Embattled Mandelson Holds Talks In Moscow

In the first Cabinet-level visit between Britain and Russia in almost two years, embattled British Business Secretary Peter Mandelson is holding crucial talks in Moscow with political and business leaders about maintaining trade and investment ties despite political differences and the global financial crisis.

Yet the main news Monday was that Mandelson would not meet Oleg Deripaska.

The visit comes after two weeks of political storms back in London over allegations that Mandelson -- who assumed his post just weeks ago after serving as the European Union's trade commissioner for four years -- had been mixing politics and private affairs in his relationship with the metals tycoon.

British media linked reductions in EU aluminum tariffs, overseen by Mandelson as trade commissioner, and his meetings with Deripaska, who controls the world's largest aluminum producer, after it emerged that he was a guest on the billionaire's yacht this summer.

Mandelson said over the weekend that he had met Deripaska on various occasions since 2004, but denied any wrongdoing. On Monday, he dismissed a reporter's question on whether he would resign as "a fantasy," Reuters reported.

The two are not to meet this time, and the feud is not expected to affect the talks, diplomats and business representatives said Monday.

Mandelson, who arrived with a large delegation Sunday, is scheduled to meet representatives of the country's financial services and energy sectors and to take part in discussions on the trade and investment climate, said a statement from the Department for Business, his ministry in London.

The Foreign Ministry issued an upbeat statement Monday after talks between Mandelson and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"Both stressed the need to overcome their differing positions over certain issues which must not hurt business ties between our countries," said the statement on the ministry's web site.

He will meet Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin on Tuesday, an embassy spokesman said.

The Steering Committee for Trade and Investment has not met in Moscow since Alistair Darling, then the responsible British Cabinet member, visited the capital in February 2007, said Neil Cooper, director of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce.

Relations between the two countries have plummeted to dramatic lows, with last year's diplomatic battle over the 2006 poisoning death of former security services officer Alexander Litvinenko and Moscow's onslaught on the British Council.

Seemingly unaffected, British exports to Russia surged to $4 billion this year, up 52.2 percent against last year, according to the Department for Business.

Mandelson's delegation includes top officials from BP, Hambro Mining and the Whitbread restaurant and hotel chain.

Cooper also said the global financial turmoil would top the agenda and that the dispute over Mandelson's meetings with Deripaska would not be significant.

"This visit has been on the cards for some time and was originally planned for his predecessor John Hutton," he said.