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3 Apr 2008 : Column 337WH—continued

Mr. Wilshire: Yes, I know, but, similarly, if the hon. Gentleman listens to Russians, they will give him a different version of events in which we have been dragging our feet, not them. It does not matter: my point is that if parliamentarians can work together in a
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new way, we might save Governments from getting stuck with the debate about how they can get out of the mess that they have got into without losing face. That is all I am saying. Occasionally, there is a role for parliamentarians, not just Governments, in building and improving the situation in Russia.

I have heard it suggested that Russia is a threat to world peace and that Putin wanted to go back to being a Stalin. In Russia, when talking to Russian parliamentarians, I have never found any evidence of that at all. Here is a country trying to overcome humiliation; here is a leader trying to lead through Russia’s history rather than our history. There is a large group of people who simply want to be taken seriously in a way that they have not been. The people I talk to want to build a democracy, but the message I hear is: “Please will you help us do it?”

Russian people want their sovereignty to be respected. They do not particularly want to be lectured. They do not welcome interference in their internal affairs, and I am not sure that we would be any different if people tried to throw their weight around with us. That is what the Russian people ask. In respect of debates about Ukraine and Georgia, I understand why we are concerned, and that it is in our interest and in the Ukrainian interest. However, I can also understand that a Russian gets a little bit twitchy about us messing around in his backyard. That is exactly what happened in America over the Cuban missile crisis. There came a point where someone who wanted to keep their sovereignty said, “I’m not having any of this, thank you very much.” We are only seeing a variation on what has happened many times before.

I find the Government's response to the report exceedingly helpful, but the messages for the future are as follows: the Government—any British Government—must engage, rather than stand back and criticise; they must encourage and help rather than condemn; and above all else, they must remember that Russia is a European country, like us and like others, and it and its people want to become European, like us. It is up to us to give them a chance to do so.

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): I am going to call you now, Mr. George, but I would be grateful if you concluded your remarks by 4.45 pm, so that we have adequate time for the winding-up speeches.

4.32 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Caton. I am sorry that I arrived late. I have only heard three and a half speeches and, frankly, I am delighted that I arrived as late as did. I would have preferred it if, with your permission, I could have spoken without having listened. I find what has been said quite incredible in many respects.

I say with no disrespect to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) that, if the Labour party was in bed with an authoritarian party in a European institution, I would wonder whether I wished to remain in it. I wonder why the Council of Europe was in Russia anyway, observing what were obviously going to be fraudulent elections on an epic scale. Although the hon. Gentleman did not find any fraud in Vladivostok—I am not sure, because I have not been there—there could
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very well have been fraud at 92,000 other polling stations, because there was fraud on a systemic, epic basis.

People do not cheat at elections on election day if they have fixed the results beforehand, because the odd election observer will be running around and because they will, of course, know how many observers are on aircraft heading for Vladivostok or anywhere else. Therefore, in the five or six polling stations that anyone could visit we could be certain that were fraud going to be committed it would not be done in front of even a sympathetic ear and eye.

I headed a short-term observation mission to Russia four years ago at the Duma elections and said in my speech, which irritated the Russians, that those elections fell well short of international standards. I will not bore hon. Members with the details of why we reached our conclusions. When I was asked, as president of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly, whether I would observe the following presidential elections, I said, “No, I’m not going to waste British taxpayers’ money, nor will the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, in attending not an election but a coronation.”

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

Mr. George: No, I have too little time in which to speak. I can speak to the hon. Gentleman afterwards.

It was obvious that the elections were going to be fraudulent. It offends me that an organisation for which I had the deepest respect—the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—has been subject to a persistent and lengthy campaign of abuse in an attempt to diminish its competence and to eliminate it. I have chronicled this campaign in enormous detail, fortunately, in part, with the collusion of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

There was a systematic attempt to prevent proper election observation. Those responsible unilaterally deconstructed ODIHR’s methodology: they would not provide visas until a few days before the election and they would only allow 70 people to turn up. I said that there were 92,000 polling stations and, quite rightly, ODIHR refused to go under those conditions. But, of course, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, followed by or alongside the Council of Europe, went out and observed what were obviously going to be appalling elections.

When it came to the presidential elections, ODIHR was again prevented from observing. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly wisely and belatedly refused to dignify fraudulent elections with their attendance, but the Council of Europe went along on its own, with I do not know how many people. If all the people were as friendly towards the electoral process as the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken, I am surprised that they produced a critical report.

I am not anti-Russian. I went through the cold war. I tried my best after the cold war to engage with the Russians. Yes, it was a corrupt society and, yes, Yeltsin was a flawed character, but his regime was followed by another. That regime is proceeding in such a way that alarm bells are starting to ring for me if not for others. Not only are its elections fraudulent but it is almost a
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single-party state. Legitimate candidates were barred from standing. One was barred because he did not have enough signatures: 3 million signatures were whittled down to below the minimum. Legitimate candidates, including Garry Kasparov, were prevented from attending. Zhirinovsky’s party, which is not an opposition party, was also there. One other guy stood—he was very much in the Putin camp—and even the other parties are well in the pocket of the Administration. I cannot see why we should be so nice, when Russia is doing something like that on that one front alone.

The Council of Europe has about 3,000 non-governmental organisations accredited to it. What has happened to Russian NGOs? They have been deliberately targeted for destruction. What about international NGOs? Their leaders and characters working with them have been beaten up. What about the BBC World Service and the British Council? What about the overflying or near overflying of British airspace by Russian aircraft? What about all the things that Russia is doing?

Hon. Members may say, “Fine. This is an independent state. They have had one hell of a history.” We can smile and say, “We’ll help you. If democracy comes in 300 years, we’ll be around to help you over that period.” I take a rather different view. If the Russians are playing as they are, we should not go back into a cold war on our side, but we should not be supine. Some countries are being supine, first, because they are natural apologists for anybody and, secondly, because they do not like a fight and prefer the Americans and the British, largely, to do it for them, if necessary.

I am sympathetic towards Georgia and its aspirations. Hon. Members have said that we should not mess in Russia’s backyard. Does that mean that if a sovereign nation was once part of the Soviet Union and wants to get the hell out of it, we can do nothing to assist it because it is in Russia’s backyard? Ukraine may have been the origin of Russia, but it wishes to leave Russia’s orbit.

I headed the short-term observation missions to the rose and orange revolutions three or four years ago. Putin worked hard to support Yanukovych, who was a pro-Russian candidate against the democratic candidates and the party led by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. If Ukraine wants to join NATO, despite the fact that it is adjacent to Russia, and most Ukrainians do not want to be part of Russia, that is its sovereign right. Why consider the Russian position, but not the Ukrainian position? Why consider Russian self-interest, but not Georgian self-interest?

The Georgians make the third largest contribution of soldiers to NATO’s operations, and more than many countries that are part of NATO. They have overcome their problems of authoritarianism, and they are a consolidating democracy, not a consolidated democracy. Exports to Russia have been barred, travel has been greatly restricted, and two areas that are juridically part of Georgia—South Ossetia and Abkhazia—are in essence under Russian control. Do we say to the Russians, “Ah, as this was part of your empire, we will allow you to stop other countries that want to get away from you, and to make them play by your rules in perpetuity.”? The Russians are trying to destroy Georgia, and I could spend ages telling the Chamber how.

The Georgians are becoming more democratic, but they are not yet there. I observed the elections, which
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were not as good as I had hoped, but to compare the Georgian elections to the Russian elections, and to compare some bad municipal elections in Birmingham and perhaps half a dozen other cities—we know who did the cheating—to elections elsewhere, as though that indicates that as our elections are fraudulent we should close our eyes to massive fraud in Russian elections, is disingenuous. That is as polite as I can be.

I am glad that I shall finish speaking soon, because I am becoming madder and madder about what I have heard. We must try to engage with the Russians, but not on our knees. The argument by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) was like jumping into Dr. Who’s telephone kiosk and going back 25 years to listen to the Tribune-reading, left-wing John Horam trashing America and supporting Russia. If I had to make a decision on our security and where it lies in the next 10, 20 or 30 years, after Bush has gone, I would much prefer to have Europe closer to the United States than toadying up to the Russians.

I thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Caton. It is difficult for a Welshman to make a short speech. I should have congratulated the Committee on its excellent report. We must not become paranoid, but we know who our allies are. Putin is going along to see his mates in NATO. He knows who they are, and he knows who they put pressure on to be nice to Russia, and to keep Georgia out. We can all name those names. No doubt he will be given a warm welcome, and will be thanked for doing a wonderful job before going back.

The main beneficiary of the summit in Bucharest will be Russia, because it will have proven that the west has no bottle whatever and that it is prepared to lie down and to take any humiliation that is heaped upon it. Russia will find its allies all over the place and in many legislatures, and will have succeeded, with our collusion, in keeping Georgia out of NATO. That will be a good day’s work for the Russians, and a bad day’s work for those who acquiesce in that objective in foreign policy.

We must not be supine. We must work with our allies and defend our national interests, even if the Russians are doing us or our allies down. We must robustly defend our position. We must hope that the Russians will not substitute the red army for Gazprom and switch off oil and gas to our NATO and European allies. If I were asked whether they would do that, I would say, as a left-wing Labour Member of Parliament once said, “Why look into a crystal ball if the future can be read in a book?” Russia has done it. It has shut off oil and gas to Georgia and Ukraine, and even to its closest ally, Belarus. When will it be our turn?

I am not a cold warrior. I do not want the cold war to return, but nor do I want an attitude of indifference—or, rather, cravenness—to the Russians because they have a bad history. What about the bad Russian history that impinged on eastern and central Europe and other parts of the world? We must consider countries other than Russia, hope that they will become democratic, and help them as far as we can. But if they seek to damage our interests, I hope that this Government and any other Government will have the bottle to stand up for our interests and those of Europe and NATO.

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4.46 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I welcome the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, and congratulate the Chairman, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and the Committee on producing such a rigorous and thorough report.

The Chairman rightly pointed out that the situation in Russia is incredibly fast moving, and many new aspects in our international relations with Russia have emerged since the report’s publication, and indeed since publication of the Government’s response a few weeks ago. It is particularly helpful to have had this debate today.

We have had a good debate, and I was intrigued by many of the contributions from right hon. and hon. Members, members and former members of the Committee and others who, like me, are not members of the Committee and feel slightly jealous because the inquiry must have been particularly interesting.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said early on in the debate that we might all end up being guilty of groupthink. There has been much consensus about Russia’s importance in the global sphere, and the UK’s relationship with it. However, some of the later contributions colourfully ensured that a range of views was expressed, and that we cannot be accused of groupthink.

The Chairman mentioned the context of the debate—the NATO summit and its venue. That brought to mind my visit to Bucharest when I went around what is ironically called the people’s palace, which had nothing to with anything for the people: a year of Romania’s gross domestic product was used to build what is rightly described as a monstrosity to massage Ceausescu’s ego. I am not surprised that the NATO summit is being held there, because the building is so vast. It is difficult to know how to fill the rooms. That provides an important context for the debate, and many hon. Members have stressed the importance of the links between Russia and the UK, particularly between not just the countries, but the people. In recent years, a great number of Russians have come to live in the UK, particularly London, where they contribute to society and the British economy.

There have been rising tensions recently between our country and Russia, and indeed internationally, about energy security, Kosovo, and the conventional forces in Europe treaty. I would particularly like to endorse the Committee’s recommendation that Europe should have a united approach in dealing with these issues. I also welcome the Government’s response in accepting and endorsing that recommendation. Surely, the right way forward is for our country to exert influence on Russia regarding the issues on which there have been difficulties.

A wide range of subjects have been covered so it is impossible to mention everything. I shall focus on UK-Russia relations, energy security and, finally, I will discuss the issue of ballistic defence. Obviously, our relationship with Russia is crucial and we want it to be as constructive as possible. As I mentioned, several incidents over recent years have challenged that. The events leading up to and, perhaps more importantly, subsequent to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko have already been mentioned. Russia’s refusal to
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extradite Lugovoi to face charges has clearly led to a severe deterioration in relations. The hon. Member for Thurrock seemed to suggest that the situation had reached a stalemate and that the matter remains unresolved. Does the Minister agree with that, or are the Government still trying to take further steps to secure justice for Mr. Litvinenko and his widow, who is still living in Britain? It is unacceptable to leave that issue to one side when such a heinous crime has been committed against an individual, and when, as has also been mentioned, that crime threatened the security of people in this city.

Obviously, that situation led to the deterioration of relationships and to the problems with the British Council. I remember the statement that the Foreign Secretary gave in December, which was updated in January, when Members from all parties expressed concern about the bullying treatment meted out to British Council staff. Sadly but necessarily, that treatment has led to the closure of two British Council offices. I agree with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Russia’s action in relation to the British Council was totally unjustified and, indeed, illegal. It is sad when cultural organisations and institutions are brought into political disputes, and I take the same view when people suggest that there should be an academic boycott of Israel. When there are political difficulties, it is through the cultural world that we should work the hardest to maintain links, so that we still have a relationship that can be used as a foundation on which to rebuild political ties. Can the Minister give us an update on that situation, and tell us whether he expects the offices that are closed to reopen? The suggestion that the lease has been given up on one building is concerning, so it would be interesting to know when the Government think it might be possible to reopen the offices.

Although some hon. Members have cautioned against being too critical of Russia, there are deep-seated concerns about the freedoms afforded to people in Russia in relation to human rights. In particular, I would like to discuss the freedom of the media. As Members of Parliament, the media are not always a friend to us and we do not necessarily have a favourable opinion of them. None the less, I think we would all agree that a free media and press are a vital component of a free society. Even when the media print things that we do not like, it is important that they are able to do so, and are not censored by the state. That is why what has happened in Russia is particularly troubling. In 2006, the journalist Anna Politskaya was murdered and last year there was the suspicious death of Ivan Safronov. The investigations into those deaths were flawed and, although people have apparently been charged with the former crime, there has not been an update on what has happened. That is an example of oppression in Russia and it is one of the barriers to creating a freer society.

A very good Amnesty International report published last month—I declare an interest as a member of Amnesty International—outlined well the difficulties that Russians face in their day-to-day lives in trying to obtain the freedoms that we take for granted. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) made a good point about the issue of human rights and how we are quick to judge and condemn other countries. We talk about problems with elections, but when we see what happened
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with the Scottish elections in 2007, we realise that we have our own problems. On human rights issues, it is important that we look to our own house and try to put that in order, but I do not accept that we should not fight and campaign for human rights in other countries until we have all the human rights that we want in this country. That is one reason why I am concerned about the Government’s plans to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days when at 28 days we already have one of the longest periods of pre-charge detention in any democratic, civilised society. We need to be aware of human rights issues in our country when we consider human rights abroad. None the less, there are severe concerns about the human rights situation in Russia.

There are also concerns about the electoral process, which is not deemed to be fair and, according to the monitors, is free only to a certain extent. Vladimir Putin is in some way complying with the constitution by standing down as President, but by putting himself in a position in which he can become Prime Minister and potentially have another go at running for the presidency in 2012, he is creating a situation in which he could hold the levers of power in Russia for more than two decades. We should not necessarily regard that as a healthy situation.

In some ways, it is too early to tell what the outcome will be of Russia electing President Medvedev. There have been many conflicting views on that. Some people have suggested that he might be more liberal simply because he does not have a secret service background—to be described as liberal simply for not having been in the secret services is in itself quite shocking. There have been some positive views about what he has been saying. In particular, a briefing from the EU-Russia Centre quotes him as saying:

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