Russia's row with Britain escalates
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Britain's ambassador Monday, after the British Council defied orders by reopening its offices.
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Mr. Barbour insists that the British Council is a nonprofit arm of the British government which "hasn't undertaken any revenue-generating activity" in Russia in several years. The British Council says that it has involved about half a million Russians in exhibitions, plays, and film festivals over the past two years.Skip to next paragraph
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In an official statement Monday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that "for Russia to carry out its threat [to shut down the British Council] would constitute a serious attack against the legitimate cultural agent of the British government, would show a disregard for the rule of law, and would only damage Russia's reputation around the world."
But last year Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov linked the failure to reach agreement on the British Council's status in Russia to "unfriendly British actions," such as expelling four diplomats in July over the burgeoning Litvinenko affair.
In the past two years there's been a growing list of Russian sore points with London, especially Britain's refusal to extradite Russians whom Moscow regards as criminals, including exiled anti-Kremlin tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Chechen separatist envoy Akhmed Zakayev.
Russia's FSB last year launched an investigation into what it described as a British spy ring operating against Russia, and the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi picketed the British Embassy and jostled Ambassador Brenton's car over Britain's alleged financial assistance to dissident Russian groups such as the Other Russia coalition, led by chess champion Garry Kasparov. "This conflict has a political character because the British Council is an organization that represents the political line of the British government," says Dmitri Abzalov, an expert with the independent Center for Political Conjuncture in Moscow.
British efforts to extradite the prime suspect in Litvinenko's murder, Andrei Lugovoi, have been rejected by the Kremlin. In December, Mr. Lugovoi was elected to the State Duma, giving him parliamentary immunity.
"There has been a steady deterioration in ties as the rhetoric between the two sides [over the Litvinenko affair] has grown harsher," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "But this open exchange of unpleasantries presents ambiguities, since Russia's growing wealth ... is largely derived from foreign exports," she says.
Britain is the largest single source of foreign investment in Russia, while many Russian companies list themselves on the London stock exchange. According to some estimates, as many as 300,000 Russians have residences in Britain, many of them upper crust families.