Russia Orders 2 British Offices Closed

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 13, 2007

MOSCOW, Dec. 12 -- Russia on Wednesday ordered the closure of two offices of the British Council, the international cultural arm of the British government. The council responded that it has "no plans" to shutter the offices.

Russian authorities have long subjected the council to tax probes, arguing that it has no legitimate diplomatic standing and is a for-profit enterprise. But in explaining Wednesday's action, senior members of the Russian government said the closure order was also part of a larger diplomat dispute over the murder in London of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko.

"The British government undertook some actions which inflicted what I would call systemic damage to our relations, so we have to retaliate," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the BBC.

In Britain, the council is a registered charity that operates independently of the British government, although it is sponsored by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Offering English language lessons and cultural programs, it charges fees for some of its services, a fact that Russian officials have cited during years of wrangling over its status.

The council has offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that the two offices outside Moscow have no "legal basis" to operate.

"The practical activity of the council was accompanied by violations of the Russian financial, tax, and other laws," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement, adding that "this organization is related to neither diplomatic nor consulate missions." No action was taken against the Moscow office.

British officials rejected the ministry's reasoning and vowed to continue the council's work. "We, the Council and their Russian partner organisations have every intention that the British Council's programmes will continue," the British Foreign Office said in a statement. "The Council's activities in Russia are fully compliant both with Russian and international law, under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations."

The British Council "is a cultural, not a political institution and we strongly reject any attempt to link it to Russia's failure to co-operate with our efforts to bring the murder of Alexander Litvinenko to justice," the Foreign Office statement said.

The British Council office in Yekaterinburg is at the same location as the British Consulate, but the office in St. Petersburg is separate from the consulate there. It is unclear how the Russians will enforce their order if the British defy it.

The dispute adds to a sharp deterioration in British-Russian relations growing from the November 2006 poisoning death in London of Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence agent who became a vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin. In May, Britain requested the extradition of a Russian who is the prime suspect in the case. Russia refused, leading to tit-for-tat expulsions of four diplomats from each country in July.

Russian officials say that the country's constitution bars them from extraditing any Russian citizen and that, in any case, Britain has so far provided no compelling evidence implicating suspect Andrei Lugovoy in Litvinenko's death.

Lugovoy was recently elected to parliament on the ticket of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party and is now immune from prosecution in Russia. Russian prosecutors, at one point, had said they were open to trying any Russian suspect here if there was a case to present.

Anthony Brenton, Britain's ambassador to Russia, warned recently that Lugovoy would be immediately arrested if he set foot outside Russia.

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