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Bloomberg: U.K. Vows to Defy Russian Order to Shut Down Cultural Offices

By Henry Meyer

(Bloomberg) — The U.K. vowed to defy a Russian order to shut down its cultural offices outside Moscow, setting the scene for possible confrontation between the two countries.

Russia on Dec. 12 ordered the British Council, the U.K. government’s cultural promotion body, to close its centers in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg by Jan. 1. Both offices plan to reopen by Jan. 14 after the extended Russian New Year public holidays end, a British Council spokeswoman said by phone from London today.

“Everything the British Council is doing is absolutely legal under both Russian and international law and we’ll continue to operate on this basis,” a British Embassy spokesman in Moscow said in a telephone interview. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with U.K. government rules.

Ties between Russia and the U.K. have deteriorated to a post-Cold War low since a dispute over the murder in 2006 of dissident ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London. The Russian Foreign Ministry warned on Jan. 3 that failure to comply with the closure order would be a “provocation.”

The U.K. says that the British Council’s activities in Russia are authorized under a 1994 agreement and consistent with the Vienna Conventions governing international diplomatic ties.

U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband told Parliament Dec. 13 that for Russia to carry out its threat 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.”

No Legal Basis

The Russian government says the council, which promotes cultural and educational exchanges, has no legal basis for its operations in Russia. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said Jan. 3 that Russian officials so far had allowed the Moscow branch to continue “as a sign of good will.”

The British Council, which has faced tax probes in Russia, itself closed nine regional Russian bureaus last year.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking to reporters in December, linked the closure of the British Council offices to the dispute over Russia’s refusal to hand over ex-KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi, whom U.K. prosecutors want to put on trial for the November 2006 lethal radiation poisoning in London of Litvinenko. The Russian constitution forbids extradition.

A critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Litvinenko received political asylum in the U.K. He accused the Russian leader of ordering his murder in a deathbed statement. The Kremlin dismissed the accusation as “absurd.”

The Russian government accuses the U.K. of double-standards for rejecting its demands to extradite self-exiled billionaire Boris Berezovsky and others, including Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev.

The U.K. is the largest foreign investor in Russia. U.K. companies including BP Plc, Royal Dutch Shell Plc, British American Tobacco Plc and Cadbury Schweppes Plc invested almost $15 billion dollars in Russia in the six years through 2006.

To contact the reporter on this story: Henry Meyer in Moscow at [email protected]

Last Updated: January 7, 2008 08:53 EST

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