The delicate issue of human rights seemed to be, from the very outset, implicated in David Miliband’s ice-breaking trip to Moscow. The trip coincided with the third anniversary of the death of Kremlin critic and ex-KGB man Alexander Litvinenko, the event which precipitated the initial freeze in relations. Indeed, the case of the poisoned Russian (who had a painful, lingering and widely-publicised death by polonium), as the Times commentator cited below suggests, could be seen to reflect Russia’s broadened trend of human rights violations:
This is not an obscure dispute over an awkward happenstance, in which the demands of realpolitik trump the requirements of justice. Litvinenko was a British citizen. His murder was an act of unspeakable brutality, committed in the heart of London. His fate replicated that of other critics of Mr Putin, such as Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist, who was shot dead in Moscow in 2006. The charge that Litvinenko’s was state-sponsored cannot be refuted, because Moscow has ensured that no trial can take place.
Hopes surfaced in the media that some level of dialogue on these issues might be established – with an inference that the issue of MikhaelKhordokovky may be mentioned and the fact that the British Foreign Secretary met with rights activistsas part of his trip. It is disappointing to remark the overwhelming impression that Millibandwalked away with little to show for in terms of these concerns, withtalks yielding no breakthrough in terms of the Litvinenko case and Miliband having seemingly no choice but to accept Russia’s intractability on the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi. According to the Times, ‘Litvinenko’swidow, Marina, described Mr Miliband’s trip to Moscow on the thirdanniversary of the attack as a great disappointment’.
At any rate, there seemed to be a feeling beforehand that tradeinterests between Russia and Britain may have overshadowed the thornier question of Litvinenko. The backdrop of improved trade relations also gained media attention. TheIndependent spoke yesterday of the invasion of British banks allaying political friction:
A year ago, British firms were afraid they might becomeoutcasts in Moscow following a dispute at Anglo-Russian joint energyventure TNK-BP, the closure of the British Council’s offices in Russiaand the Kremlin’s refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the chiefsuspect in the London killing of dissident Alexander Litvinenko.Diplomatic relations between the two Governments sank to their lowestpoint since the Cold War but the economic crisis and the need forforeign investment stimulus has since helped to paper over politicaldifferences.
Russia’s UK ambassador Yuri Fedotov also highlighted the importance of commercial issues in the Guardian:
We see recent tensions as a break in normal relationsbetween the UK and Russia. It is a relationship which can be seen, forinstance, in the strong business links between our two countries. Tradebetween us has tripled over the last six years and reached more than$22bn in 2008. Britain remains the fourth biggest foreign investor inRussia.
More than 1,000 British companies now operate successfully in Russia,in sectors as varied as mining and retailing, despite the global crisiswhich has affected our economic ties as well. BP is part of our biggestmultinational enterprise in our oilfields. Barclays, HSBC and otherbanks are expanding their network of branches. In turn, Russiancompanies seeking investment enjoy the benefits of the London StockExchange, enhancing the City’s prestige as the world financial centre.
Against this background, it is unfortunate that there has been frictionbetween our countries at diplomatic level. It is true, of course, thatDmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Gordon Brown have met at a varietyof international summits and our foreign ministers have remained incontact. But the fact that there has been no bilateral visit atministerial level for five years shows that relations are not as warmor positive as they should be.
It just seems unfortunate that in the case of Britain-Russian relations, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.