Compromise Needed Over British Council

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The standoff between Moscow and London over the activities of the British Council is regrettable. It is regrettable not only because tens of thousands of Russians could lose the opportunity to acquire new skills, including a better knowledge of English and best practices in Britain, which the council either teaches or facilitates. But it is distressing because it further worsens relations between two countries mired in a morass of difficulties, including the refusal by British courts to extradite Chechen rebel spokesman Akhmed Zakayev and exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, both wanted in Russia, and Moscow's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, wanted in Britain for the murder of former security services agent Alexander Litvinenko.

The British Council had operated in relative peace in several cities for more than a decade. The council -- which acts as the cultural arm of the British Embassy -- was established under a 1994 cooperation agreement that envisioned it working in education, science and culture.

Then the Russian authorities decided it should start paying taxes in line with laws governing nongovernmental organizations.

The Foreign Ministry itself openly admits that the question of taxes is being used as a lever in the standoff with Britain.

In a letter dated Dec. 7, Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov said Moscow's order to the British Council to close its offices in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg by Jan. 1 was a "logical consequence" of the expulsion of Russian diplomats from London in July after Russia refused to extradite Litvinenko.

Russia responded by declaring an equal number of British diplomats in Moscow personae non grata.

London's position is that the cultural and educational issues on which the British Council focuses should not be made hostage to political conflict.

There is a danger here for the Russian side. If London follows Moscow's lead in expanding the dispute to nonpolitical domains, there are a lot of soft spots it could target, given the broad and deep ties between the countries.

Similarly, Moscow can also expand its list of targets, which could include the interests of British companies on the ground in Russia, among other things.

Such escalation could continue ad nauseam. It doesn't have to.

For its part, London should bring the British Council's status into compliance with Russian laws either on NGOs or on diplomatic missions, depending on what it wants the organization to be. On Moscow's side, the Foreign Ministry should stop acting like a law enforcement agency and court -- just what it is doing by threatening to investigate the council for tax arrears and order their payment.

Both sides have to realize that these zero-sum games ultimately generate a lose-lose outcome. Since neither the governments nor the public in the two countries have anything to gain from further escalation, everything should be done to avoid it.