Litvinenko Case Poisons UK-Russian Relations

By Rice-Oxley, Mark | The Christian Science Monitor, May 23, 2007 | Go to article overview

Litvinenko Case Poisons UK-Russian Relations


Rice-Oxley, Mark, The Christian Science Monitor


Six months to the day after Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko died from polonium poisoning, the contamination is spreading far beyond the initial target to pollute relations between Russia and the West in general, and Britain in particular.

Britain's decision Tuesday to try to prosecute an ex-KGB agent for Mr. Litvinenko's murder last November adds a new layer of frost to diplomatic exchanges that are already at their iciest since the cold war, warn politicians and experts in London and Moscow.

British prosecutors said they wanted to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian businessman who met Mr. Litvinenko on the day he fell ill, and prosecute him for murder. Mr. Lugovoi, a former KGB agent, has repeatedly insisted he is innocent.

Top prosecutor Sir Ken Macdonald called it an "extraordinarily grave crime," while Downing Street said that despite the need for cordial relations with Russia, the rule of law had to be respected, "and we will not in any way shy away from trying to ensure that that happens in a case such as this."

No one expects Russia to surrender Lugovoi, though. The Kremlin has barely concealed its contempt for the British process, insisting Russia had nothing to do with the murder and cooperating only grudgingly with the British investigation. Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor general's office said Russian citizens cannot by law be handed over to foreign countries. Period.

At face value, the consideration is this: Was Litvinenko's poisoning the work of a state-sponsored plot or the wretched result of a private grievance?

But underneath the mysterious twists reminiscent of a spy novel lurks a broad agenda of international issues, from energy security to Iran to NATO expansion, that are threatening to rupture relations between Moscow and the West. In short, analysts say, it is not just that the Litvinenko affair is poisoning relations, but that poisoned relations will make it difficult to clear up the Litvinenko affair.

Europe is aghast at a power that is seen to be bullying its neighbors with threats to cut off oil and gas and worse. Russia complains it is misunderstood and repeats that it doesn't really need the West anyway.

"It's a symptom rather than a cause of worsening relations," says Margot Light, a Russia expert and emeritus professor at the London School of Economics. "There are deep-seated problems that lie beneath this."

She notes that relations started to sour when Britain granted asylum to two men wanted for prosecution in Russia: the former Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky and Akhmad Zakayev, a one-time Chechen rebel.

"The Russians are convinced that the West, and Britain in particular, is guilty of double standards, because we won't extradite the people they consider terrorists," she adds.

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