UK and Russia trade threats in diplomatic row

LONDON – Russia and Britain traded threats and recrimination on Tuesday as a diplomatic feud over the role of the British government’s cultural arm worsened.

Russia threatened further action against the operations of the British Council, while London hit out at Moscow’s crackdown on two of the cultural body’s offices, saying the move would only exacerbate the spat.

Moscow announced on Monday it would impose visa restrictions against regional offices of the Council in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg that are defying a Kremlin order to suspend operations.

The move is part of a dispute stemming from the 2006 murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian emigre and Kremlin critic who Britain believes was killed by a Russian assassin.

Moscow’s ambassador to London, Yuri Fedotov, said Russia could also take action against the British Council in Moscow if the cultural body continued to defy the Kremlin.

“If the British Council will continue to defy the Russian authorities the next step would be, I would say, the British Council in Moscow,” he told BBC radio.

“So far … the British Council office in Moscow was spared as an act of goodwill although all legal issues which are relevant with the regard to the offices of the British Council in other regions of Russia are also relevant for Moscow.”

Britain’s defiance was “not helpful for the prospects of further development of relations”, he added.

WORSEN THE SITUATION

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Russian threats could only worsen the situation.

“It is not in the interests of either the UK or Russia for flourishing cultural, educational and scientific links to be held hostage to unrelated issues in this way,” he said.

Miliband said that in addition to planned tax measures and immigration restrictions against British Council regional offices, Russia had said it may take further action against the British Council in Moscow, including visa restrictions against British diplomatic staff.

Relations between London and Moscow — soured by spying charges, Litvinenko’s murder and differences over Kosovo — are at their lowest ebb since the Cold War.

Russia says the legal status of the two regional Council offices is not in line with Russian law.

Miliband said the British Council’s activities across Russia complied with the law. He has called the Kremlin order illegal.

“The government will consider these latest actions by Russia carefully and will continue to engage with our international partners on them. We will respond to the Russian government shortly,” Miliband said.

Moscow told the Council to suspend operations at its offices in the two Russian cities from January 1.

But the British Council’s offices in St Petersburg and the Urals city of Yekaterinburg defied the order on Monday by resuming work after the long New Year break.

Russia said it would not issue visas to new employees sent to work in the British consular offices of St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg to carry out British Council work.

It also said Russian authorities would take steps to recover tax arrears it says are owed by the Council’s office in St Petersburg. Britain denies tax is owed.

The Council promotes British culture abroad and arranges educational exchanges.

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