MOSCOW (Reuters) - Britain and Russia said on Wednesday they hoped for a thaw in frosty relations despite persistent disagreement over the murder of a Kremlin critic in London with a rare radioactive isotope.
Ties between the two countries fell to a post-Cold War low after Moscow refused to extradite the man Britain wants to put on trial for the 2006 murder of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko using the highly toxic polonium-210 isotope.
Foreign Secretary William Hague stressed there would be no compromise over the issue but struck a conciliatory tone at talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
“We are not saying today that we have abolished all the differences between the governments of the United Kingdom and Russia,” Hague said at a briefing with Lavrov after talks in a 19th century neo-gothic mansion in Moscow.
“There is clearly a lot of progress we could make,” said Hague, who also met with President Dmitry Medvedev.
He said cooperation could widen on such issues as seeking peace and stability in Afghanistan, reining in Iran’s nuclear programme and efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.
Lavrov, who said he had accepted Hague’s invitation to visit London in 2011, also stressed that differences should not prevent cooperation.
“I would like to underline again, we are two normal countries with normal governments and we are interested in the pragmatic discussion of all issues, including those where our positions are not in line,” Lavrov said.
“We do not see the problems that remain as obstacles to everything else,” he said.
Lavrov, a close ally of Russia’s paramount leader Vladimir Putin, avoided some of the public sparring which characterised the visit of Hague’s predecessor to Moscow last November.
The row over Litvinenko led London and Moscow to expel diplomats three years ago. Hague said Britain, which wants to try former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoy for the murder, had not changed its stance.
“We are not here today to announce any change in that position,” Hague said.
Lugovoy has denied any link to Litvinenko’s killing and Moscow has ruled out his extradition, citing its constitution.
Even before the murder, anger over mutual espionage accusations and Britain’s granting of political asylum to some of the Kremlin’s enemies had overshadowed a lucrative business and trade relationship.
British companies accounted for $19.4 billion (12.2 billion pounds) of the $262.6 billion foreign investment Russia has attracted since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, making Britain the fifth largest investor after Cyprus, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany.
Over 1,000 British businesses have a base in Russia, the largest investor being oil company BP through its TNK-BP joint venture. For Russian companies, London is the traditional venue for selling billions of dollars of stocks and bonds.
The public tone during Hague’s visit contrasted with the atmosphere under his predecessor David Miliband, who had a stormy relationship with Russian officials.
Medvedev and Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to work on improving ties during their first meeting on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Canada in June.
“We should be able to acknowledge where differences remain and apply our minds to them through dialogue and diplomacy,” Hague said on Wednesday.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, additional reporting by Keith Weir in London, Alexei Anishchuk and Steve Gutterman in Moscow, editing by Sonya Hepinstall