Anglo-Soviet Relations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:48 pm on 14th March 1991.

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Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale 10:48 pm, 14th March 1991

If I misrepresented the hon. Member, I did so unwittingly, and I apologise.

In addition to the political changes and the lack of economic progress, there has been another major broad development—the crisis in the relationship between the central and republican authorities. One of the many welcome aspects of President Gorbachev's reforms was to decentralise power and to make possible the election of new and more genuinely representative republican and regional Governments, but this process has in turn raised questions of a fundamental nature about the powers to be assigned to republican bodies, and the degree of sovereignty to be enjoyed by the 15 union republics. The negotiations on the draft union treaty, and the referendum which is to be held on Sunday 17 March, have been a focal point for these discussions.

What attitude should we in Britain, the British Government, take to the Soviet Union in this turbulent transitional phase of its history? We do not know, and outsiders cannot determine, what will happen in the Soviet Union in the months and years ahead. But we should spell out clearly where we stand, and the Government propose to do so in several ways. I will touch on a few of them.

First, we stand for keeping open the many channels of communication that have developed in the past few years. Now is not the time to encourage a Soviet return to isolation. If we disagree with the policies which the Soviet Government are pursuing, we should discuss our disagreements frankly. We have many important interests in common with the Soviet Government. We share a vital concern in seeing, for example, a more secure and stable middle east in the wake of the Gulf conflict. We are both vitally engaged in building a safer and more prosperous Europe—for example, through the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. This new Europe must be built on trust and confidence.

Second, as a broad general principle, we do not seek to prescribe the future of the Soviet Union. All the peoples of the Soviet Union should enjoy the right to self-determination, but it is not for us to lay down how they should exercise that right. A process of evolution and of very active political debate is under way. Our policies will evolve in parallel with that process, as the hon. Member for Swansea, East said. We will seek to maintain effective working relationships with all those in authority throughout the Soviet Union, and to conduct appropriate business with them. We do not wish to see the Soviet Union descend into chaos or strife. We are well aware that it will be no easy task for the Soviet people to resolve their present difficulties.

Hon. Members have on many occasions rightly expressed concern about the predicament of the three Baltic republics. Democratic and peaceful negotiation is precisely what is needed there. The United Kingdom, like most western states, has never given legal recognition to the USSR's annexation of the Baltic states. They have a special history and a special status. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister explained to President Gorbachev the dismay that the violent events in Vilnius and Riga in January had evoked in the west. While we are glad that the elected authorities in the Baltic states remain in office, little progress has yet been made towards a substantive solution. Negotiations will take time; they will require patience and tolerance.

I have touched upon the problems of the Soviet economy. A third area of concern is the question of economic reform, and our economic and commercial relationship with the Soviet Union. Here, too, we and our western partners have made very clear where we stand. It is apparent that the highly centralised, rigid and monopolistic command-administrative system has failed the Soviet people. That is widely acknowledged, even within the Soviet Union. We believe that the overhaul and modernisation of the Soviet economy and more efficient exploitation of that country's huge natural resources and agricultural potential will be of common benefit.

With our partners in the European Community and the Group of Seven, we commissioned two major studies of the Soviet economy last year. They recommended a process of structural change, of the creation of markets and of introducing incentives for enterprises. As both reports made clear, that is a process in which western advice and training and western commercial investment could play an important part—as they are already doing in eastern Europe. The EC technical assistance programme and our own bilateral know-how fund have both demonstrated the west's willingness to offer tangible support for reform. If the Soviet Union moved decisively towards a market economy, I believe that those would prove to be only a first step.

British-Soviet relations are not simply the preserve of Governments. There is a considerable and growing network of connections between people in all walks of life—the hon. Member for Broadgreen is one—in this country and the Soviet Union, a network should evolve largely irrespective of politics. The Soviet people have inherited a sad legacy, and are going through considerable hardship as they work through the daunting task of reshaping their country. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary said in a speech last month, we want to knit them into Europe as that becomes possible—the common European home referred to by the hon. Member for Swansea, East—and to continue bringing down the barriers of the past. There will be difficulties along the way, as there have been this year, but we are sure that it is the right objective, and one which hon. Members will support.