British Council Gives Up the Fight

The British Council gave up its fight to keep two of its Russian offices open Thursday, saying a "campaign of intimidation" by security services had forced it to suspend work in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

"The Russian authorities have made it impossible for us to operate," British Council head Martin Davison said in a statement released Thursday. "So I have taken the decision to suspend operations in both cities."

The council made the decision after the Federal Security Service summoned more than 20 British Council employees for interviews on Tuesday, and Interior Ministry officers visited 10 employees at home on Wednesday night, Davison said.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called the actions by the authorities "reprehensible, not worthy of a great country," and a "stain" on Russia's reputation in a statement made to Parliament.

"We saw similar actions during the Cold War but, frankly, thought they had been put behind us," Miliband said, adding that he was angry and dismayed at what had happened.

The European Union and United States added their concern, saying they regretted the actions taken by Russia against British Council staff.

The two offices, which normally organize cultural events, have been at the center of an extraordinary battle between the Russian and British governments in recent weeks, in a diplomatic spat that traces its roots at least as far back as the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

The Russian government says the council owes money in back taxes and that it is operating illegally. The British government maintains that it is working in accordance with the law.

The Foreign Ministry, Kremlin and FSB all refused to comment when contacted by phone Thursday.

Last month, the Foreign Ministry ordered the council's offices in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg to close by Jan. 1, but both defied the order and reopened after the holidays.

The St. Petersburg office, which was opened in 2006 by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, closed Wednesday after the security services intervened, and the Yekaterinburg office followed suit on Thursday.

Council employees in St. Petersburg are "very worried" about their FSB interrogations, Stephen Kinnock, head of the office, said by telephone Thursday.

"They have a lot at stake," Kinnock said. "Many of them have families and children." He said many had said they were unsure whether they would return if the offices were ultimately reopened.

"They are very proud of what they are doing for the British Council," Kinnock said, "But if you are scared when you come to office each morning, it's hard."

He refused to discuss the nature of the questions the FSB had for council staff. All 22 Russian staff members in the St. Petersburg office were summoned by the FSB. "Roughly half" were summoned to the Interior Ministry on Tuesday and Wednesday, he said.

"The interviews had little to do with their work and were clearly aimed at exerting undue pressure on innocent individuals," Davison said in his statement. "Our paramount consideration is the well-being of our staff, and I feel we cannot continue our work without significant risk to them."

Miliband repeated that the questioning had little to do with work and that some of the employees were asked about topics as mundane as the health of their pets.

British Ambassador Tony Brenton described the methods as Soviet-style in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio.

"Inviting employees for a talk with the FSB or the tax police is as it was in the U.S.S.R.," Brenton said. "It gives a very bad impression of life in Russia."

All of the British Council staff in Yekaterinburg have been transferred to the staff of the British consulate general there, Interfax reported Thursday.

A spokeswoman for the consulate, Yelena Chesnokova, said by telephone that she had "no such information."

Human rights activists began collecting signatures in support of the British Council, according to a letter posted on the web site Zaprava.ru.

"At the same time as the children of Russian elite are educated in England, our youth loses access to one of the best systems of education," said the letter, signed by, among others, Lev Ponomaryov, the executive director of the All-Russia Movement for Human Rights.

Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the State Duma's International Affairs Committee, said there was no reason why the British Council could not reopen its offices in the near future.

"As soon as the British Council brings its actions in line with Russian law, I am certain that there will be no obstacles to the resumption of its work," he said, Interfax reported.

"As far as I know, the British Council works in France according to French law, in Germany according to German. Only in Russia does it try to work in accordance with British law," he said. "Russia is not a banana republic."

Kosachyov said the conflict surrounding the British Council was not related to the heightened tensions between the two countries, saying instead that a badly written agreement signed by the two countries in 1994 was to blame.

But comments by Kremlin-friendly analyst Gleb Pavlovsky about the wisdom of the Russian side's moves suggested that political motives were at play.

"If it is a legal matter, then it is one for the courts, and not the Foreign Ministry or the FSB," Pavlovsky said.

A more appropriate response would have been one where bureaucrats suffered instead of ordinary people, he said, describing the council as doing "useful work."

Political jockeying has played a part in the council's history almost from the outset. It first opened in Moscow in 1945, only to close down two years later as British-Russian relations worsened at the start of the Cold War.

The organization returned 20 years later based at the British Embassy, and it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992, that it opened its first center outside the embassy. In 2000, the council had 12 offices across the country, but government pressure forced it to close all but two regional locations by the end of 2007 and to stop teaching English.

The council's main Russian office, in Moscow, remains open.