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3 Apr 2008 : Column 323WH—continued

We were extremely arrogant and dismissive about Kosovo. Many of us have laboured over that dilemma. We desire to permit and facilitate national self-determination
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and we are fully aware of what happened in Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia, but we dismissed all too easily the Russian Federation’s view on granting Kosovo independence—or rather, acknowledging its independence, as it is arguable whether it is unilateral or whether Kosovo has recognition. It certainly does not have a seat at the United Nations. The Russian Federation’s point was that it was a breach of the Helsinki accords—I think that we must acknowledge that it was—to which it has adhered since the former Soviet Union signed up to them. Even if Kosovo was a one-off—I do not accept that it was, but it is the British Government’s case that it was sui generis—we should still recognise that it is a serious departure, and that the Russian Federation had a legitimate point. However, that was swept aside. Not only was that unfair, it has had consequences: it aggravates the situation.

Now we are paying a heavy price. The Russian Federation is withdrawing from participation in the treaty on conventional armed forces in Europe, and unless we use the window of political opportunity presented by the election of the new President to rebuild relations, there will be further deterioration and loss in our relationship with Russia.

Mr. Wilshire: I am fascinated and pleased to discover that in the seven years since I left the Committee, nothing much seems to have changed with the hon. Gentleman. It was enjoyable then, and it is enjoyable now. He said that he doubts that the Kosovo situation is a one-off, and I agree, but would he care to speculate as to what report or statement from the British Government we would have before us if the Russians were to say, “It’s a one-off in Transnistria; what’s the problem? We’re only helping people who want to assert their own independence”?

Andrew Mackinlay: I am not sure that I follow the hon. Gentleman, but the fact is that there are other conflicts. One is in Transnistria and Moldova, where there is a Russian minority who could say, on the basis of Kosovo, that it, too, is a one-off case. There is a degree of agreement between the hon. Gentleman and me that that is a danger. We can say that it is a one-off, but other states, communities and ethnic groups might say, “Oh no it’s not.” That is why I think the British Government and the Foreign Office have been blind.

The hon. Gentleman says that I have not changed. I am not going to change, but one thing that I have learned in the many years in which he has known me is that some things I say that are scoffed at become fact. I was prophetic, I believe, during the preparation of the report. On the enlargement of NATO, to which my friend, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), referred, the report makes it clear that in our view, if Georgia’s application to NATO is to be advanced, Georgia should resolve its conflicts with national minorities. I moved an amendment, which was defeated—in fact, I think that I was the only person who voted for it—saying that Georgia’s resolution of such conflicts should be a precondition for its NATO membership.

I claim some skill in prophecy because it would appear that our Prime Minister has taken note of what I said. I believe that in his discussions this week with President Sarkozy—the Prime Minister is in Bucharest
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as we speak—he is following the line that there is no sensible prospect of Georgia entering NATO unless and until its conflicts are resolved. That is why I disagree with the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), with whom I agree strongly on many matters: bringing Georgia in as it is, with its Russian minorities and frozen conflicts, would almost mark the end of NATO. Article 5 says that aggression towards one is aggression towards the whole, and that there should be an appropriate response. One does not invite into one’s club people who have a territorial conflict with their next-door neighbour. It is stark staring bonkers.

We would not, of course, go to war over the frozen conflict in Georgia, but it would mean that article 5, a NATO cornerstone, could never be used as an implied threat. It would be a devalued currency. That is why we should not let Georgia in. It would provoke Russia, create areas of conflict in other states and set unwelcome precedents. Sometimes, even things that I say eventually come to pass, and that is one such thing. I believe that the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy have concluded that Georgia’s membership of NATO would not be appropriate unless and until it has resolved its frozen conflict.

I am also concerned about our double standards. To listen to Foreign Office diplomats, Ministers and indeed Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative spokespersons, it is as though United Kingdom diplomats and our security and intelligence services were like the archangel Gabriel. It is as though we did not spy or engage in espionage. Paragraph 94 of the report draws attention to the accusations by

We put that in our report, and I was happy for it to be there, but I moved an amendment—it is in an appendix to the report—to add the words,

but nobody supported it. I wanted to add that sarcastic comment, because clearly that rock was planted clumsily by our security and intelligence services. In my view, the suggestion that that was not the case is breathtaking nonsense, and we should not play such games. If we conduct such work, which is probably necessary, we should not pretend otherwise. We should acknowledge what is going on, because sometimes it is clumsy, our security and intelligence services do not work in consort with the mainstream Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, often, it can aggravate a situation, resulting in absurd tit for tats and the expulsion of diplomats. I think that that is a big mistake.

On prosecutions and extraditions, I can understand the United Kingdom Government requesting that the Russian Federation return to this country somebody whom they want to put on trial, but we must acknowledge that our Government have also received requests from the Russian Federation for the return of people from London to Russia. We say, “This is a matter for our courts and certain criteria must be met”, but that is precisely what the Russians say. They, too,
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must act in accordance with their laws. Absurdly, we try and tell Russians what their laws are and why their legal judgment is flawed. To suggest that the traffic is one-way is insulting nonsense.

I have some sympathy with the Russian Federation, because I believe that we have allowed certain people to enter this country, and have given them asylum or citizenship when that was not always in the best interests of the United Kingdom. Arguably, some of them have entered not with their own money, but with Russia’s money, and now the Russian authorities are catching up with them. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of the UK’s financial regulatory services and oversight of money coming in—I believe that money is being laundered through London from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, and we are not on top of that problem. If we are aware of it, that is even more disgraceful, because we are not facilitating the return of those people to answer in the courts of their land of origin for their stewardship and extraordinary wealth, which it is almost impossible to believe could have been obtained legitimately.

We allow those people to come to this country and then, from London, they wage a war against President Putin and the Russian Federation. That is crazy, illegitimate and foolhardy in the extreme. In the long term, we will lose as a result, and it is time that we examined much more rigorously people who come to this country and claim asylum, although some of those claims may be wholly justified. I intervened on my friend, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, who explained why a recent applicant had been granted political asylum. However, if I ask the Foreign Office, as I have done in the past, to explain why certain people are granted asylum, it resorts to its stock answer: “We never discuss the reasons for granting asylum.” Parliament is therefore unable to scrutinise the stewardship of Foreign Ministers or of the Home Office and ask why they judged a certain person to be fit and proper to receive political asylum. In the vast majority of cases of political asylum, nobody would ask any questions, but clearly some cases, personalities or relationships with certain states justify full, or at least partial, disclosure of the reasons for granting asylum, but the British Government refuse to make such a disclosure. They have therefore failed in their obligations to Parliament and the British people. On the basis of available evidence, I think that their judgments are far too often flawed, wrong and to our long-term disadvantage.

Flowing from this debate, and with the coming of the new Russian President, I hope that there will be a reassessment of what has gone on in the past. The Russian Federation has indicated, both publicly and—I understand—informally, that it would welcome some rapprochement and thawing of this ice-cold situation, which would require the British Government to respond in kind. If Ministers can acknowledge that, we will have an opportunity to draw a line under the Litvinenko case, for the time being at least—not permanently, but we need to agree to disagree—and to move forward. If at this critical moment we make the right signs, signals and responses, I am hopeful about the prospects of a restoration of many of the services of the British Council, in St. Petersburg and elsewhere, and of other things to our mutual benefit over the next 12 months. That would be to the good of both Russia and the United Kingdom.

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3.45 pm

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): There is no doubt that, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s foreign policy has been much more blunt and aggressive, which has fuelled a view perhaps exemplified by Edward Lucas’s recent book about a new cold war breaking out between Russia and the west. I think that that view is overdone and I am very pleased that the Committee agreed. The latter took a much more balanced view of the relationship between Russia and the west. Even the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) for once agreed with the group think that that rather apocalyptic view of the Russian situation is overdone. I am glad that he joined the rest of us in taking that view.

The assertiveness of Russian foreign policy during the Putin era—if we can call it that now—is perfectly understandable in the light of its recent history. It was defeated in the cold war, after which it was split—dismembered—into its various parts and practically went bankrupt. During that period—not more than 10 or 15 years ago—the phrase, “Burkina Faso with rockets” was contemptuously used to describe the state of Russia. It is no wonder that, out of simple national pride, which we can all understand, and given its new oil and gas riches, it has reasserted its national independence and defended what it regards as its understandable interests against what had been its mortal foe—the west. Given the history, what has happened over the past few years is totally understandable. Having said that, however, from our point of view, some parts of that have been ludicrous. The whole British Council affair is monstrous nonsense and I fully support the line that we have taken on that. The view about the British Council put, and still being put, across by the Russian authorities is ridiculous and complete nonsense. I am glad that the Foreign Office continues to take a robust line.

I take the view, therefore, that, as in other areas—the Committee produced a report more recently on Iran, in which this view was put forward too—we should continue to do business. Talking is important and is the way to deal with Iran and Russia. It is always sensible to talk and do business, whatever the nature of the difficulties, which of course there have been with Russia. Our report emphasised that point. However, that does not mean that we should not be robust. We should show an equivalent robustness to Russia in our dealings over issues such as that involving the British Council. After the remarks of the hon. Member for Thurrock, perhaps I can praise the Foreign Office for its good response to the British Council affair. I fully support the line that it has taken recently. It would be both naive and pusillanimous to take all that lying down. We must be assertive, as the Russians are. They would expect no less and would be contemptuous of us if we did not take a similar line.

However, I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to two policy areas in which we could show more progress. The first is energy security. As we know, Gazprom has been flexing its muscles in a fairly brutal manner, and the Foreign Affairs Committee went to Bulgaria and Romania last year, I think—

Mike Gapes: It was 2006.

Mr. Horam: The Committee Chairman corrects me.

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The Committee saw at first hand what is happening in those countries: political interference. Bulgarian and Romanian Ministers warned us about the threat from Russia, and it was evident. Equally, Gazprom has been buying up companies in Serbia and Italy, and the attitude of the previous rulers of France and Germany has not been wholly satisfactory from that point of view. Herr Schröder has become the president of Nordstream, the company behind the proposed new pipeline between Russia and Germany, bypassing the Baltic states. Equally, ex-President Chirac was too pro-Russian and too inclined to give in to Russian interests in that area, so I am very glad that there has been a new approach since Frau Merkel took over in Germany and President Sarkozy took over in France—a new willingness to stand toe-to-toe with the Russians, call a spade a spade and not mess around.

We need a new, disciplined and more united approach to energy security in the European Union. I hope that the Foreign Office is doing what it can to bring that about, because it is a significant element of the whole approach. It is very much in Russia’s interests that we do so, because, as one of my hon. Friends pointed out, the Russians are not protecting their long-term interests by being political about the development of their gas and oilfields. They are eschewing proper investment and development, which would be more forthcoming if they did not strong-arm BP and other British and American companies, as they have over the past few years. Russia’s tactics are profoundly counter-productive economically, and we must pay attention to that.

Secondly, our foreign policy should be less subservient to that of the United States. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) rightly pointed out the business of the ballistic missile defence system. I shall not go into that at any length, because he admirably set out his concern about it, which I share. I, too, had a briefing—I do not think that he was present, but the Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) was—by officials from the American embassy in London on the ballistic missile defence system, and at one particular moment, I caught myself thinking about that picture, “Dr. Strangelove”. It was quite extraordinary—the way we were talking about bullet meeting bullet in mid-air at a certain point, and the parabola at which one would intercede with another. The whole thing is a fantastic piece of nonsense, and it is not entirely justified. The Americans insist on it, however. Despite every effort to disengage from, or modify, the situation, it is still a severe bone of contention with the Russians, and fouling up our diplomatic relations with them is an issue.

We should be concerned about that situation. We are aware of how damaging the effect of our recent subservience to American foreign policy has been in the middle east, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. In Europe, we should be no less concerned to strike—when we think it appropriate—an independent line that reflects our own interests as European nations, although, of course, we remain friends and allies of the United States.

That is also true of Kosovo. If I can dilute the particular interest of the hon. Member for Thurrock, let me say that, for once, I share some of his views and concerns. The Kosovo decision was forced through in the final analysis by the United States, and I am not
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sure that it will play well—so far it has not played well—in the international sphere, because Kosovo has secured less support for its independence than it might have hoped for. It is an issue on which, again, we paid too little attention to the views of the Russians.

I must disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling about NATO, Ukraine and Georgia. He rightly pointed out what those two countries have done to make themselves acceptable to NATO, but once again, we must look at the situation from Russia’s point of view—not simply to take account of Russia’s point of view, but, in our own interests, to have reasonable relations with Russia. Clearly, the situation is provocative from their point of view. If Ukraine becomes part of NATO, Russia will regard NATO as coming right up to its very frontiers, which is something, historically, that it must be concerned about. We all accept that Ukraine in particular, but also Georgia, has legitimate reasons for being part of NATO, and we would welcome it to NATO. The question, however, is when? Our Government and the Governments of the other European countries were right to say, “Not yet.” It may be next year or the year after before those countries start the process of entering NATO, but we must be concerned about Russia’s current interests.

Sir John Stanley: Does my hon. Friend not agree that NATO has been up to the Russian frontiers for many years—notably north Norway?

Mr. Horam: I understand that point, but Norway is not like Ukraine. Ukraine is part of the whole Russian identity. Kievan Rus is part of the history of Russia, and Ukraine is much more immediate to the Russians than Norway, which is a fringe country in European terms. The situation concerns Russia. I understand why, and we must understand their attitude and approach matters carefully. We will get there in the end, and it is right that we should, but we must proceed with caution.

Those are the two caveats about the approach of the Foreign Office. We need to be less subservient to the United States and get together on energy security in Europe. There is a great possibility for a new and much healthier relationship with Russia.

3.56 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I find myself, unusually, in a unique position, being practically the only person in the room today who is not a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and who has not had the benefit of taking part in this tremendous exercise. I congratulate the Committee on an excellent report, and the Government on their response.

I shall speak about a broader range of issues. I shall not touch on NATO or on any other big issues, because they have already been dealt with. I find myself, again uniquely, in almost complete agreement with all the speeches that have been made so far this afternoon. It has been a knowledgeable and informative display of clear and pragmatic thinking. I particularly endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) said about the necessity for this country to rebalance its relationship with the United States of
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America. One sad thing about the way in which our relationship with Moscow has festered recently is that Moscow thinks that we are not much use to them bilaterally because we do not have any influence in Washington as it is, which in itself is a rather galling thought.

The reasons for the unsatisfactory state of our relations with Russia are well known and have been well rehearsed this afternoon. Many of them are based on unnecessary misunderstandings and an increasing habit of ill temper and bad communication. There are, and always will be, issues upon which we have substantial differences, including NATO enlargement, all the other issues of international relations, and the other grit in the oyster, the well rehearsed problems that the report highlights.

In spite of that political bilateral coolness, however, British and Russian business—I am glad to say—seems to be flourishing. Russian companies continue to see the City of London as the preferred location for planned public offerings, and they manage to raise considerable sums of money from the capital markets to develop those businesses. Britain also continues to be one of the largest foreign investors in Russia. If the political situation worsens, however, there is a likelihood that Russian companies will be persuaded to look elsewhere to further their business growth, and that the pressure on British companies operating in Russia will grow—for example, as is happening with TNK-BP.

Without a coherent political dialogue, or the means to achieve those ends, it becomes very difficult for both Russian and British businesses to appeal to a higher body to resolve their potential grievances. It is particularly important that the British Government’s policy on Russia should seek to protect and promote those bilateral business interests and capitalise on the fantastic know-how of the City of London in those sectors. That is important if we are to achieve that aim, and other aims that we have, to minimise the political and diplomatic differences such as have occurred over the past two years. The moment has now come when it is in Britain’s interests and, I would like to think, in the interests of Russia, to redefine our relationship together across the whole piece and to make a new and more positive attempt at establishing a consistent and agreed dialogue that has the structure and framework to survive the inevitable shocks that will come along the way.

It is often difficult under this Government to define any clear strategy in British foreign policy, but our national interest obviously dictates that it is foolish not to have a more workable and substantial relationship with Russia. I am not in any way talking about appeasement. I am talking about a more frank, clear-eyed and productive relationship that clearly would be of benefit to both sides.

It is important for us to understand that President Putin is hailed in his own country as the saviour of modern Russia and if that salvation has been achieved at some cost, in my view Russians see that cost as worth while, indeed a price well worth paying. The regime has indeed become more authoritarian. Power has been consolidated in the Kremlin, and of course a relatively small political elite makes all major policy decisions, which is not so different from this country. To be frank, this is a matter for the Russians and not something that we need to have a nervous breakdown about.

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