British-Educated Russians Petition President

In a rare show of dissent, more than 150 figures are calling on President Vladimir Putin to reconsider the government's crackdown on British Council offices.

The British-educated petitioners, including bankers, lawyers and journalists, have signed an appeal for Putin to overturn the "erroneous" decision that has inflicted "damage to Russia's image."

"We understand that currently there are disagreements in relations between Russia and the U.K.," the appeal says. "However, it is unacceptable that culture, education and the interests of Russian citizens become hostage to them!"

The Foreign Ministry ordered the British Council, which acts as the British Embassy's cultural arm, to close its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg on Jan. 1. It said they were operating illegally. The council initially refused but later closed the offices, citing security concerns after its employees were interviewed by police and Federal Security Service officials.

An electronic version of the appeal was sent to the Kremlin on Jan. 24, and a paper copy was sent the next day. But it had not been processed by the presidential administration's record-keeping office as of Friday, said Christine Mogillar, one of the signatories.

A Kremlin spokesman could not provide immediate comment Monday.

The petition represents a rare initiative to try to influence decision-making in the country. It also is a sign that not everybody backs the Kremlin's policies. Last month, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there was no need to change foreign policy because the state's current stance had the strong support of the public. Incidentally, Lavrov's daughter received a British education.

"What's happening is not entirely right and fair," said Mogillar, a consultant and entrepreneur who graduated from the University of Wolverhampton in 2000.

She said she believed that Putin would review the petition.

Another signatory, Vladimir Rozhankovsky, a senior analyst at AK Bars Finance, said strained relations with Britain could hurt Russian companies' chances of listing on the London stock exchange.

"If there are some political underpinnings [to the British Council case], we'd like to remove those," said Rozhankovsky, who graduated from Canterbury Business School in 1996.

Last week, Anatoly Chubais, head of Unified Energy System and co-founder of the Union of Right Forces opposition party, warned that the British Council dispute was potentially damaging to business interests. He said foreign investment was more crucial than ever and that Russia could not afford to alienate foreign partners.

Rozhankovsky said the state risked turning off many ordinary Russians rather than winning them over with television broadcasts like a recent "Vremya" program that cast the British Council in a poor light.

He said that, although he wanted to live and work in Russia, he was not afraid to speak out because, among other things, he had a U.S. residence permit.

Some signatories chose their words carefully, in a possible indication that they were worried about their careers. One of them, a vice president at a large Moscow-based bank, praised the British Council, saying its programs had helped him and his friends. The banker, who was in Britain on a Chancellor's Financial Sector Scheme program in 1994 and 1995, called the dispute "strange bureaucratic activities and manipulations."

He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he did not want to link his personal opinion to the bank.

The petition contains a list of names without titles and places of work.

Natasha Barbier, a television anchor and editor-in-chief of Mezonin magazine, who studied in Britain in the 1990s, said it was her "civil duty" to sign the letter.

Yelena Voltsinger, publisher of Afisha-Mir, a monthly travel magazine, who lived in Britain from 1993 to 2000, said the British Council had advised her on cultural issues.

"I don't understand why they have to be banned," she said.

The appeal says the council assisted 1.25 million Russians last year.

The council's St. Petersburg branch moved out of its offices Monday, and prospective tenants are now eyeing the premises, Interfax reported. Labor contracts with the office's Russian staff have not been renewed, the report said.

Only the council's Moscow branch remains open.

A similar appeal has been sent to the foreign minister, Mogillar said.

Ministry spokesmen said they were not aware of the petition and declined immediate comment.

The British Alumni Club has around 1,700 members.