§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chapman.]10.17 pm
§ Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise tonight the subject of the United Kingdom's policy towards the crisis in Chechnya. I am also grateful to the Minister of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), for agreeing to reply to the debate.
The war in Chechnya presents the international community with a number of serious problems. The ferocity of the Russian assault on the capital of Chechnya, Grozny, involving bombardment by air and by heavy artillery on the ground, is of a scale unparalleled, even in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. We certainly cannot ignore it, nor can we ignore the potential for the conflict to spread across the Caucasus and beyond or the possible repercussions of the war in Moscow itself.
The war might be seen as yet another crisis in a far-off country of which the west knows nothing, but it is happening in a region that is every bit as complex, volatile and dangerous as the Balkans.
I think that I am possibly the only Member of Parliament to have visited Chechnya, which I did one long winter weekend a year ago. On that occasion, I met General Dudayev, the Chechen leader, and discussed his rather odd plans and ambitions with him. Although he clearly sees himself as a reincarnation of Shamyl, the tribal chief who harried Russian troops in Dagestan in the last century, he struck me as a dangerous, irresponsible fanatic who has the potential to destabilise the entire Caucasus and clearly intends to interfere in the domestic affairs of some of his neighbouring states.
He was clearly sponsoring and profiting from the growing worldwide activities of the Chechen mafia, and he was determined to forge alliances with Islamic fundamentalist regimes in other parts of the world. The week before my visit, he had been to see Saddam Hussein and, a few months earlier, he had met Colonel Gaddafi. He was also clearly disliked by a large percentage of the Chechen population, particularly by the ethnic Russian community, who were regularly harassed and attacked by his supporters.
However, none of that explains, excuses or mitigates the Russian Government's attempt to solve the problem by force. Russia's response has been unconstitutional and illegal. It has resulted in a barbaric and indiscriminate assault upon the civilian population of Chechnya. It has forced the Russian army—a conscript army of wretched, virtually unpaid recruits—to accept outrageously high casualties.
A friend in the Duma told me that the unofficial figure is 4,000 Russian military casualties. The Russian Government have succeeded in uniting the clans of Chechnya, and possibly of the whole north Caucasus, behind General Dudayev. It has been a repellent display of military blundering, political incompetence and old-style panzer communism.
The response of the international community has been curiously restrained and cautious. Perhaps the reason for that is a lack of understanding or knowledge of the 683 area. Perhaps it is because Governments see in this challenge to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation the ghosts of 1991, when the west consented to the break-up of another sovereign, internationally recognised federal republic, Yugoslavia, despite the advice of our own envoy, Lord Carrington.
As I am sure the Minister will readily agree, there is a certain logical inconsistency in our willingness to accept the destruction of the Yugoslav federation and its replacement with artificial states whose borders were imposed by Tito, but to ignore the challenge to the territorial integrity of another federation, Russia, by an autonomous republic whose borders were imposed by Stalin.
I do not wish to dwell on the mistakes and tragedies of the past, but if we are to preserve anything from the ruins of the idea of a new world order, we should at least try to be consistent. I hope that our response to the Chechen crisis—which, although muted so far, is none the less the right one—will be maintained undiluted and clearly stated, along with our absolute condemnation of the methods that Russia has used.
I hope that the silence of the west when Russian tanks first moved into Chechnya did not result from a fear of upsetting President Yeltsin and provoking Russia into turning its back on the west. If that was the reason, it was based on a misunderstanding of the political situation in Russia and the probable effect of the Chechen crisis on it. We should understand that the most likely consequence of the war in Chechnya for the Russian political system could be a strengthening rather than a weakening of democratic institutions.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
I receive many letters from my constituents about this matter, which is unusual, as it is a foreign affairs issue. They are deeply concerned by the scenes that they see on television, and by the bombing that is going on in Grozny in particular. Although they wish President Yeltsin well in the reforms that he is instituting in Russia, they wish to see a solution in Chechnya which does not involve the bombing of innocent women and children.
§ Mr. Elletson
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I understand his constituents' concern. They are seeing some horrific atrocities, as are the Russian public for the first time, on their television screens. This war takes place against a background of struggle within the Russian Government—particularly in the President's own circle—between the various factions which are competing for succession.
Vested interests, such as the military-industrial complex and the so-called power Ministries of defence and security, have been jockeying for a greater hold on the levers of power. All the time, government has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of the President and his Security Council, while the state Duma—the Parliament—has little or no control. One of the consequences of the present crisis will be to create the political impulse for a more effective parliamentary system where the Executive is properly accountable.
We have misunderstood the Duma for too long, and seen it purely as a threat to President Yeltsin and his circle of reformers. Now it is the centre of activity for 684 those who protest against the war in Chechnya. Several Duma members—most notably Sergei Kovalyov, Russia's human rights commissioner—have shown great bravery by visiting Chechnya under fire in order to report on the appalling situation there. Yegor Gaidar, Duma member and former Prime Minister, has led the campaign against the war.
We need to support such people—to encourage them, and not to fear the consequences of being forthright in our criticism of President Yeltsin, however good a friend or democrat he may have been in the past. We will do Russia no favours if we assume that the war in Chechnya can be ignored and that Russia's relations with the west can remain unaffected by it.
Unfortunately, the first and most obvious consequence for our relations with Russia will inevitably be to call into question western aid and investment. That will happen, because the economic costs of the war will be enormous and probably sufficient to derail the Russian Government's budget this year.
Given the scale of western financial support, there are bound to be calls for a reappraisal unless the fighting ends soon. That will be very sad, and it is an issue that needs to be handled carefully, but unless the Russians adopt a more reasonable course of action, and unless Prime Minister Chernomyrdin commits his Government clearly and unambiguously to a ceasefire and peace negotiations, it will be unavoidable.
Sadder still will be the effect on Russia's position in the international community. The Chechen crisis cannot but have a effect on the negotiations about Russia's new relationship with the European Union, NATO, the Council of Europe, the International Monetary Fund and other international organisations.
All the good work that has been done over the past five years to draw Russia into the heart of Europe and to make her once again part of the international community of nations is now in jeopardy. If the position does not change soon and there is no serious attempt to abandon force in favour of negotiation, the west's response to Russia will have to be as firm as it was to China over Tiananmen square. That will be a sad day for all of us who believed in the new Russia and Boris Yeltsin.
What concerns me most about the crisis is the effect on the wider Transcaucasus. I do not know whether one of the motives for the Russian Government's actions was their concern to secure oil supply routes and facilities in Chechnya. The Russians take extremely seriously the potential for development of energy resources in and around the Caspian sea.
I visited the area on a number of occasions with BP Exploration, and I must declare an interest as an adviser to that company. The region's energy resources have stirred up an intense amount of feeling and disagreement in Russia, the Transcaucasus and central Asia. They have also been the cause of a serious disagreement between Britain and Russia over the status of the Caspian sea.
In Moscow, opinions on the issue are divided. There are those who see western involvement in the development of the energy resources of former Soviet republics as an unacceptable attempt by the west to steal oil and gas which is basically Russia's. Others feel that Russian industry will profit by the development of such a large market on its doorstep.
685 In any event, both groups understand the importance of secure transportation routes of energy from the region. Some people suggest that that is the real reason for the conflict in Chechnya, and that it is yet another war about oil. I do not believe that oil is anything other than an incidental and peripheral consideration for the Russian Government in the present fighting, but I am sure that it has been a motive for Russian actions in the region in the recent past. We must help to ensure that it does not become the cause of a much greater escalation of the conflict beyond Chechnya's borders. We must make absolutely clear our commitment to the independence and sovereignty of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Kazakhstan. We must be vigilant in guarding against Russian interference, particularly in countries where there is a significant commercial interest. We should protest strongly at Russia's recent decision to seal the Azeri border, which is severely damaging Azerbaijan's economy.
We must point out that, although western companies are keen to co-operate with Russian business in the area, the confidence of international investors in possible pipeline routes through Grozny to the Russian Black sea has been severely damaged, together with investor confidence in Russia itself.
At the same time, we must commend countries bordering Chechnya for their responsible action in refraining from interfering in the conflict. We should recognise that now is the time to ensure a proper British presence in the region. There is already an embassy in Baku, but surely we should have full diplomatic representation also in Georgia and Armenia. A decision to open embassies there would further demonstrate at this important time our commitment to the independence of those states.
We ought to consider the effect of the Chechnya crisis on the region's other major security problem—the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. It is difficult to see how Russia could conceivably provide now the substantial troop contribution to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe peacekeeping operations in Nagorny Karabakh that was envisaged at the Budapest summit. However, it is vital not to lose the opportunity to establish a credible international peacekeeping operation in the region.
I hope that the Minister will ensure that Russia's difficulties do not jeopardise OSCE operations in Karabakh. Although I realise the extent of our other commitments, I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to consider with some of our allies the provision of logistic and other military support if that would help to ensure that the momentum of the peace process in Karabakh is not lost.
The war in Chechnya has exposed an extreme form of Russian nationalism. It has diminished Russia in the eyes of the world, shown the Russian army to be a paper tiger, and undermined Moscow's claim to he a credible force for stability in a volatile region—creating a dangerous vacuum that other powers may soon seek to fill.
These are troubled times. We must urge Russia back on to the proper path. We must seek calm and restraint from all those with an interest in the region. In that, Britain has an important role to play. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend will ensure that we do our part to bring peace and prosperity to the Caucasus.
§ The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hogg)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) for this timely opportunity to debate a topic of major concern to the international community. My hon. Friend's special knowledge of Russia and of the former Soviet Union makes him unusually well qualified to introduce this Adjournment debate.
The suffering in Chechnya is the latest tragedy in a list of events since the collapse of the former Soviet Union that includes other conflicts in the Caucasian region. The Chechens are proud of their warrior tradition. During the 19th century, there was frequent fighting between Russia and the tribesmen of the northern Caucasus. In 1859, Chechnya became part of the Russian empire, although that did not end the conflict.
Subsequently, Chechnya, together with the rest of the Russian empire, was incorporated into the Soviet Union. During the second world war, Stalin ordered the forced deportation of the Chechen people, and thousands died. The consequences of that act of barbarism are with us today.
Alone among the leaders of the Russian Federation, General Dudayev was unwilling to negotiate seriously with Moscow on the republic's status within the federation. In November 1991, the general unilaterally declared independence, which received no international recognition. I will say a few words about General Dudayev's regime, to which my hon. Friend specifically referred.
Clearly, General Dudayev is no democrat. He stamped out opposition and stifled freedom of speech. Under that regime, the economy collapsed and crime escalated. Between 100,000 and 150,000 non-Chechens fled the republic, and even some of his closest supporters turned against him. The threat to regional stability—already fragile—grew, and all attempts to negotiate foundered on the general's insistence on sovereignty. Fighting broke out between pro-Moscow opposition forces and those of Dudayev.
None of that justifies, as my hon. Friend has said, the suffering that is occurring, but it helps to explain why President Yeltsin decided to use force. He saw it as the only way in which to preserve the integrity of the federation. Now we watch with mounting distress as the modern army uses the immense firepower at its disposal against those who are its fellow citizens. Casualties, Chechen and Russian, run into thousands, and many are civilians. According to the UNHCR, an estimated 150,000 people have fled to neighbouring areas and, in addition, there are an estimated 260,000 displaced people in Chechnya itself.
In formulating our approach to this tragedy, we have to be clear about the status of Chechnya. Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation. That is the view of the British Government. That is the view of the international community. Against that background, we have identified three priorities.
First, the fighting must end as quickly as possible and with the minimum of civilian casualties. Secondly, immediate humanitarian relief must reach those in need. It is important that international agencies, especially the International Committee of the Red Cross, are involved 687 in that. Thirdly, no agreement will last unless it finds an effective way of enabling the Chechen people to express their identity within the framework of the constitution of the Russian Federation.
We have used every opportunity, here and in Moscow, to make our views known. In particular, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out our views in a letter to Foreign Minister Kozyrev. He reinforced that on 10 January when Ambassador Adamishin was summoned to the Foreign Office.
In addition, we believe that the OSCE may have a special role to play in bringing the crisis to an end. We have urged that on the Russians bilaterally, and together with our European Union partners, in joint approaches to the Russian foreign ministry. The Russian reaction to a possible role for the OSCE has been positive, and we welcome that. For the Russians, the status of Chechnya is a matter of great importance. They emphasise that Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation and, as I have said, the international community accepts that fact.
But equally, in view of the commitments that Russia has made in the OSCE, what is happening in Chechnya is a matter of legitimate international concern. As the chairman of the Russian Parliament's foreign affairs committee said on 10 January:The OSCE is insisting on sending in observers and I must say that under the agreement signed by us, it is fully entitled to do that.The OSCE's involvement should be seen as co-operation. We look to Russia to live up to her OSCE commitments. It is in the interests of all that she should do so.
Some have seen the Russian action in Chechnya as a precursor of wider military action in the region and the resurgence of Russian imperialism. The British Government do not believe that that is the case. The Russian goals are to restore its authority in part of its own territory, and so far the fighting has remained in the confines of Chechnya. Indeed, there is no intrinsic reason why it should spread. We welcome the fact that, in neighbouring countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia, to which my hon. Friend referred, where there has been internal strife, ceasefires are now in place, and the international community is actively engaged in helping to work out peaceful settlements.
The most pressing need, therefore, is for an end to the fighting, as my hon. Friend has said. The ceasefire announced last week failed to hold. To achieve one will doubtless be hard. Both sides are now heavily committed militarily. General Dudayev has so far shown no signs of compromising on his basic demand for sovereignty. In any case, his is not the only Chechen voice. We must continue in our attempts to persuade both sides that a long-term solution must come from negotiations that take their respective views into account.
There are signs that the Russians are developing their thinking on that. First Deputy Prime Minister Soskovets said on 14 January that, after the restoration of constitutional order in Chechnya, the new republican authorities will be exempted from fiscal obligations to the centre, and they will be granted autonomy in all fields except foreign affairs and defence.
688 The Russian Prime Minister, Chemomyrdin, has also begun a wide-ranging series of contacts with the leading members of the Chechen diaspora. Other senior figures are meeting clan leaders in Chechnya itself. The latest development, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin's call for immediate negotiations with a simultaneous ceasefire, is a further positive step. He envisages elections, followed by a discussion of Chechnya's status within the Federation. He has proposed that, before elections, there should be wide-ranging consultations on the formation of a transitional Government who would represent the interests of all Chechens. That appears to be a constructive approach, and we understand that Chechen negotiators have travelled to Moscow today. If that is true, it is welcome.
While fighting continues, we must try to ease suffering. Thousands need assistance. The international agencies are mobilising their resources. We welcome the fact that the Russians are allowing those agencies to act and have sought the help of the ICRC, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Organisation for Migration.
We are actively involved in offering humanitarian assistance, and the European Union has already provided the ICRC with around £250,000 to pay for medicines and shelter. Further requests will doubtless come, and we stand ready to help if and when they do.
I refer now to our relations with Russia, an issue that was specifically referred to by my hon. Friend. Now is not the time for threats and sanctions. We have devoted much energy and resources over the past few years to encouraging the spread of democracy in Russia.
I have been struck by the freedom that the Russian people have exercised in criticising the decisions of their leaders. The media—written and broadcast—have brought home the true horror of this intervention, and the people have made their feelings quite plain. This is no Afghanistan, where events were shrouded in secrecy, and only a restricted and carefully controlled selection of information reached the public domain. Chechnya demonstrates that, in that respect at least, democracy is taking root in Russia.
The people regard their leaders as accountable. That is as it should be. We would regard any attempt to stifle that debate with the utmost concern. Vigorous democratic debate in Russia of the type that we are now seeing is helpful for us all.
The longer-term implications of the Chechnya crisis remain unclear. Despite much speculation, there does not so far appear to be an imminent threat to Russia's nascent democracy, but we must be alert. Damage has doubtless been done, and there is much uncertainty about the future.
Some liberal politicians in Moscow fear a return of authoritarian rule and Russia's international isolation. So far, events have not borne out those fears. Russia must live up to what is expected of a modern democratic state, and we look to her to do that. Our policies will take account of what happens within Russia, but now is not the time to exclude Russia from international organisations, or otherwise to heap penalties upon her.
To summarise, I record my gratitude to my hon. Friend; this is an important issue, as is marked by the fact that many hon. Members have attended the debate, 689 which itself is unusual in such a debate. We should, in substance, avoid hasty decisions. The priorities are and should remain to put an end to the fighting, to allow humanitarian relief, and to work for a political agreement which allows the Chechen people to express their identify within the Russian Federation. We must 690 encourage the Russians to allow the international community and, in particular, the OSCE to co-operate in the implementation of those objectives.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.