UK: Council responds to clash with Russia

Britain's international education, science and culture agency, the British Council, has reviewed its legal and taxation status worldwide after a long-running clash with Russian authorities forced the closure of all its offices outside Moscow.

The council is a British Foreign Office-funded organisation that runs English language teaching centres and university and education schemes through a network of offices in 110 countries worldwide. It has been locked in a bitter four-year dispute with the Russian Foreign Ministry over its legal status.

Now restricted to working on education projects in Moscow, the council's position in Russian higher education life is negligible compared with the recent past. A series of international university partnership projects, including one designed to help Russian higher education create effective quality assurance policies, have been shelved.

But James Kennedy, director of the council's Russian office who is leaving this summer after a stormy four-year posting, is cautiously optimistic the worst is over: "We hope that an improvement in the political relations [between Britain and Russia] will enable us to continue working here and develop the services which we know are in demand from Russian people," Kennedy said. "Russia is a very important country for the British Council and we would like to be able to work right across Russia."

The damaging clash with Russian authorities - at heart a disagreement on the validity of an agreement covering the council's operations dating back to 1994 - prompted the London and Manchester-based body to review its operations worldwide, Kennedy said.

"The whole tax business that started up here four years ago led us to have a complete review of tax and status issues right around the world. We hope that no other government will be quite as malign as the Russians."

Although the council concedes the 1994 agreement needs updating, it says years of trying to reach a deal with the Russians had been met with delaying tactics. The dispute finally became public four years ago when Russian tax police mounted a series of raids on English-language teaching centres run by the council at offices across the country.

Although no evidence of wrongdoing was found, the raids lead to the closure of the teaching centres and most of the council's network of Russian branch offices. A fresh series of clashes late last year culminated in the closure of its Yekaterinburg and St Petersburg offices.

Stephen Kinnock, director of the council's St Petersburg office and son of the former British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, left Russia on Foreign Office advice after being stopped by traffic police and accused of drink-driving.

Russians working at the two offices were subjected to intrusive and threatening questioning by tax and secret service officials.

Both Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin's anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, accused the council of spying on Russia in what was widely regarded as one of the lowest points in British-Russian relations for many years.

Kennedy hopes his successor - yet to be appointed - has an easier time of it. The signs are that although bruised and battered, British-Russian cultural, educational and scientific relations, have survived the clashes: a slimmed down council programme this year includes establishment of a new link between Moscow State University's renowned journalism faculty and Britain's Westminster University media studies centre, and a British education fair in Moscow scheduled for October.

In another discreet nod that a thaw has begun, in November a major exhibition of more than 100 oils and watercolours by Britain's famous romantic school painter Joseph Turner is planned for Moscow's Pushkin Art Museum with Russian Kremlin-connected tycoon Alisher Usmanov footing the bill.