Brenton Upbeat Despite Tensions

MTAnthony Brenton
Perhaps no Western diplomat has had a rougher year in Russia than British Ambassador Anthony Brenton.

With British-Russian relations nose diving, Brenton has been a lightning rod for pro-Kremlin youth groups such as Nashi, whose activists have hounded the ambassador ever since he attended an opposition conference in St. Petersburg in 2006.

Most recently, Nashi activists demonstrated outside the British Embassy waving posters featuring Brenton's face and stamped with the English word "Loser."

In a recent interview at the embassy, Brenton referenced an Oscar Wilde quip in brushing off the suggestion that perhaps his face had become too well-known.

"If there is one thing worse than being talked about, then it is not being talked about," he said.

Brenton conceded that there were "obviously a number of serious political problems between the U.K. and Russia" but said 2007 was by no means annus horriblis for relations between the two countries.

"I would describe it as an eventful year, a challenging year," he said.

Nevertheless, the list of bilateral disputes, including Russia's refusal to extradite murder suspect Andrei Lugovoi to Britain, continues to grow.

The latest spat threatens to make for an ominous New Year's Day for Britain. The Foreign Ministry has ordered the British Council, a British government-funded cultural organization, to close its offices outside Moscow as of Jan. 1, which is, incidentally, Brenton's 58th birthday.

"I am a little worried, obviously, that 2008 will start very badly if the Russians go ahead with the planned attack on the British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, but I continue to hope that good sense on that will prevail," Brenton said.

The British Council is mired in a long-standing dispute over its legal status. It considers itself the cultural arm of the British Embassy, while the Foreign Ministry says it lacks proper authorization to operate in Russia.

The Foreign Ministry has also linked the British Council closures to Britain's "unfriendly" decision to expel four Russian diplomats in July after Moscow refused to hand over businessman Lugovoi to face charges of poisoning former security services officer Alexander Litvinenko last year.

Brenton said there was still "plenty of time" for Russia to drop its demands. "All it takes, I suspect, is one man's decision," he said without elaborating.

Brenton reiterated his position that the council has every right to operate in the country on the basis of a 1994 treaty. Russia, in turn, says the treaty is only a framework agreement and that the council has been operating illegally in the country ever since.

He described the British Council's legal position as "rock solid" and said the services offered by the organization, including language lessons, were in great demand among ordinary Russians.

On his recent trip to Tomsk, Brenton said, local academics and teachers asked that the British Council open an office in the Siberian city.

"It is a pity that the approach currently being taken by the Russian government — quite above from being entirely illegal — is also hurtful to the Russian people themselves," he said.

Nashi, which began chasing Brenton closely in August 2006 — staging rallies near his residence, blocking his car and stalking him at public events — has chimed in on the dispute. Nashi leader Konstantin Goloskokov said the group would carry out "mass actions" if the British Council refused to suspend its operations.

After the British Embassy filed a diplomatic note asking the Foreign Ministry to guarantee Brenton's safety, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told then-Nashi leader Vasily Yakemenko in January to ask his activists to stop the harassment.

Brenton joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1975, and his first posting to Moscow was in 1994 as an economic, aid and scientific counselor. After leaving Moscow in 1998, he worked as the director of global affairs at the FCO before leaving for Washington in 2001 for a three-year posting as deputy head of the mission.

In 2000, Brenton was made a Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George, the second-highest rank in the British knighthood. He returned to Russia as ambassador in 2004.

Aside from the British Council, Brenton has been championing Britain's stance in the Litvinenko case and reiterated that the arrest warrant and extradition request for Lugovoi remained in force:

"We want to try Mr. Lugovoi for a very nasty murder," he said, adding that the former security services officer was welcome to come to Britain and "face a fair trial."

Lugovoi, who insists he is innocent of the crime, was elected to the State Duma this month on the ticket of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, thus making him immune from prosecution in Russia.

Britain has extradition arrangements with a "wide range of countries, including … the whole of the European Union," that will be used should Lugovoi travel, Brenton said.

But despite bitter disputes, Brenton was upbeat about other aspects of British-Russian relations, most notably the "fantastic economic scene."

"I see a never-ending stream of British businessmen coming through my office interested in, attracted by, excited by Russia," he said.

Bilateral trade is rising by 20 percent annually, with Britain becoming the largest source of foreign investment in 2006, and Russian companies are increasingly seeking financial services in London, Brenton said.

The British education system is also attracting Russians.

"You go to any serious British school or university these days and you will find a large number of Russian students there," he said.

Brenton is outspoken about improving ties with Moscow.

"I am very keen that over the next few months we begin to re-establish the very close, high-level links on issues like Iran, like terrorism, which we had before these difficulties arose," he said. "And we need to find the possibility of contacts before the presidential election, if possible, and after, if that is how long it takes."