HL Deb 28 January 2002 vol 631 cc46-66

5.19 p.m.

Lord Rea rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will urge the Government of the Russian Federation to engage in further negotiation with the elected president of Chechnya to achieve a political rather than military solution to their ongoing conflict.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should begin by declaring an interest in that I visited Chechnya in 1995 on behalf of International Medical Relief during a lull in the first phase of the war. The safety of our group was guaranteed by General Asian Maskhadov, then commander of the Chechen forces. Last week, Ahmed Zakayev, the personal representative of Maskhadov, who since 1997 has been the elected president of Chechnya, visited London where he held a press conference and met junior officials of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—apparently much to the annoyance of the Russian Government who summoned our ambassador in Moscow to complain that we were supporting terrorists. Maskhadov's right-hand man also visited Strasbourg where he addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and Paris and Turin. That and other events—such as the Chechen foreign Minister's visit to the State Department in Washington—have helped to put the war in Chechnya back on to the political agenda.

From 11th September until today's article in the Guardian, very little has been reported in the press or other media on Chechnya's continuing guerrilla war, which shows no sign of abating. In fact, however, there is much disturbing news to report. Every day, I receive 10 to 20 items on Chechnya in my e-mail box from a website that scans the world press. On Saturday, a helicopter with five high-ranking officers "crashed". But almost every day a guerrilla attack in which several Russians and/or Chechens are killed is reported. Every few days, there is news of a mopping-up operation, consisting of house-to-house searches and arbitrary arrests. The detainees are usually taken to "filtration" centres where they are interrogated, usually under torture, and too often killed. Relatives have to pay a ransom for their release or to obtain their dead and often mutilated bodies. Ahmed Zakayev gave us confirmation of those reports. He also said that the policy was not only deeply traumatic for the civilian population but demoralising and degrading for the Russians who have to implement it.

Exactly two years ago, the Council of Europe called on the Government of the Russian Federation,

"to stop … attacks against the civilian population and to start—a political dialogue".

The Council also said:

"Failure to meet these requirements will … necessitate a review of Russian continued membership of … the Council of Europe".

One year later, very limited progress had been made. The joint working group on Chechnya which was then set up listed 15 "requirements", including investigations into alleged mass killings; stopping harassment, extortion at checkpoints and arbitrary arrests and detentions; and any physical or mental abuse.

It is perfectly clear that, to date, little progress has been made. My noble friend Lord Judd will summarise the arduous and admirable work that he has done as co-chairman of the joint working group. He will also agree, however, that that work has so far produced token responses, with only a few trials of military personnel who committed human rights abuses, and not necessarily of those involved in the worst cases, such as those responsible for mass killings.

More than half the population of Chechnya are now refugees. The majority of them, about 250,000, are in Ingushetia. Many of them are still living in old tents in below zero temperatures, and more are in other neighbouring countries including Dagestan, Georgia and Turkey.

So far, no meaningful negotiations have taken place between Maskhadov and high-level Russian officials. However, there was a meeting between representatives of the two presidents in Moscow on 18th November. Mr Zakayev told us that there he had put forward three very simple proposals that could lead to a ceasefire on the Chechen side. They were that the Russian Government and people should recognise that Asian Maskhadov is the elected, legitimate leader of the Chechen Republic; that mopping-up operations should cease; and that the two presidents should set up a joint working group to restore peaceful life in Chechnya.

The Russians rejected the proposals and said that no negotiations could take place unless the Chechens gave up their arms, which was unacceptable to the Chechens. However, they agreed to meet again at an unspecified date. Although that meeting has not occurred so far, there is now a small porthole of opportunity, if the will is there.

I hope very much that the Council of Europe's recent stronger tone and the fact that Russia's Chechen policy is again coming under greater international scrutiny will persuade Mr Putin that there has to be a change. I think that he is now sufficiently secure politically to take Russian public opinion with him should he decide to agree to negotiations to end the war. The Russian people are in any case becoming increasingly disenchanted with the war. It is likely that President Maskhadov would agree to some autonomy for Chechnya that is short of total independence. Any peace settlement would be more likely to succeed and endure if a regional dialogue could be initiated that included the other autonomous regions of the north Caucasus—Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia.

Having agreed to the independence of the former republics of the USSR in 1991, Russia is still reluctant to contemplate greater independence for the peripheral territories, often former colonies of the Russian Federation. As well as the north Caucasus, there are other regions whose culture, ethnic origin and religion differ from those of Russia itself and where the desire for greater self-rule is strong. In Tatarstan, for example, a high degree of autonomy has been granted and is, I understand, acceptable. There are also other provinces to be considered. Belarus and the Ukraine, which have achieved full independence, are by comparison close relatives of Russia. Perhaps the United Kingdom could act as a model. We gave up most of our colonies, particularly the more distant ones, some time ago, and very recently we have even given a quite considerable degree of autonomy to our Celtic fringe. As far as I know, at least so far, the results have been quite benign.

The history of Russia and the north Caucasus is convoluted and very difficult to fully understand, and I do not think that I could even attempt to give a summary of it in my allotted time. However, I think that the Russian Government would like us to believe that the Chechen war is part of the world-wide war against terrorism. There is a widespread mythology in Russia, which is encouraged, I think, by the government, that most Chechens are terrorists or thieves; it is similar to beliefs about the Roma in central Europe. The Chechens are Russia's "bad object".

There is no doubt that some Chechens have taken part in illegal activities, raiding and kidnapping—which I think is their speciality. Particularly unacceptable was the killing of five Red Cross nurses in 1996, and the kidnapping and beheading of three British engineers in 1999. Both of those as well as other similar crimes were strongly condemned at the time by the Chechen government. It is now thought that those two crimes were committed by forces trying to undermine the credibility of Maskhadov's government. It is inherently unlikely that any Chechen hired assassin—unless he was a totally unprincipled hired assassin—would kill foreign workers providing humanitarian and technical assistance to his own country.

The disastrous explosions that destroyed blocks of flats in several Russian cities in 1999, causing a total of 300 deaths, were blamed on the Chechens without any evidence—and none has been found since. The explosions 'were taken as a major reason for launching the second phase of the war. In the city of Ryazan, where explosives were discovered in time to defuse them, there is strong evidence implicating the FSB, the successor to the KGB. A full investigation of all the explosions has not yet been conducted. I wonder why.

There is no doubt that Shamil Basayev, the independent-minded Chechen commander, moved columns of fighters into neighbouring Dagestan in September 1999, ostensibly to assist Chechens living there who were being attacked by the Russians. That act was both illegal and senseless, regardless of whether it was in response to a Russian provocation. It was not authorised by President Maskhadov. However, combined with the apartment block explosions, it was enough to give Russia a reason to start phase two of the war.

Finally, there is the accusation that Chechen fighters have assisted Al'Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. If there are any, the number is quite small; certainly none appears to have been captured. Indeed, there have been more United Kingdom nationals captured than Chechens; all Chechens capable of fighting are needed at home. In the other direction, there has certainly been assistance to Chechnya from other Islamic nations, including some fundamentalists, although the numbers are not great. The Jordanian-born Khattab is the best known. Chechens themselves, while having a strong Islamic faith, are not fundamentalists.

I conclude by asking my noble friend to draw the attention of his right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to the points that I have made, and others will make, in this short debate. Perhaps we could return the courtesy and invite, rather than summon, his excellency the Russian ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and point out how the ending of this war would not only end the suffering of many innocent families in both Chechnya and Russia but would greatly enhance Russia's reputation in the eyes of the world.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I shall be extremely brief. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Rea, for this debate.

I should also like to say how very indebted we are to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for the work that he has done as the rapporteur on Chechnya to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and as chairman of the assembly sub-committee on refugees. I look forward to hearing the noble Lord's speech. However, I should like to refer to his recent report to the Political Affairs Committee which concludes: the general situation in the Chechen Republic has not improved enough to ensure the full enjoyment of human rights and rule of law by the population as a whole". That is evident from the UNHCR reports and from other human rights organisations.

During his recent visit to camps for internally displaced Chechens in Ingushetia, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers said, We do understand that many of them [refugees] don't find it safe enough in the current situation and I do hope that the political process will prove to be more productive". However, since September llth and President Putin's support for the international war against terrorism. it seems that western civilised democracies have turned a blind eye to the clean-up operations, illegal detentions by the armed forces and in particular the Interior Ministry's rape, torture and killing of civilians. Chechen people have no confidence in the Russian military authorities and that is the major reason why people refuse to return. In the words of the UN High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers, the Russian government was facing three main tasks: to ensure safety in Chechnya, restore housing and provide conditions for people to earn their living". I have met with Chechen students in London who told me that most people believe that the Russian authorities created the events in 1999 to avenge the humiliation of the earlier war in 1994–96. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and villages and towns have been flattened in the name of "fighting terrorism". Perhaps it was a way to divert the attention of the Russian people from the corruption of past administration.

We know that peace can be achieved only through political dialogue and until the Russians can guarantee respect for human rights and prosecute members of their federal forces who have perpetrated crimes against humanity, restoring confidence in the Chechen people will be difficult. Displaced people are spending a third winter in refugee camps rather than returning to their homes because the mop-up operations in residential areas have resulted in people experiencing human rights violations and beatings.

Although I agree with the report of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that, A principal task for the Council of Europe should be to prepare the way for holding democratic elections in the Chechen Republic as soon as possible", unless all political and official elements in Chechen society feel that the elections will be free from Moscow's interference, they may not bring the stability that the people deserve.

Finally, I wholeheartedly endorse the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Rea, and ask my noble friend the Minister to urge the Government of the Russian Federation to engage in further negotiations with the elected President of Chechnya to achieve a political rather than the military solution to their ongoing conflict.

5.34 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rea, on picking such a good moment to raise this issue. It follows the Prime Minister's meeting with President Putin in December and comes just after the discussions in the Council of Europe on which we very much look forward to hearing from the noble Lord. Lord Judd. It comes before the European Union/Russia summit early next month.

In the present climate of world opinion I believe that it is essential to show that military operations in Chechnya and their consequences cannot just be forgotten or swept aside on the grounds that they are anti-terrorist. Chechnya may be constitutionally part of Russia, but Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and has ratified its human rights convention and other instruments of that kind. Russia has a duty to protect civilians and non-combatants.

I have in the past complained against the use of excessive and disproportionate force and I fear that this still continues as, for example, in the recent bombardment of Argun, the third largest town in Chechnya, and alleged atrocities over the new year in the village of Tsotsin-Yurt.

Perhaps my only qualification for taking part in this debate is some study of Russian and Chechen history and some experience since 1992 of post-Soviet conflicts both in Moldova and the trans-Caucasus. Such conflicts can be extremely bitter and few, if any, can be said to be fully resolved. They mostly linger on in a frozen or semi-frozen state, despite the best efforts of mediators, international bodies and NGOs.

I suggest that it is necessary to try to understand the deep fears on all sides. Because a successful and strong Chechen mafia has flourished in Moscow and other cities, ordinary Russians tend to look on all Chechens as criminally inclined. Explosions in major cities already mentioned were, perhaps somewhat improbably, blamed on Chechens and then used as a pretext for the second recent Chechen war. Rumours have been spread of large numbers of foreigners fighting alongside the Chechens linked with Al'Qaeda. However, the general heading the Federal Security Service said on 17th January that he was facing only 250 foreign fighters. He said that their influx had stopped completely and that the remainder were trying to leave the country. The next day the Federal Security Service was officially stated to be handing over to the Interior Ministry. The number of police was to be increased to 10,000, mainly locally recruited. These recent developments, however, will not easily remove the fears affecting not only the Russian man in the street but also Members of Parliament and officials at all levels.

The Chechens themselves have to cope with a bitter and bloody national history. They resisted the tsars for almost two generations. Their great leader, Shamyl, offered help to Queen Victoria during the Crimean War. Then came the revolution and Stalin's horrific deportation of the whole nation to Siberia. Chechens have recently claimed to have had 300,000 war victims and to have now 30,000 people in prisons or concentration camps with yet more displaced into Ingushetia. They say that Order 541 of 17th September 1999 authorises the persecution of, and discrimination against, Chechens throughout the Russian Federation. They allege that ever since 1994 Russia has been deliberately attacking the civilians of Chechnya.

The Russians on the other hand counter claim that many Chechens are bandits and terrorists and that 2,000 Russians have been kidnapped or killed. The fears on either side are massive and perceptions of "the enemy" are widespread and understandable. Yet these are peoples who have known each other over generations and have on occasions intermarried and traded.

In the midst of this huge gulf of misunderstanding and fear, there are groups such as the Russian Public Anti-War Committee, which has at least one member of the Duma, the human rights body Memorial, and Soldiers' Mothers. I suggest that those groups are very worthy of support. If, together with other friends and allies of Russia, they can exercise moderating influences, there may be some hope. The greatest need is probably for a ceasefire, to be followed by political negotiations leading to demilitarisation.

Whether or not that is an improbable or impossible scenario, my fear is that because of the long-standing denial of their identity and the lack of scope for self-determination, some Chechens will never reconcile themselves to living permanently under Russian sovereignty. Indeed, Dmitrii Olegovich Rogozin, the Duma member, who chairs their International Affairs Committee and leads their delegation at Strasbourg, has spoken about "irreconcilable elements". Surely there should be a safety valve for such people. A voluntary—I stress that word—emigration scheme, perhaps organised by the International Organisation for Migration, might provide such a solution. Will the Government consider how such a scheme might work, recalling perhaps that in a previous century the Dhukobours and members of other minorities left Russia for North America?

Can the Minister give us a general outline of how the question of Chechnya will be handled at the forthcoming EU/Russia summit? Have the principles of a common approach been agreed? I trust that t hose will include the urgent need for a ceasefire, with generous terms for the handing-in of weapons and for voluntary emigration. Independent monitoring and verification may well be helpful and there must surely be provision for the return of displaced people, reconstruction and the highest possible level of self-determination. Finally, do the Government expect that the outcomes of the summit will be positive for Chechnya?

5.42 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is deeply grateful to my noble friend Lord Rea for having raised this subject this evening. I should declare an interest as the rapporteur of the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which has reported on Chechnya, and as joint chair of the joint working group that was set up between the Parliamentary Assembly and the Duma on that subject. That has inevitably involved me in several visits to Russia and Chechnya over the past two years. I was last in Chechnya briefly last month.

The Russians sometimes ask me how September 11th has affected the whole issue. It has made me feel more strongly than ever that while military action may be necessary, the battle against terrorism is won in the long run in hearts and minds. It is for that reason that we have to take the "hearts and minds" dimension of our campaign very seriously, whether that involves the coalition in the context of Afghanistan or the Russians in the context of Chechnya.

I quote from the resolution that was adopted last week in the Council of Europe on that matter. It states: The Assembly reiterates that the legitimacy of military action against terrorists cannot be used by any state, including the Russian Federation, as a justification for disrespect for human rights and rule of law or refusal to seek a political solution". I am 200 per cent behind that, which is not altogether surprising, because I drafted it.

In this debate we are right to ask about what progress there has been with regard to human rights. Progress has been frustratingly slow. I find disturbing the inability of some of those with responsibility in Russia to differentiate between initiating action and bringing legal action to a conclusion. The number of cases initiated is fairly small but the progress on those that have been initiated is not encouraging. Furthermore, we have to note that investigations into the alleged mass killings are conspicuous by their absence. That is very disturbing—I repeat the phrase that was used to good effect by my noble friend Lord Rea.

As a result of pressure by the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe, a list of cases has been prepared. When I was in Moscow last December, I found in talks at the most senior level that action in relation to that list is, to say the least, disappointing. The human rights issue is still very real.

What about the military dimension? I am afraid that there is still indiscriminate and disproportionate action and there are still all too many disturbing reports of maltreatment. Indeed, from what I hear, I cannot help feeling at times that elements of the army are still out of control and that in parts of the army there is what could be described as a climate of impunity. It is true that those with responsibility have introduced new rules. For example, there is a rule that when a so-called mop-up operation is being undertaken, the prosecutor general's people should be present. From what I hear, that rule is more honoured in the breach than in the application.

The general conduct of the army is, I am afraid, counterproductive. That creates an atmosphere of oppression and it probably drives a certain number of people, particularly the young, into the arms of what I should be the first to agree are undesirable elements.

What of the people who are described as rebels? The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, correctly raised that issue. I detect three elements, but that may be an oversimplification—there are probably more than three. There are extremists, who adopt what we may call the bin Laden approach. There are opportunists—the mafiosi, if you like—who see in this terrible situation an opportunity for profiteering and of advancing their personal material advantage. There are also what have been described traditionally and repeatedly in this Chamber and the other place as freedom fighters. Their role in this context could be compared with other examples in history. They are frustrated at the impossibility of making any political progress whatever and have taken to arms. We may not feel that that is the right thing to have done but if we do not understand why they did so we shall not advance very much. Many of those people would be among the first to lay down their arms if they saw a convincing opportunity for political progress.

What I have been able to see and do makes it clear to me that if the cycle of violence is not rapidly brought to a conclusion, there will be a desolate desert in what is now called Chechnya. An article in the Economist recently referred to the situation as one of stalemate. In an interesting analysis, it argued that the rebels could not win but had control of large areas of the countryside, particularly the hills, and could do much damage at night in the cities. It said that the army and security services had control of the main urban centres during the day, that there was a stalemate and that there was now a mutual interest in getting to the negotiating table.

Of course, my noble friend Lord Ahmed is right: dialogue is now essential. If dialogue is to take place, I believe that it is right to expect the rebels to lay down their arms. But it will also be essential for the Russian federal army to be reduced in size and for the feeling or psychology of repression and oppression in Chechnya to be reduced. It will also be essential for the army to be firmly based in barracks—I do not say confined to barracks—and to be subject to firm discipline.

In order to take the situation forward it will also be necessary for the emphasis to be placed on advancing the cause of human rights and the rule of law. There is a very delicate balance to be drawn between human rights, the rule of law and a settlement. A political settlement will come about only if people can see that human rights and the rule of law are being advanced. Similarly, if we really want to see the cause of human rights and the rule of law fulfilled, a settlement is essential. Therefore, the two are intermingled and it is naive to believe that they can be neatly put in order, as we have seen elsewhere in the world—sometimes not far from where we are now.

The issue of an amnesty will also arise, and I believe that it will have to be generous. Meanwhile, we must also address the humanitarian situation, which is grim, particularly in winter. When I look at those in the displacement camps, I consider it to be terrible that people still suffer in such a way. Many of them are in camps in Ingushetia. I am concerned that so much of the relief mobilised by international communities seems to stop at Ingushetia and that it does not reach Chechnya. I am a sceptic about the arguments that I have heard as to why that should be the case. I believe that if there was a will, there would be a way. That is why, since my last recent visit, I have raised the issue with DfID and with my old organisation, Oxfam, of which I was privileged to be director for a number of years. I believe that there must be unremitting pressure and determination to get relief to people, wherever they are.

There is also the issue of reconstruction, which will be huge. Not unlike other conflicts elsewhere, reconstruction is always challenging. It is easy to mobilise the money for bombs, but reconstruction is much more expensive. Again, I believe that we must put our money where our mouth is and back reconstruction to the hilt. Of course, corruption is a big problem in this regard, and one should not underestimate the extent to which corruption at all levels complicates the situation.

Against all that, what is the positive potential? I believe that there has been what I would describe as an "atmospheric" change. When we started on this work two years ago, we encountered total denial. Now, it is possible to engage people at all levels, in particular at the most senior levels in Moscow, in intelligent, rational discussion about the situation. Political pluralism appears to exist.

I should also mention the courage of the Russian NGOs. Memorial has been mentioned, and I cannot praise that organisation too highly for the work that it does. There is the work of Mr Kalamanov, Mr Putin's representative on human rights in Chechnya who has experts in the Council of Europe working in his team. There is also President Putin's initiative. Whatever its limitations, he took that initiative and it would be foolish to overlook it.

There is also the parallel initiative of the Council of Europe. Under that initiative we brought together considerable numbers of Chechens to talk about the need to create a consultative council. Such a council could try to bring about a political atmosphere in which it would be more possible, if I may express it in that way, for President Putin to move forward. Such a council could also begin to put forward ideas about the nature of a political solution that might stick.

However, I can only say that if a consultative council is to succeed, it must be widely based. It will be essential for the Russians to be prepared to talk with those with whom it is not easy to talk. Anyone can talk to friends; but the real challenge in making progress will be to talk to those who are the most difficult. In that context, I believe that the involvement of Mr Maskhadov and his representatives is absolutely crucial. After all, he is the last elected president of Chechnya and I am sure that he should be involved in trying to advance towards a solution.

I should also mention briefly the Council for the Protection of Human Rights, which has been established by Mr Kalamanov and his team in Chechnya. We wait to see how it will perform, but it is an important initiative.

I finish by saying simply that at the macro level I shall take second place to no one in arguing that one of the big challenges that we all face in international politics is how to bring Russia on board and enable it to play a full and dynamic part in the management of world affairs. I believe that any attempts to exclude or bypass Russia have been disastrous in their consequences. We must involve Russia.

History will judge us as to why, in the context of Chechnya, we have not made any reference to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, particularly as that court indicated that it would have been very willing to consider such a reference if one had been made. If we are to have a good relationship with Russia, firm action of that kind may have to be taken. It will be essential to say, on the one hand, "Yes, we want you as partners", and, on the other, "We are not going to turn a blind eye to things that are undermining the cause of building a stable, secure world and, in the end, defeating terrorism".

Not long ago, a Russian diplomat said to me, "Your trouble, Lord Judd, is that your aspirations for Russia are too high". My reply to him was, "No, they're not; they're high but they're not too high". I have profound respect—dare I use the word in this place—affection for Russia and its people. My God, how that country suffered in the Second World War; my God, how it suffered under Stalinism. It breaks my heart to see a Russia that went through all that not leading the campaign for a rational, decent and civilised approach to the problems in Chechnya. In the Council of Europe that is what we are determined to help to bring about in Russia. We believe that the task is to find those within Russia—they are there—with whom we can work. We need to build up their confidence and bring about, within Russia itself, a political dynamic which can lead to change. Without that, there will be none.

5.57 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I pass over the unfortunate suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, that the English occupied Scotland as a colony. There is a family recollection that a namesake of mine in the 13th century did his best to prevent Scotland becoming an English colony. Ireland, of course, did become an English colony, and that is part of the sad and long history of Ireland with which one can make comparisons.

I very much welcome this debate and, in particular, the delicate role that the Council of Europe is playing in this area. The Council of Europe has found a very useful role working in such areas. We are talking about a long and extremely painful transition from areas that have no democratic tradition into what we hope will be a European standard of democracy, human rights and open society. We appreciate that for Russia, in particular, the problem of adjusting to the transformation from its status as an imperial power with a large number of subject peoples to accepting that it will he a looser federation with a range of independent states alongside it will not be easy. Britain made a large number of mistakes during its transition. British history in Cyprus, Malaya and Kenya is not entirely unblemished, and we must therefore remember that we should not preach too strongly.

I noted the powerful defence given by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, of the role which the Council of Europe has taken up in that respect. I also noted his praise for Memorial. I see that Mr Orlov, one of its officials, was reported by Agence France-Presse in Moscow on 22nd January as saying very critically: We have no hope for anything from the Council of Europe … [the Council of Europe] does not want to understand what is happening in Chechnya. It doesn't want any conflict with Russia". I believe that we all appreciate how important, and how difficult, it is to keep the Russians on board and to help to pull the Russians in. I attended an EU-Russia forum in the winter of last year at which we heard a Russian deputy Minister justify Russian actions in Chechnya. He accepted absolutely no criticism of the role which the Russian armed forces have played. It is clear from all the information we have that there is a great deal to be criticised about the way in which the Russian armed forces have behaved. They have used far too much force. They are ill-disciplined in all sorts of ways. They have taken it out on local civilians. That has contributed immensely to the problem.

We also have to recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, suggested, that Chechen culture over centuries of oppression has developed an attitude towards the state and to law which is not dissimilar to that of southern Italy. That has all sorts of implications for trying to resolve this difficult conflict.

In suggesting what the British Government should do, I should like to raise some of the broader regional issues. I know a little about Georgia and the Abkhazia conflict. I recall that part of the origins of the Chechen conflict was the encouragement by Russian federal authorities of Chechen forces to help in the secession of Abkhazia from Georgia. That is another post-imperial conflict which has not yet been resolved. The last time I was in Tbilisi there were still large numbers of Georgians from Abkhazia—the Georgians were the majority in Abkhazia—still living in decrepit hotels and refugee camps across the capital. That is another area in which I sometimes ask myself whether the Russian central authorities are fully in control of their armed forces and intelligence services because they are not contributing to the security of the region. What the Russian Government have been doing in the Caucasus, and also on occasions in Azerbaijan, has clearly not contributed to the long-term stability which we need.

We have some difficulty over how much standing we have here because Chechnya is formally part of the Russian Federation. Therefore, in a sense we are in the same position as that of our allies in criticising British actions in Northern Ireland. We have taken a fair amount of criticism of British actions in Northern Ireland. Patiently, and with a great deal of restraint over the past 20 years, the British Government, with some assistance from their partners, have moved towards the resolution of that extremely painful conflict.

As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, remarked, the issue has to be very much put in the context of how the West relates to Russia as a whole and how we combine criticism of Russia's behaviour in this area with all of the overtones it has of Russia's imperial past; its links with its subordinate Muslim peoples over the centuries; the role of the Chechens as the people who came and got you in the night in Russian children's stories of the past century, and all of those old myths from the past. We have to say to our Russian friends that this is not the way to behave if they wish to move closer to NATO and the European Union and to be recognised as a valued partner of the West.

We have some means of influence. I am extremely grateful that the Council of Europe is pursuing that influence. I hope that Her Majesty's Government are using their position within the European Union to press in that respect. I am also aware, from meetings of the Russia-EU forum, that one of our problems is that the Russian central authorities are desperate to prevent any further disintegration in this very large federation. In the discussions we have had on what to do about Kaliningrad, the most difficult issue is whether it can conceivably be given more autonomy than any other area of Russia. If so, Vladivostok will ask for it next, then Chechnya after that and the whole thing will begin to disintegrate. There is a whole set of delicate relations which we wish to pursue.

At the same time we have to explain to our allies across the Atlantic that this area is one in which a delicate relationship with the West has to be maintained. There is a sad tendency within Washington at present to embrace Russia as being on our side in the clash of civilisations and to assume that the Chechens are on the other side, and therefore there is no criticism to be made. The last time I was in Washington, the group I was with had been addressed the previous night by Condoleezza Rice. She began her discussion with the heads of a number of American schools of international affairs by saying, "We have to admit that we have not spent enough time trying to understand the Muslim world". That is a message which we all need to give to our American friends. This is part of that overall package in that very delicate region of the Caucasus where all these issues overlap.

We also have to say something to our Russian friends about the whole relationship between Russia and the Muslim world. That is another of the sensitive issues with which we shall have to deal. Her Majesty's Government have only marginal influence on this. I hope that they are giving all possible support to the European Union and to the Council of Europe. It is clear that we should try as hard as we can to bring Mr Maskhadov back into conversations. After all, if we can have Sinn Fein setting up offices in Westminster, there is no reason why they should not do the same. Perhaps we should bring the Russians over to see how one has to reincorporate people into the political process. That is perhaps very much the power of example which the British should be giving to the Russians. Unless that is the constructive way forward, sadly the Chechen conflict is likely to roll on.

Finally, if the Chechen conflict rolls on, problems in the Caucasus will continue to roll on with it. As we all know, this overlaps into Ingushetia, Abkhazia, north and south Ossetia and all of those problems would lead to an absence of development across that entire region.

6.6 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, as several noble Lords have observed, this is a grim, timely debate. The bloody conflict continues in Chechnya, as the news of the past few days reminds us with the killing of senior Russian officials and, as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, mentioned, with the "crash" of the helicopter. It is interesting that our debates in this House seem to focus increasingly, as many people forecast they would, on the unstable areas of trans-Caucasia and beyond the Caspian on the new states of central Asia, which, unlike Chechnya, are not still within the Russian Federation but whose politics and actions suddenly are becoming central to the whole pattern of global stability.

As someone said rather sardonically the other day, those of us who seek to have some knowledge of foreign affairs will have to get to know these "stans" extremely well because we shall spend a lot of time debating them. At the moment we are not debating a "stan", except that Dagestan, within the Russian Federation, comes into our story. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, rightly observed, this is the area to which more and more attention needs to be paid if we are to get a firmer grip on the destabilising forces which blow back into Europe and the Atlantic arena and from which we cannot separate ourselves.

The question which has hung in the air since September 11th is whether that changed the Chechen situation. There is a point of view, which I would not say I am expert enough to deny, that it changed everything and that a tacit deal became established at a geo-political level that in exchange for Russian help with the grand coalition and the war against extremism—whether rightly or wrongly called Islamic extremism; I never know how carefully to choose my words here—and global terrorism, and in exchange for Russia pledging the strongest help and in being as helpful as it could in Afghanistan, the US would turn a blinder eye than hitherto to some of the reported barbarities, atrocities and extreme heavy-handedness of the Russian forces in their attempt to prevent secession in Chechnya and prevent any breakaway tendencies.

At the same time it was widely asserted and indeed stated specifically by Mr Putin and senior members of the Russian Government that that was entirely fair because after all, they said that the Chechen affair was largely driven by Islamic extremist forces and by Al Q'aeda influences. Again, it is hard to distinguish the truth from the myth. There is something in that. There has been evidence of Al'Qaeda involvement.

There is, more specifically, clear evidence of Saudi Arabian money being circulated in Grozny and Chechnya. I think that a Saudi Arabian bank has opened there recently. I am sure noble Lords have no illusions: that it is the machine of Saudi money which, in its ill-distributed way, has helped to fuel a great many of the horrors that have culminated in September 11th. I suspect that with the other place we shall debate often in the coming months the potential for instability in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia if the dual policy of directing Saudi money to the Wahhabis and to extremism of the kind which has given birth ironically to the very man, Osama bin Laden, who wants to undermine the existing Saudi establishment, to get rid of the American troops—he seems to have achieved his first objective already—continues.

The important question—it is difficult to produce an answer—is this. If Mr Putin is a third, half or three-quarters right, I am cautious when people say, "Let's go all out for a political solution". There is a political solution to some issues. But political solutions with some of the maniacal figures who have been driving the terrorist movements which led to September 11th or which brainwashed, promoted and drove to extremism some of the characters we have seen appearing on the world stage are a contradiction in terms. There are no political solutions, as we have discovered bitterly in recent months, with those who do not want solutions. They do not want politics. They want only killing, terror, murder and mayhem against the civilised world. To that extent, one has to watch carefully before saying, "That's fine. Let's go for a political solution".

On the other side, if Mr Putin is only a quarter or a fifth right, and the Islamic extremist element—with talk of a jihad when the Chechens invaded Dagestan to convert it to an Islamic republic— is minor, and the basic issues are the grimly familiar ones of separatism, independence and the sentiments that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, reminded us have been brewing in Chechen minds and hearts for hundreds of years, a different approach may be right. With regard to separatism and the yearning for independence—it is everywhere, both inside and outside the Russian Federation and throughout the entire planet—perhaps political solutions are the only way; and, as the Russian army has found to its bitter cost, fighting does not solve the problem. The Chechens will not be and have riot been defeated. That is the reality that Mr Putin and his advisers have to face. Although they have some control in Grozny now, and have cleaned up the Dagestan situation, the Russian army has not been able to impose a halt on the intense desire for separatism and a greater degree of autonomy and independence. How great a degree that is, I am not sure, but the Russians felt that they could never accept complete separation.

They have an impasse. The Russians have taken fearful losses. They have inflicted fearful losses with appalling bloodshed. Barbarity of the kind one tends to get, sadly, in civil wars, which in a sense this is. has occurred. If one goes down that route—I sound as though I contradict myself—political solutions may be the only ones and there must be talks with Maskhadov and the others.

In a sense, the way forward is determined by a full understanding of what is going on and a clear analysis. While urging political solutions to deal with extremists who never want them and would treat any attempt at a solution only as appeasement gleefully seized upon while more terror and horrors are planned, one has to he careful. But if dealing with genuine separatists—I think that Mr Maskhadov does represent them—it is a somewhat different proposition. In an ironic sense, September 11th may have helped because Mr Maskhadov has sought in public statements, as have some of his colleagues, to dissociate themselves to some degree from the extremists—from those who cheered when the World Trade Centre was destroyed and those who cried "I)eath to Americans" and other battlecries and mantras of the kind of extremism which threatens to poison the world.

If one can be clear about the analysis there may be some grounds for hope. The work that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, whom we all admire, and the Council of Europe seek to do may have some ground into which to plant its seed. But it must be the right ground. If it is the wrong ground that may make matters worse. The West is still tidying up the grand coalition's agenda. That will continue for a long time. It is talking language which pleases Mr Putin. I hope and suspect that Mr Putin and some of the Russian military leaders, if not all of them, realise that if they are to build successfully on being in the good books of the western alliance and Washington, with the putting aside of the analysis of the hideous barbarities which Russian troops have undoubtedly committed, their best course is to try quite hard now to reach a compromise with Maskhadov and the separatists. How one maintains cohesion and unity in a federation while at the same time allowing independence, diversity and various forms of separate politics remains one of the conundrums of the modern world.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is expert on these matters. However, I do not believe that there is a comparison with Northern Ireland. These matters are so totally different. I always shy away from comparisons between one vastly complex situation— in our case it has been going on for several hundreds of years—and another from different roots which has also been continuing for many centuries.

There are huge issues at stake. There is the cohesion of the giant Russian Federation. There are underlying causes to do with oil production. They will be even more crucial if Saudi Arabia is to be destabilised. The oil output of the region and beyond will become even more vital. There must be constant hope that well-focused humanitarian aid can somehow be brought in to raise Chechnya from the ashes and again make Grozny habitable. We must never forget that Russia is a humiliated nation. That is a dangerous state to be in. Those of us who admire the Russian people for all they have done and put up with must mix any warnings with sympathy. How to achieve that mix calls for the highest qualities of statesmanship. Those are the golden aims to which we should now turn our attention.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask what evidence he has seen in relation to Saudi money being used for terrorist activities in Chechnya. If I am correct, the noble Lord referred to a bank and whether that bank is used for channelling money to the terrorists. Does he say that the former president and government were all involved in terrorist activities? Alternatively, was it a group within Chechnya?

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the answer is that the evidence is only a series of reports. Some are to be found on the Internet but some circulate semi-privately. It is not evidence. If the noble Lord looks at Hansard he will see that I said "it is said that". I repeated what I had heard. Of course, I cannot say that these are hard facts but they have been quite widely asserted.

I am not quite sure that I understood the last point made in the noble Lord's question. If am not saying that any senior members of the Saudi Government are involved. I do not know whether Mr Maskhadov and the official Chechen regime receive any succour from this money, but certainly moneys arising from oil revenues from the Saudis have been very widely used to purchase arms and promote terrorist activity. That has been identified and seen in Grozny. That is what I am told. If the noble Lord were to say to me that he can prove that all these reports are wrong, I would not hesitate for one moment in conceding that he was right because we are all trading on anecdotes and reports, some of which are false and some of which are true.

6.21 p.m.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I believe that that last exchange illustrates just one of the numerous complexities which we have tried to address in this short debate. I know that it is a normal courtesy of this House to say that the debate has been excellent and to express gratitude to the initiator of the debate. I do that with particular sincerity in this case to my noble friend Lord Rea. I have known him over many years and he has taken a particular interest in many issues, not least in some of the developments which have occurred in eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and in the present Russian Federation. He and I have both taken an interest in these matters for some time. It has been a well-informed and thoughtful debate, recognising the enormous complexities of the issues. As other speakers have emphasised, the contribution of my noble friend Lord Judd was particularly well-informed. He has devoted a large part of his energies to this issue over the past few years.

The current conflict in Chechnya has now entered its third year and, although the intensity of the fighting has died down, casualties continue to mount on both sides. A number of speakers referred to the helicopter crash at the weekend. It goes without saying that, with the latest estimate of 14 people killed, our thoughts go out to the families of those who died in the crash. While it is not clear precisely what was the cause, we await the investigation by the authorities to see what can be found out.

Casualties have occurred on both sides. The militants continue to attack both military and civilian targets. Non-governmental organisations are still making detailed allegations of serious human rights violations by Russian forces. That point was emphasised by my noble friend Lord Rea and also referred to graphically by my noble friend Lord Ahmed. A large proportion of Chechnya's population has been displaced and many are enduring their third winter in makeshift camps, dependent on aid from foreign donors. The conflict has been very costly indeed in terms of human suffering.

Since the start of the current conflict, the Government have clearly and repeatedly stated our position in public and in dialogue with the Russian authorities, most recently at the meeting between my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and President Putin on 21st December last year. As on numerous occasions in other contacts, he emphasised the importance of pursuing a political solution to the conflict in Chechnya.

We have always recognised Russia's territorial integrity as well as its right to defend its citizens from terrorism. We have condemned unreservedly Chechen attacks on civilians, their indiscriminate use of landmines and their maltreatment of Russian prisoners. But we have also stressed that Russian operations must be proportionate and in strict adherence to the rule of law. We have pressed the Russian authorities to investigate thoroughly allegations of human rights violations by federal servicemen. Those responsible should be prosecuted and, where appropriate, punished. We have also called for more effective co-operation between the Russian authorities and the humanitarian aid agencies.

It is true, of course, that the dreadful events of September 11 th have had a profound effect on our bilateral relationship with Russia and its relations with the wider world. A number of speakers have emphasised that, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. Russia is a key partner in the international coalition against terrorism. It has played an important role in securing agreement at the Bonn talks on the future of Afghanistan. Russian personnel have also been hard at work delivering much-needed humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. The level of co-operation Russia has provided has been quite unprecedented. Its invaluable contribution should he recognised. We therefore support a genuine partnership between Russia and NATO, closer Russian ties with the European Union and Russia's accession to the World Trade Organisation.

Some commentators, including a number of speakers today, have suggested that we have gone further than that and somehow turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in Chechnya in order to secure Russia's participation in the war against terrorism. I can give a categoric assurance to the House that no such change of emphasis has occurred. The events of September 11th have not altered the United Kingdom's position on human rights in Chechnya or anywhere else. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Howell, emphasised the importance of our relationship with Russia and how it is developing. I endorse that.

But we understand that Russia had genuine and legitimate security interest concerns about Chechnya before the present conflict began. Kidnapping was endemic in the region. Noble Lords will recall that four engineers working for Granger Telecom, including three Britons, were brutally murdered in December 1998. Some media reports claim that that they were murdered on the orders of the Al'Qaeda network or the Taliban. We have no evidence of that and we continue our efforts to shed more light on the circumstances surrounding these tragic deaths.

However, it is clear that the influence of extremists was growing in Chechnya before the conflict broke out. In the summer of 1999, Chechen extremists occupied a number of settlements in the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan. Although the incursion was driven back by Russian forces, the attack on Dagestan made Russian military intervention in Chechnya virtually inevitable. Russia also suspected extremists of being behind the apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities in Russia, in which over 300 people were killed. A number of speakers have said that there are problems of evidence about that. There have been questions about who was and who was not responsible. Obviously, that is a concern of the Russian authorities and we all know how such concerns move to the forefront of people's minds in conflicts of this sort.

Extremist elements continue to operate in Chechnya. Their presence cannot be ignored or tolerated, and only serve to damage the reputation of Chechnya in the rest of Russia and abroad. We have therefore called on the Chechens, including Mr Maskhadov, to sever their links with international terror groups immediately and without preconditions.

In the meantime, Russian forces and Chechen fighters are locked in a violent stalemate. I believe that the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on the historical relationship between the Russians and the Chechens was particularly illuminating and important in this respect. We do not believe that either side can secure an end to the conflict through purely military means. The only way in which peace can be restored to this troubled republic is through political dialogue. There have been indications that the Russian Government understand that. During his recent visit to the United Kingdom to which I have already referred, President Putin remarked that it was simplistic to portray all groups currently fighting in Chechnya as terrorists. He made a clear distinction between C'hechen extremists, backed by the international terror network, and those who are motivated primarily by nationalist aspirations. We were encouraged that President Putin opened the door to talks between his representatives and those of President Maskhadov.

On 18th November, Russian and Chechen representatives met for over two hours. In the context of the history of the area, it is remarkable that those contacts took place. That was the first official meeting between the Russians and the Chechens since the conflict began. Previously, the Russian Government had ruled out such talks. Russian spokesmen had consistently described all Chechen fighters as terrorists. Unfortunately, those contacts have not, to date, developed further. Of course, we fervently hope that they do. We urge both sides to resume their discussions as soon as possible in a spirit of genuine and constructive engagement.

There have been other positive contacts, which have already been graphically described, including the tremendous input of my noble friend Lord Judd through the Council of Europe. Last November, the United Kingdom funded a Council of Europe seminar on human rights in Chechnya, bringing together members of the Russian Government, the Chechen civil administration and representatives of Mr Maskhadov. We view that and other Council of Europe initiatives as an important step in building mutual confidence and understanding between Chechen moderates and the Russian authorities.

But we are still a long way from what could be described as a peace process. There is a wide gap between the Russian and militant positions. From our experience in Northern Ireland—although I acknowledge the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, that it is sometimes difficult and may even be misleading to make international comparisons—we know how phenomenally difficult it can be trying to bridge the gap between two sides locked in disagreement, misunderstanding and conflict for centuries.

Some extremist groups will inevitably refuse to renounce violence and will do their utmost to undermine the political dialogue. But we believe that a political process must be central to bringing an end to the bloodshed. It also offers the chance of isolating the extremists, reducing their influence and the threat that they pose to Russia's legitimate security interests. We have therefore encouraged President Putin to pursue further contacts.

I should briefly like to make one further point, which is to stress the importance that the British Government attach to the aid programme in that troubled part of the world. We have continued efforts to alleviate the humanitarian plight of people displaced by the conflict. The United Kingdom is one of the largest aid donors in the region, having in the last financial year contributed £3.2 million to the UN Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal and £2.5 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross Moscow Regional Appeal. We have also provided assistance through our contributions to the European Community Humanitarian Organisation's humanitarian operations in the north Caucasus.

We have always recognised Russia's territorial integrity, as well as its right to defend its citizens from terrorism. But we do not believe that the situation in Chechnya can be resolved by exclusively military means. That is why we have always hacked a political solution to the Chechnya conflict and will continue to do so. We are making continued representations at all levels and your Lordships' contributions in this debate are much to be welcomed as a continuation of that discussion.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will he say something, at least, about the EU-Russia summit? Do the Government hope for a positive outcome from that in relation to Chechnya? I gave the Minister's office notice of that question this morning.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's point. He will understand that it is standard practice—it is normal—in advance of discussions of that sort for dialogue to take place in private before statements are made and the EU position becomes clear. I cannot prejudge precisely what will happen at this stage. In a sense, do not look in the crystal ball, look at the history book—look at what the Government have done and what has been our attitude to that conflict in the past. That will give a pretty good indication as to what will be our attitude in future.