Russia seeks to overcome Britain disputes

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Russia's top diplomat visits Britain on Monday to improve relations still marred by a succession of Cold War-style scandals, despite a landmark oil deal that underlined the potential of economic ties.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet Prime Minister David Cameron and his British counterpart William Hague during his two-day visit, as well as speaking to university students, the Russian foreign ministry said.

The trip will lay the ground for a forthcoming visit this year by Cameron to Russia, after President Dmitry Medvedev invited him in November last year, the ministry added.

It comes after the announcement in January of an unprecedented oil deal between the countries, already strong trade partners, under which state oil giant Rosneft will join forces with Britain's BP to explore Arctic deposits.

London and Moscow will probe how far relations can expand within the limits of the continuing stalemate in the dispute over the radioactive poisoning death of dissident Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

Russia has infuriated Britain with its refusal to extradite its lawmaker Andrei Lugovoi, the chief suspect in the case, and Moscow is equally angry over London's unwillingness to drop the demand.

Russia also resents Britain's granting asylum to Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev and self-exiled billionaire Boris Berezovsky, who was convicted of theft in absentia in Russia.

But with the "red lines" by now starkly clear, Russia and Britain are hoping they can agree to differ in order to boost investment as well as improve security cooperation after the recent Domodedovo airport bombing.

"Both sides are united in understanding that continuing problems should not prevent progressive deepening of our dialogue," a Russian foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement.

Hague said that Britain would voice "differences" at talks aimed at "deepening our already strong trade relationship."

Official visits between diplomats have been sparse.

A visit by then British foreign secretary David Miliband to Moscow in November 2009 was the first by a top diplomat in five years and Hague visited in 2010 after the Conservatives took power.

Lavrov was last in London for talks with British officials in April 2009 that year, accompanying Medvedev.

In new signs of disharmony, the countries exchanged sharp remarks over the expulsion of the British Guardian newspaper's Moscow correspondent and the case of a Russian researcher in the House of Commons who is facing deportation.

Russia this month refused entry to Guardian reporter Luke Harding, who flew in with a valid visa, in what Moscow called a bureaucratic affair, but which the newspaper linked to his coverage of the WikiLeaks scandal.

Hague spoke to Lavrov by telephone and several British lawmakers responded by calling for Lavrov's invitation to London to be revoked.

Russia in turn is sore over the case of its national Katia Zatuliveter, who was arrested while working as a researcher for a British lawmaker and faces possible deportation amid murky espionage allegations.

Russia in January called her treatment "unacceptable."

In a diplomatic tit-for-tat, last year Britain said it had expelled a Russian diplomat in retaliation for intelligence activities by Moscow, which responded by kicking out a British embassy staffer.

Yet both sides will hope for a boost from the oil deal that followed acrimonious disputes between Moscow and London over the joint Russian-British energy venture TNK-BP.

Despite the diplomatic rows, Britain remains a major source of foreign direct investment in Russia, while Russian companies are looking to London as a hub for possible IPOs now the economic crisis is easing.

© 2011 AFP

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