British Council Closes in St. Pete

ReutersA woman standing outside the closed doors of the British Council's local office in St. Petersburg on Wednesday.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Tensions over the British Council escalated Wednesday as the group shut its office in St. Petersburg and Russia's ambassador to Britain was summoned to the Foreign Office.

The St. Petersburg office suspended its work after its British director was briefly detained by traffic police and its Russian staff as well as staff in Yekaterinburg were summoned by the Federal Security Service.

The Foreign Ministry has demanded that the British Council, the cultural arm of the British Embassy, close its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg from the start of this year, saying they were operating illegally. British officials have defied the order, which they called politically motivated.

A message on the St. Petersburg office's answering machine said it had closed "due to the recent actions against us taken by the Russian authorities."

Office director Stephen Kinnock said he had acted because "we take the safety and security of our staff extremely seriously." He said he hoped the office would reopen soon.

Traffic police stopped Kinnock's Volvo sedan late Tuesday in central St. Petersburg after he drove past a "do not enter" sign, and detected "the strong smell of alcohol" emanating from him, police spokesman Andrei Fominykh said by telephone.

"Kinnock refused to undergo an alcohol test as required by law, so our officers called officials from the British consulate in St. Petersburg and handed over Kinnock and the car to them," Fominykh said.

Kinnock was followed before he was stopped, the British Council's headquarters in London said in a statement.

Council spokeswoman Clare Sears said in the statement that Russian staff in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg were summoned for FSB interviews Tuesday and visited in their homes that night by the police. She said they were called for additional interviews Wednesday.

"Our main concern is the safety and security of both our Russian and U.K. staff, and we are deeply concerned by both these incidents," Sears said.

Russian staff members in St. Petersburg refused to comment Wednesday on their conversations with the FSB and police. Kinnock also refused to discuss the conversations, citing security concerns.

A spokeswoman for the FSB's St. Petersburg branch said the Russian staff had been told that the council was operating illegally and that their employment might also be illegal.

The FSB said in a statement Tuesday that it was working to prevent the Russian staff from being used by London "in provocative games."

No one picked up the phone in the council's Yekaterinburg office or the local FSB office on Wednesday afternoon.

In London, Russian Ambassador Yury Fedotov was called to the Foreign Office to meet Foreign Secretary David Miliband over the British Council's treatment by Russian authorities.

"Any attempt to intimidate British Council staff in Russia is completely unacceptable," a Foreign Office spokesman told reporters, RIA-Novosti reported.

Miliband told reporters that "attacks" against the council would harm only Russia, its reputation and its citizens, Interfax reported.

The Foreign Ministry said Monday that it intended to collect taxes, including alleged arrears, from the British Council and deny visas to the group's employees.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took a jab at the defiance of British officials over the British Council on Tuesday. "We certainly understand that historic memory, possibly related to nostalgia for the colonial age, weighs [on British officials]. But this is not a language to use with Russia," he told reporters.

Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov on Wednesday echoed an allegation by FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev that some foreign organizations were providing cover for spies. "They like very much to teach democracy, to teach us laws, but they believe that this is not obligatory for them and often engage in nondiplomatic activities under the cover of diplomatic organizations," Mironov said in St. Petersburg.

Nabi Abdullaev contributed to this report from Moscow.