HC Deb 16 January 1991 vol 183 cc851-8 3.32 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on recent events in Lithuania.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

The Government have condemned the use of force by the Soviet army against unarmed civilians in Lithuania, which led to many deaths and injuries on the night of 12 January. We strongly oppose the use of coercion against elected assemblies in the Baltic states. The European Community, after its meeting that I attended the day before yesterday in Brussels, has decided that its co-operation with the Soviet Union will be suspended if the situation prevailing in Lithuania is prolonged or extended to the other Baltic states.

As I have already said, we are reviewing our bilateral co-operation with the Soviet Union. We are also raising the rights of the Lithuanians at two CSCE meetings—one in Vienna and one at Valetta on the peaceful settlement of disputes. The Paris charter, which we agreed only at the CSCE summit last November, extends the scope of Soviet obligations to the Lithuanians.

I met the Lithuanian Foreign Minister this morning. I share his anxiety about the continuing threat of repression in Lithuania and the other republics. We believe, and have long said, that only free negotiation, based on democratic principles, can provide a lasting solution to the problems of the Baltic peoples and we urge the Soviet Government to follow that course.

Mr. Kaufman

We on this side totally condemn the killings, the use of state violence and all other repression by the Soviet Union in Lithuania. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if President Gorbachev's statement that he did not order the violent action by Soviet troops is to be accepted, there must be a firm commitment that such measures will never be used again in future?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we recognise the immense difficulties faced by President Gorbachev in dealing with the aspirations for national identity and self-determination in the Soviet Union in a way that will maintain stability and not lead to fragmentation of the USSR? We certainly believe that such claims must be responded to by negotiation, and that moderation should be exercised on both sides. At the same time, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the whole future of glasnost and perestroika would be placed in jeopardy if there were to be any thought of a return to Stalinist methods?

Will the right hon. Gentleman advise the Soviet Government that those of us who most strongly advocated not just some form of economic aid but greatly increased economic aid to the Soviet Union would find it impossible to continue in that view if there were a repetition of the weekend's slaughter in Vilnius? Will he make it clear that those who are most dismayed at those events are those of us who have been the strongest supporters and admirers of President Gorbachev?

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman expressed that well. As he said, President Gorbachev has denied responsibility for giving the orders that led to the deaths. That is not enough in a country like the Soviet Union. More needs to be said about who was responsible and what the view is of the action taken. The right hon. Gentleman expresses the view which I was trying to express just now. It is overwhelmingly in our interests to support President Gorbachev the reformer, perestroika and the changes in foreign policy, from which we have all benefited. However, if he relies to such an extent for support on people who want to reverse those reforms, he will start on a path down which we cannot follow him with the help and co-operation which otherwise we would have planned.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

Why are our memories so short? Is it not a fact that 50 years ago Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were cruelly subjugated by the Soviet Union and vast numbers of their people were murdered and deported? Is it not a fact that there has been rejoicing all over the world at the freedom won by Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the past year? Why should the three Baltic states be deprived of the same? If that is the case, why are we in the business of giving any kind of aid until the freedom of these people has been assured?

Mr. Hurd

The Governments and peoples of the three Baltic states have had their hopes raised in the past year or so. After 50 years of occupation by Germans and Russians, they have had their hopes raised precisely by the loosening of the system in the Soviet Union. It is that loosening of the system inside Russia and between Russia and the republics which we have supported and encouraged. It is in our interests that that should not be put into reverse. Whether that will go into reverse now hangs in the balance. We must use all our influence and the prospect of help to encourage President Gorbachev to assert himself against those who may wish to turn the clock back and continue repression in the Baltic states.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

What, if any, representations did the Government make at the CSCE conference at the end of last year when the Baltic states sought to be present, but were denied that opportunity? What response have the Government made to the appeal made on behalf not only of President Landsbergis of Lithuania but of the chairmen of the councils of Latvia and Estonia and of Boris Yeltsin to the United Nations and the leaders of the countries of the west, including our own?

Mr. Hurd

The CSCE operates on a consensus basis and that was why it was not possible to press the point about observers. However, I recollect that there were representatives from the three Baltic republics at the summit, though not in the position they hoped for.

Because of the question of procedure, I believe that the CSCE, rather than the Security Council, is the right place to pursue this. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed from my original reply that we have proposed precisely that at the meetings in Vienna and Valetta because the Soviet Union undertook at the meeting to which he referred wider obligations than those in the original Helsinki Final Act towards its own subjects and, in particular, minorities within the Soviet Union.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

Will my right hon. Friend convey as quickly as possible to Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet Government the fact that, although we understand their problems about constitutional reform in the Soviet Union, which should or should not include the Baltic republics in the future—probably not—the repressive measures that he is using are an outright affront to the spirit of the Helsinki process in the CSCE forum to which my right hon. Friend has just referred? If Mr. Gorbachev pursues such measures, whether in the Baltic states, whose position is, to say the very least, ambiguous, or in existing republics within the Soviet Union, he should be told that he will have no place in the future architecture of Europe or the common European home about which he talks so much.

Mr. Hurd

That is certainly the gist of the message that was given by the United States Administration and by the Community at our meeting two days ago. That message will be conveyed strongly to the Soviet Union.

I believe that there is a distinction in most of our minds between the three Baltic republics and the other republics of the Soviet Union, based on the fact that, as the Father of the House reminded us, the Baltic republics annexed in 1940 in a way that we have never recognised.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

Is not one of the worst tell-tale signs the creation of bogus committees of national safety in those territories, which is a Stalinist tactic? Does the right hon. Gentleman know whether President Gorbachev has promoted and developed that concept, as that would be an important tell-tale sign?

Mr. Hurd

That is certainly a bad sign, particularly in a country such as Lithuania, where Russians account for only 9 per cent. of the population. I went into this matter with the Lithuanian Foreign Minister this morning; he believes, and he has convinced me, that the committee, if it actually exists, is entirely bogus.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will my right hon. Friend unambiguously reiterate Her Majesty's Government's position, which is that the United Kingdom does not recognise the present authority of the Soviet Union within the three Baltic states and that, de jure, the Soviet Union has no locus? Therefore would not it be better for the people of the three Baltic states if their right to self-determination were to be recognised forthwith?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend states the legal position exactly. In practice, the future of the people of the three Baltic republics rests on two things—the recognition by the Soviet Union of their rights and negotiation on all the practical matters that flow from that. Anyone who has studied the economies of the Baltic states or is aware of the presence of large Russian minorities in Latvia and Estonia knows that that negotiation is essential. That is why, throughout this continuing drama, we have stressed both those points to the Soviet authorities and to the leaders of the three republics.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Of course the Baltic states must become independent again, but, in order to achieve that, is it the case that the Baltic states are considered by the Russian military as vital to their air, sea and radar defences? Unless fears in that respect can be assuaged, there is little chance of political movement and every chance that Gorbachev will be brought down by the military.

Mr. Hurd

The Soviet military are notoriously reluctant to give up what they have. There have been signs of tension between the policies of the Soviet Government and the wishes of the military, for example, about the withdrawal of troops from eastern Europe and the wish of the military for those troops to stay put. It is crucial that the authority of the Soviet Government should be the authority of President Gorbachev while pursuing the policies of President Gorbachev and that it should not be relegated, pushed down again, into the hands of the military.

Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that any moral indignation expressed by the Government is equally matched by the ability to deliver effective political and economic consequences? Even if my right hon. Friend does not give a lecture to the Soviets, will he at least invite them to take a lesson in history? What is now happening in respect of Soviet force in Lithuania is exactly equivalent to Tsarist Russia, whose land empire remains to remind us of the imperialism that once held sway over the whole of Europe. Will my right hon. Friend remind the Soviet authorities that the experience of every maritime empire in western Europe was that it had to give way to the forces of self-government, and that the same future inexorably and unavoidably awaits the Soviet Union—no less than it awaited the United Kingdom and other powers?

Mr. Hurd

My right hon. Friend is probably right. It is much harder to transform a former land empire than a sea empire, and it takes a good deal longer. Lenin tried to cloud the reality of that with a lot of new rhetoric, but that reality has returned. I do not know whether we could, as part of the know-how fund, fund some lecturers or advisers from the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Will the Foreign Secretary now attempt to adopt a consistent attitude on behalf of the United Kingdom Government? We are about to go to war to ensure the liberation of Kuwait, so will the Foreign Secretary tell the House that he is committed to the liberation also of the Baltic states?

Mr. Hurd

These cases, of course, vary in their particulars. [Interruption.] Of course they do. On 1 August last year, Kuwait was an independent country and a member of the United Nations. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have effectively been under military occupation by the Soviet Union and by Nazi Germany for 50 years, so the circumstances are different—and therefore the remedies must be different. However, the objective must be the same and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas) is right to say that the people of the three Baltic states must be free to determine their own future—and we are working towards that end by the means that I described.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Will my right hon. Friend see the analogy between the fact that occupied Kuwait has an ambassador at the Court of St. James who appears in the London diplomatic list, and ensure that once again accredited diplomatic representatives of the sovereign states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia appear in the diplomatic list, as they did until quite recently, when they were physically overtaken by death?

Mr. Hurd

That point was not raised by Lithuania's Foreign Minister when I met him this morning, but I was glad to see him—and I shall be glad, by the means that my hon. Friend suggests or in other ways, to maintain contact with the leaders of the Baltic states. I am sure that contact will now increase.

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

In view of events in Lithuania, does the Foreign Secretary think that President Gorbachev is still in control of the Government of the Soviet Union?

Mr. Hurd

The answer is a limited yes. I believe that President Gorbachev is increasingly seeking support among people who do not support his reforms. That may create a danger for him and a situation in which what he wants to do is not done and that which he does not want to do is done. There is here a test of the authority of the Soviet Union and we will do everything that we can to influence that test in the right direction.

Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

Is it my right hon. Friend's assessment that the repression in Lithuania is only one aspect of a wider tendency to revert to autocratic rule in the Soviet Union, perhaps led by the military—whose budget has, according to reports, substantially increased when it should have been cut? Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the new Soviet Foreign Minister that, if that is the trend, it will put at risk not only aid to the Soviet Union from the west but a much wider range of issues involving the Soviet Union on the one hand and United Kingdom, European Community and NATO on the other?

Mr. Hurd

I was certainly worried by what my former colleague, Eduard Shevardnadze, said when he resigned, because I had learned to respect his good sense, as well as his courage. There are worrying signs, but they are signs and not yet proofs. I believe that there is a struggle of ideas, and perhaps of interests, inside the Soviet Government, which is still concealed from us to some extent. It is very important that, within our influence, which I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) is limited, we should do what we can to enable perestroika to continue.

Mr. David Lambie (Cunninghame, South)

Will the Secretary of State ask the President of Lithuania and its Government to cool it and to continue negotiations with President Gorbachev and the Soviet Union? While not condoning the killing of unarmed civilians, the Secretary of State will recognise that even the British Army has killed unarmed civilians in Northern Ireland—[Interruption.]—and that every day the Israeli Government are killing unarmed civilians, mainly boys and girls, on the west bank and in the Gaza strip, without any opposition from Conservative Members. Will the Secretary of State—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We often hear things here with which we do not agree. The hon. Member has a right to state his view.

Mr. Lambie

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Does the Secretary of State agree that the future of President Gorbachev and of democracy in the Soviet Union is more important than the immediate future and the immediate independence of Lithuania and the other Baltic states?

Mr. Hurd

Surely the hon. Member will agree that what he calls the future of President Gorbachev and of democracy in the Soviet Union cannot be assured if the Soviet military are allowed to carry out those sort of killings in the streets of a city which the Soviet Union declares to be within its borders. The two things simply cannot run together.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

What discussions did my right hon. Friend have with the Lithuanian Foreign Minister this morning about the Foreign Minister's publicly expressed view that there is a conspiracy between the Soviet Union and the administration in Iraq, and that, while the world's attention is concentrated on the Gulf, it gives the Soviet Union an opportunity to take a stranglehold upon the Baltic states yet again?

Mr. Hurd

The Minister did not speak of such a conspiracy to me, but I told him, because he was worried about the issue, that, as this discussion shows, we in this country and in the west have no intention of letting our concerns about the Gulf make us blind to or careless about what has been happening in the Baltic states.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

In addition to expressing our horror at the military clampdown, would it be a good idea to take President Gorbachev up on the words that he used in December 1989 in the United Nations about self-determination and accepting arbitration in the International Court of Justice? Since this country has never accepted that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are part of the USSR, is not it reasonable for us to propose, through the United Nations, that this issue should be put to the International Court of Justice?

Mr. Hurd

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I do not think that the prospects of that getting through the Security Council would be very great, and it would not have effect unless it were done in that way. That is why I believe that the CSCE, at this stage, is the better forum. In regard to the right hon. Gentleman's first question, we have not confined ourselves to warnings and criticisms. I remind him of what I said about the decision on Monday to suspend the technical assistance programme agreed in December if this repression continues. I should have liked to go a little further, and others would have liked to do nothing at all except verbally, but the decision that the Community took was, in practice, quite substantial.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have to have regard to the subsequent business on the Order Paper and I hear that the ten-minute Bill is to be opposed, so I shall take three more questions from either side; then we must move on.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Do not the recent appalling events in the Baltic states underline the fact that the Government and the other European Governments made a serious misjudgment in trying to assist or support President Gorbachev in any way, bearing in mind also the fact that President Gorbachev was the KGB candidate for the leadership of the Soviet Union? Would not it be much better to give what support we wish to offer to those elements within the Russian empire that are clearly committed to democracy and to introducing a market economy?

Mr. Hurd

I hope that the hon. Member will recall that the prospects for self-determination and for an improvement in the Baltic republics stem absolutely from perestroika and the actions of President Gorbachev. All this process on which many hopes have been pinned would not have occurred without him. That is why it is necessary, not to give him the benefit of the doubt indefinitely, but to try to use our influence so that his reforming instincts and his wish for reform are sustained.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Apart from the lessons of Tsarist history and the de jure position to which my hon. Friends have already referred, does not the Soviet repression of Lithuania make a mockery of President Gorbachev's declared intention to convert the Soviet state into one founded upon the rule of law, elected parliaments and the consent of the people? Apart from suspending aid to and co-operation with the Soviets until such time as they desist, will my right hon. Friend make it absolutely clear that we have no intention of attending the human rights conference in Moscow later this year?

Mr. Hurd

The answer to my hon. and learned Friend's first question is yes, of course. These two things are incompatible. We hope that the repression in the Baltic states will turn out not to mark a turning point in Soviet constitutional history. Certainly, the future of the human rights meeting in Moscow must depend on developments in human rights between now and then.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Does the Foreign Secretary recall that the moment carefully selected by Stalin to annex the Baltic states was precisely the moment when the world was preoccupied with the takeover of Paris by the Germans? Is not it likely that the bogus conspiracies by the salvation fronts in these three countries will climax at a time to coincide with events in the Gulf war so that the Baltic states may well be the first casualties of the Gulf crisis?

Did the Foreign Minister of Lithuania tell the right hon. Gentleman this morning about the invitation that the Lithuanians have sent out to international observers to come to Vilnius now? Does not he think that, if that happens, there is a chance that it will act as a restraint on the red army? Is not it right that Members of the mother of parliaments should be in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius in these days to stand side by side with our fellow democratically elected members of parliament at a time when they are likely to be crushed by the red army?

Mr. Hurd

No, the Foreign Minister did not raise that, but the hon. Gentleman's general point is right. The more contacts we have with people in the Baltic states, including with the authorities, and the more people who go there to bear witness to what happens, the better.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Will my right hon. Friend agree that, if Russia is to become part of the European Community, as I understand she wants to, it is essential to get through to her that she must divest herself of her colonial empire and that she might make a start by divesting herself of the Baltic republics, which have never accepted their status as colonies of Moscow?

Mr. Hurd

Obviously, if the Soviet Union ever considered becoming a member of the European Community—with a capital C—she would have to transform a great many of her ways, including that one. But even at this moment she is a signatory of the Helsinki Final Act and now of the Paris charter and thus has obligations which entitle us to take up cases and pursue points that we would not be able to pursue with countries outside the CSCE. We shall take those opportunities to the full.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Will the Foreign Secretary accept that the pleas that have come from President Landsbergis and other representatives of the Baltic states for support and recognition are not new and have not just happened as a result of the Soviet aggression in past weeks? They have been continuing pleas and perhaps one of the reasons why the Soviet troops think that they can escape international condemnation has been the equivocal attitude of the western democracies to these three countries for some considerable time.

When the right hon. Gentleman met the Foreign Minister of Lithuania this morning, was he able to give a positive response to the request by President Landsbergis that a United Nations commission be established to enable foreign observers to go into the Baltic states to witness what is happening? The two countries that have done so thus far are Hungary and Czechoslovakia, so they know what is really happening.

Mr. Hurd

The realities of the situation make it unlikely, to me, that a United Nations commission would get off the ground. That is why I believe that the CSCE is the better bet. A watershed, in my own mind, is the killing of people in Vilnius. When people are killed in that way in a European city, something has changed and earlier arguments take on a different importance. That is why I pressed as hard on Monday that the Community should not rest solely on words but should begin to take action.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Surely the same principle should apply to the settlement of the disputes between the Soviet Union and the Baltic states as we are applying to the settlement of the dispute between Iraq and Kuwait. Those principles are enshrined in the United Nations charter, to which the Soviet Union and ourselves are signatories. Will my right hon. Friend urge on President Gorbachev the need for him to be consistent and for the Baltic states to negotiate with the Soviet Union to prevent such horrible violence in Vilnius?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, indeed. Those are precisely the two messages or the two kinds of advice that we are giving and which we shall continue to give.

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