HL Deb 16 January 1991 vol 524 cc1174-80

3.38 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat the Answer which has been given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to a Private Notice Question in another place. The Answer is as follows:

"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 12th January. We strongly oppose the use of coercion against elected assemblies in the Baltic states. The European Community 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. The Government are reviewing their bilateral co-operation with the Soviet Union. We are also raising the rights of the Lithuanians at the two CSCE meetings, one in Vienna and one at Valletta, on the peaceful settlement of disputes. The Paris Charter, which we agreed at the CSCE summit last year, extends the scope of Soviet obligations to the Lithuanians.

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

My Lords, that concludes the Answer.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Earl for repeating the Answer to the Private Notice Question. Recent events in Lithuania have been the cause of great regret and distress to all of us on this side of the House. We deplore the outbreak of violence which resulted in the death of 14 people on 12th January. I believe that most, if not all, of us in the House have admired and supported the developments towards democratisation in the Soviet Union since President Gorbachev assumed office. The movement towards freedom in Eastern Europe, including the creation of a united Germany, is due to his initiatives. We cannot forget that fact. Indeed, it is that fact which makes recent events in the Baltic states, and especially in Lithuania, very disturbing and difficult to understand, although we can do no more than deplore them.

We understand that, in a union which contains as many diverse nationalities as the Soviet Union, a loosening of centralisation releases forces such as nationalism which were previously controlled and disciplined. We appeal to President Gorbachev to do everything in his power to settle these differences through consultation and negotiation. There is no doubting the fact that a policy of repression reminiscent of the Stalinist period would be totally unacceptable to us and to the international community. It would set the clock back many years.

Can the noble Earl say whether the Government have any plans to seek a meeting with President Gorbachev, perhaps in concert with our partners in the European Community, before any economic pressures are applied to the Soviet Union? Would it not be better to talk now rather than later?

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Earl for repeating the Answer given by his right honourable friend in another place. I agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos. I also confirm the agreement of these Benches with the condemnation of the use of force expressed by the Government. I shall reiterate what I said yesterday. I believe that the events in the Baltic states are all too reminiscent of those which took place in Hungary at the time of the Suez crisis. It is essential that we should not, in concentrating upon the dramatic and tragic events which seem likely to take place in the Gulf, allow ourselves to neglect the equally important events which may occur in the Baltic states. We had such high hopes that the liberation of Eastern Europe would be followed by the liberation of those countries.

I am delighted to hear that the Government have co-ordinated their policy with that of the European Community. However, the noble Earl did not mention or make any reference to the United States of America, which, under the present circumstances, appears to have adopted what could be described as a somewhat "soft" attitude to the events which are taking place in the area. I should like to know whether the noble Earl has any comment to make upon that aspect of the situation.

I hope the Government will keep in close touch with the Polish Government on this matter. Poland has intimate historical and geographical ties with Lithuania and may be faced with a severe problem of refugees. That is certainly something about which Poland has been anxious in the past. In the event of such a problem occurring, I believe that the European Community should offer assistance.

I do not believe that the events which have taken place in Lithuania can be separated from what may happen in Estonia and in Latvia. Any conversations held with Mr. Gorbachev, such as those proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, should take into account the threats which have been made to those countries whose position and status are identical.

It is important that we do not raise expectations which we cannot fulfil in that part of the world. But, nonetheless, the European Community has very substantial economic and political leverage. I believe that we should exercise that leverage. We should not be frightened to do so, because it may be that by so doing we shall strengthen rather than weaken the hand of Mr. Gorbachev.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful for the remarks made by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. I am grateful also for the support from their Benches. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, summarised the matter very well when he said that we had heard the news with regret and great distress. I agree with him that a matter of this nature should be settled by consultation and negotiation, not by force.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked especially whether we had any plans to meet Mr. Gorbachev. We have no immediate plans to do so. However, we are keeping the situation under careful review. At a moment such as this, it is right not to suspend visits because they are perhaps the best means of keeping communication going and getting our point of view across.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, was somewhat concerned about what he thought to be a rather weak US reply to the situation. I take issue with him on that view. The United States is very firm on the matter and has made a strong declaration in this respect. We are undertaking extensive discussions with the US both in NATO and by way of the CSCE meetings, as the US is a member of both those organisations. I agree with the noble Lord's assertion that our concern is not only with Lithuania; all the Baltic states are important.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it has been publicly stated that Russian troops opened fire in Vilnius without instructions from President Gorbachev? Is he able to confirm that statement? Can he also confirm that these events suggest that the Russian Army is securing an ascendency over President Gorbachev which obviously has considerable implications? Further, in those circumstances, is it not very clear that we should be very unwise in the name of a peace dividend, or anything of that nature, to cut our own armed forces at this time?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I too have heard, seen and looked at the reports which have been issued. I cannot give my noble friend the confirmation he seeks because the position is not clear on the question of who was responsible for the latest actions and under whose orders they were taken. The internal political situation is clearly precarious, but that is something which we are watching with great care.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, can the noble Earl confirm that it remains the policy of Her Majesty's Government not to recognise Stalin's annexation of the Baltic states in 1940 and that accordingly we regard them as independent states and in no way connected with the other republics of the Soviet Union? If that is the case, do we not, therefore, have an international obligation towards them which we do not have in respect of the other republics of the Soviet Union? In those circumstances, surely we have a duty to support the appeal of the Lithuanian Government to refer the matter to the United Nations.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, raises an important point. Perhaps I may make the legal position absolutely clear. We have never recognised the incorporation of the Baltic states into the USSR. Therefore, we fully support the right of the Baltic people to determine their own future.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind the fact that in accepting the Government's Answer to the Private Notice Question we also support him in his rejection of the unnecessary criticism which seemed to arise in the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter? I do not believe that there are any grounds at present to be critical of the American attitude to these recent events.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. However, the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, was perfectly entitled to raise the issue if there was any doubt in his mind.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, while I fully support what the noble Earl said in condemning the action of the Russian troops, I should like to urge a little caution in the matter. I do not believe that the Government have as yet gone past that point. Is it not in the interest of both Britain and Europe that we should not only support the right of the Lithuanian people to determine their own future and to secure their own human rights but that we should also be working to develop a pacific and co-operative Soviet Union? In consideration of the great struggles which it is now undergoing, and the convulsions which it is now suffering, I urge the Government to be rather chary before they cut off aid to that country. I believe that to do so would not be in our best interests.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I have listened with very great care to the words of the noble Lord, who speaks from great experience. I shall draw them specifically to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. It is quite right that we consider the position very carefully, and it was rightly discussed by the European Community Foreign Ministers; but no decision has yet been taken.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, I ask the noble Lord to pay special attention to my noble friend's remarks. It has been apparent to all noble Lords who have followed the situation in the Soviet Union that as soon as freed DM was about to appear, there was bound to be the most awful upheaval. That is the fate of every tyranny when it tries to become liberal. A word of sympathy for Mr. Gorbachev is called for. I believe he did not abandon his intentions when he brought out these great reforms, and I hope that we shall not cut off aid to the Soviet Union, which would make the danger even greater than it is now.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord has said about the extremely difficult situation in the Soviet Union. The action was tragic and unacceptable, and we are watching the situation with great care.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can the Minister give any information, if he has it, as to what is going on in the United Nations now in this context, and what are the likely positions?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the important point is that we agreed action to resolve and clarify the matter. Although this could be raised at the United Nations, it would be far better if it were dealt with within the normal negotiation which we have urged because it is a problem concerning a specific part of the area. I hope that with clarification and a better control now being indicated (because there is a commission appointed by President Gorbachev that is reporting back to Moscow today after its visit to Lithuania) the position will be clarified.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, further to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, when the noble Earl said that he had read the reports, of course we have all read the reports. But the noble Earl has the benefit of having reports from our diplomatic mission in Moscow. Can he tell the House that our diplomats in Moscow will be following the situation very closely, and that they will give him information which he can bring back to the House on the very important point of whether President Gorbachev is responsible for giving the order for violence, or whether he is not in control of the army and the violence is the army's responsibility? Surely that is essential to any consideration by the House of the developing situation in the Soviet Union.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, on the noble Lord's first point, I thought that I had answered that clearly. We are seeking every means through our own diplomatic staff and other channels to find out the exact situation and what happened, and I shall be happy to inform the House.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, bearing in mind that we have no diplomatic relations with any of the Baltic countries, can my noble friend say whether any other country is monitoring these matters, particularly perhaps Finland which is geographically fairly near to Estonia and other Baltic countries?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am sure that every country in the world is looking at the situation with very great care.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, as the British ambassador in Moscow has never been allowed to visit the Baltic states for fear of giving credence to the unjustified claim of the Soviet Union to own the Baltic states, is it not surely a matter for us to follow up the suggestion or the request of the Lithuanian Government to refer the matter to the United Nations? We regard the Baltic states as entirely independent nations which have been falsely occupied.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I made absolutely clear the legal position regarding Her Majesty's Government. I emphasise that what are required are substantive negotiations between Moscow and the Baltic authorities.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, I suggest to the noble Earl, with regard to his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, that the position is not exactly as the noble Lord has represented it in that we have recognised the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union de facto but not de jure. We should not forget that fact.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, who has great experience in these matters.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, I should like to ask the Leader of the House whether we should not be able to move quicker if the noble Earl who is replying for the Government initially answered the two or three Front Bench questioners, and for the rest made a general reply after all had spoken on the matter, as used to be the practice in the past? The noble Lord, Lord Denham, will know that that used to be the custom in the past. He might consider it.

Lord Denham

My Lords, if I might just intervene on this point, the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, will remember that the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party make their initial replies to a Statement, whereupon my noble friend on the Front Bench makes his initial reply, and after that individual questions are answered individually. This has always been so in this House for as long as I can remember.

Lord Kagan

My Lords, your Lordships must not forget that it was Stalin who put Lithuania into a cage; and it was Mr. Gorbachev who opened the door, albeit gradually. I met Mr. Gorbachev when he came here six years ago, and I told him that I was born in Vilna. He corrected me and said "Vilnius", which was a nationalist name. That was rather significant.

The problem of releasing the pressures of 70 years of tyranny are not dissimilar to bringing a man back from the depths of the ocean in a diving bell without gradual deceleration of pressure. It is very difficult for the Lithuanian-elected Government to talk to the Russians without everybody breathing down their necks. For 50 years Lithuania was not allowed to create a tradition in foreign policy. It was very fortunate that various members, including Mrs. Prunskiene, the previous Prime Minister, were free to travel abroad. She was fortunate to be seen by Mrs. Thatcher, by the President of the United States; and they listened to her. Mrs. Prunskiene received advice. She followed that advice Recently, however, she was removed from office and resigned. That created a difficult situation.

Would it not be helpful to see as many of the Lithuanian representatives here, listen to them, and quietly advise them and not leave them stranded in Moscow, having been induced to make demands which Gorbachev might want but be unable to meet? May I ask the Minister who would be the person who followed Gorbachev, and would that situation be better?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I agree that the situation is difficult and complicated. As I have said, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State met the Lithuanian Foreign Minister this morning. As I also said in my initial reply, and subsequently, negotiation is the answer, not force.