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Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): By a happy coincidenceI hope it is happyI got back from Moscow at lunchtime today, having spent two days there. I was there with the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and with the four political party group leaders, finalising our report for a part-session of the assembly next week. That report is on the consequences of the war between Russia and Georgia and the steps taken by both sides to implement Council of Europe resolution 1633, which demands the very things that people in this House and elsewhere in this country have been saying must happen.
I have been deeply involved in all these matters since the war broke out. That involvement has taken me to Tbilisi, Gori, South Ossetia and Moscow several times. All that experience has reinforced in me the belief that jumping to conclusions is usually a bad idea. Five months on, the scene looks really rather different. Five months ago, most of us believed that Russia had started the fighting, on 7 August. I think the world community has now come to the view that the fighting on 7 August was started by the Georgians. Who knows? Nevertheless, the criticism of both sidesI stress it is of both sidesis genuine, proper and needs to be addressed.
I did not want to speak on this matter. I do not want to talk tonight about who did what and when, or who is to blame and who is not. I should like to pick up on comments made in one of the documents before us:
The European Union has a vital interest in seeking stability, better governance and economic development at its Eastern borders.
I can only say amen to that. There are all sorts of reasons why; the economic ones were mentioned earlier. Russia is the EUs third largest trading partner; half of Russias overseas trade is with the EU; and 25 per cent. of oil and gas coming into the EU countries comes from Russia. That is a clear case, but again it is not the one I want to pursue.
In the remaining time available to me, however, I want to focus on something more fundamental: whether our future security and our future prosperity are better with a stand-alone Russia or a Russia that is integrated into Europe. Russia is a country in transition. I support and agree with many of the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) about Russias shortcomings; I have observed elections there as well. It is a country in transition from totalitarianism to democracy, and it is showing what a slow and difficult process that is. Russia has had Yeltsin chaos, the humiliation of a collapsed economy and the same financial crisis that we face. It is worth noting that unrest has already broken out in Vladivostok in respect of the financial crisis.
My recent visit has convinced me that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) is correct that Russians are asking the same question: is it better for Russia to go it alone or to integrate? My assessmentit is a guess, as who knows what goes on in the Kremlinis that the Kremlin leadership thinks that going it alone is the better way forward, but that a significant minority disagrees with that view. If we cut off dialogue with Russia, we cannot help that minority, which needs our
help. If we want to see what we are calling foran end to some of the nonsense and a better democracywe need to help those in Russia who believe in that.
Of course, that is not a call for business as usual. The Council of Europe investigation has made it blindingly clear to the Russians that we are not talking about business as usual; we are not even talking about a slap on the wrist. I understand only too well that if the international community does nothing, the Russians will have won, in a sense, if we want to talk in those terms. If on the other hand we do too much and try to kick Russia out of the world communitysomething we cannot do; the more I look at this matter, the more sympathy I have with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay)it will be as bad as doing too little. So it is not business as usual.
One may rightly ask whether, if the Russians have a problem and want our help, that situation matters to us. I suggest that there are a fair few pointers. Let us consider the issues involved. One is security. Does not the Russia-Georgia episode, whoever is to blame, tell us that we ought to worry about the security of Europe? Another issue is the gas situation involving Russia and Ukraine. Does it matter who is really to blame? The situation ought to tell us that our prosperity is at risk if we do not become engaged in it. Yesterdays murders in Russia, which the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) mentioned, and the spread of criminality matter to the rest of us.
Let me ask a final question. If the situation in Russia does matter, how can we help Russia to change? It is not keen on rapid change, which it has experienced twice recently. The Bolshevik revolution brought it chaos, and it did not much care for that rapid change; Yeltsin brought it change, and it did not much care for that either. So how do we help to bring about change? Do we do it by poking our tongue out, to quote the hon. Member for Thurrock? Do we do it by refusing to talk? Or do we do it by engaging, and helping those who want the same as us?
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): The European Scrutiny Committee and its Chairman are to be congratulated on bringing this issue to the House. For the reasons given by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), I think it very important for us to watch developments in Russia very closely.
It is clear that the arrogance and cockiness of the Putin period could change rapidly if the rapid reduction in gas and oil prices continues. Russia has had huge surpluses for many years. Now it faces the major challenges of reconstruction, a population that continues to decline or remains stable and a need for foreign investment, yet it causes problems with its attitude and behaviour. The Russian stock market has been taken out of operation several times, and has seen some huge crashes in which oligarchs have lost billions. I believe that there may be people in Russia now who will be quite worried about how the public will react in the coming years.
The Minister was right to refer to the need for a structured, regular dialogue with Russia, but that does not quite represent the permanent partnership arrangement that I think the Commission envisaged when it and the Council and Ministers agreed to reopen the process.
The Minister will know that, as we made clear in our 2007 report, the Foreign Affairs Committee was sceptical, indeed doubtful, about the point of reopening those discussions. We thought that it might lead to endless disputes about values and about issues that are still unresolved, such as the systematic harassment of the British ambassador in Moscow, the closure of the British Council offices, and the way in whichmy right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) referred to thisnon-governmental organisations, human rights activists and others have been harassed.
As recently as December, the Duma passed new legislation that basically abolishes jury trial in a very large number of cases, and returns to the Stalinist period and the Bolshevik model for dealing with prosecutions. The definitions of people who are carrying out acts of treason could be interpreted to apply to anyone who speaks to a foreign journalist. If that is indeed the case, there are worrying trends in Russian society.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South quoted the statistics correctly. It is not surprising, if the term democracy is associated with the drunken disaster of the Yeltsin era, that when people see a strong man bringing order out of chaos, they start to think that that is better than what they had before. Given the association with a rise in incomes resulting from a global increase in oil and gas prices, it is clear that for eight or nine years things have been getting better and better for most Russians, but that will not continue indefinitely.
Unlike China and India, Russia is massively dependent not on its own manufacturing or domestic growth or on foreign direct investment on manufactured goods and exports, but on the sale of crude commodities around the world. That makes Russia very vulnerable. We know that Russian society contains some very nasty political groups on the far right, including the Nashi group, who are supporters of President Putin but also support the people who carried out the attacks on the British diplomats in Moscow.
a common position on Russias proposal for a new European security order.
President Sarkozy has finessed that, as it were, into some kind of super-OSCE consideration, perhaps involving a meeting at some point in the next few months, but the issue is not going to go away. It is a long-standing Russian ambition effectively to get rid of NATO by establishing an all-Russian security system whereby it becomes very weak.
It occurs to me that the onset of President Obama today will pose some very difficult issues for the United States Administration. Like the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), I attended the Democratic convention in Denver, and I was struck by the difference in the views expressed by Democrat academics on the panels when dealing with the attitude to Russia and Georgia. There is no consensus. I think that one of the important questions will be the direction in which President Obamas Administration go when it comes to issues such as missile defence, in regard to which there is
clearly a needfrom the Russian point of viewfor a change in the American approach. Will that happen, and if it does, will we see constructive Russian engagement with the United States with the aim of solving the problems in the middle east and working towards a resolution of the situation in Iran?
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I very much concursomewhat surprisingly, perhapswith the closing remarks of the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). It is absolutely essential that we maintain good and proper relations with Russia. The dialogue has been disturbed recently, but the reality is that we are dealing with a world power. It may be that a good many of its tanks and other equipment are rather dodgy nowadays, but the reality is that it still possesses massive inter-ballistic missile capacity, it is a country of enormous importance in world relations, and it has historically been integrated into the thinking of all the great nations of western Europeand, indeed, the United States, China and Indiaover the last 150 or 200 years. It would be impossible and, I think, rather absurd for us to adopt the idea that we should not have the best possible relations with Russia, even given that there are a number of matters on which there are reservations.
As for the question of democracy, let us not forget that it is only relatively recently, in terms of the history of Russia, that we had a Soviet Union. We really must examine the situation realistically without prejudice to the difficulties in relation to human rights and so on to which reference has been made.
To achieve that, we must bear in mind relations with our other eastern European allies. I am not persuaded, as hon. Members know, that a European Union security arrangement is a good idea. I believe strongly in a form of association, and I know from my frequent visits to eastern Europe with the European Scrutiny Committee in the past few yearsmost recently to the Czech Republicand my contacts in the Baltic states and so on that if one asks what has made those countries so interested in the European dimension, the answer is defence and their experience of being under Soviet domination during the time of the Soviet Union. We must therefore think carefully about a matter that has hardly been touched on todaymissile deployment. We must ensure that Russia understands what we have in mind for NATO, and we must do everything to ensure that NATO survives and prospers. Some peoples recent activities concerning GeorgiaI single out those of President Sarkozy last Augustwere nothing more than grandstanding.
As I have said, Ossetia and other areas in that part of the continent were affected by the Kosovo declaration of independence and the European Unions reaction. Last February, a long time before the events took place, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and I had spoken strongly about the matter and said that the subject should not be opened up because that would lead to other problems, including in Ossetia. Sure enough, it did. A strong policy that was well established in the 18th century is quieta non moverelet sleeping
dogs lie. There are enclaves all over Europemany more than people realiseand a recent interesting programme, Crossing Continents, explained them. Kaliningrad is another. If the equilibrium is disturbed and a country with only 16,000 troops gets into conflict with the might of Russia, as Georgia did, the consequence is inevitable.
Mr. Wilshire: It may help the hon. Gentlemans argument if he knows that in the past two days I have heard it said repeatedly that what happened in Kosovo made it inevitable that there would be fighting.
Mr. Cash: I am very glad to have that endorsement because, last February, we were lone voices, although there were one or two others, including that of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). It is important to understand that.
On international law, I was gravely concerned by the statements made by our United Nations representative. Since then the matter has been referred to the International Court of Justice. There are many reasons why, in the light of what my hon. Friend has just said, it would have been far better for us not to be precipitate in adopting our position. I am much more uncertain about it and, having followed the situation, watched programmes, and read about it, the more uncertain I become. We must be careful.
On gas and energy supply, for many years I have been writing about the problems that I anticipate with Russia as North sea oil comes to an end. Although, as the Minister said, supplies from Russia are running at 2 per cent. at the moment, we all know that, even allowing for our arrangements with Norway, it will be necessary to draw on other gas supplies. They may come from the middle east, Qatar, or liquefied natural gas, but the bottom line is that Russia is a big player for the future, so it is important that we are realistic about our use of resources. I am very keen that we should be involved in responsible coal-fired carbon capture and nuclear development to ensure that we are not entirely dependent on Russia for gas into the indefinite future.
We must work on the basis of a proper dialogue with Russia. I am a little concerned about the line that my partys Front-Bench spokesmen have taken, but I have made my position clear. All I would say is that, in the circumstances, the best thing that I can do in response to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) has been promoted to the shadow Front Bench
Caroline Flint: Our debate has been short but helpful. We have heard Back-Bench speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and Opposition Back-Bench speeches from the hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and for Stone (Mr. Cash).
It is important that the European Union is clear about what we want from our relationship with Russia and that we pursue it vigorously. It is also important that we recognise the valuable contribution that we can make to global challenges by working more closely with Russia. However, for that relationship to work, we
need an open and honest dialogue with Russia, speaking up in defence of our interests and concerns when we disagree.
Several issues were raised during the debate and I shall try to address them in the short time I have in which to speak. The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) asked about the refusal to sign the partnership and co-operation agreement if Russia has not withdrawn in the conflict with Georgia. The negotiations are continuing and, as I said, their pace and tone will be affected by Russias actions in Georgia, as well as other concerns. The Commissions negotiating mandate requires it to take into account developments in Georgia during the negotiations. However, placing unilateral vetoes on any agreement at this stage could jeopardise important outcomes that we all support.
The murder of Alexander Litvinenko was mentioned. It was a chilling crime, which placed thousands of innocent residents and visitors at risk. The courts here have issued a warrant for the arrest of Andrei Lugovoy on a charge of murder, and that warrant remains valid. The Russian refusal to respond satisfactorily to our request for his extradition has not deflected us from the overall objective of seeing him brought to trial before the UK courts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk raised some concerns about the way in which I have responded to the European Scrutiny Committee and the service that the Foreign and Commonwealth provides. I believe that we have kept the Committee quite well informed, but I am always prepared to listen to what more it might want. We have tabled written ministerial statements, and written several explanatory memorandums and letters. We got some compliments from the Lords scrutiny Committee about how well we have done. However, I note my hon. Friends comments and welcome the Committees interest.
European security architecture has been mentioned. We have tried and tested structures for delivering and promoting security in Europe, including NATO, the EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. They can and do evolve to provide maximum security and stability. It is important that any new proposals about architecturewe have yet to see the details of President Medvedevs proposalsbuild on existing structures and do not undermine them.
I thank the European Scrutiny Committee for raising the issue. The short debate has been interesting and wide ranging. I look forward to discussing EU-Russia and UK-Russia relationships further with hon. Members. We need the goal of a firm, rules-based relationship between the EU and Russia. That can only be in the best interests of UK, EU and Russian citizens.
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