contribution of that Department, to ensure that there is, at best, a more phased withdrawal?

Mr. Cook: I read with interest the reports from Pristina of the visit by my hon. Friend and members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I am pleased about the visit, and look forward to discussing it with them when I give evidence to the Committee on Thursday.

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I think that there has been a misunderstanding in regard to the point raised by my hon. Friend. It is true that a change is in progress in the Department for International Development in regard to who is responsible for the support work in Kosovo: it is shifting from the section that deals with humanitarian crises to the section that deals with reconstruction, because that is what is happening in Kosovo. I can, however, tell my hon. Friend that only last week the DFID confirmed that its budget in Kosovo this year would be £29 million, which will help reconstruction. The DFID will be fully involved in that.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): Is the Foreign Secretary aware of recent instances in which the activities of the international police force in Kosovo have been frustrated and obstructed by the French military and the French-controlled sector?

Mr. Cook: I read last week's report in The Times with interest. I made inquiries, and I am sure that the report was not correct in saying that British policemen had withdrawn from Mitrovica because of criticism. It is important for all members of KFOR, the French and everyone else, to co-operate fully with the police and to provide rapid access to scenes of crime.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement of the supply of additional judges to Kosovo. When we were there, we were made very much aware of the problem experienced by the police, who could arrest people but could then do nothing other than caution and release them.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is a uniform policy across Kosovo of dismantling paramilitary forces, whether they are the KLA or the Serb paramilitary in Mitrovica, so that there can be a real return to civil government?

Mr. Cook: I entirely agree: it is important for Kosovo to be ruled and governed by the UN international mandate, rather than by men who happen to have managed to hold on to their weapons.

We have worked hard to try to reduce the volume of weapons in Kosovo. Eight thousand have been handed in voluntarily, and a further 4,000 have been confiscated as a result of KFOR's work. I agree that it is important for us to continue to press home that work, to ensure that Mitrovica does not remain an enclave under paramilitary control but is part of the UNMIK mandate throughout Kosovo, and to ensure that those expelled from their homes there have the opportunity to return.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Following the discussions that the right hon. Gentleman has just reported to the House, is he able to tell us the number of Kosovar Albanians forced out of Kosovo, as distinct from the number terrorised out of their homes prior to the start of the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia?

Mr. Cook: A total of 850,000 were forced out of their homes during that period of conflict. As to those who were forced from their homes in the period preceding the conflict, that, of course, will depend on the period that is taken, but, in October of the preceding year, when Holbrooke attended negotiations in Belgrade, 250,000 Kosovar Albanians had already been forced from their

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homes. The idea that the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo began with the NATO bombing is totally in defiance of the history of that troubled province in the preceding year. It was the victim of repeated oppression.

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