HL Deb 28 October 1998 vol 593 cc1907-10

2.44 p.m.

Viscount Waverley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their reaction to the speech by the President of Kazakhstan on 30th September to the people of that country and what practical measures they could support in relation to that speech.

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

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government welcome President Nazarbaev's public commitment to democratic, economic and civil reform in Kazakhstan. We note that presidential elections have now been called for January 1999. We hope that they will be free and fair. We welcome the fact that the Kazakh authorities plan to invite international observers. We expect to co-operate with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in monitoring the elections.

The United Kingdom supports Kazakhstan's reform efforts, for example, through the Department for International Development's Know-How Fund. We also support multilateral efforts to strengthen civil society in Kazakhstan through the activities of the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, Kazakhstan, together with all countries in central Asia, is set to become extremely important to this country. I welcome the Minister's support for the appointment of election monitors to review the process. Will she undertake to look at the matter again in order to ensure that there is sufficient ECGD coverage to accommodate Britain's business community and determine whether British specialists can be mobilised to assist in two of the world's grimmest social and environmental disasters, that of the Aral Sea and the Semipalantinsk nuclear testing region?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for his welcome of my Answer. The Foreign Secretary has said that this part of the world represents an important development. He made that point in the context of the comprehensive spending review. The noble Viscount is right in saying that trade is a key component of our relationship with Kazakhstan. In 1997, our exports increased by 60 per cent. over the previous year to some £54 million. Exports in 1998 have already exceeded £60 million, so we hope that the upward trend will continue as the Caspian energy sector develops. Export Credits Guarantee Department cover is available and the exposure ceiling was doubled last year. I hope that that is encouraging.

The noble Viscount raised important questions about the Aral Sea. The Department for International Development and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have been following the disastrous environmental impact of the drying up of the Aral Sea. Two years ago they jointly funded a project in support of the World Bank's Aral Sea programme and more recently funded a self-standing project in Uzbekistan. I hope that the noble Viscount understands that Her Majesty's Government are taking an active role in both those important issues.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's response to the noble Viscount's important Question. The words "practical measures" appear in the Question and my noble friend referred to exports. However, does she agree that if Kazakhstan and similar countries are to prosper both economically and democratically they should be able to export? Therefore, countries such as ours and those in the European Union should not impose restraints on trade. Trade is good for their welfare and it is certainly good for their democracy.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Peston. The issues were raised by the Minister of State, my honourable friend Miss Quin, when she visited Kazakhstan from 6th to 9th October. She made a keynote address to those attending the Kazakhstan international oil and gas exhibition in which she underlined the importance which the United Kingdom attaches to Kazakhstan as a trading partner.

Moreover, we have told the Government of Kazakhstan that they need to create the right conditions to encourage foreign investment; notably, a fair and transparent legal regime. A few weeks ago, my honourable friend the Minister for Trade, Mr. Wilson, wrote to the chairman of the State Investment Committee about some of the specific problems faced by United Kingdom companies in Kazakhstan.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that last year members of the Kazakhstan Parliament visited the Inter-Parliamentary Union of this Parliament and that they were all extremely friendly and nice?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that they were extremely friendly and nice and I hope that such exchanges will continue. The Kazakhstan record on democracy in the seven years since independence has been relatively good. However, it is not entirely unblemished. There have been concerns about the conduct of elections and referenda. Opposition parties are permitted. However, there are reports of opposition figures being harassed. I am pleased to receive the report from the noble Baroness, but "friendly and nice" must be reinforced by proper respect for democracy.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I preface my question by declaring that in my capacity as managing director of the Independent Power Corporation, with interests in Kazakhstan, I have responded in writing to the president's speech, as requested by the Kazakh Government. In his address, the President of Kazakhstan called political parties, the basic building blocks of democracy". What support do the Government envisage lending to Kazakhstan in relation to the president's call for outside assistance to educate and train political parties in time for next year's national elections?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the support that the Government are giving is largely through the EU and the OSCE. The European Union programme of technical assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States supports reforms in the sectors of agriculture and agro-industry, structural and institutional reform, and infrastructure development. That includes support for the development of the Kazakh civil service, rural credit improvement and assistance in the fields of privatisation, commercial banking and the development of small and medium-sized enterprises.

The OSCE has recently decided to open a mission in Kazakhstan as part of a strategy to enhance its general presence in central Europe. It is hoped that through those fields it will be possible to concentrate on activities including election procedures, legislative reform, judicial reform and the very important development of civil society.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that Her Majesty's Government are sincere in their pursuance of the elimination of nuclear weapons?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Government make clear in all their bilateral relationships that they are indeed sincere in their pursuance of the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, in view of the Minister's previous answer, is she aware that some of the non-governmental organisations working in Kazakhstan under the European democracy programme are unable to continue their work because of the failure to resolve a problem in relation to the European Human Rights Foundation which was given a contract to continue such work but the contract has still not been concluded after some six months? Will she look into that matter and ask her right honourable friend to raise the issue with the European Commission so that that vital democracy-building work in countries like Kazakhstan can go ahead?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am very happy to look into the question, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, suggests. We look forward to the early establishment of an OSCE office in Kazakhstan. We believe that establishing such an office will help to strengthen civil society and will consolidate democratic change in Kazakhstan.

I should make clear that our embassy constantly monitors the progress of the central Asian states and the progress they are making in the field of democratic and civil reform. We and our EU partners will continue to raise our concerns if we feel that all the respective governments—and that obviously includes the Government of Kazakhstan—are not meeting any of their international obligations in that respect.