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Monday, January 21, 2008

Annals of Neo-Soviet Barbarism: The British Council Saga

Now that Russia has shut down the British Council cultural offices inside Russia, a reader asks whether perhaps it's time for Britain to shut down the Pushkin House in London? The British Foreign Secretary David Milband speaks to Parliament on the brutal and barbaric repression of the British Council in Russia, via the Beeb:

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Russian Government actions against the British Council in Russia.

The House will recall that in October 2007 the Russian government threatened to close down the British Council's operations outside Moscow from 1 January 2008. This was confirmed on 12 December, and then again last week with the threat of a series of administrative measures against the British Council, including tax measures in St Petersburg and visa restrictions against British Council staff in St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg. The Russians also threatened to take measures against the British Council in Moscow, up to and including the removal of accreditation of British Council staff working in Russia.

On Tuesday the Prime Minister's Foreign Policy Adviser held what we believed were productive talks in Moscow about a range of international and bilateral issues, including the British Council. Yet on the same day the Russian Government exerted further pressure on the British Council. The Russian security services summoned over 20 locally-engaged members of British Council staff in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg one by one for interviews. 10 members of staff were interviewed late at night in their homes after calls by the Russian tax police. Questioning ranged from the institutional status of the British Council to personal questions about the health and welfare of family pets.

Mr Speaker, these Russian citizens have chosen to offer their skills and hard work to promote cultural contact between the people of Russia and the UK. As a result, they have been the subject of blatant intimidation from their own government.

Mr Speaker, I think the whole House will agree that such actions are reprehensible, not worthy of a great country, and contrary to the letter and spirit of the legal framework under which the British Council operates - notably international law, including the Vienna Conventions, and the UK/Russia 1994 bilateral agreement on cultural cooperation which Russia has ratified.

Russia has failed to show any legal reasons under Russian or international law why the British Council should not continue to operate. Russia has also failed to substantiate its claims that the British Council is avoiding paying tax. The British Council is in fact registered for tax in Russia and has complied with all requests of the tax authorities in respect of its activities. Therefore, instead of taking legal action against the Council, they have resorted to intimidation of the Council's staff.

I am confident that the whole House will share the Government's anger and dismay at the actions of the Russian government. We saw similar actions during the Cold War but thought they had been put behind us.

Mr Speaker, the British Council's first priority is, rightly, the safety of their staff. Yet the actions of the Russian government have made it impossible for staff to go about their business in a normal way. British Council offices in Ekaterinburg and St Petersburg have been prevented from operating, and therefore the British Council has taken the decision to suspend their operations in those two cities. The Council is making an announcement to this effect as I speak. The staff concerned will continue to be supported while the Council considers its next steps.

Mr Speaker, there has already been strong international condemnation of Russian actions. Following my conversation last night the Slovenian Foreign Minister in his capacity as Presidency of the EU, he agreed to issue a statement today on behalf of all European governments. The US Government has issued a statement of support calling for the British Council to be able to continue its good work in Russia. The Canadian Government is expressing its concerns in Moscow about developments.

I am grateful also for the many expressions of support the British Council has received from Russians who have benefited from working with the British Council.

Mr Speaker, the Russian Foreign Minister stated publicly on 12 December what the Russian government had been saying to us in private, namely that its attacks on the British Council were linked to the Litvinenko issue. I announced on 16 July to this House a list of measures the government had decided to adopt in response to Russia's failure to co-operate with our efforts to secure justice for Alexander Litvinenko. These included introducing visa restrictions for Russian officials travelling to the UK and suspending our visa consultations.

The House can rest assured, Mr Speaker, that these measures will continue to be administered rigorously.

But we regard as entirely separate issues Mr Litvinenko's murder and the activities of the British Council to build up links between British and Russian schools and universities, to support English language teaching in Russia and Russian studies in the UK, and to promote the best of British drama, writing, music, and art.

Nor do we believe that cultural activities should become a political football; in fact educational and cultural activities are important ways of bringing people together. That is why I have decided not to take similar action against Russia's cultural activities in the UK, for example by sending back Russian masterpieces scheduled for show at the Royal Academy, or by taking measures against the two Russian diplomats at the Russian Embassy dedicated to cultural work.

We have nothing to fear from these contacts; we welcome and encourage them. The immediate cost to the Russian people of the Russian government's actions is their access to the benefits of British Council activity. The longer term cost is their country's standing in the world as a responsible international player. The British Council will continue its work in Moscow, meeting the demand from as many as possible of the 1.25 million Russian citizens who used the Council's services nationwide last year.

Mr Speaker, the Council's experience in Russia is not repeated in any of the more than 100 British Council operations elsewhere in the world. Russia's actions therefore raise serious questions about her observance of international law, as well as about the standards of behaviour she is prepared to adopt towards her own citizens. This can only make the international community more cautious in its dealings with Russia in international negotiations and more doubtful about its existing international commitments.

Russia remains an important international player in addressing key global issues and challenges, including climate change and energy security, as well as others, such as Iran and Kosovo. But I hope the whole House will agree with me that Russia's actions against the British Council are a stain on Russia's reputation and standing that will have been noted by countries all around the world. I will continue to keep the House informed of developments.

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