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Financial Times: Moscow ‘to expel top UK trade diplomat’

By Neil Buckley in Moscow
Published: July 26 2007 08:31 | Last updated: July 26 2007 18:39

Britain’s top trade official in Moscow is one of the four diplomats being expelled by Russia, raising concerns that the dispute over the extradition of a murder suspect could start to damage commercial links between the two countries.

Andrew Levi, counsellor for economic, commercial and scientific affairs – one of the most senior diplomats after the ambassador and deputy head of mission – must leave Moscow by Sunday, the Moscow Times reported, quoting sources close to Mr Levi.

The British embassy and Foreign Office refused to confirm or deny the report, saying it was standard policy not to identify expelled diplomats. Mr Levi was not answering calls on Thursday.

The UK last week expelled four Russian diplomats in protest over Russia’s refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB officer, prompting tit-for-tat expulsions by Moscow of four British envoys. Britain wants Mr Lugovoi to stand trial for last November’s poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the London-based Kremlin critic, with polonium-210.

It was not clear on Thursday whether Britain was expelling a Russian diplomat of similar rank to Mr Levi, and the Russian foreign ministry declined to comment. But there was surprise in the business community that an economic official of Mr Levi’s stature was apparently among those expelled.

“It’s disappointing, because the Russians have been keen to say this won’t affect business,” said Stephen Dalziel, executive director of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce.

Sir Anthony Brenton, British ambassador to Moscow, insisted commercial relations remained strong.

“The important thing in this is where Russia-UK relations go next,” he said. “Our firm intention is that our booming economic relationship continues to boom.”

Mr Levi arrived in Moscow just under two years ago and has played an important role in handling issues such as the Sakhalin-2 energy project, where Royal Dutch Shell was forced to sell a controlling stake to Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly.

British company officials said Mr Levi had been a valued source of advice and support for UK investors in Russia. The UK is the third biggest foreign investor in Russia overall, according to Russian official figures, and was the biggest Russian investor from the Group of Eight countries in the first quarter of this year.

But Britain’s Foreign Office had recently stepped up warnings to businesses about the risks of investing in Russia after Moscow’s moves to retake state control of energy assets. In June the spokesman for Tony Blair, the outgoing UK prime minister, warned: “Russia needs to reflect the same economic and commercial values as the west [otherwise] it will not attract the direct investment it needs and wants.”

Separately, Britain’s ambassador to Moscow was summoned to the Russian foreign ministry last night to explain a police statement last week that said a Russian had been detained in London in connection with an alleged plot to kill Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian tycoon.

The Russian ministry said it had learnt of the affair through media reports and was awaiting an official explanation from the UK.

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