Russia

Mike Gapes spoke in the debate on Russia and the European Union in Parliament today.

He began by intervening on the Minister Caroline Flint about the Russia -Ukraine Gas dispute.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of today’s remarks by Mr. Barroso, President of the Commission? He described the negotiations as the most difficult that he has ever had to deal with and said that neither side keeps to agreements. ... Gas coming from Russia is not secure. Gas coming through Ukraine is not secure. This is an objective fact.

Later Mike Gapes made a six minute speech where he said,

The European Scrutiny Committee and its Chairman are to be congratulated for bringing this issue to the House. For the reasons given by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), I think it very important for us to watch developments in Russia very closely.

It is clear that the arrogance and cockiness of the Putin period could change rapidly if the rapid reduction in gas and oil prices continues. Russia has had huge surpluses for many years. Now it faces the major challenges of reconstruction, a population that continues to decline or remains stable and a need for foreign investment, yet it causes problems with its attitude and behaviour. The Russian stock market has been taken out of operation several times, and has seen some huge crashes in which oligarchs have lost billions. I believe that there may be people in Russia now who will be quite worried about how the public will react in the coming years.

The Minister was right to refer to the need for a structured, regular dialogue with Russia, but that does not quite represent the permanent partnership arrangement that I think the Commission envisaged when it and the Council and Ministers agreed to reopen the process. The Minister will know that, as we made clear in our 2007 report, the Foreign Affairs Committee was sceptical, indeed doubtful, about the point of reopening those discussions. We thought that it might lead to endless disputes about values and about issues that are still unresolved, such as the systematic harassment of the British ambassador in Moscow, the closure of the British Council offices, and the way in which—my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) referred to this—non-governmental organisations, human rights activists and others have been harassed.

As recently as December, the Duma passed new legislation that basically abolishes jury trial in a very large number of cases, and returns to the Stalinist period and the Bolshevik model for dealing with prosecutions. The definitions of people who are carrying out acts of treason could be interpreted to apply to anyone who speaks to a foreign journalist. If that is indeed the case, there are worrying trends in Russian society.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South quoted the statistics correctly. It is not surprising, if the term “democracy” is associated with the drunken disaster of the Yeltsin era, that when people see a strong man bringing order out of chaos, they start to think that that is better than what they had before. Given the association with a rise in incomes resulting from a global increase in oil and gas prices, it is clear that for eight or nine years things have been getting better and better for most Russians, but that will not continue indefinitely.

Unlike China and India, Russia is massively dependent not on its own manufacturing or domestic growth or on foreign direct investment on manufactured goods and exports, but on the sale of crude commodities around the world. That makes Russia very vulnerable. We know that Russian society contains some very nasty political groups on the far right, including the Nashi group, who are supporters of President Putin but also support the people who carried out the attacks on the British diplomats in Moscow.

In the time that remains, I want to touch on two or three more issues. The Commission document refers to the development of “a common position on Russia’s proposal for a new European security order”. President Sarkozy has finessed that, as it were, into some kind of super-OSCE consideration, perhaps involving a meeting at some point in the next few months, but the issue is not going to go away. It is a long-standing Russian ambition effectively to get rid of NATO by establishing an all-Russian security system whereby it becomes very weak.

It occurs to me that the onset of President Obama today will pose some very difficult issues for the United States Administration. Like the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), I attended the Democratic convention in Denver, and I was struck by the difference in the views expressed by Democrat academics on the panels when dealing with the attitude to Russia and Georgia. There is no consensus. I think that one of the important questions will be the direction in which President Obama’s Administration goes when it comes to issues such as missile defence, in regard to which there is clearly a need—from the Russian point of view—for a change in the American approach. Will that happen, and if it does, will we see constructive Russian engagement with the United States with the aim of solving the problems in the middle east and working towards a resolution of the situation in Iran?

Russia is an important partner and permanent Security Council member, and we also need good relations with her.

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