July 18, 2007

Britain cuts off its nose to spite Russia's face

11:35 | 18/ 07/ 2007

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov) - It is commonplace that actions can have unintended consequences. Sometimes, however, the consequences of a particular action are all too predictable.

When David Miliband, Britain's new foreign secretary, announced his decision to expel four Russian diplomats and suspend attempts to streamline visa procedures between the two countries, his audience in the House of Commons was already thinking of Moscow's reply.

Elementary, my dear Watson! The sanctions with which Britain has chosen to express its irritation at Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, charged with the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, are certain to provoke a mirror-image response. By trying to punish Russia, Britain is punishing itself in equal measure.

The British government is running the risk of doing much greater damage to itself than it may seem at first glance. Such absurd sanctions are bound to produce a negative effect on bilateral economic, trade and cultural relations.

Kingfisher, a major British building materials company, is planning to double the number of household furnishings shops it has in Russia to 400. It would be difficult for Miliband to convince its executives that he has made a sensible diplomatic move. Likewise, tougher visa procedures are not likely to please the growing Russian community in London, which is enthusiastically buying local real estate and investing lavishly in the British economy. In the last five years, bilateral trade has gone up by 200%, and Russian investment in Britain totaled $6 billion in 2006 alone.

London's attempts to politicize what is a strictly criminal case may threaten to damage the impressive and sophisticated edifice of mutually beneficial relations and cultural affinity that has been built over many decades.

Miliband wants Russia either to violate the 61st clause of its constitution, which prohibits the extradition of Russian nationals, or to change it - no more and no less.

Law-abiding Britain would be interested to learn that Russia has been through this before. In 2002, it handed over Murad Garabayev to Turkmenistan at the request of that country's authorities. This, however, was a mistake because he happened to be a Russian national. Moscow had to make quite an effort to get him back. Later on, Garabayev sued Russia in the European Court of Human Rights for violating its own constitution and won 20,000 euros.

"After the incident with Turkmenistan we learnt a bitter lesson, so we no longer extradite our citizens," said Mikhail Margelov, head of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs. "We were expected to [obey the rule of law] and that is exactly what we are doing," he added.

As for Miliband's extravagant demand that Russia should urgently change its constitution, Britain's own experience shows that this is a very dubious option. Under strong U.S. pressure, Britain passed a law on extradition in 2003, but this has not prevented it from refusing to extradite people who have been charged with the most grievous crimes.

There are dozens of examples. In the early 1990s, the United States requested that Britain hand over Sheikh Abu Hamza, who had been training terrorists and raising money for acts of terror from British Muslims for years. He was doing this in broad daylight in a London mosque right under the police's nose. London turned down its closest ally's request, and Abu Hamza is now serving a light sentence in a British prison.

Britain has repeatedly ignored the requests of the Russian Prosecutor's Office to extradite businessman Boris Berezovsky and Chechen ex-commando Akhmed Zakayev on the basis of the 1957 European Convention on Extradition. The former is charged with five crimes, including fraud and planning to violently overthrow the government. The latter is accused of being a member of terrorist groups and of participating in kidnapping and torture. The Crown Prosecution Service rejected the irrefutable evidence provided by Russia as insufficient.

A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said that London's statement on sanctions against Russia was primarily prompted by the desire to justify its reluctance to cooperate in extraditing Berezovsky and Zakayev. He described Britain's conduct as unethical.

The circumstances surrounding Litvinenko's mysterious death are becoming more and more confusing every day. Recently, a 67-year-old waiter from a bar in the London Millennium Hotel testified that on November 1 (the alleged date of Litvinenko's poisoning with polonium), while he was bringing tea to the table of Litvinenko, Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, another ex-spy who was also poisoned with polonium, somebody tried to block his way. Scotland Yard has yet to deal with this important testimony.

This is just a detail, but it points to major shortcoming in the British inquiry into Litvinenko's case. Nobody in Russia has seen the results of the post-mortem or any other tangible evidence. Many Russian analysts and policymakers believe that Britain has something to hide in connection with the mysterious death of the ex-FSB agent.

"The British authorities are primarily trying to get Lugovoi out of Russia to prevent him from disclosing what he knows about the operations of British secret services," said Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the International Affairs Committee of the lower house of Russia's parliament. "Apparently, they are hoping that if they get him to Britain, they will manage to suppress his testimony. But that is not going to happen."

In general, London's reaction to Russia's claim that it must obey its constitution and prevent politics from interfering with a criminal investigation is archaic in the extreme. After all, the expulsion of diplomats is a symbolic weapon from the Cold War and is incapable of resolving modern problems. Moscow would like to believe that this obviously futile maneuver was prompted by the lack of experience of the young and emotional new Foreign Office leaders who are trying to assert themselves.

But Miliband is absolutely right about one point: Russia remains one of Britain's key partners on the world stage. I would add that this remains true in spite of any ups and downs in the two countries' relations. Today, many Brits and Russians expect their politicians to display reasonable restraint in order to preserve this shared asset.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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