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Of course we need to continue to make a robust case on human rights and all the other issues that concern us and about which we feel very strongly. However, we need to be more self-confident and open in our dealings with Russia. As I have said, it is essential that our Russian policy is not open to the accusation that we are seeking to appease the Russian Government or that we are apologists in any way for a Government who are rightly described as being extremely authoritarian. Cultural, political and other differences between the United Kingdom and Russia mean that the bilateral relationship will regularly suffer setbacks and be a constant challenge to maintain. A skilful Government, one with a confident, clear strategy, would find a serviceable way to navigate these shoals.
The President-elect should not be regarded as a softer touch than his predecessor; indeed, there is every indication that he may well adopt as tough a stance or an even tougher one than that adopted by President Putin. His immediate concern will be to consolidate his power base and to send a clear message to the competing clans within the Kremlin that he is the new boss. In so doing, the perception abroad may well be that Medvedev is no different from President Putin. That is not the case. Medvedev is from the St. Petersburg liberal elite and not, it must be noted, from the security services. Nevertheless, that label should not mislead the west into thinking that there will be an immediate sea change in the Kremlins policies. However, a different type of dialogue should be sought and support shown for the President-elect.
This is now the moment when we need to recast our policy and to let the Russians see and know that we are interested in having a better relationship with them. It makes little sense that we are perceived as being likely to treat Russia as a constant adversary. As one of my hon. Friends said, after going to Moscow recently:
It is more a cold sore than a Cold War.
We face an assertive Russia which is prepared to flex its muscles on the international stage and to disagree with western policy, particularly American policy. Talk of a new cold war is extremely unhelpful and misleading, and such loose tongues merely inflame the debate and make it much harder to have a sustainable relationship with Russia.
I have three suggestions for steps that I believe we should take to improve relations and to try to restore, at whatever level, some substance to our bilateral engagement. First, we should consider how we can renew attempts at intelligence gathering on a case-by-case basis. Such intelligence gathering fell into disrepair after 9/11, but there are areas where co-operation was extremely beneficial and it could be again. Secondly, this great Parliament does its work very well overseas. However, a much broader series of parliamentary visits and exchanges needs to be arranged. Thirdly, it would be good to create a standing forum of some sort for the exchange of commercial ideas, rules and norms across a broad field of endeavour. I would encourage the lord mayor of London to create such a forum himself.
It should not be beyond the wit of man to manage the disputes and disagreements that, in my view, are caused more by mutual misunderstandings than by anything else. The Government should make a major effort to improve this very important relationship. I also warn the Government that, without a proper strategy,
the relationship will suffer, as many others have suffered under the stewardship of this Government, if they just muddle through. That is not good enough.
Although Russians today do not enjoy our kind of democracy, they do enjoy an unprecedented, if precarious, degree of personal prosperity, of access to information, of freedom to travel and even - within limits - to express their views. To argue that they cannot go on to construct their own version of democracy is a kind of racism. It may take decades, even generations; the construction of democracy always does. But if the Indians can do it, so can the Russians. George Kennan, that great Russia watcher, got it right when he wrote in 1951, at the height of the cold war
When Soviet power has run its course. . . let us not hover nervously over the people who come after, applying litmus papers daily to their political complexions to find out whether they answer to our concept of democrats. Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner. The ways by which people advance towards dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign influence can do less good.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Caton. It is a pleasure to be speaking in the Chamber, rather than sitting in your chair in this particular room. It is also a great pleasure to meet up again with some old friends who were on the Foreign Affairs Committee when I was a member. I was on the Committee until seven years ago, they still serve on it, and it is a pleasure to be in the Chamber with them today.
I listened with great care to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) I am tempted to call him my hon. Friend if that does not wreck his future careerand I agreed with everything that he said, apart from his comment that his accurate prophecies had not resulted in his becoming a Minister in the Government. I am sorry to tell himand I hope that this does not hurt his feelingsbut I am rather glad that he did not become a Minister, because the first thing that the Government would do is gag him. The one thing that we do not want is that voice of sanity and that willingness to challenge to be quietened. The only other problem that I have with what he said this afternoon is the fact that he pinched most of what I was about to say in my speech, so I shall be briefer than I originally thought.
I would like to explain to the House why somebody whose constituency is next door to Heathrow airport should suddenly turn up to take part in a debate on Russia, as that is not what some people would expect. The reason is as follows; I lead the Conservative members of the delegation to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. I promise that I am not about to make a Conservative party political speech, but the significance of being a Conservative is that we belong to our own separate group, rather than the European Peoples Party, or EPP. Before you call me to order, Mr. Caton, I am not going to enter the European Union debate that the Conservatives love to have. I would simply like to say
that the European Democrat Group, or EDG, has 27 MPs from Russia, all of them members of the United Russia party, including the leader of the Russian delegation, Konstantin Kosachev, who was mentioned in paragraph 24 of the Governments response to the report. He is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Duma and someone I know well. For my sins, I have ended up as the deputy leader of the EDG in the Parliamentary Assembly and my boss, the leader of the group, is the other person mentioned in paragraph 24, Mikhail Margelov. I therefore report to a Russian, which is quite curious and very challenging.
I was an election observer in the Duma elections just before Christmas, when I led a small, international team of MPs in far-off Vladivostok, of all places. I reflected on the fact that it was a closed military city until fairly recently, whereas now there is no problem in getting there. Well, there is a problem, because it is in a remote part of the world, but once one is there, there are no problems at all. Indeed, a Pullman train now takes tourists there on the trans-Siberian express. Those who say that Russia has not changed should reflect on what has happened in Vladivostok. There have been criticisms of the electionswe have someone in the Chamber from the OSCE who is far more expert than I: the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George)but no restrictions or problems of any sort came my way during the inspection of electoral mechanics. Indeed, they were quite good, and have become a great deal better. Given that there were hundreds of thousands of polling stations across the federation, it is hardly surprising that there was the odd hiccup. We get the odd hiccup in the UK with about 40,000 polling stations, so we should be careful about criticising the Russians for that.
I am a not infrequent visitor to Russia, and from time to time, Russian MPs come to see me in the UK, and we talk about things from our perspectives. I hope that does not make me sound like an apologist for Russia and Russians; it gives me an insight, and I thought that it might be helpful to share that insight with the Chamber in this debate. I should like to use the insight that I have gained in the past few years to ask a couple of questions. First, how should we as MPs interact with Russians? Secondly, how do things look when seen through Russian eyes, rather than British eyes?
Those questions lead me to make three suggestions. First, the time has come to ensure that we look forward, rather than for ever looking back and thinking about what went wrong in the past. We need to engage with Russians as well as Russia. All too often in these debates, we talk about Russia and the United Kingdom, but I would rather talk about Brits and Russians getting to know each other, because that is one way forward. We should work with parliamentarians as well as Ministers, diplomats and civil servants. There is a role for parliamentarians in future relationships with the Russian Federation.
On the first question of interaction, I meet a lot of Russians and Russian MPs, and the message that I receive is that they want to engage more fully in the world community. They know that that is important and that they are not there yet, and they accept that it will require change. They also accept, on a one-to-one
basis, that they need help. When I talk to Russian MPs individually, they are willing to say that they have much to learn, and they are keen to get help. That is why MPs from the United Russia party come here to talk to people such as mesome might say foolishlybecause the British Conservative party can help them to develop their democracy. I am sure that other members of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe do just the same and come here to talk to the Labour party, as they want that help.
When we talk about democracy, human rights and the rule of law, I tell myself that the Russians have not been at all this for long. We cannot quite count the years on the fingers of two handsbut we are not far off. We must look at what we enjoy in this country and in Parliament. One could go back a thousand years, but let us settle for 1688 and the Glorious Revolution, which was neither glorious nor a revolution. What we now have can be traced back at least that far, so we have had 300 years to get into the mess that we are in. Should we be surprised that Russia is in a mess when it has not had 300 years to get its democracy sorted out? We have to put things into perspective.
As I said to the hon. Member for Ilford, South, in an intervention, we need to distinguish between values and standards. We sign up to universal values, and so do the Russians. I know of no dissent within Russia about the values to which the planet subscribes. However, it is a little arrogant for a country, whether it is an important country like ours or a less important country, to lecture another sovereign state along the lines of, The only standards that you can get away with are those that we lay down for you. That is arrogant. There are ways of running a sovereign state other than the way in which we run ours, and there are alternative ways of living up to the values to which a state subscribes. There is much more work to be done in that area. I have learnedand I am happy that I did not hear otherwise this afternoonfrom talking to the Russians, that if we want to get them to change, we should encourage them, talk to them and make suggestions; I am sure that that is other peoples experience, too. If we want to make matters worse or to sterilise the status quo, we should condemn them and criticise them openly. That applies to all of us, and I worry that we overdo the condemnation.
Secondly, we should consider how things look through Russian eyes. For reasons that I cannot quite work out, I spent my first 10 years in the House being drawn into Northern Ireland politics. Someone once advised me, If you ever want to understand the IRA, you must think like a member of the IRA and see things as they see them, and I have done that ever since. When I meet Russians, I try to say to myself, I wonder how they look at the world, rather than trying to tell them how I think they should look at the world. My favourite comment from a Russian with whom I had that conversation was: The one thing you have to understand about us is that inside every Russian is a little Tsar trying to get out. I thought about it, and I realised that every Russian whom I have come across is perfectly used to being told who the next leader of his country will be. That is normal, and has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, so what is strange about what has just happened there, although we might not like it?
The Russians are also used to the idea of having elections with only one candidate for whom they are allowed to vote, so if something similar happens, what is different? They think, This is how things have been; we have had Tsars and imitation Tsars. We all tend to think like that, looking at things through our own history. The Russians have absolutely no history of anything remotely like democracy as we recognise it. They are starting from scratch. These matters are far easier in countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland because there was something there before.
When one talks to Russians and listens to what they say about the 20th century, and when one studies what Putin has done, one finds that Russians talk about stability and strength. The way I see it, the Russian view of the 20th century is that change means chaos. The Bolshevik revolution was chaotic and gave Russians communism. The Yeltsin revolution was chaotic and gave them oligarchs. Is it any surprise that someone should come along and say, If I stop all this chaos, Ill be popular?
Mr. Wilshire: I am coming to exactly that point, but may I finish the point I am making? Russia associates rapid change, which we demand, with chaos, so we must not be surprised if its people are reluctant to have another bit of chaos.
As my hon. Friend says, Yeltsin did not bring only chaos and the oligarchsI suppose that Chelsea football club should be grateful for that, but I am not sure who else is grateful for some of the things that happened thenbut humiliation. It is difficult to imagine how Russians see the situation. The country in which they lived was a world superpower. It might not have been a superpower or political system of which we approved, but it was one of only two superpowers. Not long after, its people were dependent on food aid from the other superpower. They had been brought to utter and total world humiliation. We might disagree, but that is how they saw it. Under those circumstances, it is hardly surprising that we should come up against a country that is trying to manage democracy, change and stability. I am not sure that we necessarily ought to applaud the situation, but we should at least make allowances rather than simply attack the Russians on every occasion.
What President PutinI am not sure whether he is an ex-President yethas done above all else is restore Russian self-respect. That is not as I see it, but it is what I hear regularly from Russians. There are some technical issues around energy, but they have power again, and their economy has revived. This time, the money is reaching not just Chelsea football club but, as I have seen, places such as Vladivostok as well. Inevitably, the Government are popular as a result.
The only thing that mystified me about the Russian elections held before and after Christmas is why, as President Putin and his party were likely to win a crushing victory over everybody else, they felt the need to overdo things. That is a mystery that my Russian friends have not been able to explain. They smile and say, Yes, I think we agree with you. Apart from that, democracy is developing.
May I say something about the need to look forward, instead of backwards? I learned a lesson a long time ago. I was born at the end of the second world war and grew up in a country that demonised Germans in the cinema, on the radio and the budding television service, in books and everywhere. It was not until my son swapped schools with a lad from a German gymnasiumhe came to live with usand I became embarrassed by what he saw on British television that it dawned on me that we ought to look forward. That lad could not be held responsible for the crimes of his parents or grandparents, and it was time to move on.
I hear from parliamentarians from the Council of Europes 47 nations who understand why parliamentarians from some countries think in a way that is similar to how I used to think about Germany all those years ago. Under the Soviet Union, people in Hungary, Poland and so on suffered dreadfully, and as a result, some people condemn todays Russians, many of whom were not born when those things happened. If we want to keep relations cool and distant, we should carry on like that. I hope that we can persuade more people to learn the lesson that I learned from the German lad: draw a line and move on. The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union and we cannot put the clock back.
I looked with some care at the names of those who gave evidence in writing or appeared before the Select Committee. No one on my list of offenders appeared on the Committees list, but I think that we need occasionally to advise people who are trying to get their mind around this problem to beware of some of the so-called experts. I will not name names, but I have in mind a person from an American charitable foundation who passes himself off as an academic expert but forgets to say that he is a Moldovan and has a Transnistrian wife. He ought to be more open about why he loathes the Russians with a passion. All too often, evidence from experts is not expert but chip-on-the-shoulder. We need to keep that in the back of our mind.
We must stop singling out Russia all the time. A couple of Members have mentioned Georgia in NATO, and I do not disagree with that. This winter, I enjoyed two Christmases. I enjoyed one in this country, before Iwent to observe the elections in Georgia and enjoyed another on the Orthodox Christmas day a week or so later. There were problems with the Russian elections, but I have not heard many people say that the Georgian elections were a similar sort of basket case, if that is the right phrase. For some reason, Georgia should be welcomed because it is Georgia and it is useful. If we are going to condemn anybody, let us condemn everybody. If we are going to condemn someone, let us start with ourselves. A little debate is taking place about whether we should detain people for 28 or 42 days without bringing them before a court. That is in contravention of the values and standards of many conventions to which we have signed up. If we are going to lecture people on human rights, let us start by lecturing ourselves.
On the shortcomings of other peoples democracies, let us remember the judges comments about how the postal voting system in this country would disgrace a banana republic. That case involved Labour councillors, but I am not biased: in the past week or so, there was a case of a Conservative councillor doing the same thing.
We are all up to it, so before we condemn other people too much for not conforming to this countrys democratic standards, for heavens sake, let us get this countrys democratic standards correct.
We need to get people as well as Governments involved. Paragraph 47 of the Governments response suggests that people should get together more often. I say yes to thatthat is exactly what we want. It is right to short-circuit some of the involvement of the Government, Ministers and civil servants, and talk to each other as fellow human beings. On parliamentarians, the report rightly refers to protocol 14, but it is tempting to say that the Russian Government are somehow at the bottom of things and absolutely to blame. If I understand correctly Mikhail Margelov and Konstantin Kosachevtwo people whom the Government cite as senior Russian MPs who go to their Parliament and say, Please, please, sign thisthe problem is that the Duma will not give authorisation. It is not a question of whether the Kremlin gives authorisation. We could argue about whether the Kremlin tells the Duma what to doI pass on thatbut, technically, the blockage is ultimately caused by Duma Members not putting their hands up in sufficient numbers. We need to talk to parliamentariansperhaps we could do something about that.
On the British Council, perhaps I could present Members with an image that they might find hard to believe. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and I make a little pair within the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and we have been working with Konstantin Kosachev to see whether we can make a contribution to unsticking the British Council problem. May I suggest a theory that the Minister has perhaps heard from his officials? It may or may not be true but, from my cock-up not conspiracy view of the world, it makes a bit of sense to me. It was suggested by somebody who might know what he was talking about that, after Britain threw out a few diplomats, someone in the Kremlin said, We have to retaliate, and some lowly official was dispatched to find a convenient way to do so. He remembered that a long time ago somebody had spotted that the arrangements for setting up the British Council in the then Soviet Union, now Russian Federation, were somehow not right. The situation had been ignored, because it did not really matter if such things occurred, but the person remembered and the rest followed. When the message got back to the people in the Kremlin who had said, Go and do something, they were not best pleased, but now the problem involves loss of face. Working with Russian MPs, the right hon. Gentleman and I have been trying to find a way to get back to where we were in the first place without either side having to lose face.
Mike Gapes: In fact, the problem is that the cultural agreement that allows the British Council to operate in Russia is an old agreement dating back to 1994. There have been efforts over many years to secure a new agreement, but the Russians have been dragging their feet. We commented on that in the report.
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