British Council to Open in St. Pete

Just as it has every January for the past 13 years, the British Council in St. Petersburg was to start the new year with a normal working day Monday.

"We will try to make this business as usual," a spokesman for the British Embassy said Sunday.

But this year is a lot different, as the opening following the country's prolonged winter break comes under the shadow of an unprecedented dispute between Moscow and London.

Russia had demanded that the council, the British government's cultural and educational arm abroad, close its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg by the end of last year, saying it had no legal right to continue operating.

Britain has adamantly refused, saying the legal basis for the council was rock solid. Its office in Yekaterinburg already began working again last week, defying a Foreign Ministry order to close.

Yekaterinburg council staff had not experienced any difficulties so far, said the embassy spokesman, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity.

James Kennedy, the council's country director, said he would be in St. Petersburg Monday, adding that this was routine.

"I am going there as any general manager would regularly visit his branches," he said in a telephone interview Sunday.

Kennedy said the council's office on 32 Nevsky Prospekt would not be open to the public.

"There won't be a lot going on, as Russia takes a long time to get going after the winter holidays," he said.

The Foreign Ministry warned London earlier this month that defiance would amount to a provocation and trigger further escalation of the difficulties between the countries. It did not, however, specify how the closures would be enforced. In December, a spokesman said only that "no tanks will drive up."

Calls to the ministry for comment went unanswered Friday and Sunday.

The dispute is the latest in a series of incidents that have seen relations between Moscow and London plummeting 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 of former security services officer Alexander Litvinenko.

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

Council representatives say they are dismayed over being dragged into the political realm.

"We have operated in difficult environments, like South Africa under apartheid and China after the Tiananmen massacre, but being embroiled in such a political issue is something unique," said Kate Board, the director responsible for the council's activities in Europe, the Americas and the Middle East.

Board repeated the council's position that Moscow's stance is hurting mainly its own citizens, arguing that the organization helped more than 1 million young Russians last year.

"Nobody is going to win," she said by telephone Sunday from London. "This is a huge pity."

Kennedy would not speculate on what would happen when the St. Petersburg office opened Monday.

Board said the council had "contingency plans like any other organization" with regard to protecting staff at the location in the event of action by the authorities. She refused to elaborate.

British sources familiar with the negotiations said talks were ongoing at the diplomatic level.

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst and a State Duma deputy for United Russia, said both sides were likely looking for a diplomatic solution.

"Nothing has been decided yet," he said Sunday.

Markov said that just as London hoped to avoid a crackdown, Moscow did not want to have to resort to force.

"They do not want to rush things," he said.

But Markov also said further escalation was possible without some sort of show of "goodwill" from the British side.

"If London makes no such move, the British Council might become the victim of the row between both governments," he said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kaminin said in a statement posted on the ministry's web site early this month that the closure order could be extended to the council's Moscow office, which opened in 1969 and employs 50.