The British Council is suspending its cultural activities in two Russian cities, citing intimidation and harassment of its local employees by Russia's Federal Security Service. But as VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports from Moscow, a top Russian lawmaker is hinting at a possibility of resolving the dispute.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, speaking in Parliament, called Russian moves against the British Council's cultural centers in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg "reprehensible" and "not worthy of a great country." Miliband also said Russia violated the letter and spirit of the legal framework in which the British Council operates.
"Russia has failed to show any legal reasons under Russian or international law why the British Council should not continue to operate," he noted. "It also failed to substantiate its claims that the British Council is avoiding paying tax."
As Miliband addressed Parliament, the director-general of the British Council, Martin Davidson, announced suspension of the organization's operations in the two cities, citing intimidation of its local employees by Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet era KGB.
"Our paramount concern is for the safety and well-being of our staff," he added. "And the Russian authorities have made it impossible for us to continue our work in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, and I have therefore decided we will suspend our operations in both cities."
Russia says British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg are illegal and ordered them closed as of January 1. The organization defied the order and this week, Russia's Federal Security Service called in local employees of the cultural organization for interviews and also visited their homes.
Meanwhile, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the lower house of the Russian Parliament, Konstantyn Kosachev, told a news conference at the Interfax News Agency in Moscow that the British Council can reopen its cultural centers if it brings its activities in line with Russian law. Kosachev noted that Russia demands nothing more from the Council.
British-Russia relations deteriorated after Moscow refused to hand over former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi. Britain has accused Lugovoi of poisoning another former KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko with a radioactive substance in London last November. Lugovoi has denied the charge.
Foreign Secretary Miliband says educational and cultural activities are important ways of bringing people together and should be separate from the politics of the Litvinenko affair. For this reason, he says Britain will not take similar actions against Russian cultural activities in Britain.
But Miliband he notes Britain will continue to rigorously enforce visa restrictions imposed against Russian officials in July for Russia's failure to cooperate with British efforts to solve the Litvinenko murder.
The British Council works in more than 100 countries around the world. Its activities include the arts, education and training, science and technology, sport, governance and human rights. Russia's cultural exchange includes an upcoming exhibit of Russian art at the Royal Academy in London.