Orders of the Day — Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:38 pm on 4th March 1991.

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Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 9:38 pm, 4th March 1991

The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) was right to ask some basic questions about the disbursement of aid to Romania and to stress that, as the Minister has said, we support not President Gorbachev the man but what he has represented in the past and what he may still be able to represent. We benefited from the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of Romania and from the knowledge and experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), who is passionately concerned about the needs of Romania. As has been said, we may give emergency food aid, but beyond that is the infrastructure, including the hospital, which still leaves children in a desperate situation.

I am pleased that a number of hon. Members were able to benefit not only from their experience of visiting these countries but from the organisations in which they have played a part. I think particularly here of the hon. Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) who, in the time that he was the chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Union group, contributed to the tremendous upsurge in the range of contacts with eastern Europe. I believe that it was his prompting that led to two missions—his own to Bulgaria and that on which my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby went. That gave him the background knowledge that he passed on to the House earlier.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) drew on his experience of the Council of Europe and helped the House in so doing. The hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), with his experience of young politicians, asked basic questions about the role of President Gorbachev. There are worries about the direction in which the Soviet Union is going and some point to the moves that President Gorbachev has made to please the conservatives, to the centralising power that he has given himself, to the bypassing of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and of the constituent republics, to his outright opposition to the private ownership of land, to the replacement of the Minister of the Interior by the hardliners and to the nature of the vice president whom he appointed. However, taking all that into consideration, we have to give him the credit for the path along which the Soviet Union has come, which has had such major effects both on eastern and western Europe and on matters such as the Gulf crisis, in which the Soviet Union played an important and constructive role.

Last week, I was in the Baltic republics and a number of the political leaders complained about the slow down in reforms and the slowness of the pace of advance. However, I urge them to look back over the past few years and to realise how far they have come in such a short time and to use that to put into perspective their current position.

All hon. Members who have spoken have endorsed the general proposition of linkage. As the Minister said, we are making it clear to the Soviet Union that there is a link between the readiness of the European Community to provide aid and assistance and the continuation of its reform process. The debate has been useful in setting out general principles to be followed in future. It is timely not only because of the discussion between foreign Ministers in Brussels today but because of the two advisory votes yesterday in Estonia and Latvia. If any proof was necessary, those two votes, taken with the one in January that made clear the views of Lithuania, showed the determination of the three republics to set out on the path to independence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) was correct, using a rather magisterial and broad brush approach, to set recent developments in the context of the whole of eastern and central Europe. Last week I paid a fascinating visit to Moscow and the three Baltic republics. In Moscow I met the two key members of the Central Committee who were responsible for both foreign relations and for national relations within the Soviet Union. I also met all the leaders of the Baltic republics who were available at the time. It is perhaps, therefore, inevitable that I shall concentrate on the USSR, but any comments that I make on food aid may be relevant to Bulgaria and Romania, the special needs of which were dealt with by the hon. Member for Arundel and my hon. Friends the Members for Tooting and for West Derby.

All of us recall the harrowing stories that we read in the press and the pictures that we saw on television at the end of last year about the food shortages in the Soviet Union and the need for food aid there. At the time, the Council of the European Community rushed to respond to the perceived needs. There were, indeed, food shortages, but some argue that a basic cause of the shortages was the struggle for power between the centralised bureaucracy and the command economy in the Kremlin, and the new power structure that is developing within the constituent republics. It was clear in Moscow last week that the Kremlin is on one side, while on the other side is the large building that houses the alternative power structure of Mr. Yeltsin in the RSFSR—the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. As the Minister conceded, any external intervention that aims to improve the food supply for the population must take into account the political realities in the Soviet Union today.

I have heard reports of a shortage of medical supplies in the Soviet Union as well as in both Bulgaria and Romania. Those shortages are now being met or at least assisted by the EC proposals. I shall be grateful if the Minister will tell us whether he accepts that there is a need for basic medical supplies in the Soviet Union, down to things such as aspirins and syringes. Why have those basic medical needs, which are humanitarian, not being included in the current package?

In terms of food aid, there appears to have been some correlation between those places in the Soviet Union that are the worst affected, including Moscow, Leningrad, the three Ural towns of Perm, Chelybinsk, and Sverdlovsk, which are the cities with the most democratic city councils, and the lack of food in, say, Kharkov, which is on the fringe of the black earth region.

Although the basic reason for the food shortages was the breakdown last year of the traditional distribution system of the command economy, we must remember that there was also a record harvest of 240 million tonnes. The breakdown of that distribution system opened the way for substantial corruption and political manipulation of the food supply. It looks as though the European Community has taken on board the fact that the various power elements in the Soviet Union, such as old regimes of the KGB and the army, have had opportunities to manipulate the supply of food.

As Mr. Yeltsin has suggested, another means of distribution could be via the constituent republics or through the various non-governmental organisations, including the International Red Cross. Each of those channels of distribution has particular political implications in terms of the present power struggle. For example, in Moscow, with its 'radical city council, a common explanation for the shortages was the attempt by more conservative elements to block off Moscow. Part of the evidence for that was that, on one day, nine of the 10 oblasts that were supplying milk to Moscow stopped that supply as if that was a co-ordinated act on behalf of the traditional suppliers of milk to the capital. I am glad that the Government seem to be alert to that factor and will be ready to recognise the political implications of the selected supply systems. The Minister has already referred to the attempt by the EEC to set up co-ordinating and monitoring organisations.

Will the Minister ensure, so far as he is able, that the political implications of the distribution of food are carefully monitored in the Soviet Union? He has already referred to the nature of the bodies under article 2, and I hope that he will ensure that they have proper facilities to monitor that aid.

What is the British position about the tying of the credits to EC suppliers? I understand that there is some dispute within the EC about whether the food aid should be tied specifically to EC suppliers or whether it should be open. It is said that the British Government are on the side of having as open a system as possible, and we should be in that camp.

It appears from the documents that the European Community will pay for the transport costs of the food aid and the food provided under the credits unless the recipient country takes over the supply from within the Community. Why, taking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting and by the hon. Member for Thanet, North who sought to defend taxpayers, should that be the case? With regard to the transport of grain to ports, even if the supply is transported in Community ships, why should the local costs of the supply be taken over thereafter by the Soviet Union? The food is provided free and I wonder whether the transport position is as inflexible as it appears from the rules.

With regard to the last part of the motion about linkage with the pace and nature of reform within the Baltic republics, last week when I met responsible leaders within the three Baltic republics, they were all most grateful for the robust response of the European Community on 22 January. They feared that the understandable concentration of western Europe on the Gulf would have distracted attention from the plight of the Baltic states. They feared that there was the precedent of the Suez adventure and Hungary. They were therefore surprised and delighted at the swift European Community response on 22 January to the killings in Vilnius on 13 January and in Riga on 20 January.

The effect of linkage on the Soviet Union has a good precedent. The Minister is probably aware of the Jackson-Vannick amendment on the linking of the emigration of Soviet Jews to American assistance to the Soviet Union and the very important effect that that had on an important internal policy within the Soviet Union.

The Minister stated that delegations have been selected by the Soviet Union to begin discussions. I raised that point with Estonia leaders, for example, and although they accept that working groups have been established, they complain that Estonia—perhaps the most cautious and realistic of the Soviet republics—finds it difficult to get any response from their interlocutors within the central Government apparatus. They claim that there is no authority or mandate, and that it is impossible to obtain answers on that or any other matter from the Kremlin, which seems paralysed in its indecision. Perhaps the establishment of the working groups is not as favourable and as much of a step forward as the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests. There is evidence of the Kremlin taking a harder line towards the republics.

The Community's response is proper because the linkage has been made, and the stick is available to be used if necessary. No doubt the Prime Minister is, in his best diplomatic way, making that point clear to the Soviet Union.

Obviously we must maintain our human rights credentials in relation to the republics, but we must equally acknowledge the Soviet Union's legitimate concerns about a change within the Baltic republics that is too abrupt. We must recognise the Soviet Union's needs in terms of its national security, particularly at a time when we are seeing the dissolution of the Warsaw treaty framework.

We must recognise also the minority situation within the Baltic republics, and their economic importance to the Soviet Union—the port of Riga has been mentioned already. A balance must be struck.

We are very ready to endorse the broad line taken by the Government in relation to credit guarantees and technical co-operation. We shall monitor carefully the political situation in the Soviet Union, particularly in respect of the Baltic republics, and will frame our policy acccordingly.