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Bloomberg: U.K. Defies Russian Order, Reopens Cultural Offices (Update2)

By Henry Meyer

Jan. 14 (Bloomberg) — The U.K. resumed operations at its cultural office in St. Petersburg today in defiance of a Russian order to shut it down, deepening the chill in relations between the two countries.

“We are open and we plan to continue,” James Kennedy, the British Council’s Russia director, said in an interview in the St. Petersburg office.

Ties between Russia and the U.K. have sunk to a post-Cold War low since Russian authorities refused to extradite a former KGB bodyguard wanted for the 2006 murder in London of dissident ex-Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko. Russia last month ordered the U.K.’s cultural promotion body to close its regional offices and warned that failure to comply would be a “provocation.”

Both the U.K. and Russia for domestic political reasons appear determined not to back down and the British Council may be forced out entirely, said Yevgeny Volk, a Moscow-based analyst from the U.S. research group, the Heritage Foundation.

The British Council opened its branch in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg on Jan. 9 in defiance of the Jan. 1 closure order. This office and the one in St. Petersburg were shut over the Russian New Year holidays.

No Diplomatic Protection

In the St. Petersburg office, located on the city’s main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, employees are barred from talking to the media. Unlike the Yekaterinburg branch, whose six Russian staff are based in the same building as the British Consulate, the 21 local employees and two U.K managers in St. Petersburg have no diplomatic protection as the consulate is in another part of the city.

“They have to obey our instructions; this is international practice,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Krivtsov said in a telephone interview from Moscow.

The Foreign Ministry summoned U.K. Ambassador Tony Brenton to discuss the reopening of British Council offices, Interfax reported. Brenton will meet with Russian officials later today, the news service said.

Kennedy condemned Russia for pursuing a “political” agenda. “We are dismayed at the line that’s being taken, because we believe we’re operating legally here,” he said.

Analysts say the dispute alone isn’t likely to harm trade relations. 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 in Russia in the six years through 2006.

Hopes for Progress

“This has to do with the British Council, not business,” said Spyros Economides of the London School of Economics’ European Institute in a telephone interview.

A British Embassy spokesman in Moscow said that the U.K. was urging Russia not to allow the dispute over the Litvinenko case to sour relations.

“We are still hoping that we can progress other aspects of our relationship,” the spokesman said by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with U.K. government rules.

In December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov 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.

The U.K. in July expelled four Russian diplomats, triggering a tit-for-tat response, and froze cooperation with Russia’s Federal Security Service, the domestic successor agency to the KGB.

Putin Opponents

Litvinenko became a vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin after fleeing Russia and he 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., which has become a haven for Putin opponents, of double-standards for refusing to extradite self-exiled billionaire Boris Berezovsky and others. Berezovsky was convicted by a Russian court in absentia last November of embezzling from state airline OAO Aeroflot in the 1990s and given six years in prison. He has dismissed the charges as “politically motivated” and vowed to engineer the overthrow of the Russian government by funding opposition groups.

The British Council, which promotes cultural exchanges such as U.K. film festivals in Russia and educational opportunities for Russians in the U.K., has already drastically scaled back its activities.

Office Closures

After a series of Russian probes into how the council was handling its finances, the U.K. last year closed offices in Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, Sochi and Volgograd. The three remaining Russian centers are in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

The Foreign Ministry said Jan. 3 that Russian officials so far had only allowed the Moscow branch to continue “as a show of good will.”

Russia is unlikely to take forcible steps to shut down the British Council, such as a police raid, Volk said, as “this would have a very negative impact on public opinion not only in the U.K., but across the world.”

“But they will try to create intolerable conditions for the British Council so they decide to close on their own,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Henry Meyer in St. Petersburg, Russia through the Moscow newsroom at [email protected]

Last Updated: January 14, 2008 04:44 EST

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