Picture by the British Embassy in Moscow
In the recent tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions from London and Moscow, leading Western press outlets, like the Washington Post and The London Times, have set a new standard for journalistic inventiveness by suggesting that Britain's refusal to reveal any evidence about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko must mean that it has evidence implicating the Russian government!
Why has this evidence not been made public? Because, you see, new Prime Minister Gordon Brown does not want to start his term by damaging relations with Russia. The fact that he has already done so by expelling four Russian diplomats seems to have escaped their notice.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown
By contrast, the Russian press has been suggesting for months now that no such evidence is forthcoming because it simply does not exist. But, after all the media frenzy that has accompanied Litvinenko's tragic death, admitting this would bring Gordon Brown's honeymoon with the press to a very abrupt end.
While both interpretations suffer from a lack of hard evidence, as Mary Dejevsky, lead writer for The Independent notes, some aspects of the British government's stance are particularly "perplexing."
The first is that British officials have failed to provide their Russian counterparts with any evidence for the charges against Andrei Lugovoi (not even an autopsy report on Litvinenko's death!), even though they know that, under the terms of the 1957 European Convention on Extradition, an extradition request cannot be fulfilled without some evidentiary basis. Britain has not invoked Article 16 ("Provisional arrest") or even asked Russian authorities to institute appropriate proceedings against Lugovoi, presumably because this would require sharing "the files, information and exhibits relating to the offence."
In light of Britain's totally implausible demand that Russia violate its own constitution (Article 61, para. 1 states: "The citizen of the Russian Federation may not be deported out of Russia or extradited to another state."), Russian officials have called attention to their right, under Article 6 of the 1957 treaty, to refuse extradition. The British government nevertheless had the temerity to make its request after refusing 21 separate Russian requests for extradition!
Finally, there is Britain's peremptory rejection of the idea that Lugovoi could be arraigned on murder charges in Russia if, as required by treaty, evidence to support such prosecution were provided. Sir Ken Macdonald, director of public prosecutions, even went out of his way to question the integrity of the Russian judicial system, though he surely must know that it actually has a very good track record when it comes to trying Russians for crimes committed abroad--of two hundred such cases, nearly half have ended in convictions.
In sum, events seem driven more by political than legal considerations. The British press, for example, reported that the Crown Prosecution Service decided to indict only Lugovoi, even though the Metropolitan Police and Special Branch investigative units had argued for the indictment of at least two other persons, both currently residing in the United Kingdom. Police investigation teams vociferously protested this decision, but were overruled. Then, there is the inexplicable expulsion a month ago of an unnamed Russian citizen, apparently suspected of attempting to murder Boris Berezovsky, that was recently leaked to the press.
Gordon Brown's government is acting as if the entire Litvinenko affair as an embarrassment from which to extricate itself with as little damage as possible, but while still scoring a few domestic points with a British press for "standing up to Moscow." Brown can thus extract maximum political benefit from an essentially empty hand, while simultaneously distancing him from his unpopular predecessor, but the question we should be asking is: why should Moscow play along? The main reason not to upset the apple cart is the amount of Russian wealth, over $625 billion in market capitalization, that is invested in the London Stock Market.
London has become the preferred watering hole for a new breed of Russian global investors. Almost overnight they have catapulted it into third place among the world's stock market, and they appear willing to invest much more, so long as they still believe that the British can be taught to appreciate the benefits of an interdependent global economy, increasingly driven by Russian wealth. If London perseveres as a financial power center into the next decade, it will be largely thanks to Russian investment.
But along with not withdrawing its financial carrot, Russia has also signaled that it can be pushed too far. Its decision to suspend cooperation on international terrorism triggered immediate alarm in both London and Washington, although it was actually London that first severed its operational contacts with Russia's FSB. Russia merely reminded British officials that, in doing so, they were also cutting off their link with Russia's leading anti-terrorist agency. Still, there is one silver lining has emerged from this incident: EU foreign ministers have apparently decided to insert language in the new EU-Russia treaty that will simplify extradition procedures, something that Russia has been trying to get them to agree to for at least a decade.
In the long run, however, if no new evidence emerges, Britain's only recourse may be to follow the terms of the 1957 treaty and participate in a trial of Litvinenko's murderer in Russia. Before it comes to that, however, we will most likely see a far more sober minded Gordon Brown seeking to make amends with Moscow.
Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department, and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and Crafting Democracy (Cornell, 2004).