The New York Sun reports:
The use of police-state tactics against a senior British official in St. Petersburg, and the forced closure of British cultural offices, suggest that Russia is fast returning to the use of terror techniques against dissenting voices that were commonplace in Stalin's Soviet Union.
The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, yesterday expressed "anger and dismay" at the bullying actions of Russian secret police agents against the British Council chief in St. Petersburg, Stephen Kinnock, and accused President Putin's government of "blatant intimidation" and "harassment" of Russians employed by the British government.
The Russian ambassador to London, Yuri Fedotov, was summoned to explain his government's actions to Mr. Miliband at the British Foreign Office yesterday. On leaving, Mr. Fedotov declared, "Now we are really experiencing what can be called a crisis," adding that he saw no prospect of reconciliation in the near future. Mr. Miliband hinted at the sort of menacing interrogation techniques and thinly veiled threats used against British Council staff by the FSB, the secret service that replaced Mr. Putin's former paymaster, the KGB, in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Questioning ranged from the institutional status of the British Council to personal questions about the health and welfare of family pets," he told the House of Commons. "We saw similar actions during the Cold War but frankly thought they had been put behind us."
The harassing of British officials was "a stain on Russia's reputation and standing," Mr. Miliband said. The State Department expressed regret at the incident. The European Union president, Janez Jansa, who is the prime minister of Slovenia, said he was "very concerned" at the threats.
The hectoring of British officials in Russia and the forced closure of British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg are the latest tit for tat actions against Britain in the wake of the 2006 murder in London of a former Russian spy and dissident writer, Alexander Litvinenko.
After the Russian authorities failed to agree a British request for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, whom British police named the prime suspect in the poisoning of Litvinenko by nuclear material polonium-210, Britain expelled four Russian diplomats from the embassy in London. This was followed by the expulsion of British diplomats from Moscow. Mr. Lugovoi, a former KGB agent who last month was elected to the Russian Duma, denies the murder charge even though he left a radioactive trail wherever he went in London and met with Litvinenko on the day he fell ill.
Investigations by tax inspectors into British Council offices in Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, Sochi, and Volgograd, forced their closure last year. Two new offices, in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, were reopened on Monday in defiance of Russian orders. The British government said it was against international law for Russia to outlaw the British Council branches, cultural arms of the British Embassy that foster an interest in British culture and encourage Russians to be educated in Britain.
The late night grilling of Mr. Kinnock and his staff ratchets up the scale of hostile acts by President Putin's administration against Prime Minister Brown's government. Mr. Kinnock, son of a British Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, and husband of the Social Democratic leader in the Danish Parliament, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, was stopped by FSB agents while driving in St. Petersburg on Tuesday night.
He was taken for interrogation to FSB headquarters, accused of being drunk and driving the wrong way up a street, and detained for an hour. He refused to take a breath test and asked to be represented by the British consul in St. Petersburg, according to protocols for diplomats laid down in the Geneva Conventions. British officials yesterday denied all charges against Mr. Kinnock.
The same night, the FSB summoned 20 Russians employed by the British Council while Russian tax inspectors interviewed a further 10 staff in their homes, threatening their personal safety and that of family members and pets. The following day, the same British Council staff were asked to report for further interrogation.
The menacing late night interviews conjure the darkest days of Stalin's infamous rule of terror by KGB agents. The lawless communist regime kept Russians in a permanent state of fear lest they receive a knock on their door in the middle of the night and disappear into the gulag without a trial.
The British Council's chief executive, Martin Davidson, yesterday decided to close the two contentious branches, blaming "a campaign of intimidation against our staff" for his reluctant decision. "Our paramount consideration is the well being of our staff, and I feel we cannot continue our work without significant risk to them," he said.
Britain is now considering how to respond to the Russian actions. It has for the time being rejected expelling two cultural attachés in the Russian Embassy in London. Measures against Russia imposed by Britain last year, which include visa restrictions on Russian officials traveling to Britain, "will continue to be administered rigorously," Mr. Miliband said.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
The New York Sun reports: