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Russia remains a key player and an important partner in international institutions such as the UN and G8. Although Russia and NATO have well known differences of opinion on some issues, there is a good
programme of NATO-Russia co-operation on matters of shared security concern, such as counter-narcotics and theatre missile defence. The EU and Russia share common interests and face many common challenges. We are working towards a new framework mandate for EU-Russia relations and negotiating a successor to the current partnership and co-operation agreement.
As has been mentioned, engagement with Russia does not always mean agreement with Russia. There are important strains in our relations that need to be addressed constructivelymy hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South and others talked about them in detail. Russias actions against the British Council in January compounded our problems. As I said, the Prime Minister noted his desire to resolve the issue with President-elect Medvedev. It is encouraging that in the article in the Financial Times to which I referred, President-elect Medvedev said that an improvement in relations with the UK is in Russias interests.
Russias status as a global player means that she must abide by international commitments and operate from the same international rulebook. Russias membership of a wide range of international organisations comes with obligations, as others have said, so I welcome President-elect Medvedevs focus on the need to strengthen the rule of law in Russia. That would significantly enhance Russias ability to meet the standards that she has set herselfI am talking not about standards placed upon Russia, but those that she set for herself when she joined those organisationsand would make her a more predictable partner to deal with, both for Governments and business.
I should like to address some of the specific points raised by hon. Members. The British Council is a remarkable non-political organisation that works legitimately in Russia, and the Government continue to support fully its work, which has included interaction and activities that last year reached more than 1,250,000 Russians. Cultural activities last year included a British film festival in Moscow and, in the regions, the council taught English to thousands of Russians and helped thousands of Russians to secure internationally recognised qualifications. For those reasons, Russias activities regarding two of the British Council offices are deeply regrettable. We continue to support its work and to look at how it could return to offer Russian citizens the level of support that it previously offered because, as we have made clear, they will lose out as a consequence. That argument has had some effect internationally. It does not befit a great nation such as Russia, which has such pride and self-confidence, to behave in such a way to an organisation that provides such support to her own citizens. On the specific point about the lease, I understand that the agreement between the landlord and the British Council has come to an end, which may interest my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South.
The hon. Member for Orpington and others mentioned energy supply. Russia supplies a quarter of the EUs gas, but almost a quarter of Russias gross domestic product comes from oil and gas sales to the EU. Of course, the economics of pipelines make the EU Russias only feasible market for much of that gas. From an EU and UK perspective, the UK is not reliant on directly imported Russian gas in the same way as other European states. However, it is in our strategic interests to have a diversity of routes for, and sources of, gas. That is one
reason why, for example, it would be significant for Turkey to be an alternative energy hub and route to market for European gas. We continue to discuss that with the Government of TurkeyI was in Istanbul earlier this week to continue that conversation.
On NATO membership and the Bucharest summit, the United Kingdom will continue to support Ukraines and Georgias aspirations to join. The membership action plan, which has been agreed to, is an important step to that. Both nations have made valuable contributions to alliance operations. We welcome the democratic reforms in those countries and look forward to free and fair elections in Georgia in May. The action plan is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership. I can confirm that we support their application for the membership action plan. The following stage is a period of extensive engagement with both countries at a high political level to address outstanding questions pertaining to the applications.
No country has a veto on the process, including Russia. We can talk about the nature of regional influence, but although the countries are in proximity to Russia, they are proud and independent nations, and should have the right to exercise their foreign policy as such, as determined by democratically elected Governments. That is the context of their applications to join NATO. Another country that is not a member of NATO should not have a veto, nor does it.
On one level, missile defence is primarily an issue between the United States, the Czech Republic and Poland, as regards the current siting of the technical capacity. It is important, however, that that information is shared with NATO, as it is. That is of primary importance, but it is also important that some of the information is provided to, and shared with, Russia. The offer to do so exists. It is important to get across, whether on a political or technical level, that the siting of, and aspiration and ambition for, missile defence cannot on any objective assessment be considered a threat to Russian nuclear capabilities. The siting and scale of the missile defence, even as it is envisaged, could not be seen as a threat to the strategic capacity that Russia retains. It is an investment by the United States to frustrate and prevent potential attacks by rogue nations and certainly not a response to Russias defence posture. Nevertheless, it is important to find ways in which to get the message across to Russia in such detailed conversations.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne was right about parliamentary engagement. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the former Deputy Prime Minister, is in St. Petersburg in his capacity as the chair of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; the Home Affairs Committee will visit Moscow next month; the all-party human rights group is looking to visit in the autumn; and the all-party British-Russian parliamentary group is due to visit in September. Importantly, a variety of dialogues will take place in the coming months, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that people other than politicians ought to be having such conversations.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, on his assessment of the Russian elections. It was deeply and fundamentally disappointing that the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights was not able to carry out
Mr. Murphy: It is deeply disappointing that ODIHR was not able to oversee and monitor the elections. Although parliamentarians can witness and monitor elections, they can do so only for relatively short periods, and there is no substitute for the long-term, detailed, pre-election monitoring, and the monitoring of the election and its aftermath. That work should be carried out by ODIHR. A country as proud as Russia naturally is, with so much to offer the world, is belittled by not being open and allowing such monitoring. It is deeply disappointing.
It is important that we are clear about what we want from our relationship with Russia and that we recognise the wide range of foreign policy and global challenges
on which we could make a valuable contribution by working more closely with Russia. Such an open and honest dialogue allows us to achieve our international objectives and to speak up when we disagree with Russia. It is a balanced approach, aligned to British and international interests, and I hope that the House will support it.
The House will continue to return to the issue, and some of the specifics that we have not had the opportunity to discuss today are deserving of further debate and consideration. Finally, I wish once again to put on record the Governments appreciation of the remarkably detailed work that the Foreign Affairs Committee has undertaken on the matter.