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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Annals of Cold War II: Russian Bans the British Accent

The Times of London reports the latest skirmish in Cold War II, where Britain now seems to be the front line. The Neo-Soviet Kremlin has shut down the British Embassy's ability to each Russians English (apparently afraid that a bit of democracy might slip in with the charming accent):

Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth movement, have held rallies and picketed the British embassy
The Kremlin has opened a new front in its increasingly bitter diplomatic row with London by disrupting the activities of the British Council in Moscow. More than 1,500 students have been offered refunds after the British Council was forced to close a language centre this week. The 21 teachers have been offered posts at council offices in other countries. The closure was the result of the Foreign Ministry’s decision to impose a licence requirement on the council. Relations between London and Moscow are already strained, and the crackdown on the council will serve only to increase tensions. Russian pressure on Shell to sell a controlling share of the giant Sakhalin-2 oil and gas project to the state monopoly Gazprom alarmed the British Government this week, and Russian security services have been accused of involvement in murdering Alexander Litvinenko, a former spy, with polonium-210 in London last month. The Kremlin angrily denies the charge. Anthony Brenton, the British Ambassador in Moscow, has also complained of a four-month campaign of harassment by a Kremlin-backed youth movement, Nashi (Ours). Members of the group have trailed and heckled Mr Brenton, picketed the embassy and triggered a violent incident outside his residence in September, prompting fears for the safety of the envoy and his family. The British Council, which is the cultural arm of the British Government, had operated the centre for eight years without a licence. It had previously been told by the authorities that a licence was not required. There was no apparent explanation for the change of policy. Natalia Minchenko, head of communications at the British Council in Moscow, said: “We were informed in the autumn by the Russian Foreign Ministry that our teaching centre needed a licence.” He said that “getting such a licence is a time- consuming process” and involved requirements that the British Council would have difficulty meeting. The incident is the latest example of attempts by the Kremlin to restrict and discourage foreign organisations by tying them in red tape. Dozens of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were forced to suspend activities in October after failing to meet a deadline for complying with complex new registration procedures. The Government has also introduced new powers that compel NGOs to submit work plans for the year ahead and to drop any programmes that have not received official approval. The British Council was exempt from the requirement to register because it operates under a cultural agreement between Britain and Russia that was signed in 1994. It received the demand to register for a teaching licence in September. The council has come under repeated attack from Russian authorities. Police visited its 15 centres across the country in 2004 and demanded that officials hand over financial records. The Interior Ministry then opened a criminal investigation into alleged illegal business activities, which was closed last year because of lack of evidence. The FSB, the Russian security service, announced in January that it had reopened an inquiry into the St Petersburg office of the council. Broadcasts of FM, the BBC’s Russian service, in Moscow and St Petersburg suffered disruption at the height of coverage of the Litvinenko poisoning. The Russians blamed the interruptions on “technical difficulties”. Ms Minchenko said that students who were enrolled on courses at the Moscow language centre were told about the closure this week and offered refunds on their fees. The 21 teachers at the centre were being offered posts at council offices in other countries. The council announced the closure of its “valued English language centre” on its website, saying that it had benefited thousands of people. It said that it would seek to compensate for the loss by expanding exchange programmes to Britain and encouraging Russian students to enrol on courses in Britain.

Bringing Britain to the world

The British Council is the UK's cultural arm abroad It works in 109 countries, in arts, education, governance and science Lord Kinnock is the council’s head but it is ultimately controlled by the Foreign Office As well as teaching English in foreign schools, the Council works with the World Service to provide English teaching material worldwide. The Kremlin investigated the Council’s operations in 2004 but backed off after Tony Blair intervened personally The investigation restarted immediately after four British Embassy workers were caught spying this year. They hid a bugging device in a fake rock. Authorities insisted the spy row was coincidental

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