British Prime Minister Joins Storm of Criticism

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown lashed out at Russia on Thursday for its "totally unacceptable" order for the British Council to close two offices.

Britain's foreign minister and ambassador to Russia also denounced the demand. The British Council, a British government-funded cultural organization, has said it will ignore the order.

The Kremlin said Thursday that President Vladimir Putin would not respond to the high-level criticism. Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group that has hounded the British ambassador on and off for months, threatened "mass actions" if the offices did not close.

The Foreign Ministry ordered the British Council to suspend operations in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg by the end of the month. The ministry said the council did not have the legal right to run the offices.

Brown said Russia must not put at risk the welfare of British Council staff. "This is totally unacceptable," he told a parliamentary committee in London. "We wish this action to be desisted from immediately."

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the closure of the offices "would constitute a serious attack against the legitimate cultural agent of the British government," in a written statement to the Houses of Parliament.

British Ambassador Anthony Brenton, using unusually strong language in a telephone interview, accused Russia of breaking international law and said he found it "particularly reprehensible" that the demands were coming from a member of the United Nations Security Council.

"Our view is that the British Council are acting entirely legally and properly," Brenton said. "We cannot see quite how the Russian authorities can act to prevent them from doing this, and it is their intention to carry on with their work."

The Russian government was tight-lipped about the affair Thursday. "Statements about intentions not to abide by the decision of the Russian authorities are provocative and can only make the situation worse," an unidentified Foreign Ministry official said in a terse statement carried by Interfax.

The spat is ratcheting up already high tensions between the two countries, which have been at loggerheads over the last two years, especially following the poisoning murder of Alexander Litvinenko late last year.

The Foreign Ministry has linked the British Council closures to Britain's "unfriendly" decision to expel four Russian diplomats in July after Moscow refused to hand over businessman Andrei Lugovoi to face charges of poisoning Litvinenko.

Lugovoi, who was voted into the State Duma last week, was quick to join in the attack on the British Council, which, among other things, offers English lessons and recently brought over British singer Lily Allen to Russia.

"It's no secret that special services were actively working in the British Council," he said at a congress of his Liberal Democratic Party.

Indeed, the British Council does have a web page dedicated to spying, but only as a way to help children learn English. It includes a quiz titled "Are you a Superspy?"

The British Council rejected the spy charge, saying it was purely a cultural organization. "We do not work in politics or with any intelligence agencies," it said in a statement.

British newspaper The Guardian reported Thursday that Russia had indicated privately that the British Council would be allowed to carry on its activities if Britain dropped its investigation into Litvinenko's murder.

Nashi leader Konstantin Goloskokov said the group would carry out "mass actions" if the British Council refused to suspend its operations, but would not elaborate. The British ambassador previously has complained that the group has stalked and harassed him.

"We believe that the British Council, like any foreign organization on our country's territory, must abide by our laws," Goloskokov said. "But in case the British Council refuses to do so, I think we should explain [matters] to it properly."

Last week, Nashi picketed the British Embassy with a picture of Brenton and the word "loser" written on his forehead.

Goloskokov promised that his activists "will not pursue or humiliate anyone."

Miliband, the foreign minister, said Britain was discussing the implications of Russia's decision with partners in the European Union and the Group of Seven and was grateful to the EU for expressing its concern to Russia about the situation.

The British Council first ran into trouble with the authorities in May 2004, when police visited more than 10 offices across the country and demanded financial records. This fall, the council decided to hand its smaller offices to local partners as part of a global restructuring, retaining offices only in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

Other European countries operate cultural organizations similar to the British Council, including the French Alliance Francaise and the German Goethe Institute.

"It is hard to see particularly how the Europeans' overall cultural links can go ahead after an illegal action against the cultural representatives of one of the European Union's major members," Brenton said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this did not change the situation. "Unfortunately, operations of a number of regional branches of the British Council don't comply with Russian laws," Peskov said.

He said Putin would not be responding to his British counterpart's complaints. "The president is not supposed to deal with this," he said.