EU Cultural Institutions Protest Clampdown on British Council

European cultural institutes have sent a letter to the Culture and Press Ministry expressing deep concern over the ordered closure of two offices of the British Council, the British government's cultural arm.

Signed by bodies such as the Goethe and Cervantes institutes, the letter said the order to halt operations in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg from Jan. 1 amounted to "discriminatory action."

"This decision constitutes a cause for deep concern for all national institutes for culture from EU countries working in Russia and is a continuation of a series of obstacles which some of these institutes have to face," said the letter to Culture and Press Minister Alexander Sokolov.

The letter of support was signed on behalf of cultural institutes in 18 EU countries and government cultural departments of four more countries, including France and Poland.

Last week, the Foreign Ministry said it would temporarily ban the two British Council offices on the grounds that they were not properly registered. The clampdown has been directly linked by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to a festering dispute with London over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

The British Embassy welcomed the intervention from other EU countries. "We're grateful for the support and find it both encouraging and vindicating -- both for our legal position and the value that other organizations place on the British Council," an embassy spokesman said.

The British Council operates as a not-for-profit charity run by the British government in 109 countries, teaching English, providing business links and administering academic tests for students who wish to study in Britain.