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The Times: Squabbles with Russia over British Council must not turn into one big brawl

January 16, 2008
Bronwen Maddox

Britain’s sour scrap with Russia over the British Council is an odd but unpleasant start to the year. At best, it is neutral in what it implies for relations with Moscow – a self-contained row over an issue that Russia has chosen to find provocative for a long time but which matters very little to Britain in practice and, indeed, leaves it on the moral high ground. At worst, it is a sign that Russia (or at least Vladimir Putin in his last three months as President) is in the mood for a fight and will extend that to issues that do matter – such as Iran and energy investments.

On balance, the threat looks mild. But that judgment rests on Russia acknowledging that it needs foreign help in energy, and on Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s anointed successor, being more pragmatic. Both are gambles.

Why should the poor British Council be the Kremlin’s target? This one comes with baggage; Russia has been irked for ages by the council’s promotion of British culture, out of proportion to its success, although that is solid.

Britain has hoped that, during a worsening rift with Russia, disputes would stay separate from each other. That was almost too much to hope for after its request in May for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, a businessman, on suspicion of killing Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent, by polonium poisoning.

Despite a few rhetorical swipes, the Kremlin has managed to maintain this separation. Britain hopes to reach a new resolution in the United Nations Security Council on more sanctions against Iran in punishment for its refusal to curb its nuclear programme. This will need Russian support. Britain also expects Kosovo to declare independence from Serbia, possibly next month, and for Russia not to intervene in any way that seriously destabilises the region.

British officials have taken encouragement from the Kremlin’s apparent willingness not to let these rows contaminate relations with investors, including BP, which has invested $8billion (£4.1billion) cash and assets in its joint venture. A spokesman for BP said yesterday that despite the British Council row it was “business as usual”, and that the company felt no impact on its own affairs. “We’ve been in Russia since the 1990s and have been through all sorts of changes, and it feels the same,” Tony Odone said.

These mammoth energy projects have their own political difficulties, and even if Russia has chosen to keep them separate from its disputes with national governments, it has hardly left them alone. Its approach to these huge foreign investments – clashing on contractual details with BP, Shell and Exxon – appears to be to turn the foreigners into the equivalent of hired help. Given Putin’s prickly nationalism, that has brought efforts to show that the contracts are undeniably in Russia’s interests. The foreign investors have been buffetted around, BP perhaps least of all.

The Kremlin’s tolerance of these investors, once the contracts are reshaped to its satisfaction, will depend on it acknowledging that it needs their help. That is a lot to swallow, yet in project management, if not in any single technical skill, the outsiders bring something Russia cannot give itself.

Tolerance will also depend on Mr Medvedev, who is the First Deputy Prime Minister and is backed by Mr Putin to win the March elections, which is the same thing as handing him the job. You couldn’t quite call Mr Medvedev an oil man, but he has had a post as chairman of Gazprom, the energy giant. That practical experience may bring an extra understanding and a more pragmatic outlook.

That is the best hope. The worst is that the British Council storm signals Russia’s taste for picking a fight on every possible front – and if it chose, there would be a lot of them.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/bronwen_maddox/article3193030.ece

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