The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, has turned the tables on David Cameron on his first visit to the country as prime minister, raising doubts about the UK’s court system and the level of corruption in British business.
In the first bilateral meeting on Russian soil since a diplomatic row damaged relations following the murder in London in 2006 of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, the pair trumpeted agreements reached on British-Russian business.
They made it clear they were determined to build a better relationship while leaving unresolved major differences, instead focusing on the £215m of deals that had already been struck during Cameron’s trip.
The one-day bout of intense diplomacy will later see Cameron afforded the first face-to-face contact for a British prime minister with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, since 2007.
The press conference between Cameron and Medvedev saw much banter between the two men, with the Russian president saying he thought Cameron could have been a “very good” KGB spy – a reference to an earlier anecdote Cameron had told about travelling to the country in 1985 as a teenager and apparently being courted by Russians. Cameron’s joke suggested he had narrowly missed possible recruitment to the KGB.
Though Cameron and Medvedev said publicly they had agreed to disagree on what should become of the man Britain suspects of murdering Litvinenko – Andrei Lugovoi, whom Russia refuses to extradite – Medvedev went further in questions put to him during the press conference.
“You have to learn to respect our legal framework,” he said.
“I would like to remind you article 65 of the Russian constitution says a Russian citizen can’t be extradited for legal proceedings. We should understand it and respect it.
“We have questions about how court decisions are come to in the UK but we are not raising these issues.”
Cameron has been under pressure to raise concerns about human rights and the conditions for operating in Russia during his first official visit to the country.
Today he rejected suggestions he was “parking” human rights in favour of a trip to win business. Referring to the Litvinenko case, he said: “This is not being parked. The two governments don’t agree. We are not downplaying it in any way. We have our own position. But I don’t think that means we should freeze the entire relationship – we need to build a relationship in our mutual interest.
“Both of us want to see progress. We are not parking the issue, just realising there is an arrangement that hasn’t changed.”
But he was pushed to explain how he could call for British business to invest in a country with unstable conditions.
On 31 August, BP’s Moscow offices were raided by bailiffs one day after the company lost a bid for a major Russian oil exploration contract.
Earlier in the morning in a speech delivered to students at Moscow’s state university, Cameron had carefully acknowledged how hard British businesses found it to operate in Russia.
Then he said: “I’ve talked to many British businesses. I have no doubt about their ambition to work in Russia … but it’s also clear that the concerns that continue to make them hold back are real.
“They need to know that they can go to a court confident that a contract will be enforced objectively … and that their assets and premises won’t be unlawfully taken away from them. In the long run the rule of law is what delivers stability and security.”
But later, when asked at the press conference why more British businesses should do business in Russia when corruption appeared to be unchecked, Medvedev said: “It is very difficult to deal with most states on our planet because corruption is a central element that exists everywhere. The open secret to you is that corruption exists in the UK as well. It doesn’t mean we are not prepared to deal with the UK too.”
Cameron’s broad aim is to “rebuild” the relationship and put an end to the “tit-for-tat” behaviour of the two countries.
He said: “I accept that Britain and Russia have had a difficult relationship for some time. And we should be candid about the areas where we still disagree. But I want to make the case for a new approach based on co-operation.”
There were “sceptics” in both countries, he said, “who will doubt whether we can ever get beyond the competitive ideological instincts of our past”, but he said he would take on those groups.
In his speech to Moscow state university he set out the British government’s position on Litvinenko for the first time on Russian soil. He said: “Our approach is simple and principled. When a crime is committed that is a matter for the courts. It is their job to examine the evidence impartially and to determine innocence or guilt. The accused has a right to a fair trial. The victim and their family have a right to justice. It is the job of governments to help courts to do their work and that will continue to be our approach.”
Describing his first visit, Cameron said at the beginning of his speech: “I first came to Russia as a student on my gap year between school and university in 1985. I took the Trans-Siberian railway from Nakhodka to Moscow and went on to the Black Sea coast. There two Russians – speaking perfect English – turned up on a beach mostly used by foreigners.
“They took me out to lunch and dinner and asked me about life in England and what I thought about politics. When I got back I told my tutor at university and he asked me whether it was an interview. If it was, it seems I didn’t get the job! My fortunes have improved a bit since then. So have those of Russia.”