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Financial Times: Politics ‘not in way’ of UK-Russo business

By Neil Buckley in Moscow
Published: October 10 2007 19:51 | Last updated: October 10 2007 19:51

Business and political leaders insisted UK-Russian commercial relations had not been harmed by the dispute over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko – just as Russia’s security chief was accusing British spies of trying to break up Russia.

The Russo-British Chamber of Commerce put on a display of harmony on Wednesday at its first Moscow investment forum since tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in recent months. These were sparked by Russia’s refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the ex-KGB officer whom Britain wants to try for last year’s poisoning of Litvinenko, a critic of the Kremlin.

It brought together British and Russian ministers, the UK ambassador to Moscow and his Russian counterpart in London, and heads of Shell and BP in Russia, whose large Russian investments have been embroiled in high-profile commercial disputes in the past year.

In a colonnaded conference hall near the Kremlin, the names Litvinenko and Lugovoi went largely unspoken as businessmen mingled over trays of chocolates from a Cadbury’s factory in Russia. The UK is Russia’s largest foreign investor.

Yet as Britain’s Foreign Office seeks to draw a line under the summer’s events, signals from official Moscow suggested relations remain frosty. In a Russian magazine interview published yesterday, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, successor to the KGB, accused British secret services of being the most intrusive among an array of western spy agencies meddling in Russian affairs. Politicians with a cold-war mentality retained power in many western countries, he said.

“Having claimed credit for the collapse of the USSR, they are now hatching plans aimed at dismembering Russia,” the FSB chief said. “They see their special services . . . . as effective instruments for realising those plans.”

He singled out Britain, “whose special services are not only gathering intelligence in all areas but are trying to influence the development of the internal political situation”.

His comments came hours after Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, said there were too many foreigners in senior positions in Russian companies.

They provided an uncomfortable backdrop to efforts at the Moscow conference to insist politics and business in British-Russian relations could be kept apart.

But Lord (Digby) Jones, the UK’s minister for trade and investment, told the Financial Times he “genuinely believed” business links could flourish despite political tensions. “No one can ignore the politics but it isn’t getting in the way,” he said.

Lord Jones said his brief was to develop commercial links without getting involved in political debate. He said he had had positive meetings with three ministers or deputy ministers and had been granted his Russian visa within 24 hours.

Two scheduled speakers – Arkady Dvorkovich, a senior Kremlin aide, and Alexander Medvedev, deputy chief executive of Gazprom – were late cancellations. But Neil Cooper, the director of the RBCC’s Moscow office, said he did not believe the men’s decisions were political.

Sir Tony Brenton, the British ambassador, accused western media of presenting an excessively negative image of Russia that was “very often barely recognisable, barely comparable with the country as those of us who live here and love being here really see it”.

His comments were made in spite of Russian harassment of the British Council, the UK cultural body, and removal of the BBC’s Russian-language service from FM radio for a second time.

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