David Cameron insisted he had not “parked” concerns about Russia‘s human rights record, as he ended a one-day burst of diplomatic bridge-building by securing £215m worth of business deals with Moscow, but without making progress on the case of the murdered former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko.
Cameron trod a fine line during his 22-hour visit as he pushed British business interests while raising concerns over human rights. But Downing Street believes that differences over Russia’s refusal to extradite the man Britain suspects of murdering Litvinenko in London in 2006 are so embedded that they need to be negotiated around.
The foreign secretary, William Hague, also on the trip, said Britain had “met our objective in coming here and expanding working relations at the top of government, reinforcing the opportunity for jobs, and for business”.
Among the deals was a lifting of a ban on imports of British beef, which has existed ever since the 1990s BSE crisis, in exchange for the UK agreeing to look into ways to expedite visa approval rates for businessmen, though this would not extend to officials.
There had been “no meeting of minds” over Syria, Hague said. Russia does not agree with the UN security council that President Bashar al-Assad should leave office, and instead calls for political reform. The visit was the culmination of a year’s defrosting in Anglo-Russian relations, with Cameron granted the first face-to-face meeting in five years with Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, after a suspension of diplomacy at the highest levels caused by the Litvinenko case.
Cameron and Putin discussed the economy and how much each should continue to encourage mutual trade and investment.
Hague said Cameron also raised the issue of Litvinenko, who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London, but the British government does not expect Russia to change its mind.
Hague said this meant there would be “no prospect” of a resumption in counter-intelligence sharing while Litvinenko’s suspected murderer Andrei Lugovoi remains in Russia, despite the Russian ambassador to London calling for a resumption in counter-intelligence sharing this on Friday ahead of the trip.
Though Cameron and Medvedev said publicly that they had agreed to disagree over Lugovoi’s extradition, Medvedev went further than before, saying: “You have to learn to respect our legal framework. I would like to remind you of 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.”
With such an emphasis on trade, the prime minister was under pressure to prove he had not “parked” concerns about human rights abuses.
Referring to the Litvinenko case, Cameron 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.” In his speech to Moscow state university students earlier in the day, Cameron set out the British government’s position on Litvinenko. 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.”
Cameron told the students he had carefully acknowledged how hard British businessmen found it to operate in Russia. 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.”
However, at his press conference with Cameron, 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 end the “tit-for-tat” behaviour. In a sign of a potentially lighter mood, Medvedev said that he thought Cameron could have been a “very good” KGB spy, a reference to an anecdote Cameron had told students earlier.
Describing his first visit, Cameron said: “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.”
He finished his speech by appearing to make a link between the two periods. “In the last 20 years Russia and Britain have both come a long way but each largely on their own. In the next 20 years I believe we can go very much further.”
He ended his speech with a Russian phrase which translates as “we are stronger together”.