RUSSIA: British Council staff in trouble

In what appears to be an escalation of the row between Russia and Britain, Russia has told the British Council that its staff can no longer work on diplomatic premises. Under a 1994 agreement, the UK government-funded council’s mandate is to promote educational, cultural and scientific exchanges.

The decision will affect council staff in Yekaterinburg, who use office space at the British consulate there, while not being diplomats. In Moscow, the Council sought to play down a somewhat sensational article in the Russian daily Kommersant, which seemed to imply that council staff were widely abusing diplomatic hospitality

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia is preparing an agreement with Great Britain, forbidding regional branches of the British Council in Russia to settle down on the premises of diplomatic missions and to use consular immunity,” Kommersant said.

The British Council pointed out that it already had separate accommodation from diplomats at the embassy in Moscow and the consulate in St Petersburg. The only other consulate is in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg. But the British side expressed concern at the Russian demand, made at a meeting between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov and British Ambassador Tony Brenton.

“These latest demands by the Russian authorities will not help the development of bilateral relations with Russia, in which both sides have extensive interests,” the embassy said in a statement.

A spokesman said the British were studying the Russian demand and added that it was “speculation” as to whether council staff, who are all Russian, in Yekaterinburg would be moving or that it risked being forced out of the consulate.

The council has already stopped running English language courses in Russia and is also handing over its libraries to local partners in colleges. The council said the library handovers were part of its worldwide strategy while the decision to stop teaching English on a commercial basis was because the private sector in Russia was now developing well.

Another factor was almost certainly pressure from the Russian tax authorities, which pre-dated the row between Britain and Russia over last November's poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Britain expelled four Russian diplomats from London this summer over Moscow's refusal to extradite murder suspect Andrei Lugovoi, and Russia answered tit-for-tat.

“It would be fair to say that political relations (between Britain and Russia) are not good at the moment,” a council spokesman said. “That’s why we think cultural relations are more important than ever.”

As it pulls out of language teaching and libraries, the council is likely to return to its core role of facilitating understanding and exchanges. This year, the Whistler in Russia Exhibition, organised in partnership with the Tretyakov Gallery, attracted 50,000 visitors. And the eighth British Film Festival has just gone on from Moscow to tour six other Russian cities.