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Westminster Hall

Thursday 3 April 2008

[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair]

Global Security (Russia)

[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 51, and the Government response, Cm 7305.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

2.30 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome this opportunity to debate the report by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs entitled “Global Security: Russia” and the Government response. It is a long time since the inquiry began. We visited Russia in June 2007 while collecting evidence. The period covered by the report straddles a change of Prime Minister in the United Kingdom and a change of ministerial team in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Indeed, at one of our first evidence sessions for the report, in 2007, we welcomed my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe to his post.

We are now debating the report after a presidential election in Russia—I shall say more about that later—and in the context of the change in relations that might come from the new President. The debate takes place on the very day on which President Putin is attending a NATO summit in Bucharest, in the former palace, which is a huge and unique architectural—I nearly said “monstrosity”, but I was thinking in terms of its magnitude—creation of President Ceausescu, the late, unlamented leader of Romania, all those years ago.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): A British knight.

Mike Gapes: Yes, and there is another one, Robert Mugabe, whom we may also need to deal with at some point.

Andrew Mackinlay: Great judgment by the Foreign Office.

Mike Gapes: If my hon. Friend will allow me to get back to talking about Russia, the situation that we face today has, unfortunately, not changed greatly since we produced the report, which was published towards the end of last year. Indeed, relations with Russia have, in some respects, become worse. In recent months, there has been the forced closure of the British Council offices in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg. Both UK and Russian citizens linked to the British Council experienced something that was clearly a form of harassment. Pressure was recently put on BP in Russia. None of those events could be referred to in the report or in the Government response, because they have happened in the period since those documents were produced.

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As well as the changes to which I have referred, there have been changes in personnel. Our ambassador in Moscow, Tony Brenton, who was so helpful to us and our inquiry, is to retire from the diplomatic service. I place on the record our tribute to him and all his work, and not only in Russia. I remember his work in the United States and other parts of the world over many years. It is a sign of the very high quality of the people in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that he has played such a good role in Moscow in what have not always been easy circumstances in recent years.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that certain parts of the Russian media are suggesting that we had to get rid of our ambassador in Moscow to make the peace? There is absolutely no truth whatever in that, and he is simply retiring, as the hon. Gentleman said. I ask him to confirm that those reports are nonsense and the Russia media are about as bad as our media on occasion.

Mike Gapes: That is a sign that perhaps certain elements in the Russian media have a conspiracy-theory view of events in the world. It is like remarks made by some senior Russian figures, including, unfortunately, the President-elect, who made the totally false allegation that the British Council was a “nest of spies”. The matter raised by the hon. Gentleman, as well as those to which I have just referred, indicate a mindset that unfortunately is not helpful to constructive relations both with the UK and other countries. As ambassador, Tony Brenton was harassed by the Nashi organisation, and certain elements in Russia treated members of staff at the British embassy in a way that was not at all in accordance with the best traditions of how ambassadors should be treated in any country in the world.

The report touches on a large number of issues, and I cannot cover them all today. I am pleased that a number of my colleagues on the Committee are present. No doubt they will wish to catch your eye, Mr. Caton, and supplement what I have said. The real issue that we must confront is the assessment that we should make of Russia in the 21st century. There was a period under the Yeltsin presidency, just after the events of 1990 and 1991, when certain people thought that Russia could evolve rather rapidly into some form of western European, democratic, pluralistic society in terms of its political system. It is clear that that is not the case, and will not be the case.

We must face the fact that what we are dealing with in Russia is what the Russians themselves call a sovereign democracy; it is certainly not a mainstream European-style democracy. The recent elections for the presidency—some people called them selections rather than elections—are an indication of that. A number of senior people who wished to be candidates in those elections did not, in the end, take part. Some withdrew because they were pressurised; others withdrew because they decided that the process was tainted and the election was not, in any sense, free and fair. International observers of those elections were constrained in what they could do. I shall say more about that later.

The key issue that we face is as follows. Despite the difficulties that I have described, and despite the moves towards a more authoritarian political system and centralisation of political power after what the Putin
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people no doubt regard as the chaotic failures of the Yeltsin period, Russia is now far more assertive, both about its own interests and about other issues in the world. We have seen that, not only with regard to Kosovo and Russia’s attitude to arms control treaties, but in Russia’s belief that it has a different model of how to develop. There is some dispute about whether that will be the case in the long term. My own assessment—and the Committee’s report reflects this—is that much of the change of attitude is due to the revenue that has come from oil and the fact that, under President Putin, the state coffers have expanded because of the high oil and gas prices, which have allowed the country to develop a system of governance in which the role of the state has been strengthened and key state-influenced companies, particularly Gazprom, exert considerable economic and political influence both within Russia and around the region of the former Soviet Union.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The hon. Gentleman will know that much of the investment in the energy sector in Russia is foreign, and he has touched on TNK-BP. In that regard, does he share my concern that more than a decade after signing the energy charter treaty, Russia has still not ratified it? If foreign investors want to continue to invest in Russia, they should have the legal as well as the political and economic framework in which to do so with confidence.

Mike Gapes: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I think that I can take the whole question of energy security a step further. It is widely believed that Russia is able to exert influence over the rest of the world because of its hold over large oil and gas reserves. That is true, but Russia is dependent on its markets in Europe, and on technological assistance to modernise its ageing oil and gas industry. We concluded that Russia needs to take account of the fact that at the moment—although this may change in time—it has few alternative customers to the large markets to its west. The technological progress and the huge investment that would be required to divert resources to the east and south will take a number of years and cost a great deal of money. In that respect, Russia has few alternative customers. We even came to the conclusion that it might have a shortfall in production to meet its export market commitments.

That is linked to Russia’s relationship with neighbouring countries with which Gazprom has some cosy relationships. Clearly, the export of energy supplies in Turkmenistan and in other parts of the former Soviet Union is very important here. At present, Russia benefits from purchasing at below world market prices from a number of neighbouring countries and sells its own products at world prices to Europe. In time, that may be challenged and it may change.

Russia faces a potential shortfall, particularly if domestic demand grows, partly because of the woefully inefficient way in which its oil and gas is used within its own economy. There is chronic energy inefficiency in the Russian economy, so the relationship is not one-sided; Russia needs the co-operation of Europe and the rest of the world to help modernise its oil and gas industries.

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Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): My hon. Friend has made a very interesting point. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) referred to the energy charter treaty. Later this month, the European Union will agree a mandate with Russia for the negotiation of a new partnership and co-operation agreement. As part of those negotiations, energy will be debated and arrangements agreed. Does my hon. Friend agree that it should be pointed out that Russia, which signed up to the energy charter treaty in 1994, should still be bound by that treaty? It is still in existence and it is still a viable document. It is extremely important to inward investors to Russia, because it provides for things such as compensation in the event of a trade dispute and so on.

Mike Gapes: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our Committee called on the British Government to keep to their list of things that have to be done. At the top of that list is the question of Russia’s ratification of the energy charter treaty, and the fact that the Government should make it clear that this is a relationship of interdependence, and not of dependence. The Russians need Europe, and the European Union should, in our words, develop a “robust and united” approach to Moscow.

Mark Pritchard: The hon. Gentleman’s comment about tone is important. Does he agree that there is a difference between being a competitor and an enemy? There is also a great deal of difference between strong leadership, which Russia has always had, and aggressive leadership.

Mike Gapes: I agree. As member states of the European Union, we must recognise that Russia will try to divide and rule, and split EU countries. It is very important that we achieve a common and united approach on energy matters, as well as on other matters. In our report, we recommended that the Government should make the

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mike Gapes: In a moment. It was clearly important that at the informal meeting in Slovenia last week, European Union Foreign Ministers spent a lot of time discussing their policy towards Russia. It is crucial that we in the EU recognise that we share a common interest in developing a more coherent and effective approach on such matters.

Mr. Drew: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Will he take his point further forward? I have a constituent who was one of those responsible for dealing with the remnants of Yukos in the west. Since he took on that particular role, he has been harried and threatened with legal action, both in this country and in wider Europe. This man, who is a top lawyer—I will not mention his name because he has had enough hassles—is unable to carry out much of his job because he is frightened that if he goes to other countries, the Russians will serve a writ on him seeking his arrest and for him to be moved
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to Moscow to be put on trial for something that he has had nothing to do with. That is why the EU must stand four-square with us.

Mike Gapes: I agree with my hon. Friend. He makes a point that can be generalised out to a number of other cases involving people both within Russia and elsewhere. We must recognise that we are not dealing with a normal European political culture, but with a close relationship between some key people in the energy sector and some big companies. Clearly, although the oligarchs, or some of them, played an important role in the rise of President Putin, some are now on his side and work with him while others are out of favour, in prison or in exile.

My next point, which relates to the EU issue, is on the partnership and co-operation agreement with Russia. The British Government and other EU Governments have been hoping for negotiations to open up soon because they believe that they will help to forge a common EU approach and encourage movement from Russia on issues of concern. Our Committee’s view is more sceptical. On the basis of the evidence that we received, we concluded that any negotiations would quickly get bogged down in highly politicised debates and become a new source of friction without yielding any tangible benefits.

I am pleased by reports that Russia has relaxed its ban on the import of Polish meat. That follows political changes in Poland in recent months, and potentially removes a Polish veto on the opening of negotiations. Nevertheless, the Government need to be careful to ensure that there is a real prospect of progress on the Russian side if negotiations are opened up, and that the forming of a new Russian Administration under the new President in May will lead to an agreement. Otherwise, what hopes there are will be dashed and negotiations will drag on and go nowhere, potentially leading to further frictions.

The report mentions missile defence, which is another potentially difficult issue, but I do not intend to spend a lot of time talking about it. When the report was published in December, it was interesting that the media concentrated entirely on the paragraphs that relate to missile defence and gave virtually no coverage whatever to the rest. I will therefore talk about other aspects of the report, and perhaps other right hon. and hon. Members will talk about missile defence.

The election process and politics in Russia have led to a lot of discontent. The Committee devoted a substantial part of its report to Russia’s performance on democracy and human rights issues. We recommend that the west couches its efforts to encourage better observance of human and political rights in Russia in terms not of the expectation that Russia will meet our standards, but the expectation that Russia will meet the standards to which it has signed up in international agreements and treaties over a number of years. It is important that the issue cannot be portrayed as us putting demands on Russia. Rather, the issue should be whether Russia is complying with the commitments to which it has signed up over many years.

Mr. Wilshire: Did the Committee give some thought to the important difference between values and standards when we debate democracy and the like? A
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lot of the treaties say, “We subscribe to the following values”, which is not to say that the many countries that sign them will commit to standards laid down in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany or like countries. That is an important distinction as regards Russia.

Mike Gapes: The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a difference between abstract values and concrete, specific measures and standards. However, there is only one universal declaration of human rights. The United Nations or Helsinki obligations, or those that come from membership of the Council of Europe or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, are important benchmarks and they should be applied on the basis that Russia has freely entered into those agreements over many years.

I am pleased that the Government, in their response to our report, said that they agreed with us. We also recommended that they continue to fund projects with non-governmental organisations and others to promote human rights observance in Russia. I should like to take this opportunity to welcome the list of such projects for 2008-09 that was recently sent to the Committee by the Foreign Secretary. I am also glad that he has agreed to inform the Committee of the outcome of the next bilateral human rights consultation with Russia whenever that occurs. I understand that no specific date has been set for it, but it is supposed to take place by the middle of the year. In that context, I want to place on record the Committee’s strong view that the Government and the Foreign Office should maintain the pressure on Russia to ratify protocol 14 of the European convention on human rights. We regard that as an important test of Moscow’s commitment to the European human rights regime to which it has agreed, but which it has not yet ratified.

In their response to our report, the Government referred to the messages that they sent in advance of the Russian presidential elections. Now that those elections have taken place, we asked for an update of the Government’s attitude, which we have received. In a recent letter, following the elections, the Foreign Secretary wrote that the UK

the Russian presidential election process. He referred in particular to the conditions set by Russia that made it impossible for the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to monitor the polls; the “lack of democratic choice”, to which I have referred, that resulted from those conditions; the exclusion of liberal opposition candidates; and the unequal—at best—media coverage.

Mr. Wilshire: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mike Gapes: Let me finish this point. Clearly, it is generally accepted and assessed, not only by the British Government but most other countries in the world, that Mr. Medvedev would have won the elections anyway, given the nature of the Russian political system. President Putin enjoys wide support among Russian people according to all the polls, so his chosen successor would, presumably, be supported on that basis. Nevertheless, it is important that we continue to register concerns internationally about the way in which effective monitoring in advance
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of the elections by election monitors from abroad was prevented by the late issue of visas and other restrictions set by the authorities.

I have mentioned the question of the British Council, and I shall conclude my remarks on the matter. I mentioned the closure in January of the offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, and I should like to place on record, on behalf of the Foreign Affairs Committee, our thanks to all the staff of the British Council, both in the UK and Russia, who have worked so hard for so long to build better relations between the two countries, and for their important work on a variety of things, including the accurate presentation of the English language and the British culture and way of life to many hundreds of thousands of Russians.

Twenty-eight Russians have lost their jobs as a result of the closure of the two British Council offices, and a library in St. Petersburg that was visited by 35,000 people a year has closed as a consequence of the harassment of the British Council by the Russian authorities. Some press reports say that the Russian authorities might allow the reopening of those facilities in a different way but, as I understand it, nothing has come of that. I am told that the lease on the office in St. Petersburg has been given up.

However, there is ongoing co-operation. There is a Russian art exhibition in central London at this very moment in Piccadilly. Later this year there will be a film festival. The British Council has been involved in organising a Turner exhibition to be held in Russia in the autumn. It is important to remember that despite the difficulties to which I have referred, many thousands of Russian citizens are coming to Britain without increasing visa restrictions, and that Russians are doing more business here. Indeed, most of the Russian elite send their children to British schools and keep their money in British bank accounts.

There is clearly an ongoing relationship between our two countries; at a human and personal level, it is probably greater than ever, despite the political difficulties. Relations between ordinary Russians and Britons are good. British people can go to Russia for tourism and other reasons, but we need improvement at the political level.

The unresolved and disgraceful murder on the streets of London of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen, and the introduction of polonium to the centre of London, which could have put thousands at risk, was outrageous. We should keep reminding the Russian Government that it is unacceptable that we are not able to try Mr. Lugovoi, who is accused of carrying out that murder. It is also unacceptable that other related issues cannot be resolved.

Today’s debate is important in that it puts the Committee’s report in the wider public domain. I am pleased that we have had that opportunity. I hope that the Minister will assure me that all efforts are being made to pursue the various issues that I have raised. We should continue to press Russia to comply with the international treaties that it has agreed to and signed. We should also make progress on the various arms control issues, which I mentioned only briefly.

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