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The Times: Russian regime is accused of intimidating British interests

December 09, 2006
Richard Beeston, Diplomatic Editor, and Tony Halpin in Moscow

Ambassador suffers months of harassment and BBC service in Moscow mysteriously goes off the air after the Litvinenko murder  
The Russian authorities yesterday stood accused of orchestrating a campaign of intimidation against British interests in Moscow, where the ambassador has been harassed and the BBC Russian Service mysteriously taken off air. 
With ties between the Kremlin and London already strained by the police inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, The Times has learnt that relations with Russia risk being further damaged by other serious diplomatic disputes.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said yesterday that it had complained to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the treatment of Tony Brenton, the British Ambassador in Moscow.

Mr Brenton has been the target of intimidation for the past four months by Nashi, a right-wing youth movement connected to the Kremlin. The group has trailed and heckled the envoy, picketed the embassy and triggered a violent incident outside his residence in September. There are fears for the safety of Mr Brenton and his family.

On Monday a protester shouted “Brenton apologise!” when the ambassador was taking part in a seminar at the Humanities University in Moscow with Tom Stoppard, the British playwright.

“It is a deliberate psychological harassment which is done professionally and which borders on violence,” Mr Brenton said.

The FCO said that it had been assured that concerns about the ambassador’s safety would be “addressed urgently” by the Russian authorities. But a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said later that the protests were lawful and protected by the country’s right to freedom of speech.

Privately British officials suspect that the entire campaign is being co-ordinated with elements inside the Russian regime angered by the ambassador’s speech to an opposition meeting in July.

At the time President Putin accused Mr Brenton of interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs, after the envoy spoke at the Other Russia opposition gathering held before the G8 summit in St Petersburg.

The Russians are also suspected of a hand in the disruption of the BBC’s Russian Service FM broadcasts in Moscow and St Petersburg, at the height of coverage of the Litvinenko poisoning.

The daily four-hour transmissions went off air in St Petersburg from November 13 to December 1, the period when the poison story broke, Litvinenko died and, in a final statement, accused Mr Putin of his murder.

In Moscow the broadcast went off air on November 24, the day after Litvinenko’s death, and has not resumed since. Sarah Gibson, the head of the BBC Russian Service, said that this was the first time that the FM transmissions had been stopped. She said that the Russians had blamed “technical difficulties” for the suspension.

The service is still broadcast on short wave and medium wave, although the FM transmission is the most accessible in the Russian capital, where most of the one million Russian Service listeners live.

A member of the Russian Service said that staff suspected that the broadcasts were taken off air to stop Muscovites hearing allegations that Russian security services were linked to the Litvinenko killing. The staff member added that the 40 Russian journalists working for the BBC in Moscow were fearful for their safety if the Litvinenko story continued to dominate the headlines.
The mystery over the BBC Russian broadcasts is just the latest in a series of incidents that has plagued Anglo-Russian relations this year. In January Russia accused four British diplomats of espionage and released surveillance footage of a secret transmitter disguised as a stone in a Moscow park. Soon afterwards the FSB, the Russian security service, said that it had reopened an investigation into the activities of the British Council in St Petersburg.

All these issues have been overshadowed by the Litvinenko murder investigation led by Scotland Yard’s anti-terror squad. If detectives find a link between the killing and Russian agents it would provoke the biggest crisis in relations since the end of the Cold War. 
Yesterday the key figure in Scotland Yard’s inquiry into the Litvinenko murder failed to meet detectives for the third time.

Andrei Lugovoy had been due to answer questions at a Moscow hospital where he is being treated for apparent radiation contamination. But the interview with Russian prosecutors and British detectives was postponed amid reports that he had fallen ill.

Mr Lugovoy insisted last night that he was in satisfactory health but was waiting for results of medical tests to be delivered next week.

His business partner, Dmitri Kovtun, is said to be seriously ill with radiation poisoning in the same hospital. The Interfax news agency, citing an unnamed hospital source, reported that Mr Kovtun, 41, had suffered “acute radiation sickness” with damage to his liver, kidneys and intestines.

He was interviewed by Russian prosecutors in front of British detectives on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Prosecutor-General’s Office then opened an inquiry into what it described as the attempted murder of Mr Kovtun after a spokeswoman said that it had “every reason to believe that Dmitri Kovtun and Russian Federation citizen Litvinenko were poisoned with radioactive nuclides”.

Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun have said that they met Litvinenko on November 1, the day he fell ill, at the Millennium Hotel in London to discuss a business proposal. They have denied any involvement in poisoning him. Mr Lugovoy, a former FSB officer, who now runs a private security company, has insisted that Mr Litvinenko initiated the meeting at the hotel, and that his principal reason for being in London had been to attend the Champions League football match that evening between Arsenal and CSKA Moscow.

A third Russian businessman, Vyacheslav Sokolenko, told The Times yesterday that he had no involvement with Litvinenko. The men had finished their meeting by the time he came to the hotel lobby after a sightseeing tour.

“I don’t know Litvinenko, I had never met him. If I spoke to him, it was only to say hello like any civilised person,” said Mr Sokolenko, a former Kremlin security guard. “I had no business in London. I hadn’t been there for 11 years. I was just there to see the match because I’m really a big CSKA fan.”

Andrei Romashov, Mr Lugovoy’s lawyer, said he did not know that the meeting with detectives had been cancelled, but insisted that there were no health reasons to prevent him being interviewed.

A former FSB director said he was certain that Litvinenko had been murdered by people determined to damage Mr Putin. Sergei Stepashin, now chairman of Russia’s Audit Chamber, said: “Those who wanted to tarnish the current Russian authorities, and primarily the President, killed Litvinenko.”

Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, dismissed as “complete nonsense” allegations that Russian forces had used polonium-210 against separatist fighters in Chechnya. Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen envoy in London, claimed that he had seen Litvinenko’s symptoms among people in Chechnya.

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