Bitten by the Bear: The British Council and Russia

By Kampmark, Binoy | Contemporary Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Bitten by the Bear: The British Council and Russia


Kampmark, Binoy, Contemporary Review


IT seemed a bold move on the part of the British Council to try reopening its offices in Ekaterinburg and St Petersburg after the end of the Russian New Year. The British Council was created in 1934. One of its main functions is to promote the study and use of the English language. It receives some of its funds from the government through the Foreign Office. The Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, David Miliband, had regarded the action of the Russian authorities on 12 December 2007 to shut down the offices as illegal. According to the Foreign Secretary, the British Council would 'remain open and operational in St Petersburg and Ekaterinbutg'. (1) The British Council, a much admired cultural and educational organisation which facilitates exchanges between Britain and host nations, first received an angry rebuke on 14 January from Moscow, followed by an order to suspend operations a few days later.

The grounds for closure were far from clear, though dissatisfied rumblings about the Council's activity have gone on since the Russian Interior Ministry requested its financial records in 2004. The sentiment then was captured by Sergei Verevkin-Rakhalsy of the Ministry's section investigating economic and tax crimes. 'We want to understand what this strange organization that earns huge money is doing on the territory of our country'. (2)

The motivations for such action are numerous. Tensions between Downing Street and the Kremlin have been icy since the murder in London of the former Federal Security Bureau (FSB) agent, Alexander Litvinenko, in November 2007. Relations had already taken a nervous turn the previous year with allegations of British espionage in Moscow Square. British tactics provoked amusement and outrage.

Her Majesty's espionage operators, using standards of professionalism similar to British Rail and the baggage operators of Heathrow's Terminal 5, seem to have given the game away. Faulty wiring within a boulder, or 'spy rock' specially equipped to conduct surveillance led to its discovery. 'In one [film] clip', notes an article from The Times, 'an agent was filmed pretending to relieve himself in the shrubs as he fiddled with its sophisticated electronics". Sergei Ignatchenko, chief spokesman for the FSB, was triumphant at the indiscretions of his fiddling counterparts. 'This was the first time we literally caught them red-handed in the process of contacting their agents here and received evidence that they finance a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs)' (3)

More severe than the discovery of this less than 'smart' rock were the images of a dying Litvinenko, perishing from the radioactive effects of Polonium 210 after a series of shadowy meetings in London. The conduct surrounding his demise has become something of a commentary on Russia and international relations.

That the murdered former FSB agent, Litvinenko, was also a British citizen particularly complicated relations. Infractions against the safety of a citizen of one state by another may not be the cause of war, but such acts can be preparatory towards it. Scotland Yard, after preliminary investigations, set its sights on its chief suspect, Litvinenko's former colleague Andrei Lugovoi. His extradition was duly sought.

Security services who are otherwise dismissive of laws are the first to resort to them in times of crisis. The Kremlin, which usually treats the Russian Constitution like putty, preferred to throw Article 61, forbidding the extradition of Russian citizens, at British requests for Lugovoi's extradition. Besides, Andrei Mayorov of Russia's Prosecutor General Crime Unit remained unconvinced by the evidence. Lugovoi would remain in Russia.

As always with the murderous actions that stem from the security apparatus of the Russian state, the central planner is invisible. Vladimir Putin is often blamed, but a bright, well-lit paper trail is nigh impossible to find in the murky undergrowth of the Russian state. …

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