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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

British Council Ordered to Close in Weeks

The Foreign Ministry on Wednesday ordered the British Council, a British government-funded organization, to suspend operations in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg by the end of the month.

The British government said it would not comply.

The exchange threatens to worsen poor relations, and the Foreign Ministry exacerbated matters Wednesday by linking its demand to a political spat involving the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

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 British Council "is fully entitled to operate in Russia, both in Moscow and elsewhere," Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman, Michael Ellam, told reporters in London, news agencies reported.

James Kennedy, head of the British Council's operations in Russia, said the offices would remain open.

"It is our view that we are operating legally in the country. We planned various activities after the holidays, and I expect that we will carry on our work here," he said in a telephone interview.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Krivtsov, however, was adamant that the British side had to comply. "This is a very official announcement in the framework of diplomatic relations," he said by telephone.

Asked how the decision would be enforced, Krivtsov said only, "No tanks will drive up in front of British Council offices."

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said it had decided to order the closure of the offices after negotiations with the British Council collapsed because of "unfriendly actions" by London -- the expulsion of four Russian diplomats in a dispute over the poisoning death of Litvinenko, a former security services officer who died in London in November 2006.

"The unfriendly actions undertaken by the British side toward Russia in July of this year, accompanied by the introduction of a whole series of discriminatory measures, derailed our efforts to prepare this document," the ministry said.

The British Embassy objected to the Litvinenko connection, saying the British Council was a cultural not a political institution. "We strongly reject any attempt to link it to Russia's failure to cooperate with our efforts to bring the murder of Alexander Litvinenko to justice," it said in an e-mailed statement.

"The bizarre thing is that this is a good organization for Russia," an embassy spokesman said by telephone, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.

The council says it organizes activities that directly benefit hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russians.

"Obviously the deterioration in bilateral relations does have an effect on us, but that only makes our work more important," Kennedy said.

He said a cooperation agreement signed in 1994 was a viable legal basis for the council's operations in the country. "We are fully compliant with Russian law and tax authorities," he added.

But the Foreign Ministry reiterated its stance that the 1994 agreement "only has the character of a framework document and does not assign a legal status." It said the council had violated Russian and international law by setting up branches in the country.

It said the offices in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations because they were under the umbrella of British diplomatic missions.

While the Yekaterinburg office is located on the premises of the consulate, the office on St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt is well away from the consulate there.

Kennedy said he did not know why the ministry had accused the St. Petersburg office of violations.

Krivtsov said he was not aware of the details but thought that the office in St. Petersburg had violated tax regulations.

Human rights activists voiced concern and suggested that this was part of a political campaign. "If the council's work has no legal basis in the country, then why should it not be possible to set up that basis?" said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Interfax reported. She said the council had not faced similar difficulties in other countries.

A Kremlin spokesman denied that Britain was being targeted deliberately.

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.

In June, the Foreign Ministry demanded that the council leave the consulate premises in Yekaterinburg because the office had to be accessible to everyone.

The council has been working in a kind of legal no man's land in the country for 13 years because it is not registered as a nongovernmental organization and is funded largely by the British government.

The embassy said efforts to change this had been going on for years. The spokesman said that while negotiations were halted this summer, there was an ongoing "exchange of letters" regarding the status of the offices.