Soccer diplomacy helps resolve Russian-British political problems

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti foreign news commentator Ivan Zakharchenko) -Soccer has turned from a sport into an instrument that may take Russian-British relations out of the deadlock, into which they were driven by the mysterious death of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006.

Moscow and London made unprecedented steps - they eased visa procedures for soccer fans. This is important, and not only for sports.

Searching for catalysts to resolve political problems is a tried-and-true method. Let's recall "ping-pong diplomacy" in the 1970s when the then irreconcilable United States and China started rapprochement through table-tennis. Earlier this year, "music diplomacy" helped improve U.S.-North Korean relations, when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra visited Pyongyang, and played the U.S. National Anthem - formally North Korea is at war with the United States.

Diplomatic confrontation between Russia and Britain unfolded after Moscow bluntly refused to extradite businessman Andrei Lugovoi to Britain, citing the Russian Constitution. Britain suspected Lugovoi, who is now a State Duma deputy, of playing a role in the poisoning of Litvinenko with radioactive polonium. Russian law-enforcement agencies insisted that London provide incriminating evidence and an official post-mortem report.

Problems then snowballed. Last July, London expelled four Russian diplomats, and froze talks on easing visa procedures. In response, Moscow banished four British diplomats. London then refused to make any contact with the FSB, which is Russia's main anti-terrorist department.

In protest, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced Russia's decision to stop bilateral cooperation on countering terrorism, and suspend the issue of visas to British officials. Britain reciprocated by toughening visa regulations for Russian officials.

Vice Speaker Vladimir Pekhtin (United Russia faction) reproached London in the State Duma of using double standards toward terrorist suspects, in particular businessman Boris Berezovsky and Chechen emissary Akhmed Zakayev, who were on Russian wanted lists.

After bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism was frozen, the development of normal relations became impossible.

These relations became even worse when London failed to comply with Moscow's demands on the operation of regional offices of the British Council (BC). Moscow shut down these offices on January 1, 2008, because London did not even request its permission to opening BC central and regional offices.

Britain made references to the 1994 agreement on cooperation in culture, science and education, but the Russian Foreign Ministry insisted that it was just a framework document, which does not determine either the legal status, or procedures for opening and operating BC offices in Russia.

How can the two countries find a way out of the deadlock without losing face?

As distinct from diplomacy, bilateral economic relations are booming. Last year Britain was one of the leading foreign investors in the Russian economy. In principle, this was a good foundation for overcoming political differences since a catalyst was needed for putting bilateral relations in the right channel.

But then a better catalyst was found - soccer. The UEFA Cup final between St. Petersburg Zenit and Glasgow Rangers took place in Manchester on May 14, and the Champions League final between two British teams - Chelsea and Manchester United will take place in Moscow on May 21.

In an interview with a British newspaper, Dmitry Medvedev, who was sworn in as new Russian president this month, expressed confidence that bilateral cooperation will be fully restored. London immediately responded by confirming its readiness to improve relations with Russia.

The Kremlin press service reported that Medvedev and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently agreed over the phone to hold a bilateral meeting at the upcoming G8 summit in Japan.

The Russian president issued a special decree that allows more than 40,000 British fans to enter Russia by presenting their passports and match tickets. Although Britain did not cancel visas, it welcomed this gesture and eased visa regulations for Russian fans - they received visas without paying consular fees.

Thus, both governments used sports as an excuse to take an important political step - to demonstrate their readiness to start rapprochement and put the current crisis behind. "Soccer diplomacy" will go down in the history of international relations as one more positive example of resolving seemingly insoluble problems.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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