Britain, Russia fail to heal scars of agent's murder

13th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Britain and Russia on Wednesday failed to overcome "serious differences" in their troubled relationship, despite a rare meeting between Foreign Secretary William Hague and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Hague said after his talks with Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow that there was no change in the bilateral standoff over the murder of a Kremlin critic in London in 2006 that badly chilled relations.

Britain wants Russia to extradite ex-KGB agent turned Russian lawmaker Andrei Lugovoi -- the main suspect in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, but Moscow has always angrily dismissed the case.

"We have serious differences which we do not shy away from discussing," Hague told reporters in Moscow after talks with his counterpart Lavrov on his first visit to Russia as foreign secretary.

Hague said the issue had been discussed in his meetings with Lavrov and Medvedev but indicated that no breakthrough over the matter was in sight.

"We acknowledge that differences remain," Hague said. "We are not here today to announce any change in that position," referring to the British stance on the Litvinenko murder.

Lavrov also gave no hint of progress in finding a solution. "The position of Russia is well known to the British side and we are not going to give it up," he said.

While both diplomats affably emphasised that the two sides had agreed to differ, the failure to achieve progress dashed hopes of a quick "reset" in ties after the Conservative-Liberal coalition took power in Britain in May.

Such is the state of relations that a trip to Moscow by Hague's Labour predecessor David Miliband in November 2009 was the first visit by a British foreign secretary for five years but he did not meet with Medvedev.

Earlier in the day Hague met Medvedev at his Gorky residence just outside Moscow, passing him "the best wishes" from British Prime Minister David Cameron. No further public comment emerged on the meeting.

Hague told Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta that the "Crown Prosecution Service... have not received a satisfactory answer" to the request for Lugovoi to be brought to justice in Britain.

Lugovoi, an MP in the Russian lower house of parliament which gives him immunity, defiantly said he was confident Russia would stand with him in rejecting Britain's calls for him to stand trial in London.

"The more the British dig in their heels over this problem, the worse it will be for our relations with them," Lugovoi told the Interfax news agency.

British police accused Lugovoi of murdering Litvinenko, a former Russian spy turned self-exiled Kremlin critic, by lacing his tea with radioactive polonium in a London hotel in November 2006.

The Cold-War style slump in relations over the Litvinenko murder has been further aggravated by Russian anger that Britain has given exile to fugitives wanted by Moscow like tycoon and Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky.

Despite the political problems, Britain remains the largest foreign direct investor in Russia, Hague said. Russian companies account for 13 percent of international IPOs on the London Stock Exchange (LSE), he said.

"We will work to build on these strong foundations," Hague said, adding British business would also help Medvedev's plan to modernise Russia. "Both our governments are determined to improve these economic relations further."

The two permanent UN Security Council members also have similar positions on international issues like Iran and North Korea, the ministers said, while both sides signed a declaration on Afghanistan backing the Afghan government.

"We face a number of extremely serious challenges. We cannot address these problems unless governments work together and seek to narrow differences where differences arise," said Hague.

© 2010 AFP

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