Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russian-British Relations Frosty as Russia Holds Presidential Election


When Russian voters go to the polls March 2, they will choose a successor to President Vladimir Putin, who has been widely credited in Russia with restoring some of the country's international clout. But, in the West many are casting an increasingly wary glance at what is seen as a resurgence of Russian nationalism, power and influence. Relations between Russia and Britain have been especially frosty, as Mandy Clark reports for VOA from London.

In a packed London gallery, crowds admire masterpieces from Russia's most famous museums.

The sold-out exhibit was almost canceled because Moscow feared the art might be impounded as part of an ownership dispute dating back to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

But both governments resolved their differences. The London Royal Academy of Art's Curator, Ann Dumas, dismisses the suggestion the exhibition was being used as a political pawn.

"We thought at first that it was more about the wider political issue, but we realized that it was not the case," said Dumas.

Another cultural exchange did not fare so well. In January, the British Council closed some of its cultural offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg under pressure from Russia's intelligence service, which summoned the organization's Russian staff for questioning.

Britain's Foreign Secretary accused Russia of "intimidation."

Presidential candidate and likely Putin successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev accused Britain of spying.

His outburst surprised many Russian political observers who viewed Medvedev as a liberal force who would help improve relations with the West. But in a recent interview, he again accused the British Council of involvement in "gathering information and conducting intelligence activity."

It was the death of a former Russian spy in London that saw a dramatic decline in relations between Britain and Russia.

Alexander Litvinenko died in November 2006 after being poisoned by radioactive polonium. Scotland Yard has accused another former Russian intelligence officer, Andrei Lugovoi, of murdering him. Russia refuses to extradite him to stand trial.

Litvinenko's widow, Marina, doubts she will ever see justice done.

"I hope but it is more optimistic than realistic," she said. "When I got contact with Scotland Yard they told me it was very strong evidence and if it was not so strong, they would never ask to extradite Lugovoi because they could predict it was going to be some problems between these two countries. It was not organized by Putin - the murder of my husband - but I am absolutely sure it could not have happened without his knowledge."

It is an accusation that President Putin has always denied.

London School of Economics Russia expert Margot Light says Russia feels under threat by the recent democratic revolutions in the former Soviet countries of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

"The conviction grew in Moscow these popular uprisings that were not bloody, but nevertheless caused huge political change, had been instigated by the West and funded by the West and I think that then became the primary fear that Western governments were set to do that in Russia as well," said Light.

Russia has also criticized Britain, along with other Western countries including the United States, for recognizing Kosovo's February 17 independence declaration. Candidate Medvedev says sovereignty for the former Serbian province threatens security and stability in Europe, a point of view rejected by Western nations, that say Kosovo is a special case because of its mistreatment by Serbia.

Light says another sticking point between the two countries concerns wealthy Russian dissidents like Boris Berezovsky. He has political asylum and Britain has refused to extradite Berezovksy to Russia where he stands accused of fraud and political corruption. Yet while in London, he has threatened to help overthrow Mr. Putin and his ruling party.

"I think Berezovsky plays an extremely provocative role and is quite often a great embarrassment to the British government, and I think he has been warned several times that the one thing that will actually jeopardize his position is that if he engages in the kinds of activities that he undertook not to do when he got refugee status," said Light.

Back among the exhibit of priceless works of art, Irina Antonova from Moscow's Pushkin Museum explains the importance of the display.

She says exhibition started as a dialogue of understanding between the two cultures. That need for dialogue and understanding between cultures seems more relevant than ever.

Many say dialogue and understanding between cultures is more relevant than ever.