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The logic of what my hon. Friend says is that we should be interfering with what BBC interviewers do, across the globe. That is not necessarily a positive route forward. Much as I understand some of my hon. Friend's concerns, surely we should not underestimate the intelligence of people who read such interviews, and their ability to read between the lines. I wonder whether that is happening only in relation to Russia; presumably
the BBC has sensitivities with other countries in its interviews with politicians or leading business folk. It is a slightly dangerous path if my hon. Friend is asking any Government effectively to interfere in the BBC's operations abroad.
Mr. Hands: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I strongly disagree with him. Members of Parliament should watch carefully the overall direction that the BBC takes in its foreign coverage. It would obviously not be appropriate for us to interfere or intervene at a localised level, but we should all be concerned if the BBC is allowing the unmediated views of someone like Lavrov to be repeated at length.
I recently met Peter Horrocks, the new head of the World Service, and found him much more amenable than his predecessor at the time of the Lavrov interview. A number of us in this House take an interest in what happens at the BBC Russian service and we look forward to a flourishing future for it.
I want briefly to turn to the issue of visas. I was recently reminded of the effectiveness of the removal of visa rights from individuals, or sets of individuals, in dealing with different Governments. I am told-I believe reliably-by a former senior member of Boris Yeltsin's Government that effective action was taken at an EU level against up to 500 members of the Nashi organisation, by ensuring that they did not receive visas for the Schengen area. Nashi, hon. Members may recall, is a pro-regime irregular group that was prominent in the very nasty harassment campaign against the then British ambassador in Moscow in 2007. My information is that Estonia cancelled the visa rights of 500 Nashi members, and that that had a knock-on effect in a number of EU countries. I believe that those close to the present regime fear removal of visas for their visits to London. That could be a very effective move in, for example, putting pressure on Russia over other issues that I have discussed.
By contrast, our visa policy towards other, more humble, Russian citizens is sometimes shameful. Since I applied for the debate I have been doing a lot of research on the number and nature of Russians refused visas to this country. I have had representations directly from and on behalf of such Russian citizens. The number of visa refusals of Russians, as a percentage of the global total, has risen relentlessly from 3.3 per cent. in 2002-03 to 6.8 per cent. in 2008-09. Now Russian refusals rank fifth in the world, after India, Nigeria, Pakistan and China-all countries that are more populous than Russia. Some 10,035 visa refusals were made in the last financial year.
I shall not go into detail about some of the cases that have been raised with me, but many of the refusals affect academic and cultural visitors. Those would seem to be precisely the sort of people we should encourage to come from Russia to this country. However, I shall mention one case, which I found particularly
shocking-that of Sergei Mironenko from the Memorial organisation, which documents Soviet era oppression. He is the leading editor of documents from the Stalinist past, and was refused a visa to attend the 2009 London book fair. I am not in a position to tell the House everything about that gentleman's background, but two others from his group were refused visas as well, and I should be grateful to hear the precise reasons for that.
A visa was also recently denied to Yevgeny Tsymbal, a well known maker of documentary films, who has regularly been invited by Queen Mary college as an academic visitor. There has been a surprising number of instances where precisely the more democratic-minded Russians have been the ones whose visa applications have been refused. I was delighted when my great aunt from Vladivostok was granted a visa and came to my wedding in 2005, but I sometimes ask myself whether four years later she would get the same treatment. It seems to me from statistical and anecdotal evidence that the visa situation for more ordinary Russians is rather difficult.
I have a final thought that I want to end on. I mentioned that I would talk a little about the historiography of UK-Russia relations, and I want to contrast two incidents from the past, to suggest how those might provide pointers to approaching a proper relationship with Russia today. The way not to approach matters was shown in the summer of 1939 when Britain explored the possibility of a rapprochement with Soviet Russia, but unfortunately dispatched a middle-ranking naval officer, by sea, to conduct the negotiations. I believe that my information is correct, although I did not quite have time this morning to check it. It took the delegation, at that critical time, three weeks to arrive by boat in what was then Leningrad. I do not for a moment say that the Soviets were a natural ally of this country, then or later, but if the mission was to seek an alliance with them, that seems to have been a rather poor way to go about it. The Soviets, not unreasonably, contrasted the behaviour of the British towards them with their behaviour towards Hitler the previous year, when the then Prime Minister flew out at pretty much a moment's notice to Munich. They drew the inevitable conclusions about whether Britain was serious about an alliance or relationship with Russia.
The other lesson is from 25 or so years ago, when Margaret Thatcher, who was of course resolute in her approach to the Soviets, nevertheless engaged. She flew to Moscow. She did not take the 21-day boat. She was even cheered by Muscovites in the streets of Moscow on her walkabout. That sort of example, and the recent examples of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, shows the importance of engagement and resolution in dealing with Russia. We must have some hopes for the Foreign Secretary's visit, and I await the Minister's views with interest. We should have no illusion, however, that it is a substitute for talks at the highest level. If Obama and Merkel can do it, surely our Prime Minister can finally summon up the courage to do the same, meet Putin and have substantial talks.
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): We need to look at our relationship with Russia having examined our past. We in Europe have come out of two devastating world wars. We have seen the fall of the Berlin wall, the 20th anniversary of which is approaching. There have been non-violent revolutions in Czechoslovakia and Ukraine, and democracy has spread across eastern Europe. However, there has also been ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and war and heightened tensions in the Caucasus. We are withdrawing from Iraq and sending more troops to Afghanistan. North Korea remains isolated and antagonistic. Iran is a growing nuclear threat and Pakistan is unstable. These are far from peaceful times. There are new threats: terrorism from religious extremism, and the looming threat of climate change, with its impact on the migration of people, water shortage and famine. Energy security is rising up the political agenda, as are cybersecurity, the war on drugs and the threat of nuclear weapons in the control of rogue states.
Russia, a former superpower, wants to re-establish its global presence and is moving into a new era of diplomatic relations that are fraught with complexity. The collapse of the former Soviet Union was not a triumph of democracy, but more one of economic disintegration. As Russia recovers financially, it seeks a new role and status in a changing world. That is seen particularly in Russia's relationship with China. The fall of the Soviet Union allowed China to grow in influence and power, particularly economically. China and Russia are participants in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which aims to provide a regional, multilateral framework within which mutually beneficial co-operation in economic, political, diplomatic, security and trade spheres can be pursued. It has become known in some quarters as the NATO of the east, with some writers even suggesting that it could develop into a trade bloc rival to the European Union.
The Shanghai co-operation agreement has been used to maintain de facto control over political movements within central Asia, yet Beijing and Moscow diverge on issues such as energy assets and who should become new members of the organisation. There is already a possible Sino-Russian tension. China is buying into Russia's petrochemical industry, which adds to Russia's concerns. China has shown a willingness to invest billions of dollars in areas such as the far east and Siberia, and even along the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway. Some would argue that, in that area of Russia, China's influence is soon to become greater than that of the Russian central Government. There are those, therefore, who argue that China's rise is as great a threat to Russia's east as NATO is to its west.
That gives the west an opportunity to develop a different dialogue and a new relationship with Russia. Through its role in NATO, the UK plays a critical role in working in partnership with Russia, in particular on tackling terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, the war on drugs and climate change. The resumption of formal engagement between NATO and Russia on the NATO-Russia council is a positive step and opens up discussions in those areas of potential co-operation. I agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) that other positive steps have been taken recently, with nuclear non-proliferation and missile defence
moving back on to the political agenda, thanks to announcements made by our Prime Minister and by President Barack Obama.
Iran is a major issue in terms of political and nuclear threats. It is seeking membership of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, consistent with its "looking east" foreign policy. If we are to have the support of Russia in tackling the threats posed by Iran, it is important that we also tackle Russia's feelings of insecurity in relation to the west.
For the west and for Russia, Afghanistan, religious extremism, terrorism and drug trafficking are major threats. In Russia, 10,000 people a year die from drugs, with 70,000 people dying drug-related deaths. We have a major opportunity to work together to tackle the problems of drugs that come out of Afghanistan and the chemical processes needed to process those drugs, which are currently trafficked through Russia. We have an opportunity to create joint structures to build on border and police capacity to tackle drug smuggling.
The economic crisis in Russia is expected to last long into 2010, giving increased significance to the UK's position as the biggest foreign investor in Russia's oil and gas industry, and the largest source of foreign direct investment into Russia. Russia's economy is less than 3 per cent. of world gross domestic product, and is forecast to remain below 3 per cent until 2030. Even Russia's oil and gas companies, whose output is beginning to decline, cannot thrive without foreign technology, expertise and capital. To develop, Russia will need the support of the west and of the UK to develop its legal system, to tackle economic and banking regulation, and to develop its capacity for labour movement-a problem that is holding back its economic development.
Although Russia currently fears further NATO enlargement, especially the entry of Ukraine and Georgia, and seeks to erode the significance of NATO and EU membership, we have to look at the realpolitik of how we develop the relationships between Russia and the UK and NATO. In a global world, our emphasis has to be on our shared problems. We in the west have long believed that capitalism, prosperity and liberalism go hand in hand, but the end of the cold war has shown that belief to be fallible. The solution is political engagement through bodies such as the World Trade Organisation, increased exposure to the European Union and to EU offers and efforts to build Russia's economy, and work with NATO on joint military developments and exercises.
There is the possibility of a new relationship with Russia in a new global world. We cannot be innocent and deny the risks that Russia poses to the west, but we cannot turn our backs on potential opportunities to bring Russia further into closer alliance with the west, and to understand the opportunities that co-operation and working together can bring for peace, security and financial security for Russia.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con):
I was born when fighting stopped in Europe at the end of the second world war. I grew up in a household, town and country that had learned to hate fascism and hate Germans. Sixty-five years later, western Europe is united, harmonious and making progress. One needs to ask: how did that transformation come about? Clearly, it did
not happen overnight. It started very badly, but there was mutual commitment from everybody who had been through a world war on the continent and was determined to do something about it.
The Soviet Union collapsed only 18 years ago. Surely, it is unrealistic to assume that 65 years of progress can be made in 18 years. More to the point, when we have taken 300 years to get our democracy into its present slightly chaotic state, to expect similar progress in 18 years would be to push our luck a bit. I say that because the Russian Federation is a country in transition. It is a new democracy; it is new at all sorts of things. The tsars before the Bolsheviks were not models of democracy, the rule of law and human rights, so the Russians have little to draw on.
In case I am again accused of being an apologist for the Russians, let me repeat what I say to my Russian friends. Of course Russian democracy is far from perfect. Of course the handling of human rights in Russia is not very clever-we have heard examples of that. Of course the rule of rule of law is weak. We know that and we say so, but the Russians know it too.
The challenge is to ask ourselves whether things have improved in Russia, not whether they are perfect. In my judgment, Russia has made progress. Many people, myself included, wish there was more, but we must be fair. What we have to do on occasions such as this is to ask whether, because there are still so many shortcomings in Russia, we should condemn or try to help. I know where I stand on that. I readily accept that trying to help a new or emerging democracy, with all its shortcomings, requires a difficult balancing act for those who want to keep their self-respect, but who also need to be pragmatic and to be prepared to work with the imperfect to try to make it less imperfect. I know that, but it might help to admit it.
For reasons that I shall explain, I am very much involved and committed to helping people in Russia. I am a member of the UK's Council of Europe delegation and the leader of one of its political groups, a group that has 27 members from United Russia. I have found that progress can be made. My contribution to today's debate is to say that it is okay to discuss what the Government of the day can do, but it would be useful for a moment to spare a little thought to what we parliamentarians can do by serving as a route to individual parliamentarians in other countries. I shall leave it to the Minister to say what the Government want to do, and I shall leave my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) who speaks for the Conservatives to give our party's view. My view is that if we can build trust and friendship with members of another parliament, however imperfect, we parliamentarians stand some chance of passing on some of our beliefs and values.
That is what we need to do, but to achieve it, we must understand the Russians. We are talking about a former superpower that has lost its empire, whose rouble has collapsed and which descended into chaos under Yeltsin and at one point even had to rely upon food aid. Is it surprising that such a country should feel humiliated and the need to do something to restore its self-respect? We should be clear about the range of changes that have to be made. When talking about the Russian Federation, we must also remember that it is not some Balkan state.
It is geographically enormous, and has an enormous population. Turning around such a country is not as simple as taking action in places such as Kosovo or Macedonia.
We need to help. In my judgment, it can be done at the parliamentary level only through personal contact. We simply cannot afford to leave to Governments, of any colour, the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) wants to see done. We ourselves have to play a part in building those relationships.
With Russia, as in any other case, we need to understand that no Parliament is made up of people who all believe the same, who think the same, and who have the same policies and the same powers. It is not like that. In any Parliament, and certainly in the Russian Duma and the Russian Federation, there are people whose view of Russia's future is of a country that is integrated into Europe-not a member of the European Union but a European country. We are a European country and some believe that Russia is part of our continent, but others want Russia to stand alone again. That is perfectly honourable, but I believe as parliamentarians that we could usefully help those who wish to see a united continent, with Russia being integrated with the rest of us into a peaceful future. The track record of conflict in Europe-be it Russia's or anyone else's-has not gone away. We need to integrate Russia into Europe to stand the maximum chance of ensuring less conflict or no conflict in the future of our continent.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) on securing this debate on an important subject, and I am glad that it is taking place so soon after the recess. I also congratulate the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), my next-door neighbour, on his recent appointment.
Many of us have been engaging with Russia for a long time; some, like the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), through membership of the Council of Europe, and others through the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Indeed, next week in Geneva some of us will be taking part in bilateral meetings with the Russian IPU delegation. Those links are important, and should not be underestimated.
I start with Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian President. Had I realised that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham had Russian ancestry, I would not have spent time in the Library this morning trying to find the correct Russian pronunciations-next time I shall know who to ask. When the President, a lawyer who once spoke out against Russia's "legal nihilism", took office in 2008, I hoped that human rights and freedom of expression would be strengthened. However, although he has made statements in support of civil society and human rights non-governmental organisations and met their representatives, it would appear that the situation remains largely unchanged.
Seventeen journalists have been killed in Russia since 2000. The killers were convicted in only one case. Those cases include that of Anna Politkovskaya, an internationally
known journalist who was a harsh critic of the Kremlin and who exposed widespread human-rights abuses and corruption in Chechnya. She was killed a little more than three years ago, but no one has yet been found guilty of either having killed her or having ordered her killing. They include also the case of Mikhail Beketov, the editor of a newspaper in Khimki, to the north-west of Moscow, who had been reporting on local government corruption and who, last November, was beaten nearly to death and left in the freezing cold; he lost a leg and fingers to frostbite. In February, the editor of a local weekly further north-west of Moscow was found unconscious and bleeding; he had published articles critical of local politicians.
In addition, human rights defenders remain at risk. This summer, on 15 July, Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped in daylight from a street in central Grozny. Hours later, her corpse, with gunshots to the head and body, was dumped by a road in the neighbouring southern republic of Ingushetia. Mrs. Estemirova had been gathering evidence for the human rights organisation Memorial about an alleged campaign of arson attacks by militiamen, backed by Chechen President Kadyrov, against his opponents. House burnings have become a frequent form of collective punishment by local authorities, with at least two dozen incidents in the past 18 months. Suspected militants and collaborators, their relatives and other perceived enemies of the regime are liable to be tortured, abducted and assassinated.
Memorial and Mrs. Estemirova were a constant thorn in President Kadyrov's side. I met and spoke with Mrs. Estemirova, who was a courageous and principled woman. She knew that her life was in danger, but did not want to talk about that. Instead, she concentrated on raising awareness of what was happening in Chechnya-on stopping ongoing and serious human rights violations and on getting justice for the victims. I understand that President Medvedev has placed the investigation of her murder in the hands of the state prosecutor, who will report directly to the Kremlin. However, the Russian President has already declared that President Kadyrov was not involved.
Only last week, a court in Moscow ruled that Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial, had smeared President Kadyrov's reputation by blaming him for the death of Mrs. Estemirova. Mr. Orlov had accused the Chechen President of being guilty of Natalya Estemirova's murder. However, in court, he explained in his defence that he had meant political guilt, telling the court:
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