British Council banned from Russian province?

The British Council in Russia will be forced to close its offices outside Moscow because of the ongoing diplomatic spat between the two countries.

Now it mainly concerns offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs they are violating Vienna Conventions.

Hitting record low temperatures in Moscow-London relations, as many view it. The work of the British Council in the Russian regions is now feeling the frost.

On Tuesday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused this non-governmental organisation of operating outside Moscow illegally.

It requested the shutting down of all regional offices by the New Year.

The British Council has reacted with surprise.

James Kennedy, the British Council's Director in Russia said that “we've complied in every way with the requests of the Russian authorities in respect of Russian legislation.”

After The British Council opened a cultural centre in Moscow in 1994 it opened 16 offices in the Russian regions.

Now it's been accused of not setting those up in accordance with Russian law, as well as tax evasion.

Hostage of the politics

The British government undertook some actions, which inflicted what I would call systemic damage to our relations. So we have to retaliate. This is nothing to do with anti-British sentiments – it's the law of the genre if you wish

Sergey Lavrov,
Russian Foreign Affairs Minister

And Moscow is mainly stressing that British Council has violated the Vienna convention. The organisation still has offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, within consulate buildings.

These give diplomatic immunity, even though the British Council isn't part of the Diplomatic Corps.

“Whether we like it or not but this decision will be interpreted as a kind of revenge, as retaliation for the unwillingness of the British side to co-operate with Russia on other issues,” Andrey Kortunov, President of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow

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 a key suspect in the case. Russia followed suit shortly after.

Moscow claims legal violations and tax fraud. London says everything was in accordance with both Russian and British legislations. But if both sides won't be able to reach a compromise within a fortnight, Moscow office will be the only branch of the British Council in the country.

The Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov is standing firm.

“The British government undertook some actions, which inflicted what I would call systemic damage to our relations. So we have to retaliate. This is nothing to do with anti-British sentiments – it's the law of the genre if you wish,” says he.

On the other hand, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, joined the choir calling the move against British Council offices totally unacceptable.

The British Council states its main goal is to build cultural and educational ties. More than 400,000 Russians take part in its programmes annually.

And time will show for how long these people will remain the hostages of politics.