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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 14 October 2009

[Mr. Gary Streeter in the Chair]

UK Relations with Russia

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Steve McCabe.)

9.30 am

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I was delighted to secure the debate back in late July and I start by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Streeter. I also welcome the Minister to his new position. I think that he is, remarkably, the 12th Europe Minister in this Government. He changed briefs with Baroness Kinnock on Monday. I expect that that has not given him much time to prepare for the debate, not least because he has, I hope, taken the time to read the Lisbon treaty, which is certainly more than one of his predecessors did. Nevertheless, he and I were previously officers on the all-party group on Russia and I suspect that we may find much to agree about this morning.

Thankfully, there has been some movement in UK-Russia relations since the end of July, when I applied for the debate. Nevertheless, my central premise today is that the Government have failed in most if not all of their foreign policy objectives in respect of Russia in the past three years and that something needs to be done about that. Whatever one's views on Russia-I suspect that there will be a variety of views in the debate, as always-no one can argue that relations have been a success. UK policy towards Russia has been characterised in the years since the murder of Alexander Litvinenko as one of deep-frozen non-engagement-I would even use the word "festering".

There are essentially two approaches that one can take towards Russia. One can willingly engage with Russia, with a heavy dose of realpolitik, and seek to get what one can from the relationship-an approach recently described as Schröderisation by Boris Nemtsov, the former Russian Deputy Prime Minister. Alternatively, one can take a critical approach, also engaging but being tough in a way that the Putin-Medvedev duumvirate understands, and taking a long-term view that short-term benefits should be put second to a primary interest of getting Russia to behave more like a normal state.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I had hoped to make a speech, but unfortunately I have another engagement. Whichever of the two approaches is taken, surely the single most important thing to remember is that we need to engage with Russia for trade purposes but also, given the issues of energy security and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, it is better that we have strong engagement and that they are on our side rather than the other side on both those crucial issues for the decades ahead.

Mr. Hands: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has devoted considerable time to these issues. I read his very interesting article about UK-Russia relations last month. He is right to say that whatever one's views
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about Russia and whether one likes the current Government or not, one must engage with Russia, because nothing will be gained by what is happening at the moment, which is a policy of complete non-engagement.

As I was saying, our Government take neither approach in terms of how they deal with Russia. They have simply allowed relations to ossify. There is almost no engagement whatever. I was about to contrast the approaches of our Prime Minister with the approaches made by Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, but in fact no approach has been made by our Prime Minister. Incredibly, to the best of anyone's knowledge-this seems to be confirmed in parliamentary questions-our Prime Minister has never met Vladimir Putin since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister two and a half years ago. The last time that we can be sure that the two men met was in 2006, at a meeting of the G8 Economic Ministers in St. Petersburg. We cannot be entirely sure on this, because 10 Downing street seems to have had a policy in recent times, under the current incumbent, of not answering parliamentary questions about visits or meetings.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument this morning, but will he confirm that the President of Russia is actually President Medvedev, whom my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has met on a number of occasions, including at the G20? Does he want my hon. Friend the Minister to reassure him that he will be actively engaging with all levels of the Russian Government, including talking about the Khodorkovsky case, which is an important legal test for the Russian Government with their international partners?

Mr. Hands: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which I assume has come from fairly close to Downing street itself. Of course it is important also to engage with the current President, but no one should be under any illusion as to who is really in charge in Russia. I was going to say that our Prime Minister has met President Medvedev at perhaps three different international summits in the past two years, but to the best of my knowledge, there have not been proper bilateral meetings at any of those summits. I shall go on to discuss the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in due course.

Let us contrast our Prime Minister's approach with that of Barack Obama. The US President recently spent a whole two-day summit in Moscow, having long meetings with both Putin and Medvedev. In fact, with Medvedev, he spent an incredible 10 hours in face-to-face meetings. The President's top Russia adviser, Michael McFaul, said to reporters afterwards:

By the way, the 10 hours that Obama spent with Medvedev is in sharp contrast to UK-US relations, with our Prime Minister's approaches for a short joint press conference with President Obama being spurned five times after the Prime Minister's deft handling of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, in August. No one is saying that all is perfect in US-Russia relations, but
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there is progress and there is dialogue. President Obama also took the opportunity in Moscow in July to spend almost a full day engaging with Russian civil society and business leaders, and he pressed especially for greater press freedom, which has been terribly eroded under Vladimir Putin in particular.

A few days later, Medvedev flew to Munich for similarly extensive head-to-head talks with Angela Merkel. Der Spiegel pronounced: "Medvedev Charms Merkel at Munich Summit". To her credit and in contrast with the rather fawning approach of her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, Merkel raised various human rights cases, notably the recent murder of Russia-Chechen human rights activist, Natalya Estemirova. Merkel had previously raised with Putin crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators and other cases. Medvedev actually pronounced in Munich his deep shock at the Estemirova murder. He even called her a model for future generations. He said:


the murder-

It helps that Merkel speaks Russian well, but she at least shows what can be done with critical engagement. A new German-Russian energy agency was founded, and about 300 delegates from both sides participated in a wide-reaching civil society dialogue.

Where is our Prime Minister in all this? The answer is, nowhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who is with us, attended the 70th anniversary commemoration of the outbreak of world war two at the Westerplatte outside Gdansk in Poland a few weeks ago. Also there were Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. Our Prime Minister was also invited, but declined to go, it seems. It seems as though he is actively avoiding Putin, Medvedev and, indeed, anyone Russian.

Perhaps the Prime Minister's boycott of Russia is deliberate. Perhaps it is a principled boycott, rather like our approach to someone such as Robert Mugabe. If so, it would be helpful if someone would say so, as if that is the case, no one knows about it and instead we just look weak and ineffectual. While Merkel fights for the likes of the family of Natalya Estemirova, and Obama promotes the rule of law, no one is there to bat for the likes of the widow of murdered British citizen, Alexander Litvinenko-whom I met last year-as we approach the third anniversary of her husband's death on 23 November 2006.

While Obama generates headlines such as "Obama Resets Ties to Russia" and Merkel gets "Medvedev Charms Merkel", we have had a series of false starts in recent years. A headline in The Times in 2008 stated: "British-Russian relations in deep-freeze, as summit fails" with a photo of Medvedev holding his hand out to our Prime Minister, but our Prime Minister has his face turned directly to the ground and fails to notice the hand outstretched towards him. An article from the BBC in October 2008 was entitled "Mandelson urges end to Russia row". That was in preparation for Lord Mandelson's four-day visit, which also ended in failure.

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We now hear that the Foreign Secretary is to visit Russia, which I am sure we all welcome. Characteristically, however, the visit was announced by the Russians, not the Foreign Office. The Times of 3 October told us, "British relations with Russia thaw as David Miliband prepares visit", but I wonder whether we will ever see the thaw that the Government have promised. If we do, will it help to resolve the major outstanding issues in UK-Russia relations, which I will come to in a moment?

Relations can thaw only if there is a face-to-face meeting between Vladimir Putin and the British Prime Minister. As I said, however, the Prime Minister has yet to meet the Russian Prime Minister, and he took four months to meet Dmitry Medvedev after his election in March 2008.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Is my hon. Friend not also staggered that the Foreign Secretary's visit to Russia in November is the first visit by a British Foreign Secretary since 2004? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Russians probably look on that as quite a slight on their relations with the UK?

Mr. Hands: My hon. Friend is of course right. A little later, I will talk about some of the historic precedents in British-Russian relations and about how important sending over the right level of person is to the way in which Russia views its bilateral relations with the UK.

The Prime Minister met Medvedev only at the G8 summit. I would not want anyone to think that I was being excessively political, because our relations with Russia are too important for that, but I would contrast the current Prime Minister's approach with that of his predecessor. Tony Blair made sure that he was the first western leader to meet Vladimir Putin when he took over from Boris Yeltsin in 2000. Indeed, Blair flew to Moscow in March 2000, while Putin was still only the acting leader, and two weeks before the general election that made him President.

The status quo is very odd. Even at the height of the cold war, there was engagement with Russia. Indeed, one could argue that the engagement led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher 20 years ago was a key part of the background to the fall of the Berlin wall. We are talking about two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council effectively having no bilateral relations at the highest level. There are only 10 sets of bilateral relations between permanent members of the Security Council, and I would put good money on the fact that UK-Russia relations are the absolute worst.

If the Prime Minister were ever to meet the Russian Prime Minister, which issues might need to be debated from the British point of view? The first would be progress in investigating the heinous murder of Alexander Litvinenko in November 2008 and other incidents that put UK-Russia relations in a deep freeze at that time. Second would be the continued detention without proper trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev and others in relation to the break-up of Yukos. Third would be the continuing downgrading of the BBC Russian service at the World Service, partly thanks to actions taken by the Russian Government in recent years. Fourth would be operations of the British Council in Russia, and fifth would be Britain's conflicting and often counter-productive approach to visitors' visas for Russian nationals.

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I could talk about Georgia, energy security, Chechnya and Russian espionage in London, but I will leave those topics for others to come in on. Similarly, I will not discuss the issues on which UK-Russian co-operation might bear real dividends, such as Iran, North Korea and non-proliferation.

Let me put our relations with Russia in a little context. Russia is going through quite grave economic problems at the moment. Its GDP is set to fall by 11 per cent. this year, unemployment is 9 per cent. and rising, there is 15 per cent. inflation and bankruptcies are increasing. Rather incredibly, the Russian rouble is about the only currency against which sterling has appreciated in the past 12 months, so bad is the state of the Russian economy. Corruption remains a major issue, IKEA has announced that it is pulling out of the country and so on. On the political side, matters could be worse, but they have not really improved in the past three years, and I am sure that others will examine recent activities on the political front and in civil society.

The first of the specific issues that I want to raise is the aftermath of the Litvinenko affair. Despite words of protest, no progress appears to have been made. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister whether, and if so how recently, requests to extradite Mr. Lugovoi have been submitted. I would also be grateful to hear of any other progress that might have been made in solving the murder of this British subject. As we know, Mr. Litvinenko's widow, Marina, petitioned the coroner in 2008 for an inquest. She did that against the advice of the Foreign Office, which feared that such a move might prejudice any future trial of Mr. Lugovoi or others who might be accused of the crime. Given that the Foreign Office thought at the time that a trial might happen, it would be helpful to hear what progress it is making.

On the ongoing detention of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev over the collapse of Yukos, the background to the case has been well documented in previous debates in the House-notably on 10 March 2004-so I will not recount the full story. However, Mr. Khodorkovsky is on trial again for more or less the same alleged offences for which he was tried in 2004. So far, he has served four and a half years in prison camp No. 13 in Kamenokamsk in Siberia, which is close to the city of Chita-a grim part of Siberia, I can tell you. According to Mr. Khodorkovsky's interview in The SundayTimes on 13 September 2009, which was secretly transmitted to the west, the court proceedings-we should bear in mind that he is on trial for the same offences that he was tried for and convicted of in 2004-saw him locked inside a 1.5 tonne bullet-proof glass case. When he is not being taken to court, he is in his cell, where he spends 23 hours a day in less than five square yards of space with three to eight men. Ironically, he told The Sunday Times that the rules on his detention were relaxed only for the year that he spent in a penal colony-the quality of detention there was actually better than what he has at the moment.

From time to time, there has been a lot of interest in Mr. Khodorkovsky's case in the House. Indeed, the most interesting early-day motion on the matter-early-day motion 2176-was tabled on 23 October 2007. Remarkably enough, it was tabled by the Minister, who is responding for the Government. As I mentioned, we were previously officers of the all-party group on Russia, so I know of
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his strong and genuine interest in Russian human rights. His EDM bemoans the incarceration of Khodorkovsky and

I say, "Hear, hear!" to that. The US Senate and the Bundestag have tabled similar motions.

We deserve an update from the Minister on the progress that he has made on his EDM and on ensuring that the Khodorkovsky case has been properly raised in the short time that he has been in his post. It is essential for him to tell us that the Foreign Secretary will raise the case when he travels to Moscow next month. I hope that he will publicly condemn the latest trial and that the British ambassador will visit the trial before the Foreign Secretary's visit. Either way, I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on what actions he has taken.

I want briefly to examine the ongoing controversy surrounding the BBC Russian service, which I raised at some length in a debate on the World Service last December. As we know, the Russian Government closed down a lot of the joint ventures with local Russian FM stations, and the BBC Russian service-at least the radio service-has never recovered. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister what further proposals there are to launch the Russian language TV service that has been talked about at the World Service.

Does the Minister also share my concern about some of the editing on the BBC Russian service and about the way in which the service fails to challenge official Russian Government viewpoints? In recent weeks, for example, there has been intense debate on Russian websites about the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings, but the BBC Russian service has not even mentioned the issue, let alone attempted to analyse it. It seems that certain topics are still too sensitive to be touched.

Similarly, the service's April 2009 interview with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, is an incredible bit of reading. So positive was it for the Russian Government that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the first to publish it, on its website. It is just a series of about eight one-line questions, to which each answer is about five paragraphs from Lavrov, putting forward the official Russian viewpoint. He comes out with some incredible stuff, and at no point was any of that challenged by the BBC Russian service. He says that Russia is

He attacks the colour revolutions in the post-Soviet era, saying they are

the revolutions, not the background to them-and accuses them

At no point did the interviewer challenge any of those views or opinions.

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