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16 Jan, 2008 23:01

Britain backs down in Russia row

There hasn’t been a breakthrough in the latest Russia-UK spat, with the British Council suspending its St Petersburg operations and talks occurring in Moscow and London. The sign on the British Council’s office in St Petersburg says the office is temporary.

Russia & Britain in talks

Security Service speaks to Council employees

Diplomatic row background

Russia's Ambassador to Britain has been summoned to the Foreign Office in London and Russia’s parliament is also discussing the issue.

Russia & Britain in talks

Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband has said any attempt by Russia to intimidate staff at Council offices would be totally unacceptable.

It follows the announcement Tuesday night by the Russian security service, the FSB, that it intended to talk to the Russian members of staff.

“Cultural exchange can only be a good thing between two countries like Britain and Russia. We welcome the Russian art exhibition as coming to London, for instance, we want to continue cultural contexts,” Miliband said.

He also claims the work of the British Council is completely legal under Russian and international law.

“The only losers from any attack on the British Council are Russian citizens who want to use the Council, there were 1.5 million of them last year, and the reputation of the Russian government,” Britain's Foreign Secretary said.

He added also that he hopes there is still time for the Russian government to ‘find a way to maintain the very important cultural work that goes on between our two countries’.

Meanwhile, Russian ambassador to the UK Yury Fedotov told Russia Today in an exclusive interview he hasn’t heard any new arguments that would ‘support this position of non-compliance of the British side with the very clear decision of the Russian authorities to suspend the activities of the British Council regional offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg’.

“I made a point that since the discussions on the cultural agreement are frozen there is no legal foundation for further activities of the organisation in Russia,” Fedotov noted.

He also said that he believes a resolution of the current crisis is possible, but for that both sides should do less talking, get down to business and avoid public discussion.

Security Service speaks to Council employees

There are some reports that the head of the British Council office in St Petersburg was detained by Russian police, and that some employees have been questioned.

The head of Russia’s Federal Security Service pointed out that they were not questioning but speaking to Russian citizens who work for the British Council, explaining them why the organisation is considered to be working illegally in the country and trying to safeguard them from being used as tools by Britain in the current tense situation in the relations of the two countries.

As concerns the fact that the director of the organisation’s St Petersburg was detained on Tuesday evening, this was because of a traffic violation, according to Russian news agencies. He was released shortly after the detainment.

Diplomatic row background

Talks to establish the legal status of the Council stalled following the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in the wake of Andrey Lugovoy extradition row last year.

Relations between the UK and Russia have worsened since the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former FSB agent, in London in November 2006. In July, Britain expelled four Russian diplomats over Moscow's refusal to extradite Lugovoy, whom Britain suspects of being involved. Russia followed suit shortly after.