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British Council Defies Kremlin Ban on Operations in St. Petersburg


The British government's international cultural and educational organization, the British Council, is defying a Kremlin ban and resuming work Monday at its office in St. Petersburg.

The Russian government ordered British Council branches in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg to close at the beginning of 2008, contending they have been operating illegally. British authorities have refused, saying the council's offices, libraries, classrooms and other facilities comply fully with all agreements and laws.

The council's regional office in St. Petersburg has been closed since December 24 for a winter holiday break. The director of the British Council in Russia, James Kennedy said Sunday that the office is resuming business as usual this week, although it will not be open to the public until Thursday.

British officials say the office in Yekaterinburg resumed work last week, although on a reduced scale. The British Council's Website says operations in Yekaterinburg are being transferred "to a local partner organization."

Russian authorities have not indicated what action they will take against the British Council or its employees if the group ignores the government order, although a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Moscow said earlier this month that such defiance would be considered a provocation.

News reports in Russia say the points of dispute between British and Russian authorities involve employment practices, rent and tax payments and diplomatic privileges. But the dispute comes at a time when Russian-British relations are badly strained.

The two countries ties have frayed since the murder in London more than a year ago of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed by radiation poisoning. Russia has rebuffed Britain's demand for the extradition of the main suspect in the case.

For its part, London angered Moscow by refusing to extradite an exiled Russian businessman and Kremlin critic, Boris Berezovsky. The Russian billionaire was convicted in Russia in absentia on embezzlement charges.

The British Council, founded more than 70 years ago, promotes British culture and the study of English. Its financial support comes from fees paid by language students and grants from the British Foreign Office.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP.

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