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Russia moves against the British Council

The war of nerves between Moscow and London continues. With the harassment of Stephen Kinnock, head of the Council’s St. Petersburg office, the behavior of the Russian officials has sinister echoes of the old Soviet Union and the Cold War. Where does the ill-feeling come from, and what is its significance?

The Kremlin has declared that the British Council Offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, as operating illegally and has attempted to close them. The British Council is a cultural organization operating world-wide and sponsored by the British Government. It is aimed at the promotion of educational and cultural ties. The temporary detention of the office director Stephen Kinnock, son of former Labour Party leader and later European commissioner, Neil Kinnock, is being seen in London as a deliberate act of provocation aimed at closing the offices. These are operating under an agreement with Moscow signed almost a decade ago. The fact that the temporary detention was followed by interviews by the FSB (the Russian Security Services) for all members of staff at the St. Petersburg office meant in effect that the office was forced to close though the British Council insists that it is operating under a legally valid international agreement. Stephen Kinnock’s visa will, according to Russian sources, not be renewed. The interviews, according to the BBC website, were described by the chief executive of the British Council, Martin Davidson, as having ‘little to do with their work’ and that the interviews were ‘aimed at exerting undue pressure on innocent individuals’.

UK foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has rejected claims that the offices had violated taxation law and has made it clear that he sees this as a deliberate campaign of staff intimidation. Britain claims that the offices are operating legally under a valid agreement that has not been terminated. Russia wanted talks on cultural exchanges but these failed some time last year. Miliband, according to the BBC, sees the actions of the Russian officials as ‘not worthy of a great country’. Miliband's response is supported by the EU and by the United States. The Russian Ambassador to Britain has reacted to Miliband by saying that the situation is slipping into a diplomatic crisis.

What is at issue is more complex than a tiff over a significant cultural organization, Russia is in a fairly truculent mood and wants to make up its own rules with respect to international action. This in itself has some unfortunate ramifications as state actorsneed a framework tha tleads to some degree of predictability and even accountability. Most commentators seem to hold that Russia in general, and Putin in particular, is still upset with the allegations against Andrei Lugovoi, a former FSB operator, suspected of murdering Alexander Litvinyenko in London using radioactive poison. Russia, in apoltical decision, refused to hand Lugovoi over for trial in London. London is also the home of many rich Russians and Russia is not happy with the rejection by the courts (not in th eUK a politcal decision but a judicial decision) of an extradition request against one of the ‘oligarchs'. Nonetheless it is hard not to accept Miliband’s judgment that the Russians are in fact scoring an own goal. The more they harass the British Council, the more attention is paid to the history of the relationship that flows from the murder of Litvinyenko. It is hard to see what Russian can gain from its position.