Russian diplomat brands MP aide arrest a 'PR stunt'

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Russia's top diplomat in the UK hinted today that British officials might have "orchestrated" newspaper stories about the arrest of an MP's assistant for allegedly spying for Moscow.

Alexander Sternik, charge d'affaires at the Russian Embassy in London, said there were "some quarters" who wanted to undermine improving relations between the two countries.

He also disclosed that Russian consular officials have still not been allowed access to Ekaterina Zatuliveter, 25, who was detained a week ago amid suspicions she used her position as an assistant to Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock to pass information to Russian intelligence.

Mr Sternik suggested that media reports about the case, first revealed by the Sunday Times, were a "PR stunt" to distract from "more acute and tangible problems" like the WikiLeaks release of embarrassing US diplomatic cables and England's failed bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

Asked if he thought British officials were behind the stories, he said: "I strongly hope that this is a spontaneous, sporadic and not orchestrated campaign against Russia because it goes against the current of improving Russian-British relations.

"I simply do not see how anybody could be interested in spoiling these positive trends in such an obvious and blunt manner."

But he added: "It is very conspicuous that as soon as the green shoots show through the rubble in the Russian-British relationship, these sorts of scandals break out. That's a fact of life."

Mr Sternik, temporary head of Russia's mission in London until a new ambassador arrives from Moscow early next year, was critical of the Foreign Office's failure to alert the embassy about Miss Zatuliveter's arrest.

He told reporters: "The embassy got to know about it from the mass media and not directly from the officials here in Britain.

"We have a bilateral consular convention which specifically prescribes the sides to immediately notify each other should arrest or detention of their citizens take place.

"We have been quite disappointed with the passiveness that was shown in this respect."

The Foreign Office eventually told the embassy that Miss Zatuliveter had been detained under immigration legislation and has not mentioned the spying allegations in official exchanges, he said.

Mr Sternik noted: "That of course remains a striking contrast with what the press is saying about the reasons for her detention.

"We have not received, although we insisted on this, any clarification as to the motives and the reasons that this detention was made."

Mr Sternik said the embassy's information was that Miss Zatuliveter was still being held at an immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire awaiting deportation.

Consular officials have made contact with her via email and will visit her with a doctor as soon as the British Government allows, he said.

"Given the accusations and allegations in the press, which she obviously follows, she must be subject to a very serious psychological trauma and we would like to make sure that her mental and physical condition is stable," he added.

Asked if Miss Zatuliveter had done anything that could be construed as spying, Mr Sternik said: "What we know is she is a legal resident in the UK with a valid visa.

"She received at some point a new passport in our consular section and I think this sums up all the formal relationship between the Russian embassy and this person.

"But of course as a Russian citizen she is entitled to the full governmental protection should her rights be fringed upon."

Pressed on whether he could categorically say she had no links with any Russian security agencies, he added: "I am categorically stating that we have a very limited relationship with this person and this relationship boils down to issuing a passport in the consular section and that's it."

The senior diplomat noted that "spy scare" stories appeared periodically in the British media.

"Usually these methods are very tried and true methods to draw away the attention of the public eye from more acute and more tangible problems," he said.

"These problems are many over the last couple of months. You can cite, for example, the very unflattering leaks from the WikiLeaks site, the unsuccessful (World Cup) bid in Zurich or some other stories.

"So sometimes it is just a PR stunt to make sure that the attention is not focused where it should be."

Mr Sternik said he hoped and believed the dispute over Miss Zatuliveter's case would not damage warming relations between Russia and Britain, including Prime Minister David Cameron's planned visit to Moscow in 2011.

"Of course such instances do not help in building what seem to be so far fragile but very promising structure of the improved bilateral dialogue," he said.

"Obviously there are some quarters who don't want this to happen too fast and too soon. Such scandalous cases could be playing into their hands."

But asked if he thought the spying story came from the highest level in Westminster, he said: "I think it is being done despite the British Government's views.

"I think Prime Minister Cameron and William Hague were very forthcoming in saying the door was open for improved relations with Russia. I simply have no reason to doubt this very strong commitment."

Mr Sternik indicated that British officials could be expelled from Russia if Miss Zatuliveter was deported for spying.

He said: "I can only speculate, and advise you to look into the history of similar cases.2

Tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions followed Moscow's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoy in 2007 when Scotland Yard named him prime suspect in the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

Miss Zatuliveter, known as Katia, originates from Dagestan but was forced to flee her home as a child in the mid-1990s during the Chechnyan conflict.

She came to the UK three years ago to study at Bradford University and underwent security vetting before becoming a House of Commons pass-holder and taking up her position as a full-time Parliamentary assistant two-and-a-half years ago.

She has protested her innocence and says she is confident she will win an appeal against her deportation.

Mr Sternik praised Portsmouth South MP Mr Hancock, a member of the defence select committee and former chairman of the all-party Russia group.

He said: "There are very few, at least ostensibly, friendly moves towards Russia these days.

"Mike Hancock is one of those people who are known to have a balanced objective and sympathetic approach towards the modern Russia and its foreign policy."