Britain Promises a Quick Response

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband vowed Thursday to respond quickly to a Foreign Ministry announcement that authorities would seek to collect taxes, including alleged arrears, from the British Council and deny visas to the group's employees.

Miliband also said the Russian threats would only worsen Moscow's escalating diplomatic dispute with London and that cultural ties should not be held hostage to the disagreement.

Britain has defied a ministry order demanding the closure of two offices belonging to the British Council, which acts as the cultural arm of the British Embassy. The ministry accuses the council's offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg of operating illegally.

British authorities say the organization's operations have always been lawful and accuse Russia of stirring the dispute for political reasons.

The ministry said Monday that authorities would try to claim alleged back taxes from the council and create visa hurdles for its British employees.

"Such threats can only make matters worse," Miliband said in a statement to British lawmakers. "It is not in the interests of either the U.K. or Russia for flourishing cultural, educational and scientific links to be held hostage to unrelated issues in this way."

Miliband said Britain would consult its allies on the matter and would "respond to the Russian government shortly."

Russia's ambassador to London said Tuesday that Britain's refusal to close the two offices could lead to the closure of the British Council's office in Moscow.

"This is an act of defiance and ... a provocation, which certainly would entail further measures by the Russian authorities," Yury Fedotov said on BBC radio. "If the British Council will continue to defy the Russian authorities, the next step will be, I would say, the British Council in Moscow.

"So far, the British Council in Moscow was spared as an act of goodwill, although legal issues which are relevant with regard to the offices of the British Council in the other places are also relevant in Moscow."

A retired Russian spymaster, meanwhile, accused the British Council of being "directly connected to the intelligence services of Britain and the United States."

Yury Drozdov, former chief of the undercover branch of KGB's foreign intelligence division, said that only those eager to see the country disintegrate could sit by as the British Council does "what it pleases" in Russia, Interfax reported.

Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev has repeatedly asserted that some foreign NGOs provide cover for spies.

Also Tuesday, Kommersant reported that Chechen authorities were seeking to close the local branch of Britain's Center for Peacemaking and Community Development. Chechen Prosecutor Valery Kuznetsov said he believed the center had violated tax regulations and its accreditation expired in 2006. The group has been providing psychological counseling to refugees and children.