HC Deb 27 March 2001 vol 365 cc815-26
24. Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

If he will make a statement on the situation in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. [154111]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

On Sunday, the army of Macedonia launched an operation to retake the hills above Tetevo. The operation appears to have been a success and the armed extremists have abandoned their positions.

I spoke to President Trajkovski on Sunday morning, when I urged on him the importance of keeping the operation proportionate to the threat and restrained from action that could cause civilian casualties. I am pleased to report that, on the information currently available to us, there have been no civilian deaths.

I spoke this morning to Javier Solana in Skopje. We both agreed that the important priority now for the Government of Macedonia is to follow up the military action by taking the political initiative to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Albanian minority. Yesterday, the Greek Foreign Minister and I held a joint conversation with the Foreign Minister of Macedonia, in which we discussed the need for progress on such issues as local government reform and the new Albanian university in Tetevo. Macedonia must not allow the terrorists to succeed in destroying its multi-ethnic society.

In the meantime. Britain will continue to take every practical measure to improve the situation on the ground. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that Britain would provide the major part of a new battle group within KFOR of 400 troops to help secure part of the Kosovo border with Macedonia. That commitment by Britain has been well received in Macedonia.

Over the past two years, we have turned the tide against the nationalists who took to violence in pursuit of a Greater Serbia or a Greater Croatia. We must now be equally firm against the extremists who are using terror in pursuit of a Greater Albania. The period in which borders in the Balkans were redrawn in blood is over and will not be allowed to return.

Mr. Bradshaw

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that statement and warmly welcome the constructive role being played by Britain in securing the Macedonia-Kosovo border, but will he make it absolutely plain to all the protagonists in the region that nationalism and attempts to redraw borders will not be tolerated by the international community? Will he do all that he can, working with his partners, to ensure that there is a just and peaceful settlement in Macedonia?

Mr. Cook

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. When the European Council met in Stockholm, it received President Trajkovski, who addressed us. In our conclusion in the declaration at the end of that meeting, the European Union affirmed its commitment to the sovereignty of Macedonia and to its territorial integrity. We want the countries of the Balkans to continue on their path towards greater association and integration with the European Union, but that can be done only under the principles of the European Union, which involve respect for borders and an acceptance that borders can never be changed by force.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

We welcome the decision to send an extra British contingent to the frontier. British troops are particularly well suited and well trained for such work, and it is essential that the border between Kosovo and Macedonia should be properly sealed to prevent terrorists from coming across. There must be resolute support for the Government of Macedonia, who are democratic, legitimate, include Albanian parties and have endeavoured to create a genuinely multi-ethnic society.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we should also be very clear that there can be no question of a Greater Kosovo or a Greater Albania? As he has just suggested, moving the borders would risk the whole structure of the western Balkans unravelling. However, should we not also be clear that there can be no question of Kosovo being denied the right of eventual self-determination? What is the Government's position on the final status of Kosovo?

Of course, in return for a commitment to self-determination, the Kosovar Albanian leadership must do everything in its power to quell the terrorist activities of Albanian terrorists in Macedonia, but does the Foreign Secretary not agree that there is a connection between vacillation over Kosovo's long-term status and the recent terrorist activity? There has been a lamentable lack of clarity and long-term vision, and mixed messages from the west have contributed to today's crisis.

When did the Macedonian Government approach the British Government about the lack of border control between Macedonia and Kosovo? What representations did the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence make to their NATO counterparts? Why was there not earlier decisive action to step up the border controls? Did not the vacillation over the buffer zones encourage the terrorists to believe that the west was not serious about supporting the Macedonian Government?

Is not the key lesson that political leaders have to stay on the case after the television cameras have moved away? After the bombing in Kosovo was over and the victory laps were completed, there vas still a problem to be dealt with. Five years after the Dayton peace accord was signed, Bosnia-Herzegovina bears little resemblance to what Dayton envisaged. There are two states, two Governments, three armies and three police forces there. Is it surprising that Macedonian Albanians believe that the door to self-government is open when the west has vacillated over requiring the leaders of Republika Srpska to conform to Dayton?

The message from the west should be utterly unequivocal: existing borders should be preserved; peace accords should be honoured and the west will not accept anything less. We should say what we mean, without vacillation or equivocation, and it should be understood that we mean what we say.

Mr. Cook

I welcome the opening two sentences of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks and will convey to KFOR and the British troops his support for, and confidence in, their deployment to the border.

There are two vast contradictions in what the right hon. Gentleman just said. The first is that it is a bit rich for the Conservative spokesman to complain of vacillation when, for years in Bosnia, the Conservative Government appeased Milosevic and did not take resolute action.

Mr. Maude

You agreed with the policy.

Mr. Cook

I did not agree with the policy; I happen to remember because I was the Opposition spokesman at the time.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) must allow the Foreign Secretary to reply.

Mr. Cook

If the right hon. Gentleman wants a contrast—

Mr. Maude


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have given the right hon. Gentleman an instruction.

Mr. Cook

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. If the right hon. Gentleman wants a contrast, it is the contrast between the vigorous and resolute action that we took in Kosovo to halt ethnic cleansing and the tolerance, under a Conservative Government, of ethnic cleansing for years in Bosnia.

On support for the Macedonia Government, I agree absolutely with the right hon. Gentleman. The Government of Macedonia are under pressure at present and they require our solidarity and support. That is why at Stockholm and since we have sent messages of solidarity and support to them. The last message that the Government of Macedonia want to hear at present is the call for the independence of Kosovo that has just been made by the right hon. Gentleman. If he really believes that that is welcome in Skopje, he has no comprehension whatever of Balkan politics.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What are the rules of engagement under which British troops could open fire?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raised that question yesterday with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and asked him to place the document in the Library. The rules of engagement is a military document, and it is not customary to make it public. It is not helpful to British troops for others to know the point at which they will open fire and, therefore, the point up to which they can go before fire is opened. It is very much in the interests of British troops that we preserve the discretion of that document.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

May I offer my support to the Government in the policy outlined by the Foreign Secretary? In circumstances where all the gains so painfully achieved in the Balkans over the past 10 years have been put at risk, will he continue to impress on the Macedonian Government the need for their forces to exercise restraint and self-discipline, and not to fall into the pattern of revenge that we have so often seen in the Balkans during those 10 years?

Will the right hon. Gentleman say to the Macedonian Government that having apparently won a military victory, now is the time for them, from that position of strength, to launch a political initiative designed to ensure the recognition, both in theory and in practice, of the human rights of all Macedonian citizens? Finally, will he remind the Macedonian Government that those who aspire to membership of the European Union have to satisfy the EU that they have achieved the highest standards of recognition of human rights before their membership application stands any chance of success?

Mr. Cook

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a number of valid points. I entirely agree with him on the importance of the Macedonian army remaining disciplined, focused and proportionate in its response. I echo the welcome given by Lord Robertson in Skopje late last night for the fact that the recent action was firm and restrained. We should remember that 40 per cent. of the Macedonian army is Albanian.

I agree entirely with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's observation about the need now for a move from a position of strength. I can well understand the reluctance to take a political initiative if it is seen as a concession to terrorists, but after the success of this weekend's action and the retreat of the terrorists, the Macedonian Government can now take such steps from a position of strength and should do so. The terrorists want to undermine multi-ethnic Macedonia; we must make sure that they are defeated and that we defeat also their poisonous lie that Albanian and Slav cannot live together in the same country in peace.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

It is surely right and in our national interest to support the democratic Government of Macedonia, who have been a beacon in a highly difficult region. As my right hon. Friend said, there is the military track and the political track. What particular help is he prepared to give the Macedonian Government in addressing the legitimate grievances of the Albanian minority? What does he have in mind? Would it not be best if a Foreign Office Minister took our clear message to the Macedonian Government, who are now, as the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) said, in a position of strength?

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to say that we are already heavily engaged in helping the Macedonian Government in practical ways. The United Kingdom has committed £500,000 to help to set up the new Albanian university in Tetevo, which should open for business this coming autumn. Obviously, we will look sympathetically at other projects.

I was in touch only yesterday with the Foreign Minister of Macedonia. I met him last Friday, and I will continue to keep in close contact with him. The next major appointment will be in two weeks, when he and other representatives of the Government will come to Brussels to sign the stabilisation agreement with the European Union. We have invited the members of the Government to bring with them Albanian representatives from the Parliament and the Government to demonstrate our support for the multi-ethnic character of Macedonia.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

What help will the British Government give the Macedonian Government in relation to the population census in that country, which is planned for next month? Will American troops be playing a greater role in policing the Kosovo-Macedonia border?

Mr. Cook

Much of the border is in the American sector. The Americans are already involved in policing that border and our troops will work closely with the local US commander when they get there. We discussed the census at Stockholm and I put it to the Commission that we should be willing to provide European Union observers because the Albanian community is keen for it to have an international legitimacy.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

May I support everything that my right hon. Friend said today and in Stockholm? I also agree with his condemnation of the demand by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) that we should show some support for the independence of Kosovo. It is a fragile state in which a small group of extremists on the border is trying to incite discontent among the minority population in Macedonia. The last thing they need to hear is that Members of this House have been talking about independence. There is a long way to go in Kosovo. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman does not know that his party involved others in helping to build a democracy there.

Mr. Cook

It is very important that no one speaks as if the extremists who have carried out the insurgency in Macedonia have the backing of the wider Albanian community. Their action has been condemned by the Albanian political leaders in Macedonia, the Kosovo leaders in Pristina and the Albanian Government. They represent themselves, not the wider community.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend's comments on democracy in the region. We are pushing for the United Nations to hold Kosovo-wide elections to a constituent Assembly later this year. I hope that those will proceed and that we will be able to embark on a dialogue with legitimate elected leaders who have behind them the authority of the ballot box, not that of the bullet. It is wrong for any western politician to prejudge that dialogue.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

May I express the hope that the Foreign Secretary has studied the characteristically pungent remarks of David Lloyd George about the difficulty of influencing events in Macedonia and the experiences of the British Salonika expedition? Does he agree that the most cursory glance at the map shows that it would require tens of thousands of troops to close the Macedonian frontier to the countries that surround it? Will he also recognise that his remarks about the need to make further concessions to the Albanian minority in Macedonia will be badly received by the majority in that country who remember that almost identical language prefaced the British Government's decision to pursue policies that have replaced Serb rule with Albanian rule in Kosovo?

Mr. Cook

I have to be candid and confess that I have not had time in the past week to consult David Lloyd George on the situation in Macedonia. I have been trying to address the problems of this century, not those of a century ago. However, I rebut what the hon. Gentleman said. We should not regard a modern pluralist democracy in Macedonia as a concession. Indeed, better and stronger local government would benefit the people of both communities in that country.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South )

Will the Secretary of State have discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence to establish what resources, there are in both Departments to fly out as many Conservative Members as possible to the Balkans to enhance their understanding of the area? Perhaps on that visit, they could discover what the consequences of a referendum for self-determination—independence—would be for the region. If we think that we have had problems up to now, I suspect that independence for Kosovo in the foreseeable future would have catastrophic results.

The Defence Committee visited the units that are being sent to police part of the border. Their professionalism and commitment are outstanding. Does my right hon. Friend agree that most hon. Members, at least on the Labour Benches and, I hope. on the Conservative Benches, realise that the insertion of British troops to prevent people travelling from Kosovo to cause mischief in Macedonia is helpful, not destructive, to security in that troubled part of the world?

Mr. Cook

I absolutely endorse the last part of my right hon. Friend's observations. One of the strengths that our trained and equipped forces will bring to the border is a capacity for operating at night, which is the time when the terrorists try to move.

I am strongly in favour of an educational expedition of the sort that my right hon. Friend outlined. However, in my many conversations with Macedonian Ministers over the past five days, none of them has put in a plea that we should send them more Tory MPs.

Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Is it not as well to recognise that while it is a good thing that British forces should be helping to "seal" the Schar Planina range and the border between Kosovo and Albania, in reality that will be impossible? We have put 20,000 troops in Northern Ireland for 25 years, but we could not stop bombs being let off in London. We are talking of a border that is extremely difficult to police. We must do our best, but we should not promise that we can stop exfiltration of terrorism from Kosovo, not least because even if we could do a good job on that border, it would still be possible to pass through the Albanian border between the south of Kosovo and Lake Ochrid, which is already happening.

Is it not a tragic paradox that no one throughout the history of the Macedonian state has done more to address the issue of Albanian minority rights than the Government of President Trajkovski? It would be of no difficulty to him to use what is, in my view, probably a fairly limited military victory as a position of strength from which to bargain to return to his policy of addressing Albanian rights, and therefore to turn from the gun to the political plain.

Mr. Cook

First, may I correct the right hon. Gentleman? We do not use the term "seal" the border for the very reason that the right hon. Gentleman has stated. We can do much more to secure the border, but we are not pretending that in a difficult terrain we shall be 100 per cent. effective. However, that does not undermine the importance of doing what we can to prevent movements, as we have already, and we can do more. For instance, we can prevent the movement of heavy weaponry—that is certainly a feasible objective. We will enhance liaison with the Macedonian military intelligence to ensure that we co-operate as partners.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct in what he says about the Government of President Trajkovski. In my intervention at Stockholm, I said that one of the reasons for his having our support is the steps that he has taken towards providing a stable and secure multi-ethnic society in Macedonia. The support of Europe will continue to be strong so long as he continues in that direction.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

I was in Kosovo last week, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee. I saw what was happening. I find it difficult to control my anger having heard the irresponsible utterances of the Opposition spokesman, who seeks to be in a Conservative Government. May I—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should address his remarks to the matters for which the Foreign Secretary has responsibility.

Mr. Hood

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend—the person who is in charge of the Foreign Office—that to give any sympathy to a campaign for independence in Kosovo is the quickest way to inflame another Balkan war. Those who give such sympathy are acting irresponsibly and threatening the lives of British soldiers who are keeping the peace. I hope that my right hon. Friend will condemn that approach, because I have heard support for terrorism in Kosovo from the spokesman on the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend speaks from the experience of his visit. I have already condemned what I believe to be an unhelpful and irresponsible call for independence in Kosovo, but I am happy to do so again. My hon. Friend is right to remind us all that there are several thousand British troops in Kosovo who have to live with the consequences.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that in facing the incredibly difficult ethnic mix, the tensions and the prospective explosive situation in the Balkans, an element that has not been mentioned is the amazingly high level of criminality? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it would be appropriate for the Government to do all that they can to assist all local Governments to have available to them the necessary mechanisms of law and order? There is a mix between ethnic nationalism and banditry and crime of every sort.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair and important point. A high priority of our policy on Kosovo and the wider region is to work with our European partners to tackle the organised crime that threatens to disfigure the region. That is why, in the early days after the liberation of Kosovo, we sent in a police contingent to look particularly at criminal investigation. We shall continue to do all that we can to make sure that we tackle crime. The tragedy is that organised crime in the region and the drugs trade have a close overlap with the terrorist extremists whom we have seen in action in the past week.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement this afternoon, especially his emphasis on seeking long-term stability in the region once we have dealt with the conflict in Macedonia. Will he express his view on the pending referendum in Montenegro, the fact that the Albanian minority will almost certainly vote for independence—but for the wrong reason—and the impact that that will have on the conflict in Macedonia? Does he agree that the secret is not the ridiculous suggestion from the Opposition, but the creation anchors of stability in Serbia and Albania, using Croatia as a model?

Mr. Cook

We have repeatedly urged on President Djukanovic the importance of any new constitutional arrangement between Montenegro and Serbia being achieved by mutual agreement, dialogue and negotiation. We have also stressed that a narrow majority in a referendum for independence is not what is required for such a major constitutional change; that would require a settled consensus of the population.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

The Foreign Secretary is much better informed than the British public. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] He is a very wise man. Does he feel that the public may be a bit confused? Previously, the British Government went to war on behalf of Albanian self-determination in Kosovo-[Interruption.] No, it is true. Now, when another group of Albanians, admittedly rather nastier than the other lot, want to go to war for their own self-determination, they are condemned. Are the Government going to have a consistent policy and are they going to stand up for self-determination, wherever it occurs.

Mr. Cook

I know that Conservative Members are given to collective amnesia about what happened before 1997, but that is a remarkable piece of amnesia about something that happened only two years ago. We did not go to war on self-determination. We went into the conflict in Kosovo to halt a major humanitarian catastrophe, triggered by the systematic and brutal ethnic cleansing by President Milosevic. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, who did not support us at the time, still argues about whether we were right to do so.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement this afternoon. Our forces, as well as our Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ministry of Defence police officers, are doing a marvellous job in Kosovo. However, is there any truth in the claim in The Scotsman this morning that around 20 counter-insurgency specialists from the Royal Marines of the Arbroath-based 45 Commando will be sent to Macedonia"? If there is, is the specialists' function to train units of the Macedonian army? Will my right hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence give an assurance that they will be adequately equipped and have sufficient backing to do the job?

Mr. Cook

It is the case that we have recently dispatched a 10-officer recce team to Macedonia to advise us on how we can best support the army of Macedonia by providing advice, training and equipment. It has just submitted a report, which we are considering. We are not currently contemplating the dispatch of any further team, but if a case was made for a way in which we could be of assistance, it would be responsible of us to respond to that. Equally importantly, we should be responsible for safeguarding the security and safety of any troops whom we send.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

As political initiative and diplomacy will be required to resolve the conflict, the number of troops is understandably small and ambitions for them are limited. Can the Foreign Secretary tell us who is in charge? Is it NATO, the European Union or the British Government?

Mr. Cook

The commander of KFOR is appointed by NATO and accountable to NATO. I do wish that, now and again, the right hon. Gentleman would address a serious issue under discussion, rather than trying to score his petty European points.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

I was in Kosovo in January this year. One of the many things that I learned there was that the main food supplies, as well as aid and other goods, come into Kosovo through Macedonia. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that those routes will remain open or, if that cannot be guaranteed, that contingency plans are in place to ensure food supplies?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of the strategic routes. It follows from that that there would be great difficulty in providing any alternative route in. That is one of the reasons why it is so important that we support the Government of Macedonia—not just because they are democratic and multi-ethnic, but because they have been of great support to KFOR in Kosovo. We have a debt of honour to them, and we should discharge it by making sure that we give Macedonia all the help that we can.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

On the same visit under the armed forces parliamentary scheme, many of us were surprised to learn that the Americans were not policing their own border. We were told that they did not have the type of troops that would normally go out on their own and be exposed in that way. Following America's announcement that it is taking troops out of its sector, can the Foreign Secretary tell us why we are sending British troops in? Is it because only British troops are willing to put their lives at risk? Are not some of the problems of overstretch of our forces caused by the fact that whenever there is a difficult issue to be dealt with, that must be done by British troops, rather than by our allies?

Mr. Cook

On overstretch, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the 300 troops that we are supplying for the border are from our present contingent to KFOR. They are not coming from any additional deployment to KFOR, although we have not ruled that out, should it be required by the commanders on the ground. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the position, broadly, in KFOR would be much easier if other nations showed the same flexibility as we did and were also willing to accept orders from ComFOR when he requires help in particular areas. Such a step by others would greatly enhance the capability, the achievements and the effectiveness of KFOR.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Does not the international community owe a great debt to Macedonia? Would it not send a valuable signal to the Government in Macedonia, who are trying to deal with infiltration through a border that my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown) described as very permeable, if we considered re-activating UNPREDEP, perhaps with a different mandate and perhaps extending its operation around Tetevo and Gostivar, and showing that we are committed to the integrity of the Macedonian border?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about our debt to Macedonia. I have already discussed that. At present, there is no active proposal in the United Nations for a restoration of UNPREDEP. That was ended following the Chinese veto after Macedonia recognised Taiwan, and there would be internal United Nations problems in restoring it. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing all that we can to seal our side of the border, and we are working with the Macedonian military to make sure that it can secure its side of the border.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Foreign Secretary will remember the warnings that he received in 1999 that, as a product of the Government's diplomatic and military strategy, NATO and British forces would in the end be involved in opposing an ethnic Albanian insurgency. Is that what has happened?

Mr. Cook

At present we are making sure that the majority of the Albanian community in Kosovo can have the peaceful life that those people want, in their own society, free from the shadow of the terrorist, and free from the shadow of President Milosevic and the thugs with whom he was terrorising Kosovo two years ago. If the hon. Gentleman imagines that Macedonia would be any more stable now if we had allowed Macedonia to continue to be the host to half a million refugees from Kosovo, he has no grasp of reality. Macedonia is much more stable now than if we had not taken the action that we took to enable those people to go back to Kosovo.