Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:44 pm on 30th April 2008.

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Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South 2:44 pm, 30th April 2008

I know that members often say this perfunctorily, but I am genuinely grateful to Mr. Spring for raising this issue. The President of Ukraine will be visiting this country soon, and we are honoured by a small delegation from the Supreme Rada here this afternoon. I am very pleased to welcome them.

I first visited Ukraine in faraway 1960, and subsequently I have returned in different guises and auspices—with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence. I have observed four elections through the OSCE and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and I have been on visits sponsored by non-governmental organisations. I genuinely regard the country very highly. Since independence, I have noted and observed, with varying emotions, its vicissitudes—particularly its political changes. However, it has a very exciting future, which should be determined by what Ukrainians themselves wish and do, with the help of any individuals, organisations—international or otherwise—and Governments from whom they seek support. The pace and the nature of the co-operation must be at their behest and not forced on them—they should not be arm twisted—by groups or countries. Ukrainians may wish to follow a number of models: first, to move further westwards, politically and in every other sense; secondly, to remain neutral; or thirdly, to move closer to Russia. We all have our own aspirations and preferences, but that is not a choice for us to make.

The history and geography of Ukraine have had an enormous effect on its evolution and, in particular, on its relationship with Russia. Allegedly, Ukraine began in Kiev and Rus at the end of the 10th century. Periods of independence followed, but for most of its history it has been closely linked—willingly, less willingly or unwillingly—with its more powerful neighbour to the east. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave it the opportunity to become independent—but not too independent, as far as Russia is concerned. The Kremlin does not deeply cherish the idea of an independent Ukraine. Any attempt to extricate itself from the Kremlin's influence will not be greeted with high enthusiasm in Russia. Other countries fall into the same category—notably, Moldova and Georgia, on which the pressure has been ratcheted up at an alarming rate by Russia over the past couple of weeks.

Even Ukraine has suffered excessive interference. The hon. Gentleman talked about the enforced famine in the 1930s. I know full well about the excessive pressure put on Ukraine during the 2004 elections, the persistent threats to cut off energy supplies and, worst of all, the statement made by President Putin threatening to target Ukraine with nuclear weapons if it had the temerity to join NATO. The country faces many political, economic, security and geopolitical problems, but I am very optimistic about how it will evolve over the next decade or so.

Ukraine's geopolitical problems can be understood simply by looking at a map—it is sandwiched between Russia and Europe. I spoke about the relationship with Russia and the menacing statements that have been made. I recall watching the Central Election Commission's enormous screen as the results came in of each of the 2004 elections and observing the colours of those who supported Yushchenko or Yanukovych. The results demonstrated a clear dividing line between each of the candidate's supporters. That is no one's fault—it is quite natural—but it is the essence of the problem.

Despite the problems, a consolidating democracy is emerging swiftly in Ukraine. I hope that it will not be long before we can designate Ukraine a consolidated democracy. Will the country shift its alliances and join NATO? In 2002, Ukraine announced that it was seeking membership of NATO. We are all well aware that that was not universally endorsed, which is putting it politely. Many hoped that Ukraine, along with Georgia and others, would be offered a place on NATO's membership action plan. However, such an offer was not made. Will Ukraine be offered a place later this year or early next year, or will the process be further elongated? I will be interested to hear the views of Her Majesty's Government as we are pretty familiar with the French, German and American positions. The earlier decision was clearly a glass half empty and a glass half full: Georgia and Ukraine would become members of NATO, but not yet. The question, therefore, is how long do they have to wait?

Once again, it is absolutely imperative that the people of Georgia and Ukraine express their aspirations. The people in Georgia have expressed their views very strongly and positively. In Ukraine, however, there is no majority in favour of joining NATO. One of the many conditions for achieving membership is substantial public support. Even though there may not be membership on offer at this moment in time, or even in the months or years ahead, there are many areas of common interest. Further consolidation can be made on those areas between NATO and Ukraine if Ukraine so desires.

The prospects for closer collaboration with the European Union are much greater. Integration has been a priority for Ukraine for some time. There is a partnership co-operation agreement, and we are aware that Ukraine performs an important role in the neighbourhood action plan. I have been looking at a number of documents produced by the European neighbourhood policy and at a progress report on Ukraine, and the response by the European Union has been pretty positive. Many people can express some satisfaction with that.

We heard about other developments in the World Trade Organisation. Again, the pace at which the relationship with both the EU and NATO evolves will be set by the Ukrainian people.

I want to comment on a few further problems—we all have problems—including problems of governance. Progress is being made, but we need to see more reforms in society as a whole. Mrs. Tymoshenko's party has a very small majority in Parliament and her relationship with the President is not as close as it could be. Hopefully, though, governance and stability will evolve and normalise.

One must not patronise the Supreme Rada of Ukraine; it is a very powerful institution, which has determined its own pace of development. It has far more powers—some of them negative—than we have in this country. There has been a partial easing of the fractured relationships. Earlier this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit wrote about Ukraine's membership of the World Trade Organisation, and said that it was

"a useful reminder of the common ground between the so-called orange and blue parties."

I would like to compliment Ukraine on how it has conducted its elections. I headed election observation missions in the 1990s and the country fell far short of international standards. I have just been looking at the various reports of ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. I headed the three election observation missions in 2004. When presenting the ODIHR and Parliamentary Assembly's report after the first election on 31 October, I said:

"With heavy heart we have to conclude that the 2004 Presidential elections in Ukraine did not meet a considerable number of OSCE, Council of Europe and other international standards for democratic elections."

The committee felt that the election process constituted a step backwards from the 2002 elections. We urged Ukraine to use the period between the first and second rounds to improve election organisation and conduct. Regrettably, it ignored our advice. Therefore, in the second round, I commented on behalf of the international organisations. I said:

"The second round of the Ukrainian Presidential elections did not meet a considerable number of OSCE commitments", and concluded:

"I announce that it is with an even heavier heart that we have to conclude that the authorities did not respond positively to our appeal."

The incredible thing was that a few weeks later, when the results of that election were invalidated by the Supreme Court, the next set of elections were incredibly different. The media became neutral, which is more that we have experienced in the UK over the years and in the forthcoming London election. There was a totally different philosophy in those second elections. With my long experience of looking at elections, I could not believe that one could go from an election with epic proportions of corruption to—within a few short weeks—an election that got very close to meeting international standards. The subsequent elections have had a very good response from the international community.

In conclusion, there are problems within the society that need to be overcome, but there is a strong and vibrant civil society. There are problems with the economy, with modernisation and with the health service. However, there are echoes of those concerns in any country, not least our own. I desperately hope that a population that is becoming more sophisticated, more involved and more supportive of the process of democratisation will make Ukraine a model of governance and society, not just in the region but far more broadly.

Non-governmental organisations can help—we heard about one NGO that is helping and there are others—and Governments must assist economically and politically. We must pass over, where it is required, the expertise that we have acquired—albeit painfully over the years. However, we must ensure that it is not perceived as a master/servant relationship. In the driving seat is the Rada, the Government, the President, the political parties and the people of Ukraine. If they seek assistance, then we will, I am sure, continue to give it. We must recognise that we must not interfere in a way in which that assistance is perceived negatively by those who will seek to damn that assistance.

I hope that the next time that the hon. Member for West Suffolk chooses to raise the subject of Ukraine, we can be delighted to say that progress has been made. More is being made, and very soon Ukraine will be a country that will be seen to be the equal of others in the quality of its people's lives, of its institutions and of its commitment to democratisation.