Pressure Mounts on British Council

APJames Kennedy, head of the British Council in Russia, and St. Petersburg branch head Paula Medovnikov speaking in the St. Petersburg office on Monday.
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador on Monday as the government stepped up pressure on the British Council after London defied orders to close two offices.

The ministry said it would start moves to recover back taxes from the council's office in St. Petersburg, refuse to renew the accreditation of diplomats who now work in its regional offices, and refuse to give visas to new employees.

"Considering that our calls have not been heeded, the Russian side is forced to take a series of measures for administrative and legal pressure," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its web site.

It said it "retained the right to adopt additional measures, including against the British Council office in Moscow."

British Ambassador Tony Brenton was summoned to the ministry after the council, which is funded by the British government and acts as the British Embassy's cultural arm, reopened the second of its regional offices after the New Year's holidays.

The St. Petersburg branch of British Council opened Monday on Nevsky Prospekt despite the order to close. The Yekaterinburg branch opened last week.

"The message of today's opening is that we wish to continue our work, our business in Russia," said James Kennedy, director of British Council in Russia, as he helped open the St. Petersburg office.

Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
British Ambassador Tony Brenton arriving at the Foreign Ministry on Monday after being summoned about British Council's decision to reopen two offices.

"As far as we are aware, the work of the British Council in Russia is legal. We have received no information to indicate that our work is not legal," he said.

Russia had demanded that the council close its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg by Jan. 1, saying it had no legal right to continue operating. Britain, in turn, says the legal basis for the council is rock solid.

"Russia views such actions as an intentional provocation aimed at inflaming tensions in Russian-British relations," the Foreign Ministry said in the statement.

The ministry's measures will affect the two British employees who work in St. Petersburg and are accredited as diplomats. No British employees work in Yekaterinburg.

The council's work force of about 70 includes a total of six British employees, all of them in top managerial positions.

As he left the Foreign Ministry, the British ambassador said the council would not close.

"The British Council will continue its work in Russia, and its closure would be illegal," Brenton said, reported.

He said he had been given "quite a large packet of documents, which I will study," NTV television reported.

Asked about the ministry's protest, Kennedy said: "We're studying it very carefully. There's no immediate response."

A British Embassy spokesman said the embassy also was reviewing the documents from the ministry.

The Foreign Ministry warned London earlier this month that defiance would trigger a further escalation of difficulties between the countries.

The dispute is the latest in a series of incidents that have seen relations between Moscow and London sink to post-Cold War lows. Last summer, both countries expelled diplomats after Moscow refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, who is wanted in Britain for the radioactive poisoning death of former security services officer Alexander Litvinenko.

The government has previously openly linked the Litvinenko affair with its attack on the British Council. In a letter sent Brenton, Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov called the closure order the "logical consequence" of the expulsion of Russian diplomats from London.

However, Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the State Duma's International Affairs Committee, denied any connection.

"The claims are purely legal and financial," Kosachyov said Monday, Interfax reported. "They are totally unrelated to the recent complications in Russian-British relations, although these complications have reached their peak."

Council representatives said they were dismayed about being dragged into the political realm.

Stephen Kinnock, a senior British Council in Russia, said the council had a number of projects with Russian educational and cultural institutions.

"I hope our partners will continue to work with us," he said.