British Council Shut Down, FSB Blamed
Published: January 18, 2008 (Issue # 1340)
Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
A woman attempts to visit the British Council offices in St. Petersburg on Wednesday afternoon. The British Council fully shut down its operations on Thursday.
The British Council suspended its activities in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, and expressed the hope that its Moscow office would be able to continue the work.
Stephen Kinnock, head of the British Council office in St. Petersburg, told The St. Petersburg Times on Thursday that there was “very little chance” the St. Petersburg office would reopen in the foreseeable future.
In a statement issued from London earlier Thursday, British Council Chief Executive Martin Davidson said that “the Russian authorities have made it impossible for us to operate in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg so I have taken the decision to suspend operations in both cities.”
Kinnock added, “We had no choice because of all the pressure we had.”
Davidson said the Council was concerned about the “wellbeing of our staff. “
“I feel we cannot continue our work without significant risk to them,” Davidson said, referring to a campaign of intimidation against the Council’s staff he said had been initiated by the Russian government at the beginning of this week.
“On Tuesday Jan. 15, the Russian State Security Services (FSB) summoned over 20 Russian staff to attend individual interviews. Late that night 10 members of staff were visited at home by the Russian tax police and called for further interviews [on Wednesday],” Davidson said on Thursday.
He said the interviews “had little to do with their work and were clearly aimed at exerting undue pressure on innocent individuals.”
Davidson said it was “wrong” to draw cultural relations and the British Council into an international political dispute.
“I’m bitterly disappointed that the Russian authorities have sought to limit our cultural and educational links at the very time when they can be of most value,” he said.
Davidson said that he reiterated that the British Council operates in Russia in full accordance with international and Russian law, adding that the British Council “remains committed to Russia and hopes to continue to work with our one-and-a-quarter million Russian partners and customers from our Moscow office.”
Meanwhile, Britain’s foreign minister David Miliband criticized the actions of Russia.
“Such actions deserve reproach and are not worthy of a great country,” Miliband said in a statement to the British parliament on Thursday, Interfax said.
Miliband said the actions of the Russian authorities caused dissatisfaction from the EU, the U.S., Canada — and Russian people who have received help from the British Council.
He said Britain did not intend to close Russian cultural organizations working in Great Britain in response.
British Ambassador Anthony Brenton said that Russia risks its reputation in the west and called the intimidation campaign a return to Soviet methods.
“Summoning our staff to be interviewed by the FSB and tax police, as happened in the U.S.S.R., gives a bad impression about life in Russia,” Brenton said, Interfax reported.
Brenton disagreed that the British Council was performing intelligence activities in the interests of Great Britain.
“It’s crazy. If the British Council was the center of certain influence in Russia then it was the influence on only the [use and teaching of the] English language,” Brenton told Ekho Moskvy radio.
Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
Konstantin Kosachyov, head of Russian Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said on Thursday that the British Council would be able to continue to operate in Russia only after its activities are brought in accordance with Russian legislation, Interfax said.
“We do not demand anything more than that from the British Council,” Kosachyov said.
“As far as I know, the British Council works in France in accordance with French legislation, in Germany into accordance with German legislation. Only in Russia is it trying to act in accordance with British legislation,” he said.
“Russia is not a banana republic. Any foreign organization, independently from property rights and announced aims, should act in accordance with the existing national law. It’s a common democratic civilized norm,” Kosachyov said.
Tensions over the British Council’s operations in Russia escalated Wednesday as the group shut its office in St. Petersburg and Russia’s ambassador to Britiain was summoned to the Foreign Office.
Late on Tuesday, Stephen Kinnock, the head of the group’s St. Petersburg branch, was briefly detained by traffic police late Tuesday, as his Russian subordinates were being summoned for FSB interviews.
The group’s spokeswoman Clare Sears said in the statement that its Russian national staff, in both St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, were summoned for interviews by the FSB at their headquarters and subsequently visited in their homes late on Tuesday night by officials of the Russian Interior Ministry and have been called for interviews Wednesday.
“Our main concern is the safety and security of both our Russian and U.K. staff and we are deeply concerned by both these incidents,” Sears said on Wednesday.
The FSB said in a statement Tuesday that its interviews with Russian citizens employed by the British Council were intended to prevent them from being used by London “in provocative games.”
No Russian British Council staff who were interviewed by the FSB and reached by phone were willing to comment on their visit to the FSB or the police. Kinnock refused to elaborate on details of those conversations either, referring to security reasons.
Stanislav Smirnov, communications manager at the British Council’s St. Petersburg office, said on Thursday that the FSB talked to the Russian staff “politely” and “there were no threats.”
“But you can imagine how people may feel when the police come to visit them at midnight,” Smirnov said.
A spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg branch of the FSB said Wednesday that during the interviews the Russian staff of the British Council were informed that the group works in Russia in violation of the law and that their involvement with the group might be illegal.
Traffic police stopped Kinnock’s Volvo sedan late Tuesday in central St. Petersburg after he drove past a “do not enter” sign, and detected “the strong smell of alcohol” emanating from him, police spokesman Andrei Fominykh said by telephone.
“Kinnock refused to undergo an alcohol test as required by law, so our officers called officials from the British consulate in St. Petersburg and handed over Kinnock and the car to them,” Fominykh said.
Kinnock was followed before he was stopped, the British Council’s headquarters in London said in a statement.
The British consulate also confirmed that before driving, Kinnock, the son of Neil Kinnock, the former British Labour Party leader and current chairman of the British Council, had had a glass of wine but added that it was still wrong to say that Kinnock was drunk because “it was much less than allowed by Russian norms.” The consulate also said that Russian diplomats in London were involved in 167 traffic violations in 2007, RIA Novosti reported.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took a jab at British officials on Tuesday. “We certainly understand that historic memory, possibly related to nostalgia for the colonial age, weighs [on British officials]. But this is not a language to use with Russia,” he told reporters.
Nabi Abdullaev contributed to this report from Moscow.