Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Britain and Russia drift further apart over Lugovoi

The row over the Litvinenko poisoning between Russia and the UK seems to be escalating very rapidly this week. Such haste is rather strange since no real developments have happened in the case since Andrei Lugovoi's (pictures) notorious press-conference (the main suspect in the case according to UK authorities) in Moscow more than a month ago. The Guardian reports:

The Foreign Office and Downing Street are preparing to send a strong signal to the Kremlin following its refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the former KGB agent suspected of murdering Alexander Litvinenko last November.

The government was last night considering counter-measures to show Britain's extreme displeasure at the Kremlin's decision, and the seriousness with which it takes the "terrible" murder of Mr Litvinenko - a British citizen and fierce critic of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. The options include the possible expulsion of Russian diplomats from the London embassy, and the withdrawal of cooperation in several areas, including education, trade, social affairs and counter-terrorism.

Although the Russian government officially announced the refusal to extradite Mr. Lugovoi last Monday, Moscow's stance was not new, and no real doubts existed about it since Britain asked for the extradition a few months ago. The Russian side has three motivations behind its actions.

First, extradition of its citizens is barred by its constitution. Second, it has so far seen no evidence in British documents that make Mr. Lugovoi a suspect in the case; if it does, it promises to try him at home. But third, and most important, is Russia's counter-action to Britain's refusal to extradite Boris Berezovsky (the notorious Russian tycoon, who is plotting to set up a coup in the Kremlin) and Ahmed Zakaev (a spokesman for the Chechen terrorists); both were friends of Alexander Litvinenko, and Russia has deep suspicion of their involvement in the affair.

Many analysts have pointed out to Russia's obligation to extradite Mr. Lugovoi, thus overriding the Russian constitutional ban, based on its signing of the 1957 European convention on extraditions, which according to some overrides domestic laws. Yet Kommersant has interviewed a number of experts in the field with differing opinion. One of these experts, a law professor at Russian RUDN university claims that the suspect must be deemed guilty in both countries for the extradition to occur. Another expert, senator Mikhail Margelov says that Russia has already faced criticism for ignoring its constitution from the European Human Rights court for extraditing its citizen to Turkmenistan several years ago.

Britain is fully aware that Russia will never extradite Mr. Lugovoi, just like Russia has come to terms with the fact that Mr. Berezovsky and Mr. Zakaev will never leave the UK. British authorities are in a difficult position. The new government is forced to take action to prove its tough stance with Russia and its commitment to solving the Hollywood-like riddle in which many Londoners were affected.

Britain's actions are limited; Russian energy companies toward which economic sanctions may be applied will always find alternative markets in Europe or Asia. BP and Royal Dutch Shell on the other hand are having trouble holding on to their assets in Russia, and are grateful for anything that is left to them by the Russian regulatory agencies. The only real threat is a full blockade for Russian companies into the UK financial market, which will also impact London as a financial center, where Russian IPOs account for a quarter of new equity raised.

The situation will only get worse. Talk of a break in diplomatic relations is too unrealistic and even excessive. But it is obvious that any future cooperation will be chilly. If the affair over Litvinenko was a provocation of some sort (it is hard to explain any other scenario) it has worked perfectly. Both sides now have little area for maneuver, and Russia's reputation on the international arena has been dealt a very powerful blow.

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