Russia's Row with Britain Escalates

By Weir, Fred | The Christian Science Monitor, January 15, 2008 | Go to article overview

Russia's Row with Britain Escalates


Weir, Fred, The Christian Science Monitor


Russia's diplomatic chill with Britain deepened Monday. Following the decision of the British Council, the cultural arm of the British government, to open its Russian branches in defiance of a Foreign Ministry order to shut down, British ambassador Anthony Brenton was called in to explain.

"The ambassador was told that the Russian side regarded such actions as deliberately provocative and aimed to escalate tensions in Russian-British relations," a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said of the British decision to reopen British Council branches in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg after the holidays.

The statement added that Russia would retaliate by moving to collect "back taxes" and denying visas and work permits to the organization's British staff.

Emerging from the meeting, Mr. Brenton told journalists that Britain would consider any attempt to forcibly shut down British Council operations as "contrary to international law" and said he hopes the dispute will not spread to other areas of the relationship.

Experts say this is a dangerous aggravation of the diplomatic war between the two countries that began with the fatal poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

Russia's demand that the British Council cease its activities, made before New Year, was the first sign that the quarrel might be moving beyond politics to threaten the vibrant relations that Britain and Russia enjoy in other areas, particularly business and culture. "We think it's very important that cultural relations remain distinct from any political disputes we may have," says James Barbour, a spokesperson for the British Embassy here.

He says the British Council, which runs English language teacher- training courses and organizes cultural exchanges, complies with both international and Russian law under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and a bilateral cultural agreement from 1994. But Russia has accused the council of having "an inappropriate legal status" and of earning huge untaxed profits from commercial activities such as English-language courses.

"Our complaints about the British Council have an exclusively legal and financial character, and are not connected with recent political issues," says Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the international affairs committee of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. "Basically, the British Council has to meet the legal requirements for such organizations, or it will cease to exist."

Mr. Barbour insists that the British Council is a nonprofit arm of the British government which "hasn't undertaken any revenue- generating activity" in Russia in several years. …

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