Russia and the Council of Europe

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Thank you, Mrs Brooke, for calling me to speak.

It is a great pleasure to play a part in this thoughtful debate. It has been particularly interesting to be part of a debate in which a diversity of views has been expressed. Often, our relationship with Russia is seen in a monochrome way.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on bringing this matter to the House. As he pointed out, the Council of Europe was established in the embers of the second world war and inspired by the need at that juncture to rebuild our continent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) pointed out, it was Sir Winston Churchill himself who recognised that only shared standards and values on the law and human rights, alongside democratic development, would help to stitch Europe back together. However, I do not think there was any great naivety at that stage about those ideals. There was a recognition that the ideals would be perhaps honoured in part in their breach, but it was still important to be able to talk and to have some sort of relationship.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) made it clear that there are a number of glaring situations in our continent at the moment that do not pass muster, and that if we take this draconian step against Russia it would be very difficult to see that we would not do so against a number of other nations, given some long-standing issues. One that he did not mention that comes to mind is, as the Spanish would see it, the occupation of Gibraltar, which might also become an issue. However, perhaps it is better that we move on from that to something closer at hand.

The Council of Europe as currently constituted consists of 47 member nations, incorporating nearly all the European countries as well as the outliers in the Caucasus. It has, of course, become best known in this country for the European Court of Human Rights, which sits within its auspices. As hon. Members mentioned, it was almost 20 years ago, in 1996, that the Russian Federation was formally admitted as a Council of Europe member. Even then, its relatively dubious human rights record was overlooked, on the basis that it was making progress on implementing the rule of law alongside free and fair elections. That decision symbolised the west’s optimism, at that juncture, that Russia was on its way to a normalisation after the collapse of the Soviet Union only five years before. People were saying, “Give it time and patience. If Russia is brought into the international fold, it will eventually begin to act like an open, democratic state.” Or so we thought.

Since then, the relationship between the Council of Europe and Russia has at times been testy, particularly with regard to questions about legal supremacy. In 2014, the ECHR made more judgments against Russia than against any other country. The ECHR has been used by many enemies of the Kremlin, most notably the Yukos founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to bring cases against the Russian state.

After President Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, the Council of Europe deprived Moscow’s delegation of its right to vote, a move that has sparked wider discussion among Russia’s ruling class—not just the wives of those in the Duma, I suspect—about whether Russia would wish to continue its membership of the Council. Many in Russia believe it has a negative influence on their nation and would like Russian sovereignty restored on matters such as the death penalty. If Russia withdrew from the Council, that would likely sound the death knell for some of the naive idealism that has guided western policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I had a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said in quite a brave contribution that was not something one necessarily hears on the Floor of the House. He is right: the simplistic way in which Putin is portrayed as a dictator and a tyrant in much of our press fails to understand some deep-seated issues in Russia.

I have long cautioned against assuming that Russia is on a steady path to becoming a functioning, multi-party democracy. We have always failed to understand that many Russians, to this day, see the Gorbachev and Yeltsin era as a time of chaos, uncertainty and utter humiliation. Putin has been able to maintain some domestic popularity by retelling a more traditional Russian story, filling the vast ideological vacuum left by the disintegration of the communist ideal with the notion of a Russian civilisation based upon patriotism, selflessness and deference to an all-powerful state. In doing so, he continues to tap into a pool of resentment that goes beyond Russian borders, to encapsulate many of those who dislike the global dominance of the USA over the past two decades. Specifically in relation to Georgia, there is no doubt that the Georgian leadership in that period, up to 2007-08, was little more than a CIA front. That was going on in Georgia and it is perhaps one reason why we have rapidly moved on from discussing that issue.

We are now faced with the Crimean crisis—let us be brutally honest: there is no going back from Crimea’s being returned as part of Russia—and the ongoing hostilities in eastern Ukraine. This continues to baffle many here in the west who fail to grasp why Vladimir Putin would wish to re-engineer an old-fashioned, imperialistic land-grab that risks western ire and Russian company balance sheets. The Russian President may well be a nasty piece of work—I am not in any way defending what he is doing—but he is a master at fashioning strength from weakness. From a position of fragile financial and geopolitical clout, Putin has boosted his profile with a domestic and global audience as a champion for the interests of Russia and, more worryingly, the Russian diaspora, which we have touched on in relation to Latvia and Estonia. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said: there is a fundamental difference between the way that we will look at Latvia and Estonia in years to come—they are members of NATO, and therefore protected under article 5, and members of the EU—and how we view Ukraine. The “one step forward, one step back” approach that has characterised western diplomacy in Ukraine in the past 18 months will endanger the countries beyond and give Putin a sense that we will not be serious about where a line is drawn to defend countries that are in NATO.

I should not be too surprised if Putin were now to engineer a similar victory by pushing for Russian withdrawal from the Council of Europe, making the case that continued membership is untenable now that the institution has become a vehicle through which western policy alone is exercised. Mr Putin has already suggested that neighbouring countries’ membership of the EU and NATO is equivalent to those nations existing in a “semi-occupied state”. He may also try to present an exit from the Council as a proud declaration of the supremacy of Russian sovereignty, as well as a defence of his nation’s distinct world view and political culture when it is under grave threat. In doing so, Putin will hope to sow the seeds of discord among remaining Council members, particularly when it comes to the ECHR, already a subject of hot debate on these shores. Why not try to fracture the consensus on human rights by suggesting that the ECHR has diminished national sovereignty, blunting members’ ability to tackle dangerous terrorists and the like? That argument is made on these shores and I suspect it may be made by Putin’s Russia as well.

For nearly two decades, the ECHR has enhanced Russia’s domestic legal system and provided an important outlet of dissent for those most at risk in Putin’s Russia. Without it—we should remember this in debates that we will, no doubt, have in this country on the ECHR in years to come—many opponents of the Kremlin would not have been able to gain the same level of publicity for their day-to-day plight. Naturally, if Russia withdrew from the Council of Europe, the repercussions for such individuals would be considerable. Many colleagues have spoken about those issues in detail this morning.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful contribution, but where does that leave us in relation to the enforcement of judgments? For example, it is clear that the Russian Federation is not going to comply with the Yukos judgment against it. What sanction will there be when it does not?

Mark Field: I accept that. That is, I am afraid, part of the frustrating battle of diplomacy, which we can look at from afar, but which my right hon. Friend the Minister has to deal with day to day. I think diplomacy within the Conservative party is bad enough, let alone having to deal with the other 46 members of the Council of Europe, but my hon. Friend will appreciate that that is the nature of the steadfast, patient way in which we approach these issues. We need to approach the issue of Putin in a steadfast and patient way.

My long-term belief is that, looking at what is happening geopolitically, including with the rise of China, for example—I know it pains many to even think in these terms—our relationship with Russia has to be part of our solution, not part of our problem in the longer term. Putin will not be there for ever. We need to recognise the importance of Russia as a place with which we have to have a working, workable relationship. That is in no way to justify what is going on. It is right that we should try to work with whoever is leading Russia to ensure that, if we cannot solve the real problems that we face, diplomatically, at least we are able to move steadfastly in the right direction.

My main concern with a Russian withdrawal is that President Putin will use it as a sparkling opportunity to stoke division and sow doubt among remaining members of the Council of Europe. No nation has ever resigned its membership, just as no country has ever left NATO, the eurozone or the European Union, and I hope that will continue for the foreseeable future, although one or two of my hon. Friends do not take a similar view. I fear that, by demonstrating that the post-cold war consensus on democracy, human rights and rule of law might be shattered, Putin could challenge at a stroke other international institutions that have so painstakingly been built to serve our best interests and foster freedom in our continent over the past 70 years.