Russia's diplomatic chill with Britain deepened Monday. Following the decision of the British Council, the cultural arm of the British government, to open its Russian branches in defiance of a Foreign Ministry order to shut down, British ambassador Anthony Brenton was called in to explain.
"The ambassador was told that the Russian side regarded such actions as deliberately provocative and aimed to escalate tensions in Russian-British relations," a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said of the British decision to reopen British Council branches in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg after the holidays.
The statement added that Russia would retaliate by moving to collect "back taxes" and denying visas and work permits to the organization's British staff.
Emerging from the meeting, Mr. Brenton told journalists that Britain would consider any attempt to forcibly shut down British Council operations as "contrary to international law" and said he hopes the dispute will not spread to other areas of the relationship.
Russia's demand that the British Council cease its activities, made before New Year, was the first sign that the quarrel might be moving beyond politics to threaten the vibrant relations that Britain and Russia enjoy in other areas, particularly business and culture. "We think it's very important that cultural relations remain distinct from any political disputes we may have," says James Barbour, a spokesperson for the British Embassy here.
He says the British Council, which runs English language teacher-training courses and organizes cultural exchanges, complies with both international and Russian law under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and a bilateral cultural agreement from 1994. But Russia has accused the council of having "an inappropriate legal status" and of earning huge untaxed profits from commercial activities such as English-language courses.
"Our complaints about the British Council have an exclusively legal and financial character, and are not connected with recent political issues," says Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the international affairs committee of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. "Basically, the British Council has to meet the legal requirements for such organizations, or it will cease to exist."
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.
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.