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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

British Council Asked to Leave Office

The Foreign Ministry is asking a British government-funded organization to vacate its office at the British Consulate in Yekaterinburg, saying it is not entitled to diplomatic immunity.

The request to the British Council comes amid frayed British-Russian relations, which hit a low point last month when Moscow refused to extradite to London a suspect in the murder of former security services officer Alexander Litvinenko.

The Foreign Ministry's official in Yekaterinburg, however, denied on Thursday that there were any political overtones to the request.

The British Council should leave the consulate premises because it "has to be accessible to everyone," the official, Alexander Medvedev, said by telephone.

"How does it look if a person who needs to get to the council -- which does excellent work, by the way -- has to cross through British land to get to a building that should be on Russian soil?" he said.

Galina Nesterenko, the British Council's director in Yekaterinburg, said the building's location had not caused any problems and that anyone could visit upon presentation of valid identification.

Nesterenko declined to comment on the ministry's request, saying only that she believed the issue would be "settled amicably."

British Ambassador Anthony Brenton received the request Wednesday, a British Embassy spokesman said. The council is the cultural arm of the British Embassy.

The crux of the issue is the organization's legal status, which the Foreign Ministry has been reluctant to resolve, the spokesman said.

The council has been operating in this country under a 1994 cooperation agreement and lives in a kind of legal no-man's land. It is not registered as a nongovernmental organization and is funded largely by the British government. And while it is legally detached from British diplomatic missions, cultural attaches with diplomatic immunity work in the organization.

No diplomats are currently working at the Yekaterinburg office, however, the spokesman said.

The embassy is looking to the Foreign Ministry to approve an updated version of the cooperation agreement that would help resolve the organization's status, the spokesman said, though he said he did not know the details of the proposed changes.

The British Council first ran into trouble with authorities in May 2004, when police visited its 15 offices across the country and demanded financial records.

The Interior Ministry then opened an investigation into supposed illegal business activities. The inquiry was closed in the summer of 2005 due to a lack of evidence, though it was reopened in January 2006.

In December, the British Council stopped offering English language courses following a demand from the Foreign Ministry that the council's language center obtain a license from the Education and Science Ministry.

Medvedev, the Foreign Ministry official, said the request to move out of the consulate was the third since 2005. The British Embassy said it could not immediately comment on any previous requests.