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Published: Tuesday, 7/24/2007

Brown's tough stand

IT HAS been a baptism of fire for new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

He barely had time to put the family photographs on the mantel at 10 Downing St., the PM's official residence in London, when there were failed bombing attacks in London and Glasgow. And now he is locking horns with Russia over that country's stonewalling in the investigation of the death in London of Alexander Litvinenko.

To his credit, Mr. Brown is taking a tough line with both terrorism and the government of President Vladimir Putin. His responses have been measured but forceful, particularly in dealing with Moscow, with little sign of nerves that could have been expected by someone new to the job.

British authorities believe they know who poisoned Mr. Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and critic of the Kremlin, late last year in London, and feel they are in a position to bring charges against Andrei Lugovoy, who is a former agent of the Russian state security.

But under the cloak of claiming that its constitution forbids such extradition, the Russian leadership is refusing to turn over Mr. Lugovoy for prosecution in Britain.

Mr. Brown, in the early stages of his premiership, could have been forgiven for talking tough but doing little as he tried to find his feet and deal with the dual crises of terrorism at home and a deteriorating relationship with Russia.

Instead he took forceful action, saying Britain would, among other measures, expel four Russian diplomats. It's the first time in more than a decade that such action has been taken against Russia by the United Kingdom, and it has prompted Moscow to say it will offer an "adequate and appropriate" response. For now, Russia has responded in kind by sending four British diplomats packing their bags and flying home prematurely.

The decline in bilateral relations is serious - "one of the worst situations since the 1970s," said one expert - although with the two countries enjoying close business and financial ties it seems unlikely at this stage that any more dramatic moves can be expected.

Russia is accusing Britain of hypocrisy because it has not handed over suspects in that country who are wanted by Moscow. But the Litvinenko case stands alone, because of suggestions that he may have been assassinated for his criticism of Mr. Putin.

Mr. Brown had to take a tough stance, to prove to the Russians that he has the mettle to be firm in international relations, and to show his own parliamentary back-benchers that he has the leadership necessary to take them through the next election.



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