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Last Updated: Monday, 14 January 2008, 20:24 GMT
Mood for a fight in UK-Russia row
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

The latest flare-up between Moscow and London over the future of the British Council in Russia was entirely predictable.

Both sides have dug themselves into heavily fortified positions over the past month from which they are refusing to shift.

British Council office in Moscow
The British Council has refused to close two regional offices

It has become a test of wills and it is now a question of who will blink first.

Or alternatively, whether the Russian government will decide to use force to close the British Council's office in St Petersburg.

There was no way the Russians would tolerate such open defiance of a clear order issued last month for the St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg offices to shut down by the New Year.

The anger of the government was fully expressed in the abrupt summons of the British ambassador Sir Anthony Brenton to the foreign ministry in Moscow on Monday.

And then in the statement issued afterwards by the ministry, in which it described the British Council's failure to comply with the order as a "premeditated provocation aimed at inflaming tensions in Russian-British relations".

Punishment

So now the British Council faces a new raft of punitive measures.

No new expatriate staff will be able to work at either of the offices in St Petersburg or Yekaterinburg because of the new visa restrictions.

And the two expatriates currently based in St Petersburg (including Stephen Kinnock, the son of the former leader of the British Labour party Neil Kinnock) will have to leave Russia this year as their visas will not be renewed.

On top of this, there is the demand for the payment of taxes which have allegedly not been paid by the St Petersburg office, and the ominous threat to close down the British Council's headquarters in Russia here in Moscow.

If that were to happen, the British Council's involvement in Russia would be over.

'Threats'

Already its presence here has shrunk dramatically over the past two years.

It used to have a network of small regional offices across the country, mainly providing library services and other information.

But by the end of December all these had been handed over to local universities and education departments, partly because the council itself was restructuring, but also because of alleged pressure from the Russian authorities, who seemed instinctively suspicious of its activities.

Sources say local British Council staff in some regions had faced "quite nasty threats" from the security agencies, including the successor to the KGB, the FSB, which warned them they were working for an "illegal organisation" and therefore might suffer the consequences.

With these smaller regional offices wrapped up, then came the order in December for the two big remaining regional centres in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg to close down on the grounds that they had no legal basis to operate.

Political punch-bag

Western sources in Moscow had been warning for many weeks that a punch-up was looming over the rump of the British Council, spurred on, they said, by the FSB.

And it seemed clear that both sides were in the mood for fighting.

Russian businessman and politician Andrei Lugovoi
Russia has refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi to the UK

While ostensibly the issue centres on the legality of the remaining British Council operations in Russia, even the Russian foreign minister himself, Sergei Lavrov, admitted to the BBC last month that it was in fact a retaliatory jab at the British government.

Moscow, he said, wanted to get even for the sanctions imposed by London last summer.

These were implemented because the Russian government refuses to extradite the chief suspect for the murder in London of the former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko.

The suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, was elected to the Russian parliament or Duma last month.

British Council sources say they have been used as a political punch-bag in Russia before.

Three years ago the council's office in St Petersburg was raided by the tax authorities.

The council believes this was because Moscow was angry at London's refusal to extradite two outspoken opponents of President Vladimir Putin - Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev.

But this time it is the British Council's entire presence in Russia that is at stake and, at the moment, neither side seems willing to compromise.

SEE ALSO
British Council in Russian test
03 Jan 08 |  Europe
Russia's new front in UK spat
13 Dec 07 |  Europe
Russia to limit British Council
12 Dec 07 |  Europe

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