Mark discussing the UK's relationship with Russia

July 25, 2007 10:00 AM
By Mark Hunter

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate, in which several interesting contributions have been by hon. Members from both sides.

The debate is particularly timely, given the events of the past few weeks, which have brought UK relations with Russia back into the news regularly. It is important to recognise that those events came at the end of a period in which the bilateral relations between the countries deteriorated. We would all agree that, after an interlude of relative co-operation between Russia and the UK in the 1990s, it is sad and distressing that there has been renewed tension.

The UK's relationship with Russia is, without doubt, hugely important in the wider context of ongoing east-west dialogue. Russia's co-operation on security is extremely valuable, as is its collaboration on many other international issues, such as climate change and, of course, terrorism. It would be a great loss to both parties if the relationship were not to regain its stability.

I reiterate that Liberal Democrats fully support the measures taken by the UK Government to convince the Russian Government to extradite Mr. Lugovoy to the UK. The crime of which he is accused is a terrible one and the charges that he faces most serious. The deliberate poisoning of Mr. Litvinenko by the administration of a lethal dose of polonium-210, a highly radioactive substance, in London in November 2006 was premeditated, cold-blooded and appalling. Not only was the death of Mr. Litvinenko slow and painful, but it put at risk the lives of hundreds of others with whom the perpetrator came into contact, both in London and abroad. The crime demands to be pursued to an appropriate conclusion-justice needs to be done and to be seen to be done. All hon. Members would agree that the rule of law needs to be upheld in this case, as in any other, and that Russia's refusal to extradite Mr. Lugovoy is both disappointing and worrying in the context of future UK-Russian relations.

If Russia seeks a profitable and positive relationship with the UK, it needs to commit to co-operation on matters of justice. In the light of these events, is the Department planning to press for criminal justice to be included in the next EU-Russia partnership and co-operation agreement? Is the Department considering revisiting the UK-Russian extradition arrangements to ensure that the relationship is fairer and more equitable than it appears to be at present?

The UK Government's moves in the past month to put pressure on the Russians have our full support. The expulsion of four Russian embassy staff was proportionate, as was the suspension of visa negotiations with the Russian authorities. However, it is important to acknowledge that the Russians' reaction in turn could have been much worse than it was. Although we deprecate their unjustified expulsion of our four UK embassy staff, there might be room for optimism: the Russians might not want to prolong this dispute and there might be a willingness to avoid any further dramatic escalation in this crisis. We must hope so, and we must hope that Russia appreciates that it too has a lot to lose if this relationship falters.

Other concerns about Russia should be aired in this debate. One of those relates to Kosovo. The delay in resolving that matter is of great concern, and the arrangements established when NATO intervened to stop the bloodshed and violence engineered by Milosevic are by no means stable. The conflict is likely to escalate unless it is resolved soon. The recent actions of Agim Ceku, the Prime Minister of the province, confirm that. He announced earlier this month that, unless the international community could overcome Russian opposition, Kosovo would declare its independence in November. I put it on the record that, although we strongly support Kosovo's independence, it would be inadvisable to go through with the announcement, because it would undoubtedly increase friction in the area and could result in a renewed outbreak of hostility from Serbia.

It is clear that, despite the Russian objections, the matter must be resolved through an international process, ideally via the United Nations. The fact that Russia has promised to veto any UN Security Council draft resolution that would give Kosovo "supervised independence" is, therefore, disappointing. It has caused the Security Council to delay a vote on the draft resolution and may mean that any decision on the future of Kosovo will take place instead through the contact group. What is the UK Government's view on the progress towards a resolution of this dispute?

Another matter that deserves mention in any debate about Russia is human rights. International concern about human rights in Chechnya remains a particular concern. In March, the Council of Europe's human rights chief, Thomas Hammarberg, visited Chechnya where he said he found evidence of a""real widespread pattern of serious ill-treatment and many cases of torture against those who have been arrested.""

Such cases included beatings and the use of electric shocks.

The concerns continue within Russia itself. There have been reports from non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of torture, racially motivated attacks and the victimisation of opponents of Vladimir Putin. Perhaps the Minister could update us on human rights violations in Russia. What, if any, recent discussions have taken place between the two Governments on this important matter?

A climate of fear and intimidation, cultivated by the Russian Government, impedes and restricts the actions of NGOs in Russia, apparently because of a belief that they are connected to western espionage. Will the Minster tell us what the Government are doing to support the valuable humanitarian work of NGOs in Russia, and whether any negotiations with Russia on this issue have taken place?

Russia's energy policy has also caused considerable concern in recent years. There is much debate in international circles about whether Russia's near monopoly on oil and gas is being used as an instrument for its internal and external policy ambitions. The expropriation of Shell and BP interests in Russia has been seen by many analysts as facilitating the Russian state's reassertion of control over the energy sector. Does the Minister agree that Russia is using its control over energy in eastern Europe-and now much of western Europe-as a lever with which to influence or perhaps manipulate foreign policy? If so, does he share my concern about that development?

Our relationship with the Russians is vital for all those reasons and for those mentioned at the beginning of my contribution. The Government need to continue to work to maintain a constructive relationship with Russia, but they must also ensure that areas of real concern are dealt with appropriately and effectively. I hope that the Minister agrees that, to achieve that, the UK needs to work closely with the rest of the European Union to create a coherent and co-ordinated foreign policy towards Russia.

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