Brown fails to ease tensions with Kremlin

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s hopes of a thaw in the United Kingdom’s relationship with the Kremlin received a setback on Monday after ”sharp-edged” talks with the new Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev.

In a meeting that lasted just over an hour, Brown received little sign that Moscow was prepared to give ground on three key issues: visas for BP staff working on a joint venture; the closure of British Council offices; and Russia’s refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi for the alleged poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006.

A Downing Street spokesperson described the meeting as ”constructive and workmanlike” — normally seen as diplomatic code for difficult talks. With relations between Britain and Russia at their frostiest since the end of the Cold War, a Kremlin spokesperson said the talks had not avoided any ”sharp issues”.

Brown pressed Medvedev for action on visas for BP workers that would speed up a $38-billion joint venture with Russian oil company TNK, and stressed that cultural ties between the two countries would be helped by the re-admittance of the British Council.

Downing Street said Brown had sought to break the ice by congratulating Medvedev on the victory of a Russian soccer team, Zenit St Petersburg, over the Scottish side Rangers in this year’s Uefa cup final, but admitted: ”We are not going to solve all these problems in one meeting, but it is important that we have a constructive relationship with Russia that allows us to raise and discuss some of these difficult issues.”

Medvedev’s chief foreign policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, said the prime minister and the president had had ”frank discussions and did not avoid any sharp issues in the political and humanitarian sphere”.

The president proposed to focus on raising relations to a normal level. Brown outlined his ideas about problems with bilateral ties.

Relations between London and Moscow soured after Medvedev’s predecessor, Vladimir Putin, accused Britain of providing a haven for the Kremlin’s political foes, including self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky. They became still more strained when Russia refused to extradite Lugovoi to Britain.

Late last year, Russia ordered the British Council to close its two offices outside Moscow, and this year problems have developed with the TNK-BP joint venture.

TNK-BP, owned by BP and four Russia-connected billionaires, began in 2003 as a joint venture blessed by the Kremlin. It produces a quarter of BP’s global oil output, and last year posted a net profit of $5,7-billion.

But earlier this year, the Russian co-owners rebelled against BP, and they are planning legal action for control of the company. Their protest was accompanied by tax police raids, security sweeps and a visa clampdown, which many assumed showed the Kremlin was pressing the firm to accept a state partner.

Shell received similar treatment in 2006, when Russian officials tried to force the group to sell a controlling stake in its Sakhalin gas venture to rival Gazprom. —

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