MOSCOW (Reuters) - An attempt by Prime Minister David Cameron to thaw relations with Russia brought few results on Monday and yielded a curt response from the Kremlin over the fate of British oil firm BP, underlining lingering distrust.
On the first visit by a British prime minister since Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko died in London from poisoning by radioactive polonium-210 in 2006, Cameron set out to improve business ties as a way to warm up relations.
But behind the smiles, and even a Kremlin joke about an apparent KGB attempt to recruit Cameron on a trip to the Soviet Union 26 years ago, the visit produced no big breakthroughs.
Just 200 million pounds worth of business deals were announced and Cameron received a cool response from the Kremlin about the fate of BP, whose Moscow offices were raided by court bailiffs two weeks ago and which has a long history of problems in Russia.
President Dmitry Medvedev illustrated the gulf that remained between London and Moscow by saying he would never extradite the Russian man whom British prosecutors want to put on trial for Litvinenko’s murder.
“This will never happen,” Medvedev said after talks in the Kremlin, adding that Russia had concerns about corruption and the court system in Britain.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has not met a British leader since 2007, was at least 10 minutes late for a separate meeting with Cameron although he praised trade ties with Britain when he did arrive.
“Britain is our old trade and economic partner and we have lots to discuss,” said Putin, who is widely expected to run in the 2012 presidential election.
As Russia’s paramount leader, Putin’s consent is essential if Cameron is going to have any success in improving Russian ties, which plunged to a post-Cold War low after Litvinenko’s death.
Ill feeling over Litvinenko’s murder runs as deep as ever and officials on both sides had said Cameron’s visit was unlikely to achieve many tangible results.
Cameron, who is trying to bolster Britain’s weak recovery by boosting exports to fast-growing emerging markets such as Russia, India and China, said Britain’s position on the murder was unchanged but that the issue should not hinder trade.
“It remains an issue between Britain and Russia and we haven’t changed our position about that. The Russians haven’t changed their position, but I don’t think that means that we freeze the entire relationship,” Cameron said.
The British government wants to open effective channels of communication to both Medvedev and Putin to reinforce the position of British business in Russia.
Cameron was accompanied by a high-powered 24-strong business delegation, including BP Chairman Bob Dudley, Royal Dutch Shell Chief Executive Peter Voser and Rolls-Royce Chairman Simon Robertson.
Cameron discussed concerns with Putin and Medvedev about a raid last month of BP’s Moscow office by court bailiffs seeking documents for a court case and also raised breaches of human rights in Russia.
“He (Putin) set out to be — and was — reassuring about the business environment in Russia and in particular described BP as a reliable and constructive partner,” said British Foreign Minister William Hague.
The raid, linked to a legal battle with its partners in a Russian joint venture TNK-BP, took place one day after U.S. firm
ExxonMobil signed a deal giving it access to Russian Arctic oilfields that BP had tried to develop.
In a cool statement that amounted to a polite rebuff for Cameron on BP, the Kremlin said the Russian authorities would not intervene in the dispute and said consultations should continue at the corporate level.
Additional reporting by Denis Dyomkin and Gleb Bryanski, writing by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Myra MacDonald