HC Deb 05 April 1990 vol 170 cc1355-61

12.3 pm

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the current situation in the Baltic states at such a timely moment.

I am sure that the House, if not the entire free world, including or course central and most of eastern Europe, have been watching developments from Lithuania with bated breath; with sympathy for the demands that its Parliament has made for independence, so recently and so clearly endorsed by the elections in February; with understanding for its declaration of independence and President Landsbergis's appeal for western recognition and support; with admiration at the cool and courageous way in which he and his colleagues are responding to the psychological pressure that is increasingly being applied by Moscow; with alarm at the intervention of the Red Army and its occupation of public buildings and of the free press, the expulsion of foreign correspondents and the closure of the border with Poland; with fear that the situation will lead to a classic confrontation in the tradition of the Breznev doctrine, which the world had understood had been abandoned; and with distress at the consequences of such an intervention for the remarkable progress that has been made to end the cold war and to improve east-west relations, and in arms control, and for President Gorbachev himself and his progress towards political and economic reform, which we fully support—provided, of course, that he means what he says.

That is where the matter rests at the moment, perhaps awaiting a further turn of the screw to encourage negotiations on the Kremlin's terms.

have no doubt that all that was discussed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister with President Gorbachev during their telephone conversation last week and is being discussed by Mr. Baker and Mr. Shevardnadze in Washington and that the limits beyond which it is unacceptable for both sides to go are being clearly spelled out.

To date, the line that western Governments have taken in public, including Her Majesty's Government, has been that the future of the Baltic states is an internal matter for the Soviet Union and the republics concerned. That is a lie which I cannot accept any more, and I do not believe that the House will accept it either.

As I said to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Tuesday, the secret protocol of 1939 makes the Baltic states a special case. Their problem is not just a Soviet problem; it is a European one. Like German unification, it is the legacy of the last war, which can and should be resolved only by the four powers in a European context within the forums that already exist for the resolution of such matters, peacefully, securely and in a spirit of co-operation. That is what the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe—the Helsinki process—is all about. That is the principal argument of my debate today, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will respond to it.

Perhaps at this point it would be helpful for us to recall the events that led to the occupation and annexation of tilt Baltic states into the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1940. In 1918, the Baltic states gained independence of the Russian empire amid that turbulent period which saw the German advance, following the withdrawal of the Bolshevik forces, turn into a retreat in November.

The Russian civil war that followed became a war of independence for the Baltic peoples. Eventually, in 1920, peace treaties were signed with the Soviet Union which unreservedly recognised the independence of the new republics from Russia, which renounced all former rights of sovereignty "voluntarily and forever".

In 1921, the League of Nations recognised all three states to which de jure recognition had been extended by most countries and they became member states of the league. Further independently negotiated treaties with the Soviet Union confirmed the legitimacy of the new states.

Liberal democratic constitutions were adopted. Minority rights were guaranteed by law, and no one group exercised significant political influence. Tragically, proportional representation led to a plethora of small parties, which in turn led to cabinet instability, parliamentary paralysis and a series of largely pre-emptive coups d'etat and the setting-up of largely authoritarian regimes.

With the resurgence of Germany, the Soviet Union became concerned about its security in the event of German aggression against the Baltic states, and saw an opportunity for territorial expansion. On 23 August 1939, Ribbentrop and Molotov agreed a treaty of nonaggression. That was the public document published at the time. On the same day, however, a secret additional protocol concerning their respective spheres of influence in Poland and the Baltic area was signed. That was amended by a further secret protocol on 28 September transferring Lithuania to the Soviet sphere.

Following the German invasion of Poland, all three states were forced to conclude military alliances with the Soviet Union. All three treaties assured the Baltic Governments that their sovereignty would be fully respected, but it was not long before Soviet troops entered the Baltic states. They were incorporated into the Soviet Union behind a facade of ligitimacy.

When the Soviets returned in 1944, following the German occupation, there was a large-scale flight to the west which was not surprising. They knew what to expect: enforced collectivisation, industrialisation and integration into the Soviet economy, and persecution of the church and of all nationalist consciousness. Six hundred thousand people were deported to Siberia; hundreds of thousands of people were killed in Soviet prison camps. The process of Russification, through the immigration of Russian peoples, was designed to swamp the Baltic majority.

During the 40 years of apparent acquiescènce to the Soviet occupation that followed, it is clear that Baltic nationalism was barely affected. At every level of society, people used their official positions to preserve national identity and integrity. However, it is only during the past two years that there have been more changes in the Baltic states than at any time since Stalin—in response to unprecedented popular demands, themselves in response to glasnost and perestroika, that have led so dramatically to today's circumstances. The establishment of the popular fronts in Latvia and Estonia and Sajudis in Lithuania provided the impetus and the channel for national self-assertion, the adoption of national flags and symbols and the more recent demands for independence and a democratic parliamentary system.

Not far behind have been the Communist parties of all three states which, either through conviction or for survival, declared their own independence from the Communist party of the Soviet Union in support of national self-determination. Perhaps one of the most impressive and moving peaceful demonstrations in history of solidarity between peoples against an occupying power took place on 23 August 1989 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, when more than 1 million people linked hands in a human chain across all three republics.

In its initial response to such clear demonstrations of nationalism, Moscow postponed environmentally sensitive projects, restored Vilnius cathedral to the Roman Catholic Church, granted economic sovereignty and decentralisation and proposed the prospect of limited sovereignty. In addition, the Yakovlev commission was established to inquire into the status of the secret protocol. Throughout last year, and into this, the Parliaments of all three states seemed to outdo each other in declaring ever-more daring acts of defiance in pursuit of independence, with Lithuania making the running in declaring Soviet annexation invalid and adopting laws to pave the way for a referendum on independence and ending the party's leading role.

Given the fact that such unprecedented demands for nationalism were being emulated elsewhere in the Soviet Union, it became clear that it could not be allowed to continue unchecked without undermining President Gorbachev's position and authority. In December, he appealed to Lithuania to reject the idea of an independent state outside the Soviet Union, although in January, during his visit to Lithuania, he promised legislation to permit an orderly secession. The Yakovlev commission declared the secret protocol to the contrary to international law but claimed that that did not invalidate the incorporation of the Baltic republics into the USSR in 1940.

In February this year, the terms of such secession became clearer, including the requirement that three quarters of the population must participate in a referendum, which would be followed by a transitional period of five years—endorsed this week by the Soviet Parliament. If that was designed to discourage demands for immediate independence, it has failed. In last month's elections to the Lithuanian supreme soviet, Sajudis obtained 97 seats out of 141 and Gallup reported 63 per cent. in favour of full independence. Its supreme council has adoped a declaration of sovereignty and a resolution reinstating the constitution of 1938.

More recent elections in Latvia and Estonia have also produced majorities for independence candidates, despite the influx of Russian troops to influence the results with their votes. In response, the USSR's Congress of People's Deputies, which I attended last month, appointed a commission to review the position, since when the Government have refused to accept the Lithuanian declaration of independence and have sent Soviet troops to occupy party buildings in Vilnius and to arrest deserters.

As the whole world knows, President Landsbergis has refused to withdraw the declaration and has appealed for international recognition and support. It is an appeal reminiscent of Dubcek's in 1968 and of Nagy's in 1956. We must all hope and work for a solution that does not end in similar tragedies. President Gorbachev, of course, is cleverer than that.

Surely the events of the past two years have proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the Baltic peoples have demonstrated, demanded and voted for nothing less than a return to independence. There is even evidence that their ethnic Russian populations would opt for the prospect of the greater prosperity that would result from being in control of their own destiny. Moreover, we know from their previous independence that they are capable of economic self-sufficiency and would—like Finland, whose economy was much weaker after the war—have become fully integrated into the western economy by now. Indeed, they argue that it is in the Soviet Union's interests for independent Baltic states to act, as Finland is now, as entrepots for trade and technology with the west.

It seems to me that the way is now open for Her Majesty's Government to take initiatives to resolve the future of the Baltic states in a way that should not threaten President Gorbachev's position. First, let us confirm that the secret protocol of 1939 and its implementation in 1940 was a clear breach of international law which determines the Baltic states as a special case. Secondly, it is no longer good enough to regard this matter as one for the Soviet Union as the de facto power and as one for negotiation between the parties concerned. The fact that we withhold de jure recognition of Soviet annexation implies that we will recognise, de facto, a return to independence. If Soviet occupation remains illegal, as it does, current events mean that we can no longer remain silent as to what we would regard as legal. To do so would encourage Moscow to intensify its intimidation.

Does not article 12 of the Soviet constitution as it stands allow for secession? Does not article 1 of both the international covenant on civil and political rights and the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights proclaim the right of peoples to self-determination? Does not principle 8 of the Helsinki Final Act guarantee the right of people to self-determination and also their wish, in full freedom, to determine when and as they wish their internal and external status, with the Act itself providing for change in frontiers by peaceful means and agreement?

As they do, do not these international obligations, entered into by the Soviet Union, by us and by all other members of our European community, now require us to seek a solution to the Baltic problem in the wider framework of east-west relations and within that common European home to which President Gorbachev gives credence, which is the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe process?

Let us now consult our council of Europe and CSCE colleagues to agree to raise the future of the Baltic states at the forthcoming summit under the Helsinki process, which is already planned to take account of the irreversible events in central and eastern Europe, including, in particular, the forthcoming unification of Germany and the signing of a peace treaty? To ignore the consequences of the secret protocol in seeking to resolve, once and for all, the consequences of the last war, would be a lie.

I accept that these consequences go beyond the Baltic states. They apply to the western Ukraine and Moldavia too, but we should not be put off by that. Any solution must be a freely negotiated one, but it must be on Europe's terms, not those of the Soviet Union. Since no referendum was held in 1940 to determine the Baltic peoples' wish to nullify their independence, we certainly should not support any suggestion of a referendum to put right what international law has found to be illegal. The recent elections have confirmed the people's choice. As President Gorbachev said to the United Nations in December 1988: Freedom of choice is a universal principle which allows no exceptions.

The situation in the Baltic states today determines that these questions must be resolved, and resolved soon. The CSCE is the means. The forthcoming summit is the opportunity. Her Majesty's Government can be the initiator. I look forward to my right hon. Friend's response.

12.19 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. William Waldegrave)

It give me genuine pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who has raised an extremely topical subject, and I congratulate him on his success in being able to introduce the debate. I shall comment on his extremely comprehensive and learned speech. My officials could find no fault with the history that he set out. I share with the House the fact that my hon. Friend did me the courtesy of showing me a copy of his speech in advance.

My principal points are in agreement with my hon. Friend. First, he is right to recognise that the progress that has already been made in the Baltic states must owe a great deal to perestroika and glasnost and to the much more liberal policy followed by Mr. Gorbachev and his colleagues in recent years. The response of previous Soviet regimes, let alone Stalin, was very different.

It is worth recognising that the fact that the Baltic people are now, we hope, on the way to recovering their legal rights of independence is another of the beneficial side effects of the general improvement and loosening up in the Soviet Union. That gives us and the Soviet Union the responsibility of doing nothing as any action would give such succour to the enemies of the process of liberalisation in the Soviet Union—and there are many of them—as to bring that process to an end. That is the tightrope which the Baltic peoples—with skill and restraint so far—are walking.

Secondly, I agree with my hon. Friend that the danger is extremely close to the surface. It is easy to imagine incidents as a result of provocation or accident which could lead to disaster. The mature behaviour of people in Lithuania—of whom we have seen most in our newspapers and electronic media—in Estonia and in Latvia deserves tribute.

My hon. Friend gave an interesting account of the passage of history, making passing reference to the usual disasters that follow from proportional representation. He made a rather pregnant remark when he reminded us of the disasters in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968. Everyone of our generation remembers the poignant way in which the radio stations said, "Remember us," when they were closed down. That also reminds us of our responsibility.

The history books now show that many young people in 1956 and 1968 believed that in some impossible way the west would physically come to their rescue. Right until the end they were asking where were the American marines, the British and the French.

We should do nothing in any physical sense—and I am sure that the passage of history has made the Baltic people much more aware of the truth—to raise any expectations that we cannot meet. I am not saying that we should not bring other pressures to bear and enter into the diplomatic process, but it is worth putting it clearly on record that the questions and propositions at the end of my hon. Friend's speech when he talked of the CSCE mechanisms and discussions and the process leading to independence. That is the path we must follow.

However, I must correct my hon. Friend on one point. Britain does not regard the matter as an internal one for the Soviet Union. Our position, like that of most of the principal western countries, is that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was illegal and that there has never been a legal incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union. Therefore, it is not pari passu with events in other parts of the Soviet Union; it is important to make that distinction. That is one of the elements that may lead to a solution. Clearly there must be many in the Soviet Union who fear any movement on the Baltic states as leading to a precedent that would make things extremely difficult for the Soviet Union.

We do not believe that that issue has to be addressed in relation to the Baltic states. They already have a ring around them, given the fact that we and the Soviet Union now believe that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was illegal. There is a ring of legality and separateness around the Baltic states, and it is worth drawing attention to that.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister put that clearly on record in the House on 27 March when she said: we have never recognised the annexation of the Baltic states to the Soviet Union as being legal."—[Official Report, 27 March 1990; Vol. 170, c. 205.]

I should like to raise a number of points about what will happen next and what we should be seeking to do, which was how my hon. Friend finished his excellent speech. We have taken a number of steps to make it clear that, although we have been urging restraint on the people of the Baltic states and congratulating them on their exercise of that restraint, we should be urging the same restraint on the Soviet Union. We made that clear at the Dispatch Box yesterday. The European Community has twice made it clear in authoritative statements that we do not approve of the threats that have been made. That is not the way to solve the problem.

There has been sabre rattling—with modern technological means rather than with sabres—and, in a repeated statement by the Twelve issued yesterday, we have all deplored that. The Twelve stated that the situation remains difficult and that we are concerned about the potentially serious consequences which an aggravation of the situation might have on the improved climate prevailing in Europe and that the Twelve expressed the hope that a purposeful dialogue between Vilnius and Moscow—they were talking about Lithuania—will commence in the very near future. They call for good will on both sides and the maximum restraint on all sides so as not to aggravate an already delicate situation. Therefore, the message goes very clearly to both sides.

Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Does the Minister agree that it is important for the Twelve, as part of their common foreign policy process, to take that a little further and to take some firm initiatives directly with Moscow to facilitate those negotiations?

Mr. Waldegrave

That leads me to what steps Britain can take. There will be continuous discussions with our European partners and at the recent General Affairs Council meeting and other informal meetings it has been, and will continue to be, near the top of the agenda. We now have a series of high-level contacts starting with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary going to Moscow on Monday, followed not long after by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister talked to Mr. Gorbachev at length on the telephone in the spirit in which I am now addressing the House. The Secretary of State had a meeting with the Soviet ambassador in London on 28 March. We shall be pressing for dialogue and discussion, and a peaceful solution to the problem.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East rightly pointed out, everyone seems agreed about the long-term goal. Mr. Gorbachev has implied that he does not rule out independence; what concerns him is the legality of the process, and who are we to argue against legal processes? Nevertheless, we must be careful. I suspect that the Lithuanians would not fear any test of genuine opinion in their country. What worries us are the provisions in the new secession law agreed yesterday and published under article 72 of the Soviet constitution.

We can argue with some of the provisions concerning tests of opinion, but at least they are genuinely aimed at finding out what opinions are held in the Baltic states. The requirement for a two-thirds majority in the Congress of People's Deputies, however, is a different kind of hurdle, as it effectively gives two or three of the biggest republics a veto on secession, whatever the majority opinion in the Soviet Union—let alone that in the Baltic states, whose right to independence should be guaranteed by the legal background.

We shall discuss that problem with the Soviet leadership. Nothing could be worse than the development in the Baltic states of the idea that they will be tricked into a cul de sac; it would be difficult to control the resulting frustration, and that would lead to dangers.

We should not concern ourselves too much with tests of opinion, or with the length of the transitional period. I suspect that we know what the opinion is, and a transitional period of some years may be necessary in any event to disentangle the economy. We must, however, try to ensure that an impossible hurdle is not placed before the people of the Baltic states in the guise of legality, thus vitiating the welcome guarantee from Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Gerasimov that independence—legally secured—is on the cards. That means concentrating on discussion and representation: we must not pre-empt the good will that can surely be engendered by the willingness to talk that the Soviets have expressed over the past few days.

A disaster is easily possible. The Government urge restraint on the Soviet Union, and also on the people of the Baltic states. What we want is a dialogue about how they are to achieve their legal right to independence.

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