UK foreign secretary visits Russia for talks

NATALIYA VASILYEVA - Associated Press Writer
October 13, 2010
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov,  right, right, talks during a joint press conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague after their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010. Anglo-Russian relations have been tense amid controversy over issues including the fatal poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 and the enforced exile of executives in British oil company BP PLC's Russian joint venture.(AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, right, talks during a joint press conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague after their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010. Anglo-Russian relations have been tense amid controversy over issues including the fatal poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 and the enforced exile of executives in British oil company BP PLC's Russian joint venture.

Britain's foreign secretary made his first visit to Russia on Wednesday since taking up his post, stressing that both countries were trying to overcome a dip in relations since an ex-Russian security officer was poisoned in London in 2006.

William Hague said London and Moscow need to cooperate in dealing with global security challenges despite tensions following Alexander Litvinenko's death.

Hague acknowledged after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that problems remain, but said both sides must work to solve them.

"Our countries have had some serious differences in the past," he said at a news conference. "We should be able to acknowledge that differences remain and apply our minds to them, patiently, through dialogue and diplomacy."

Lavrov struck a similar chord, saying that the Litvinenko case and other problems shouldn't hamper cooperation on other issues. "We don't view the remaining problems as an obstacle for other issues," he said.

He reaffirmed that Russia was willing to cooperate with British authorities on the case provided that London shares materials. But he said Russia will do that in line with its own laws.

Moscow has rejected a British request to extradite the main suspect in the case, former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi, citing a constitutional ban on such extraditions. Lugovoi sits in parliament and enjoys immunity from prosecution.

Litvinenko died on Nov. 26, 2006 after drinking tea laced with a lethal dose of the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210 in a London hotel. From his deathbed, Litvinenko accused the Kremlin of orchestrating his poisoning, and British police named Lugovoi as the prime suspect. Lugovoi and the Kremlin denied the accusations.

The Litvinenko case pushed British-Russian relations to a post-Cold War low, and ties have been further strained by mutual allegations of spying, Russia's assault on British Council offices and a boardroom dispute at British-Russian venture TNK-BP.

A quarter of the BP PLC oil giant's output comes from TNK-BP, a Moscow-based firm created in 2003 that it owns 50-50 with a group of Russian oligarchs.

Hague told reporters that Britain and Russia continue to disagree on the Litvinenko case, but said that "this does not stop us from working together to combat international organized crime, drug trafficking, immigration crime and cyber crime."

He added that "clearly there is a lot of progress that we can make in the economic area and the knowledge partnership that we talked about."

Britain, which has just recently emerged from its worst recession since World War II, is seeking to underline the areas where it can cooperate with Russia in a bid to attract more Russian capital.

In the past few years, Russian companies have been a key source of initial public offerings in Britain, accounting for about 30 percent of all international placings at the London Stock Exchange. But stringent placing rules and other issues have pushed major Russian companies looking to go public elsewhere. Metal giant Rusal in January offered its stocks for sale in Hong Kong, prompting many of its Russian peers to announce plans of public offerings in emerging markets.

Hague was invited to Moscow after President Dmitry Medvedev and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed they wanted to develop a "stronger more productive relationship" when they met in Canada earlier this year at the G-8 summit.

Hague met Wednesday with Medvedev at his suburban residence.

The foreign secretary also met with Russian civil society activists. Lev Ponomaryov, a rights activist who took part in the meeting, said they discussed human rights violations, a Kremlin-led crackdown on opposition and critics, torture in prisons and violence in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.

"We talked about horrendous, Orwellian spying after activists that is 10 times worse than in Soviet times," Ponomaryov told The Associated Press. "We are all blacklisted as extremists and being followed everywhere."

Medvedev has launched a reform of Russia's police force and prison system widely blamed for corruption and abuses, but positive changes have yet to be seen.

Ponomaryov also said Russia could learn a lot from Britain regarding the fight against terror.

"There could be a real partnership between Russian and British counterterrorism on measures to fight terrorism," he said. "Britain has been dealing with terrorism for decades, and it would be good for our law enforcement officers in the Caucasus to understand that this is the problem Russia will have to face for decades."

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Associated Press Writer Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report.