17 Feb 2010

British Minister of State for Europe Christopher Bryant: Our intent towards Russia is entirely peaceful

British Minister of State for Europe Christopher Bryant has given an interview with Interfax in which he discussed EU-Russian and British-Russian visa arrangements, criticized Russia’s new military doctrine, and pledged not to stand in Ukraine’s way to the European Union.

Question: Let me ask you quite a general question. How would you describe the current state of relations between the UK and Russia. What steps have the two countries yet to make towards each other after the Litvinenko affair?

Answer: Well, we have had an embassy here for nearly 500 years, and it has been a very long relationship with Russia, and very strong trading links for many centuries as well. So, I think though there are a couple of issues which are difficult between us, nonetheless Russia and the UK are both on the Security Council of the United Nations and are key, major economies of the world, and on the whole range of issues it is important that we work together. And we do work together. And for stability, for economic prosperity and for ensuring that there is a peaceful world. So, I feel [we have strong relationship] as it happens. This is not my first visit to Moscow, I’ve twice before. I came in 1987 and 1997 and now. So, I seem to come to Russia every ten years.

Q.: So, in ten years we will have a chance to see you again.

A.: Well, I hope that we are going to win the general election in the UK and in which case I’d like to come much more regularly. I think that part of my job as minister for Europe, which includes Russia, and I think we should hope to have, you know, annual meetings really. In fact, some of you that I might be seeing in Moscow this time I’ve already met in the UK, we had meetings before Christmas, and the London Afghanistan conference as well.

Q.: Mr. Bryant, how will you characterize the coordination of Britain and Russia efforts to overcome the economic crisis?

A.: Well, this has been one of the things where we have worked very closely together and Gordon Brown last year in the G20 conference in London was very keen to work with Russia to make sure that we had similar packages, because we knew that with each of the countries in the world, all the major economies suffering some of the same problems. We needed to have what we call a fiscal stimulus in the UK, you called it something slightly different, but basically it was the same thing which is putting money into the economy and to protect people fr om unemployment and further collapse of the economy.

The challenge now is both in the UK and in Russia to see what exit strategy we have, because we put all this extra money in big deficits in Russia and in the UK. And we are going to have to start cutting that deficit we would have halved it in the next four years. But I think if all the countries in the world can coordinate their actions to cut those deficits then that would be more effective.

Q.: And would you assess the current investment climate in Russia? Do you think there are some restrictions here against foreign businesses?

A.: Lots of British businesses do a lot of work here, and not just in oil and gas, though that’s a large part what we do: BP, Shell and others. A lot of law firms do business here as well. And I met with the managing director of JCB the other day, the construction firm, and they do a lot of business here as well. But I think there is an issue for Russia about, if you want to make an investment in a country you want to make sure that you’re not going to have to pay bribes to people, and that if make you that investment it is yours and that you not going to suddenly have it taken off you by the government, and that the staff who are working for you are going to be safe and secure, and that the criminal justice system is fair and decent. And there are challenges. I think that everybody accepts that, President Medvedev said himself that these are areas Russia needs to change. Not least because otherwise there is a danger that Russia will rely more and more and more on one industry which is oil and gas.

Q.: And if I am not mistaken there is an issue now whether license for the Kovykta field, which BP controls, will be renewed. What you heard about this?

A.: That one is new to me. Sorry, no I don’t know about that. Nobody’s mentioned it to me.

Q.: Mr. Trutnev fr om the ministry which is responsible for oil, gas and other mineral resources is going to recall the license.

A.: Well, when it feels to investors that government is making capricious decisions, then investors get very worried about making future investments. That is very true. And you have many natural resources in Russia. But you can’t get them out and sell them to people without investment fr om the rest of the world. And that is a really important part of making sure that Russia’s economy survives.

Q.: What are British companies’ capabilities at the Shtokman field?

A.: The Shtokman field. Again I don’t know about the Shtokman field. I am not an expert on oil and gas. The department that works most closely between the UK [and Russia] on all of these issues is the energy department in the UK and the department for business with Peter Mandelson. He paid a visit here last year. I think he is quite well-known here.

Q.: Ok, so, let me ask you another question about visa regime between Britain and Russia. Does Britain plan to restart the talks on visa-facilitation regime between our two countries. Because if I am not mistaken a lot Russian citizens, especially businessmen have problems with getting British visas, as well as Britons who work here and have business have problems extending their work visas. So what do you think about this?

A.: I am not sure there is that much of a problem. 130,000 Russians get visas to come to the UK every year. We do not say ‘no’ to a higher number here than anywhere else in the world. We don’t have lots Russian hanging around in Britain at the end of their visas and not coming back. But I can’t see us [Britain] changing the visa regime at the moment.

Q.: Why? What is the reason?

A.: Because I think it works quite well as it is. I think that’s we’ve not detected any major problems for business at either end. There are lots, as I’ve said already, lots of Russian coming to the UK, there are lots of British people coming to Russia. And I know there is one element that Russia changed first, and we matched it, which was in terms of official visits and it is just a single-visit visa that we provide, but it was Russia to decide that first, and so now we mirror that.

Q.: How soon in your opinion would Russia and the EU switch to visa-free travel?

A.: I think it will take quite a long time myself. I know that my Spanish colleagues are keen to have talks with Russia at the moment and that’s excellent but you know there are issues with organized crime in Russia and the last thing we want to do in the European Union or in the UK is make it easier for organized crime to flourish because there is an open visa arrangement. And I think while the Spanish want to move fast some other countries will want to move much more slowly on these issues. And if Russia could prove that it didn’t have these issues with organized crime then that would make life much easier.

Q.: But not in the nearest future?

A.: I can’t see it happening. But, as you know, Britain has a slightly different [regime], we are not in the Schengen zone within the European Union, so the Schengen countries take a slightly different attitude. I know that several European countries are much more reluctant to have an open visa arrangement with Russia than for instance Spain is.

Q.: In this connection I would like to go to Ukraine. How do you assess the election campaign there? Do have some questions related to this? And do you still advocate Ukraine’s membership in the EU and NATO?

A.: It seems to be an open election, hotly contested. And we would be perfectly happy to work with whoever won in Ukraine. Our Prime Minister Gordon Brown has already congratulated Mr. Yanukovych. And it’s a very interesting turnaround for him personally over the last 10 years. And I’ve met several politicians fr om Ukraine. And it is clear that a lot of have an ambition to join the European Union, and we wouldn’t stand in their way. But in the end it will be a choice for Ukraine, whether it wants to make all the changes that it has to. My biggest worry is actually about the economy in Ukraine, because they are going to need an IMF loan, they have made some rash promises about they’re going to increase expenditure on the public sector and they are going to have to sort these issues out before the world can look to an IMF fund. I think that it was good that Russia and Ukraine this year came to a better understanding over gas, so we didn’t have gas switched off all over Europe. And we need to maintain those kind of strong links.

Q.: Do you think Ukrainians should have a referendum on Euro-Atlantic prospects?

A.: Well that’s for Ukraine to decide. But the one thing I would say to Russia is just because a country like Ukraine has an ambition to join the European Union or join NATO doesn’t mean that it is suddenly becoming anti-Russian. It is not a choice. I think you can be pro-Russia and pro-Europe. And if there is one thing I wish my Russian counterparts understood better it was that we have no intent against Russia, and the European Union doesn’t. We want to work with Russia. It is one of the things that we talk about, foreign affairs, with all my other counterparts in the EU. We talk about how we can improve our relations with Russia all the time.

And so, for instance, when recently the Russian cabinet produced a new military doctrine, which said that the biggest threat to Russia was NATO and the lowest threat was international terrorism. But this is clearly untrue; NATO has no intent against Russia. I don’t think any Russian soldier has been involved or will be involved in any action against NATO, whereas, you know, Russians have died from international terrorism. There have been many incidents in the last few years. So, I would challenge Russia and say: no, you are wrong on this.

Q.: How would you comment on the recent news items concerning Romanian and Bulgarian desire to have elements of the American anti-missile system?

A.: Well, I think that it is a decision for them. But again I say, I know it is very cold here, but I don’t believe in a Cold War. The Cold War is long dead. And the United Kingdom was the first country to recognize Soviet Russia, and I think it was in 1924 when we had a very brief labor government in 1924, it only lasted seven or eight months, but our intent towards Russia is entirely peaceful. We want to trade with Russia, we want to be good friends, we want to cooperate on international issues. One of these is coming up is Iran, wh ere I think a lot of people here are as just worried about the Iranian intent as we are.

Q.: Will Britain call to sanction against Iran in the nearest future in the Security Council?

A.: Yes. I mean, the European Union already has a series of sanctions against Iran, and we’ve worked very closely with Russia and the E3+3 group. And I am sure that there will be a move for further sanctions in the near future through the UN. Some of the things we’ve heard again in recent weeks in Iran are very worrying. I fully support Iran’s right to have a nuclear energy program, but I don’t want any more countries to have a nuclear weapon. We should in business in trying to lim it the number of nuclear weapons in the world and lim it the number of countries with nuclear weapons, and that’s one of the things the Americans and Russians are trying to work together on. And so are we as another nuclear power.

Q.: What do you expect from Russia in this connection?

A.: To agree with me.

Q.: Will you try to talk about this issue…

A.: Well I’m not seeing the ministers here who are in charge of Iranian policy. But I know that is one of the things that is ongoing discussion between the UK and Russia. As [UN] Security Council members we would bound to be amongst the countries that are most significant in making that decision.

Q.: Let me ask you about Georgia. Will Britain continue giving economic and military aid to the current Georgian leadership? And has London changed its position towards the conflict in the Caucasus in August, 2008?

A.: No. We saw the Tagliavini report, as confirming what we believed which was that there had been some initial problems on the Georgian side, but that Russia overreacted. And we believe that the Sarkozy-Medvedev agreement should be fully implemented, and that means that Russian troops should be withdrawing, they should already have withdrawn. I will be urging my counterpart for that to happen as soon as possible. We don’t support Abkhazia and South Ossetia splitting off from Georgia, we believe in the geographical integrity of Georgia. And I will be urging my Russian counterparts to support that. We will see wh ere I get.

Q.: Good luck.