HL Deb 02 February 1999 vol 596 cc1412-6

2.41 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there have been improvements in British-Russian relations since May 1997, and what plans they have for such relations in the medium term, including joint initiatives with other European countries.

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

My Lords, we co-operate on a wide range of issues bilaterally. Our G8 presidency in 1988 saw the first full inclusion of Russia in a G8 summit. Our EU presidency last year improved Russia's relations with the union. We have encouraged the development of NATO's relationship with Russia, including through the Permanent Joint Council. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have close working relations with their counterparts. In the medium term, we hope to agree a common strategy on Russia setting out EU policy, comprehensively, at the Cologne European Council in June.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Can she confirm that the following will be firmly on the diplomatic agenda for the next few years: Russian membership of NATO, nuclear safety in the Arctic Ocean, faster decommissioning of weapons of mass destruction and the reduction of Russia's external debts?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has covered the agenda pretty comprehensively. I assure him that all the issues that he has raised come up from time to time.

Perhaps I can say something briefly about debt. Any re-scheduling must, of course, depend on Russia reaching an agreed programme with the IMF. The key is Russia implementing rapid fiscal and economic reform. Her Majesty's Government are doing what they can through technical assistance, both bilaterally through the know-how fund and through TACIS.

On nuclear safety, concern about the disposal of nuclear weapons is very much on our agenda. There has been an exchange of experts from the UK to Russia and from Russia to the UK. There is also the question of nuclear waste in the polar peninsula and in north-west Russia. I give the noble Lord the assurance that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has taken steps to ensure that that does appear on the summit agenda for the EU/Russia summit this month. The Government's position overall on the decommissioning of nuclear weapons is a matter that I hope I do not have to remind your Lordships is very much on our agenda and was clearly stated in our election manifesto.

Lord Hunt of Wirral

My Lords, will the Minister include on the agenda the strongest possible representations to the authorities about the recent anti-Semitic remarks, in particular on 1st November, when a Member of the Russian Parliament, Albert Makashov, called for the extermination of the country's Jews and for the introduction of quotas on the immigration of members of the Jewish population? As that followed an attack on a Jewish cemetery, a bomb attack on a synagogue, and the failure of the Russian Parliament to condemn one of its Members for those remarks inciting racial hatred, will the Minister ensure that the view of many of us that those remarks are completely unacceptable is made clear to the authorities?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, I can give the noble Lord that assurance. We are very concerned about the anti-Semitism in Russia, and particularly about the comments made in the Duma not only by Mr. Makashov, but also by Mr. Ilyukhin. We are monitoring the situation closely. We welcome President Yeltsin's clear statement which condemned racial intolerance, and the consideration of charges against Makashov by the Interior Minister, Mr. Stepashin. Moreover, the British Ambassador in Moscow has also made representations to the chief of the presidential administration and to the leader of the Communist Party about the comments made by the Duma Members in question.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that one joint practical means of co-operation between the European nations and the Russian Federation would be to build a third bridge over the River Narva, thereby linking the Baltic states and Russia? That would also show to the world that Western Europe and, indeed, the Russian Federation are committed to peace and security within the Baltic states. Does the Minister realise that the Baltic states are currently unable to fund that valuable project alone?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, your Lordships have discussed the relationship between the Baltic states and the Russian Federation on a number of occasions. We expect Estonia and Latvia to implement the recommendation made by the OSCE High Commissioner, Max Van Der Stoel, on the rights of, for example, the Russian minorities. I am not entirely sure that pressing for a third bridge at the moment is necessarily one of the priorities that we would pinpoint, given that there are other matters with which we hope the Russian Federation will deal; notably, on the economic front and with regard to fiscal reorganisation. We believe that they are the real priorities at the moment.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, in view of the Minister's reference to better relations with the Russian Federation, are Her Majesty's Government satisfied that no further help is going from Russia to Iran in relation to Iran's nuclear ambitions?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have raised the question of the help that has allegedly been given by Russia to Iran. We are monitoring the position closely. We are very concerned about the movements of conventional weapons. Again, that is a matter that Ministers raise with their Russian counterparts from time to time.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there have been extremely disturbing reports of nuclear safety workers not being paid in Russia for up to six months? As we are trying to help financially, can the Minister say whether we are doing anything about that specific and extreme danger?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, there are disturbing reports about many different public servants in Russia not being paid. I refer not only to those working in the nuclear industry, but also to some members of the armed forces and to school teachers. Steps are being taken to try to safeguard the position with regard to nuclear weapons. We have been discussing with our counterparts in Europe the steps that we can take to help the Russians to make their nuclear installations safer. The payment of public servants in Russia is a very much more widespread problem. The Russian Federation must address it by having a far better organisation in the future in terms of economic stability and fiscal programmes.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, can the Minister say whether in the light of the improvements that she has described, Russia would now support military action by NATO against Serbia in the event of a failure by President Milosevic to comply with the demands of the contact group, given Russia's previous opposition to such use of force?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am unable to answer that question at the moment. As the noble Lord knows, we are concentrating now on trying to get all the parties to the discussions that are scheduled for this weekend. The Russians have been very supportive, as members of the contact group, in pressing for all sides to participate in the discussions. However, I cannot tell the noble Lord that the position has changed with regard to possible military intervention.

Lord Milverton

My Lords, will the Minister be able to encourage the Russians to agree that the Latvian Government have gone quite a long way, and are still doing so, in order to make the Russian minority in Latvia—a large minority—feel more at home? I have a slight interest in the matter because I am chairman of the all-party British Latvia Group. It ought to be acknowledged that the Latvian Government are continuing to go a long way towards improving the situation.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Russians have acknowledged that there has been progress in Latvia, which last year fulfilled the last two recommendations on citizenship of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. However, Russia still claims that there is discrimination in other areas, including on the proposed new language law. We recognise that work remains to be done in ensuring that the Latvian language and labour laws conform to international law. We support Mr. Van der Stoel's efforts to help bring that about.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied with the controls exercised by the Russians over exports of conventional weapons to the third world? Moreover, can she say whether there have been any discussions between the European Union and the Russian Federation about the harmonisation of codes of conduct between the two entities?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have been doing our best to discuss questions of nuclear weapons with our friends in Russia. However, at present we are particularly anxious to ensure that the Duma goes ahead with the agreement on Start II. That was meant to be ratified by the end of last year, but we hope that it will be done this spring. Our next priority is to secure agreement this year on the fissile material treaty, which we regard as the absolute priority in international terms on nuclear disarmament.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, if ways and means could be found of achieving full membership in NATO for Russia, does the Minister agree that many problems would be solved and that the alliance might become one which embraces the whole of the northern hemisphere?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the fact is that Russia has not applied for NATO membership. However, it would be foolish to say that Russia never will apply and that, in the right circumstances, such an application would not be considered seriously. Indeed, I believe that it would be. At present we are working hard to ensure that the Founding Act works properly, that the Permanent Joint Council works properly and that the military links we have forged with Russia can be made to work well.

We shall see the establishment of a NATO commission in Moscow over the course of the next few months. This incremental, step-by-step approach is a sensible one. It is one which is building confidence between Russia and NATO. The longer-term programme is one to which we shall look forward.