British Unit Is Alleging 'Intimidation' By Moscow

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 18, 2008

MOSCOW, Jan. 17 -- The British Council said Thursday it had suspended operations at its two regional offices in Russia, citing "a campaign of intimidation against our staff" that the cultural organization said presented a "significant risk to them."

The announcement of the closures in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg came as British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, speaking to Parliament, condemned Russia's actions as "reprehensible, not worthy of a great country."

The confrontation is the latest chapter of a diplomatic dispute that has intensified since the November 2006 murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian domestic security officer who was a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin.

Russia had demanded that Britain shut down the two regional offices of the British Council, the international cultural arm of the British government, alleging they were operating illegally. But Russian Foreign Ministry officials also linked the closure order to the Litvinenko affair, specifically Britain's expulsion of four diplomats last year after Russia refused to extradite a suspect in the murder.

On Monday, Britain defied Russia's closure order and reopened the council's St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg offices after the New Year's break.

On Tuesday night, Russian tax police visited the homes of some Russian employees of the council, and on Wednesday, Russian employees were questioned by the FSB, the domestic successor of the KGB.

Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council, said the FSB interviews "had little to do with their work and were clearly aimed at exerting undue pressure on innocent individuals." Miliband told the House of Commons that FSB questioning "ranged from the institutional status of the British Council to personal questions about the health and welfare of family pets."

Stephen Kinnock, head of the council's St. Petersburg office, was stopped by police after leaving a dinner Tuesday night and accused of drunken driving -- an allegation vigorously denied by the British.

Kinnock, who has diplomatic status, is the son of the British Council's worldwide chairman, Neil Kinnock, a former leader of Britain's governing Labor Party.

"We saw similar actions during the Cold War but frankly thought they had been put behind us," Miliband said. "Russia's actions therefore raise serious questions about her observance of international law, as well as about the standards of behavior she is prepared to adopt towards her own citizens. . . . Russia's actions against the British Council are a stain on Russia's reputation and standing."

But Russian politicians accused the British Council of arrogantly flouting the law.

"Russia is not a banana republic," said Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the international affairs committee in the lower house of Russia's parliament, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. "We have a functioning legal system and any foreign organization, irrespective of the type of activities it carries out, has to comply with Russian laws."

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