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25 July 2007 : Column 257WH—continued

10.21 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) not only on securing today’s debate, but on becoming the chair of the all-party group on Russia only yesterday. However, I must say that his speech is one of the most dangerous that I have heard since I became an MP, because, as I shall try to elucidate, he fails to understand or recognise fully the dangers of the human rights abuses in Russia. He makes a moral equivalence between extradition requests and proceedings in this country and those in Russia, which is a dangerous equivalence to make. He underestimates the direction in which Russia is going—a direction that will not only damage commercial interests in the medium and long term for the people of Russia and this country, but lead to a dwindling of democracy in that country with the steady advance of a totalitarian regime. He might think that I am exaggerating, but we will see, in future years, who proves to be right.

I agree completely with the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) that Russia faced a particular difficulty after experiencing an enormous political convulsion such as this country has not had to live with for many centuries. In a tiny space of time, it has had to address the sense of national and personal pride that attaches to being Russian. We have talked about Russia today when we mean the Russian Federation. The concept of Russia that many Russians, or people in the former Soviet Union, grew up with has been completely dismantled and changed. We, as a country, our European allies and anyone who wants to work closely with the Russian Federation needs to be conscious that it is a great nation with an extraordinary cultural history. Few countries can match the talent of that country in so many different areas, such as culturally, with Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and Rublyov. Few countries can match its enormous mineral and physical resources, its geographical dispersal or its historical complexity, which is woven into many different understandings of the relationships of religion to the state and of the individual to society.

Of course, we must walk with trepidation when we talk about our relationship with Russia, because, all too often, it is easy for us—the hon. Member for The Wrekin might accuse me of falling into my own trap—to face up to the Russian Federation in a way that makes it feel that we do not respect it. That would be dangerous. However, it is important to say that the level of human rights abuses in Russia today is so significant that no country that respects human rights and believes in the foundation of the principle of law can engage in an open relationship with the Russian Federation without being explicit about the problems there.

In our society, we believe in the fundamental right of non-governmental organisations to operate and to criticise the Government, the institutions of society and the state in whatever way they want. The situation for NGOs in the Russian Federation is getting worse year by year. Only recently, political parties have faced more difficult actions involving the courts that have made it much more difficult for people to enjoy their
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full political freedoms. Life was made more difficult for NGOs in Russia in April of last year, when President Putin signed into law a Bill demanding that they register their activities and funding sources with the federal registration service or risk facing closure. Immediately afterwards, there was a series of attacks on a large number of NGOs in Russia, which made many organisations close down.

There is also a problem with media oppression, which has been adverted to by a few Members. It is not only the death of Anna Politkovskaya that has worried many people in the west. According to the International Federation of Journalists, more than 80 journalists have been murdered because of their work in Russia since 1993, and there has not been a single prosecution in any of those cases. The organisation says that of 289 journalists killed in Russia in the past 14 years,

The Russian state now has a virtual—indeed, actual—monopoly over the entire national television network, which means that there is no opportunity for political opponents of the regime to have a fair opportunity when it comes to election time. Several television channels have been deprived of their licences by the Government, and several have been taken off air, so it is, perhaps, not surprising that President Putin has said:

Malcolm Bruce: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that that kind of repression of the media by Russian agencies is not confined to Russia? They are attacking the media in neighbouring countries, particularly Estonia and, I was told yesterday, Azerbaijan. Websites operated by opposition groups have been targeted and taken out by sources inside Russia.

Chris Bryant: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but I shall not talk about those issues because I want to discuss extradition and I have only a few minutes left.

Only last week, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation upheld a law requiring that political parties must have a minimum of 50,000 members to be allowed by the federal registration service to take part in elections. That will close down several political parties in Russia—yet again we see human rights being eroded. In its report of last year, Amnesty International referred to systematic torture across every part of the Russian Federation. The use of torture in prisons, police cells and the criminal justice system is one reason why many people there have less confidence than the hon. Member for The Wrekin seems to have in the criminal justice system.

British organisations have also suffered. The British Council has been systematically targeted since 2004 for its activities in Russia. The Russian authorities have refused to clarify the council’s legal status, and recently ordered it to close its offices in Yekaterinburg. On top of that, the British ambassador and several other members of the British Embassy staff in Moscow have been systematically harassed by a distressingly named organisation, the pro-Putin youth organisation, Nashi. I am afraid that the Russian authorities have been very reluctant to intervene. We should be standing by our ambassador.

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I come to my main point. The hon. Member for The Wrekin makes a moral equivalence—I have heard him do this twice—between the 21 extradition requests that Russia has made to the UK and the one that we have outstanding regarding Mr. Lugovoi. That is entirely inappropriate. If he were to read any of the proceedings, as I have—they were all considered in this country on an entirely independent basis by the same judge, Judge Timothy Workman—he would realise that the basis of the Russians’ extradition cases are extremely weak. The hon. Gentleman cited 21 cases, which must include that of Akhmed Zakayev. Judge Workman said of that case:

That is something that we would never countenance.

In 2005, in the case of two former Yukos executives, Dmitry Maruev and Natalia Chernysheva, Judge Workman said that it would be unsafe to extradite the pair because in their dealing with the case

That is another fundamental reason why it would be impossible for us to extradite.

In the case of Mr. Alexander Temerko, Judge Workman said:

That is another reason why there is no moral equivalence between the extradition requests from Russia and the one that we have made.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. I am afraid that we must move to the wind-ups.

10.31 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate, in which several interesting contributions have been by hon. Members from both sides.

The debate is particularly timely, given the events of the past few weeks, which have brought UK relations with Russia back into the news regularly. It is important to recognise that those events came at the end of a period in which the bilateral relations between the countries deteriorated. We would all agree that, after an interlude of relative co-operation between Russia and the UK in the 1990s, it is sad and distressing that there has been renewed tension.

The UK’s relationship with Russia is, without doubt, hugely important in the wider context of ongoing east-west dialogue. Russia’s co-operation on security is extremely valuable, as is its collaboration on many other international issues, such as climate change and, of course, terrorism. It would be a great loss to both parties if the relationship were not to regain its stability.

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I reiterate that Liberal Democrats fully support the measures taken by the UK Government to convince the Russian Government to extradite Mr. Lugovoy to the UK. The crime of which he is accused is a terrible one and the charges that he faces are most serious. The deliberate poisoning of Mr. Litvinenko by the administration of a lethal dose of polonium-210, a highly radioactive substance, in London in November 2006 was premeditated, cold-blooded and appalling. Not only was the death of Mr. Litvinenko slow and painful, but it put at risk the lives of hundreds of others with whom the perpetrator came into contact, both in London and abroad. The crime demands to be pursued to an appropriate conclusion—justice needs to be done and to be seen to be done. All hon. Members would agree that the rule of law needs to be upheld in this case, as in any other, and that Russia’s refusal to extradite Mr. Lugovoy is both disappointing and worrying in the context of future UK-Russian relations.

If Russia seeks a profitable and positive relationship with the UK, it needs to commit to co-operation on matters of justice. In the light of these events, is the Department planning to press for criminal justice to be included in the next EU-Russia partnership and co-operation agreement? Is the Department considering revisiting the UK-Russian extradition arrangements to ensure that the relationship is fairer and more equitable than it appears to be at present?

The UK Government’s moves in the past month to put pressure on the Russians have our full support. The expulsion of four Russian embassy staff was proportionate, as was the suspension of visa negotiations with the Russian authorities. However, it is important to acknowledge that the Russians’ reaction in turn could have been much worse than it was. Although we deprecate their unjustified expulsion of our four UK embassy staff, there might be room for optimism: the Russians might not want to prolong this dispute and there might be a willingness to avoid any further dramatic escalation in this crisis. We must hope so, and we must hope that Russia appreciates that it, too, has a lot to lose if this relationship falters.

Other concerns about Russia should be aired in this debate. One of those relates to Kosovo. The delay in resolving that matter is of great concern, and the arrangements established when NATO intervened to stop the bloodshed and violence engineered by Milosevic are by no means stable. The conflict is likely to escalate unless it is resolved soon. The recent actions of Agim Ceku, the Prime Minister of the province, confirm that. He announced earlier this month that, unless the international community could overcome Russian opposition, Kosovo would declare its independence in November. I put it on the record that, although we strongly support Kosovo’s independence, it would be inadvisable to go through with the announcement, because it would undoubtedly increase friction in the area and could result in a renewed outbreak of hostility from Serbia.

It is clear that, despite the Russian objections, the matter must be resolved through an international process, ideally via the United Nations. The fact that Russia has promised to veto any UN Security Council draft resolution that would give Kosovo “supervised independence” is, therefore, disappointing. It has caused the Security Council to delay a vote on the draft resolution and may
25 July 2007 : Column 261WH
mean that any decision on the future of Kosovo will take place instead through the contact group. What is the UK Government’s view on the progress towards a resolution of this dispute?

Another matter that deserves mention in any debate about Russia is human rights. International concern about human rights in Chechnya remains a particular concern. In March, the Council of Europe’s human rights chief, Thomas Hammarberg, visited Chechnya where he said he found evidence of a

Such cases included beatings and the use of electric shock.

The concerns continue within Russia itself. There have been reports from non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of torture, racially motivated attacks and the victimisation of opponents of Vladimir Putin. Perhaps the Minister could update us on human rights violations in Russia. What, if any, recent discussions have taken place between the two Governments on this important matter?

A climate of fear and intimidation, cultivated by the Russian Government, impedes and restricts the actions of NGOs in Russia, apparently because of a belief that they are connected to western espionage. Will the Minster tell us what the Government are doing to support the valuable humanitarian work of NGOs in Russia, and whether any negotiations with Russia on this issue have taken place?

Russia’s energy policy has also caused considerable concern in recent years. There is much debate in international circles about whether Russia’s near monopoly on oil and gas is being used as an instrument for its internal and external policy ambitions. The expropriation of Shell and BP interests in Russia has been seen by many analysts as facilitating the Russian state’s reassertion of control over the energy sector. Does the Minister agree that Russia is using its control over energy in eastern Europe—and now much of western Europe—as a lever with which to influence or perhaps manipulate foreign policy? If so, does he share my concern about that development?

Our relationship with the Russians is vital for all those reasons and for those mentioned at the beginning of my contribution. The Government need to continue to work to maintain a constructive relationship with Russia, but they must also ensure that areas of real concern are dealt with appropriately and effectively. I hope that the Minister agrees that, to achieve that, the UK needs to work closely with the rest of the European Union to create a coherent and co-ordinated foreign policy towards Russia.

10.40 am

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on his recent achievement of becoming chairman of the all-party group on Russia, and on securing this debate on an important topic. He introduced the debate in typically robust style.

I noted the speech of the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) who brought his considerable experience as an ex-Foreign Office Minister to our deliberations.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) not only tweaked the Minister’s nose, but rightly reminded the House that the tragic murder that I am about to touch on took place in his constituency. He also raised the implications of those events for other constituents whom he represents.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) raised a constituency point in the context of the debate and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) raised Russia’s human rights record, particularly the treatment of journalists, which concerns us all. That was also touched on by the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter).

It is a pleasure to see the Minister, my opposite number, in his place. For some curious reason, we seem to be seeing rather a lot of each other, and I believe that we are meeting later this afternoon on an entirely different matter.

The debate is on the relatively broad topic of UK-Russia relations, and I do not want to use the limited time available to speak only about the Litvinenko case. Nevertheless, this issue clearly affects the relationship between our two countries, so I want to make a few comments on where matters now sit. Let me say at the outset that Her Majesty’s Opposition have supported and continue to support both the tone and substance of the Government’s response to Russia's refusal to extradite Andrey Lugovoy. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said in his response to the Foreign Secretary's statement on 16 July,

That remains the case. Britain has the right to expect co-operation from Russia in the extradition of Mr. Lugovoy but, unfortunately, that has not been forthcoming.

Given that failure, it was right and proportionate for the British Government to take action to expel four Russian diplomats. The Russian reaction to the expulsion of the four diplomats came on 19 July with the expulsion of four British diplomats from our Embassy in Moscow and a statement that it might end co-operation in the fight against terrorism, which we would obviously regret. That is an entirely unjustified act, and the only correct response, as the Foreign Secretary made clear, remains the extradition of Mr. Lugovoy.

The Russians have stated that one reason for their failure to extradite Mr. Lugovoy is that its constitution disallows it. However, on Monday, Britain’s Ambassador to Russia, Sir Anthony Brenton, said:

I am sure that the Minister heard that.

As the Minister knows, I have a great interest in the interpretation of constitutions, particularly at the moment, so I would be interested to know what advice he has received on Russia’s constitution in the light of its responsibilities under the 1957 European convention on extradition. I would be interested to have some insight into the Foreign Office’s legal advice on that.

On 20 July, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, apparently began to lower the temperature by suggesting that the

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