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British PM calls for more business with Russia

world Updated: Sep 12, 2011 14:00 IST
British PM

British Prime Minister David Cameron called for better business ties with Russia on Monday before talks with Russian leaders intended to improve relations soured by the murder of a Kremlin critic in London five years ago.

Cameron will meet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev on a visit to Moscow lasting less than 24 hours.

It is the first visit by a British prime minister since former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died in London from poisoning by radioactive polonium-210 in 2006.

"We should be candid about the areas where we still disagree," Cameron told students at Moscow University. "But I want to make the case for a new approach based on cooperation."

The visit fits into Cameron's strategy of trying to bolster Britain's weak recovery by boosting exports to fast-growing emerging markets such as Russia, India and China.

Cameron is 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's office said the visit was expected to seal 215 million pounds ($345 million) worth of business deals, creating almost 500 new jobs in Britain and safeguarding thousands more, although it gave no details.

British home improvements retailer Kingfisher will open nine new stores in Russia and Rolls-Royce will collaborate with Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom under deals to be signed on Monday, Cameron said.

He called for an "honest and open dialogue" to address differences between the two countries, including Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoy, an ex-KGB bodyguard Britain wants to prosecute for Litvinenko's murder. Litvinenko's death sent relations to a post-Cold War low.

"Our approach is simple and principled. When a crime is committed that is a matter for the courts," Cameron said in a speech, in which he recalled an approach from suspected KGB agents during a visit to the Soviet Union in his gap year between school and university in 1985.

Bad feeling
Litvinenko's death sent relations to a post-Cold War low.

Bad feeling over it runs as deep as ever and no progress is expected during the visit on resolving it, or on lifting the sanctions Britain imposed, including halting cooperation with Russia's security services and suspending talks on speeding up visa issuance.

But the British government wants to open effective channels of communication to both Medvedev and Putin, to reinforce the position of British business in Russia and to encourage respect for the rule of law and reform in Russia, British government sources say.

Putin, who has not met a British leader since 2007, is widely expected to run for president in the 2012 election.

Four former British foreign ministers urged Cameron on Sunday to raise human rights cases with Medvedev, including what they called the "politically motivated detention" of business partners Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev and the death in detention of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

"These concerns need to be addressed before business can truly flourish," the former ministers -- Malcolm Rifkind of Cameron's Conservative Party, and David Miliband, Margaret Beckett and Jack Straw of the opposition Labour Party -- wrote in a letter to the Sunday Times.

Cameron is expected to raise the Litvinenko issue and some human rights cases but officials have not specified which ones.

Some 600 British companies operate in Russia and British exports to Russia are up by 63 percent in the first half of this year, according to the British government.

But British firms sometimes encounter problems in Russia. Last month, special forces raided BP's Moscow offices, a day after U.S. giant ExxonMobil signed a deal giving it access to Russian Arctic oilfields that BP had tried to develop, only for its plans to be scuppered by a legal case.