- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2008

MOSCOW (AP) — A British cultural organization reopened offices in two Russian cities yesterday in defiance of an order to close, drawing an angry response from Russia, which called the decision a “deliberate provocation” and promised punitive measures.

Britain refused to back down. Its ambassador said the British Council offices will remain open and that any Russian action against the organization would violate international law.

The British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg reopened after the holiday break, despite Russia’s warnings that defying orders to suspend their operations by Jan. 1 would worsen bilateral relations.

Ties between Britain and Russia already are at a post-Cold War low, severely frayed by the 2006 poisoning death in London of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.

Russia last month ordered the closure of the two regional offices of the British Council, a nonprofit organization that acts as the cultural arm of the British Embassy, saying they were operating illegally. British officials dispute that assertion, and the offices reopened on schedule after a holiday break.

The defiance prompted Russia’s Foreign Ministry to summon British Ambassador Anthony Brenton for a dressing down.

“The ambassador was told that the Russian side sees such actions as a deliberate provocation aimed at inciting tension in Russian-British relations,” the ministry said.

It promised “a series of administrative and legal measures,” including possible moves against the council’s main office in Moscow and efforts to recover what it said are back taxes owed by the St. Petersburg office.

In addition, Russia said it will stop issuing visas for new employees assigned to posts related to the British Council at Britain’s consulates in St. Petersburg and the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, and will not renew the accreditation of existing staffers.

“We expect our British partners to stop ignoring obvious facts and refrain from a line of further confrontation that is fraught with the most negative consequences for Russian-British relations,” the ministry said.

Britain remained defiant.

“I said to him … that the British Council is working entirely legally and it will continue, therefore, to work — and any Russian action against it would be a breach of international law,” Mr. Brenton told reporters after meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov.

Russia contends the British Council acts as a for-profit organization, and said St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg offices violate the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. British authorities say the organization’s operations comply with that pact as well as Russian law and a 1994 bilateral agreement.

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