British Council Warned Not to Reopen

The Foreign Ministry is warning Britain not to follow through with its plans to reopen two British Council offices next week, saying the move would inflame already tense relations between the countries.

The ministry last month ordered offices of the British Council in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg to close as of Jan. 1. The offices are closed for the extended New Year's and Orthodox Christmas holidays, but British officials say they will defy the order and resume operations on Monday.

Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said he expected the operations to be permanently closed and "any other actions would be provocative and build up bilateral tensions."

He appeared to suggest that the council's main office in Moscow could also be told to close. "The activity of the British Council in Moscow and Russian regions has no legal foundation," he said in a statement late last week. "We have not raised the question of the British Council's office in Moscow thus far, and this is an act of goodwill."

The British Council is technically a nongovernmental organization, but it acts as the cultural department of the British Embassy. The ministry contends that it acts as a for-profit organization.

Kathryn Board, head of the British Council's overseas network, said the organization complied with Russian law, a 1994 Britain-Russia agreement and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

"If there is a law we don't comply with, the Russian government has yet to point it out," she said by telephone from London.

British Council officials have been in contact with the Russian government, seeking an agreement that would allow the offices to open without incident, Board said.

The order against the British Council comes amid high tensions stemming from the 2006 killing in London of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko. Russia has refused Britain's request to extradite the man it considers the main suspect; this summer Britain expelled four Russian diplomats to protest Moscow's stance, and Russia in turn kicked out four British diplomats.