Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Russian anger over Litvinenko Affair

21st July 2007 16:42

At the height of the diplomatic crisis between the UK and Russia last week an influential Moscow magazine

published a revealing image. A towering red-skirted Mother Russia figure was

depicted protectively clutching a baby-sized Andrei Lugovoi to her bosom.

Mr Lugovoi, a former KGB bodyguard, is the chief suspect in the radiation-fuelled murder of Alexander

Litvinenko in London last November. It was Moscow’s refusal to extradite him that prompted

Britain to expel four Russian diplomats last week. That move drew swift retaliation: four British

diplomats in Moscow were told to pack their bags and counter-terrorism between the two countries was

abruptly suspended.    The magazine’s image is sure to have gone down well

with Russian readers. It showed a pint-sized ‘Britain’ donning a bowler hat emblazoned with a Union Jack

looking up beseechingly and apparently impotently at the imposing figure of Mother Russia.

The message was succinct: Russia, the world’s largest country by territory, will not be intimidated by a

‘smaller’ country and will not be surrendering Mr Lugovoi to British justice anytime soon.

There is nothing, the magazine suggested, that Britain could do to prevail in the current dispute.   

Russia’s official position meanwhile was restrained outrage and indignation.

London, the Russian public was told, was “amoral,” guilty of double standards, and seemed to have lost

its customary “common sense” and sang-froid.   Officials explained there was no way Russia could

comply with the British request because the Russian Constitution expressly forbids the extradition of

Russian nationals to foreign states. Full stop. What, they asked, was unreasonable about that, and why

was Britain not content with Moscow’s offer to put Mr Lugovoi on trial on Russian soil if there was

sufficient evidence against him.   Where, many a commentator asked, was Britain’s famous

sense of “fair play?” The British Embassy, a target of pro-Kremlin

protestors in the past, found itself picketed by  members of ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s

LDPR party. “Britain is an enemy,” read one placard. 

The crowd was small though and even in Russia everything that the fiery Mr Zhirinovsky says is taken

with a pinch of salt. Mr Zhirinovsky was nonetheless his usual theatrical

self. “We have always striven for cooperation with Britain,”

he said. “And in response they’ve shown us their first, and then expect us to cooperate with them.”

Meanwhile Mr Lugovoi, who has become something of a celebrity and a hero, gave interviews to as many media

outlets as he could, apparently revelling in a publicity glare he has grown accustomed to.

The sharp-suited Moscow businessman said he often found himself approached in the street for autographs

and that “everyone” he had spoken to supported him. He categorically denied – for the nth - -time any

involvement in the murder of the late Mr Litvinenko.  Considering he now finds himself unable to travel the

world freely and is apparently accused of murder by the Crown Prosecution Service, it is perhaps

unsurprising that he had few good words to say about a country Russians sometimes anachronistically still

refer to as “Foggy Albion.” In an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station, he

complained bitterly that the British side had not contacted him since last December and had not provided

any solid proof of his alleged guilt.  Echoing the magazine’s cartoon, he brushed off his

‘Russian incarceration” with a sideswipe at Britain’s small size.

“Britain is just about bigger than the Moscow Region so if I lived in Britain and found myself in a similar

situation, I would have been upset,” he said. “But I’m in Russia where there are quite a few places

to spend your holiday. As to Moscow…there is much more to do in Moscow than in London and Paris combined.”

In interviews with the British media, he struck a more wistful tone lamenting the fact that he would no

longer be able to buy his shirts and suits in London’s Jermyn Street or attend UK football matches.

In the Russian media however he came across as a stereotypical Kremlin politician, a job some have

speculated he may be lining himself up for. He mocked what he called Britain’s “imperial

ambitions” and lashed out at the UK’s refusal itself to hand over individuals wanted by Russia.

“(Britain) has always given refuge to tricksters, fraudsters, adventurers, and defectors on its soil”,

he raged. His dig was a reference to two individuals in

particular: UK-based businessman and arch Kremlin foe Boris Berezovsky and Chechen rebel Akhmed Zakayev.

It was Mr Berezovsky who was allegedly targeted by a Russian “assassin” in London in recent months, a claim

that last week further strained tensions between the two countries. In Russia the plot has been dismissed

as “nonsense.” The other ‘wanted’ man Mr Lugovoi was referring to was

Akhmed Zakayev, a rebel Chechen envoy sought in Russia on terrorism-related charges.

Russia has been trying unsuccessfully to extradite Mr Berezovsky and Mr Zakayev  from Britain for years. In

light of that fact it portrayed the UK’s outrage over its refusal to extradite Mr Lugovoi to Britain as

hypocrisy of the highest order.    Russian politicians from Vladimir Putin’s United

Russia Party claimed – in one voice -- that Britain was treating Russia as “a banana republic.”

Many commentators also suggested that Gordon Brown’s tough line was designed for UK domestic consumption.

Britain had a new government that was eager to make its mark and had tapped into the apparently old and

populist well of ‘Russophobia,’ they said.  The fact that Britain has so many business interests

in Russia – from oil companies to Marks & Spencer – was also in sharp focus.

The consensus was deafening: Britain, it was argued, has a lot more to lose in this row than Russia.

An influential business leader dutifully raised the prospect of British companies losing out on lucrative

contracts in future and said Russian companies might start to think twice before they listed on the London

Stock Exchange, something they have done with increasingly regularity in recent years.

Ordinary citizens seemed unfazed though; state TV broadcast images of hundreds of them happily queuing

up for British visas.  Not everyone was anxious to harp on about Britain’s

small geographical size either. The country’s fiercely nationalistic tabloid press called for the Kremlin not

to give way to “hysteria” and moderating voices cautioned Russia should proceed carefully in a row

with “one of the world’s most influential countries.” Nor did the dispute show any signs of taking on the

fevered populist nature of recent Russian spats with former Soviet republics Georgia and Estonia.

That might be because many Russians have a longstanding affection for Britain.

The wives, daughters and mistresses of rich Russians can often be seen driving around Moscow in Minis with

Union Jack roofs while British pop music, designer clothing, and the likes of Harry Potter and Sherlock

Holmes enjoy a cult-like following. Polls regularly show that while Russians regard

Americans with real hostility they harbour no such ill feeling towards Britons – yet.   

Many rich Russians send their children to British public schools, own second homes in the UK, and like

nothing more than spending a long weekend there. Maybe that is why President Putin and his top

officials have shown signs in recent days of wanting to de-escalate a crisis that seems to have taken them

by surprise.