HL Deb 21 April 1998 vol 588 cc1023-4
The Earl of Carlisle

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures they are taking, following the President of Estonia's visit to the United Kingdom in February, to strengthen the democratic institutions of the Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the United Kingdom has been a strong supporter of the Baltic states' democratic development since they regained their independence in 1991. Democratic institutions are well-established in all three countries. All three enjoy free and fair elections and free media. Public administration, policing and the administration of justice are improving. The UK's continuing work in this field includes advice on improvements in the quality of public administration, collaboration between Strathclyde police and local police forces on community policing techniques, and, in Lithuania, a new project on citizens' advice bureaux.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her most promising reply. However, does the noble Baroness not view with concern the Russian Federation's recent statement that it would take economic measures against the independent Republic of Latvia if it did not amend its citizenship laws? Do Her Majesty's Government believe that, during the next two months of the presidency of the EU, they could do a little more to assist the Republic of Latvia to improve its processes in order to expedite the applications of the minorities for full citizenship?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the OSCE, the Council of Europe and other international observers have judged Russian claims of human rights abuses in the Baltic states to be unfounded. The UK supports the work of the OSCE monitoring missions in Estonia and Latvia. Along with EU partners, the UK encourages the integration of Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia. However, in Latvia, non-citizens are not allowed to vote in either local or national elections. We are encouraging the Latvian Government, and, indeed, the Estonian Government, who also do not allow non-citizens to vote in national elections, to address this issue as part of the process of integration of non-citizens in those countries.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, given the fact that the Foreign Secretary has said that the main concern of the British presidency will be to get the negotiations on the enlargement of Europe off to a flying start, what lead are the Government taking to ensure that other European Union member states are equally committed to the enlargement process as well as providing the financial assistance necessary to the Baltic states, especially in view of Spain's threat to block the whole process if its special grants from the Cohesion Fund are stopped to help applicant countries?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the accession negotiations with the applicant countries—Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Cyprus—have already begun. The Commission's assessment about Latvia and Lithuania is that there is still a great deal more progress to be made on those fronts. The noble Lord may know that when his noble friend asked a similar question a few weeks ago I said that the UK Government were indeed leading by example in the provision of the Know-How Fund, which is providing training and negotiation courses for civil servants, judges and others, and have given a great deal of money to that process—some £85 million in the past year or so. Therefore, we are leading by example and encouraging our European partners to follow that example.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, in her first Answer, the Minister made no reference to the high commissioner for national minorities. However, has he not played a significant role in trying to solve the problem of Russian minorities in the Baltic states and should he not be given due credit in that respect? Further, does the Minister agree that the work of the high commissioner for national minorities does not receive the priority that it should be given? Therefore, during our presidency, should we not work to ensure that that work is highlighted by all OSCE states?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I believe I indicated earlier, there is a difference of opinion about the real nature of the problem of Russian minorities, especially in Latvia. Perhaps I may reiterate to the noble Lord that the fact is that the OSCE, the Council of Europe and, indeed, other international observers think that some of the Russian claims about human rights abuses in the Baltic states are unfounded. There are undoubtedly some problems in relation to voting which I have outlined to the House. The EU has begun a dialogue with the Estonian and Latvian authorities to discuss practical means of overcoming those problems.

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