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6 Feb, 2008 03:54

Russian professionals urge Putin to reopen British Council

A group of British-educated Russians is urging the Kremlin to reconsider the decision to close two British Council offices. They say the decision has damaged Russia's image and has been a blow to millions of Russians.

More than a hundred bankers, lawyers and journalists signed a letter addressed to President Vladimir Putin.

“The British Council is a unique source of knowledge about Britain, its language and culture. I signed the letter to point out how important its role has been,” Yury Andreev, manager at Scottish Development International, said.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry ordered the British Council to close its branches in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg at the start of the year. The Council initially refused but later closed the offices, citing safety concerns for its staff.

“The Russian authorities have initiated a campaign of intimidation against our workers in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg,” chief executive of the British Council Martin Davidson said.

The St. Petersburg office has already moved out. Its entire Russian staff has been dismissed.

The row revolved around the council’s tax and legal status. One of the reasons for closure according to Russian authorities is that the two branches were working within consulate buildings which gave them diplomatic immunity an NGO is not permitted to have.

“The British Council has to comply with Russian law and register as an NGO, then the problem will be resolved. But we see a deliberate policy of the British authorities to aggravate relations with Moscow,” pointed out the head of Institute for Political Studies Sergey Markov.

The letter to the Kremlin points out that last year alone, more than a million Russians have used British Council services. Some of those who signed it say cultural activities have become hostage to political tensions.

Christine Mogillar, petition signatory considers “it not very normal when the country sacrifices the interests of its citizens to protect its political position.”

The row came amid tensions between Britain and Russia over Moscow’s refusal to extradite Andrey Lugovoy, the key suspect in the murder of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko.

With tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, the extradition dispute marked the most high-profile rift between the two countries in a decade. When it came to the British Council, Russia’s Foreign Minister admitted politics did play its part.

“The British government undertook some actions that inflicted sustained damage to our country. So we had to retaliate,” said Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister.

A petition has also been sent to Russia’s Foreign Ministry.

Those who signed the letter say the interests of Russians who benefited from the educational and cultural opportunities provided by the Council have been damaged. But Russian authorities say Britain is the one to blame.