British Council Offered an Out

APPolice patrolling the area near Britain's consulate in Yekaterinburg on Friday.
The Foreign Ministry hinted Friday that the British Council's regional offices might be allowed to reopen if Britain resumed cooperation with the Federal Security Service and expressed a willingness to ease visa rules for Russians.

"This will create the circumstances for the resumption of talks" over the status of the British Council's regional offices, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Krivtsov said by telephone Friday.

Krivtsov said "everything started" when "[the Britons] refused to hold talks to simplify the visa regime and stopped cooperation with the FSB."

"After that, talks about the status of the British Council became impossible," Krivtsov said. "That means conditions have to be created for the resumption of talks."

A British Embassy spokesman, reached by telephone Friday, said he could not comment on the possibility of Britain accepting Russia's terms. "We are considering our options," the embassy spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity.

But in a sign that Britain might not be ready to resume cooperation, Britain's Mail on Sunday reported that the MI5 security service had helped prepare a list of 34 Russian diplomats who may face expulsion from Britain. The group includes Alexander Sternik, head of the Russian Embassy's political section, and Andrei Pritsepov, aide to the ambassador, the report said.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the report, Interfax reported.

Meanwhile, British Ambassador Anthony Brenton said in an interview published Friday that Russia was to blame for the termination of the work between Britain and the FSB.

"After [Russia's] refusal to extradite Lugovoi, we actually froze links with the FSB," Brenton said, Kommersant reported. Andrei Lugovoi is Britain's prime suspect in the radioactive poisoning death of former security services officer Alexander Litvinenko.

"This is a natural reaction," he said. "All the other links in the sphere [of fighting terrorism] were frozen on Russia's initiative," Brenton said.

He added, "We are ready to continue cooperation with other agencies."

A faxed request to the FSB for comment went unanswered.

The Kremlin press service said Friday that no one was available for comment. A Kremlin spokesman was unavailable on his cell phone.

The British Council, the cultural arm of the British Embassy, suspended operations at its St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg offices earlier in the week, citing security concerns for its staff. Tax officials visited the council's Russian employees in their homes, and the employees were interviewed by the FSB. Also, the head of the council's St. Petersburg office was briefly detained on a minor traffic violation and accused of driving while drunk.

The council's Moscow office remains open.

The Foreign Ministry had ordered the council to close it regional offices by Jan. 1, saying they were operating illegally. Among other things, the ministry said the council could not have its office in the British Consulate in Yekaterinburg.

The council and the British government, which funds the offices, has insisted no law was being broken and defied the ministry's order.

The British Council said Friday that it would continue its activities across Russia, despite the closure of the two offices. "People in other regions will continue to access information about the U.K. through our British web site," said a London-based spokesman for the council, who requested anonymity.

He said, however, that the services would not compensate for the work of the two closed regional offices and would not be expanded.

"Our web services will remain the same," he said. "We suspended the work of our regional offices until we reach an agreement with the Russian government."

Brenton said the standoff was harming the Russian people but not Britain.

"We concluded that the only victim in this history appears to be Russia, the people of Russia," he said. "Sharing our cultural and educational technologies benefits Russians and not Britons.

"Thus it's only you who are losing," Brenton said.

British newspapers also warned Russia of possible repercussions.

The Guardian said Britain's possible reaction could include "putting the brakes on Russian membership of the 'rich countries club,' the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, pursuing a tough EU line putting strict conditions on Russian energy investments in Europe, and calling for a review of Europe's support for Russian membership of the World Trade Organization."

The Daily Telegraph mentioned Britain's role as a leading investor in the growing Russian markets.