New London Mayor Told to Lose Russia Barbs

APNewly elected London Mayor Boris Johnson trying on a police cap on Sunday.
His name may be Boris and he might claim to be descended from a slave born in southern Russia, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Boris Johnson, who was elected the new Mayor of London last week, will do more to boost London's Russian links than his predecessor, Ken Livingstone.

As London's Russian-speaking community has soared to over 200,000, high-profile initiatives spearheaded by Livingstone and his Moscow counterpart, Yury Luzhkov, have sought to bolster ties between the two capitals.

Now every Jan 14 — Old Russian New Year's — up to 100,000 revelers flood London's iconic Trafalgar Square to watch Russian pop stars and army choirs celebrate the Russian Winter Festival, while billions of dollars of investment flow between the two cities.

But since the fatal 2006 poisoning of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in central London, ties between the cities have been affected by the strained relations between their national governments.

British authorities are demanding the extradition of former security officer Andrei Lugovoi on charges of murdering Litvinenko, while Russian officials point to the refusal to hand over London residents Boris Berezovsky and Akhmed Zakayev, who have both been granted asylum in Britain.

As part of the fallout from the dispute, senior Russian officials stayed away from last year's Russian Economic Forum in London, raising doubts about future Russian participation in the biggest such gathering for Russian and British business leaders. Livingstone has been a regular speaker at the forum.

But Johnson, regarded in the opposition Conservative Party as something of a loose cannon, could yet upset things. Known for his striking mop of unruly blond hair, upper class background and susceptibility to verbal faux pas, including alleged derogatory comments about people as far afield as Liverpool and Papua New Guinea, the new London mayor has not shied away from attacking Russia and the Kremlin.

In a May 2007 column for right-wing British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, Johnson expressed outrage at the "horrific murder" of Litvinenko, who had been granted British citizenship.

In the article Johnson portrayed Moscow as a place where people can be assassinated "in coffee lounges, just because they have been mildly disobliging to the regime" and lambasted the then-Russian president, writing: "Don't irritate Mr. Putin … or your children could find polonium-210 on their cornflakes."

The conclusion to Johnson's literary broadside, however, was mellower. "With 200,000 Russians in London and oil oligarchs owning our football clubs, and with Russian voices regularly audible on the Tube this is not going to be a new Cold War," he wrote.

"I think that this view is an exaggeration of what things are really like in Moscow," said Alexander Pogorelov, a spokesman for Moscow city government's foreign economic relations department, in a reaction to Johnson's article.

"We hope that Boris Johnson will come to Moscow soon … and see with his own eyes what a vibrant and fast-developing city Moscow really is," Pogorelov said.

A spokeswoman for the strategy department at the London Mayor's Office said Wednesday that it was too soon to say definitively what Johnson's policy toward Moscow would be.

Livingstone and Luzhkov have been working together closely as members of the informal M4 group of Europe's most influential mayors, which Luzhkov set up, Pogorelov said.

"Moscow and London are two major cities that have problems in common and need to work together to share [our] experience and solve them," he said. In particular, Moscow could learn from London's radical moves to cut city-center traffic, he said.

"We don't only think relations with London can get even better — they must get even better," Pogorelov said.

Luzhkov's personal relations with Livingstone suffered after the former London Mayor criticized him for banning gay pride marches here.

Livingstone last year sent a letter to Luzhkov, who has called homosexuality "satanic," urging him to lift the ban after a number of prominent British gay rights campaigners were beaten up in Moscow during an unsanctioned protest.

After saying Moscow's relations with London would carry on being "dazzling," a spokesman for the Moscow city government asked, "Is [Johnson] as friendly with the gays as the former mayor?"

The answer is that Luzhkov may find Johnson's views more in keeping with his own. Johnson has previously referred to gay marriage as "a ludicrous parody of the real thing."

Johnson's relationship with Luzhkov may, however, be relatively short-lived. Speculation has swirled in Moscow over the past few months that Luzhkov, 71, one of the few high-profile politicians to hold on to his job throughout the Yeltsin and Putin eras, could soon step down.

During his campaign for mayor, Eton-educated Johnson repeatedly highlighted his multiethnic background to deflect criticism away from the claim that he is out of touch with the average Londoner. Among his ancestors Johnson claims a minister in the government of the Ottoman Empire and a Circassian slave from southern Russia.

At a time when London and Moscow are looking to mend bridges, however, Johnson's record for offensiveness the could come back to haunt him.

He has variously referred to black Africans as "flag-waving pickaninnies," apologized to inhabitants of Papua New Guinea after saying they engaged in "cannibalism and chief-killing" and even had to beg forgiveness from the people of Liverpool after accusing them of "wallowing" in their "victim status."

Whether Moscow ends up as the next stop on what Johnson has ruefully termed his "global itinerary of apology," only time will tell.