HL Deb 11 June 2003 vol 649 cc195-7

3 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the principal issues for their discussions with President Putin during his visit to the United Kingdom.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, President Putin's principal substantive discussions will be with the Prime Minister. As the visit is still two weeks away, it is impossible to say exactly which areas will be covered. But we expect they will discuss a range of international issues, including Iraq, the Middle East, proliferation and terrorism. The visit will also include a United Kingdom/Russian energy summit and a visit to Edinburgh.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply; perhaps she will accept that many of us wish the visit all possible success. Clearly, we want to see Russia as a full partner in responding to the challenges in the century ahead.

Does my noble friend agree that in the context of the discussions on terrorism it will be important to make plain to the Russian Government that by the way in which they are responding to terrorism in the Chechen republic—and undoubtedly there is terrorism there—they are in fact recruiting for the extremists? The climate of impunity in which the Russian army operates, the failure to bring to justice those responsible in the army for alleged atrocities, and the human rights abuses are all grist to the mill of the extremists. If we are to win the battle of hearts and minds against terrorism, what is happening in Chechnya has a significance way beyond that republic itself. Will my noble friend assure us that these issues will be fully discussed with the Russian Government?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope they will. I am sure my noble friend Lord Judd will understand that I am in no position to commit my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to the exact nature of the discussion that will take place. As I was careful to say, the fact is that two weeks is a long time in international relations. I am sure that there will be many issues on a very crowded agenda, but I agree strongly with my noble friend that we all want the visit to be a success. Russia is not only a key ally but also a key player on the international scene. It was a member of the quartet that brought forward the road map which we wish to see flourish in the Middle East.

I am sure that any discussion around terrorism must at some point touch upon the issues raised by my noble friend. As he will know, the EU, while acknowledging that some were a little cynical about the recent referendum, cautiously welcomed its result in Chechnya and stressed that the Russians must now honour their commitments to improve the situation on the ground.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would he a good idea if the Prime Minister took the opportunity of his next meeting with Mr Putin to clear up the alarming misunderstanding which apparently arose at the G8 summit? The Prime Minister thought President Putin had agreed to suspend delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran. President Putin declared afterwards that he had said no such thing. Will the Government discuss with President Putin the IAEA's confidential report on Iran's ability to produce nuclear weapons and any actions it may recommend at its board of governors' meeting on June 15th?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I indicated in my opening Answer, I am sure that the discussions will range around a number of international issues, including Iraq and proliferation.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, can the Minister confirm, despite the visit still being two weeks away, that in the course of their talks the Prime Minister and President Putin will discuss not only the threat in common they have from international terrorism, but also specifically Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, which seeks to distort the true meaning and teaching of the Islamic faith? Will they discuss how best our two countries can co-operate to tackle that threat?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure the issues around terrorism are ones that are bound to be discussed by my right honourable friend and Mr Putin. There are serious concerns about the clear links between some extremist groups operating in Chechnya and A1'Qaeda. Those groups have already been mentioned in your Lordships' House. I am sure that the wider reach of those operating in Chechnya and their linkages to other terrorist organisations will also be a matter of mutual concern.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, Russia clearly has influence with Iran. Would it not be useful if Mr Putin were to endeavour to persuade the Iranians not to proceed further with the development of nuclear weapons—the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—hut also to discourage the Iranians from supporting the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was based in Tehran but is now based in Iraq and which is acting as a political party and threatening to boycott the interim government?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I said in my very brief answer to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, the fact is that if my right honourable friend will be discussing Iraq and matters of nonproliferation, many of these tangential issues may well be raised. My difficulty arises because your Lordships are urging me to assure them that certain matters will be discussed. I am afraid that it is not in my gift to be able to say that I am absolutely certain that these specific points raised by your Lordships will indeed he matters of detailed discussion. I can tell your Lordships that they are all aiming in the right direction when they say that matters concerning Iraq and matters concerning the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are bound to be on the agenda.

Lord Russell-Johnston

My Lords, does the noble Baroness realise that the remarks by the Prime Minister appearing to give approbation to the referendum in Chechnya were deeply offensive to human rights workers? The referendum was conducted in circumstances in which no fair outcome could be assured. I hope that that will be recognised in the discussions.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do understand, and I hope I made clear in my answer to the supplementary question from my noble friend Lord Judd that a number of people were unconvinced by the very high turnout in the Chechnyan referendum—some 80 per cent—and the massive majority for the "Yes" vote at some 96 per cent. Those are truly remarkable figures. Although there are some who believe that the referendum was manipulated, the Prime Minister is not alone in having given it a cautious welcome. The majority of European Union countries welcomed the result. They did so very cautiously. In so doing they stressed to the Russian Government that we now expect them to honour their commitments on the ground. That includes moving towards a presidential election in six months' time and parliamentary elections three months after that.