British Council refuses to close offices in Russia

Human ChainThe British Council looks set for an unlikely showdown with the Russian government over Russia’s order to close two of its offices.

According to BBC News, the British Council will refuse to close its St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg offices next week, despite an official demand from the Russian authorities, who claim they are operating illegally. The British Council claims that it offices’ operations are:

“…fully in compliance with the relevant Russian laws and there is no reason to close them.”

If the British Council feel they are acting legally, they must be prepared to rely on Russian law to back them up. Does this mean that they plan to drag the Russian government through its own courts in order to prove the point?

I wonder who would win that epic battle? Either way, it will make for a fascinating piece of public theatre, in which the Russian government probably doesn’t want play a part…

And, more immediately, what is going to happen to the British Council offices next week, when Russia re-opens for business after its Christmas break?

Presumably, if the British Council are publicly refusing to close their offices next week, they plan to send their staff into work next Monday.

How will the Russian government react?

Will Russian police throw a ring of steel around the British Council’s offices to prevent a few language teachers from getting to work? Or will they wait until the staff are already in their offices, and a crime seems to be taking place, before raiding the offices of the British Council in full riot gear?

Or will the plucky British Council staff just go to work as usual while the Russian government stands impotently by and watches them teach English to its citizens?

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6 Responses

  1. W. Shedd says:

    I predict that the Russian government will balk and seek some alternative to resolve the dispute. I don’t think the Russian government wants very much negative attention leading into March elections.

    But, one of the great things about Russia watching is how things happen that you didn’t anticipate.

    So maybe something crazy will happen, like a team of ??????? will being sent in to take the British Council offices out.

  2. James says:

    It’s my assumption that this little dispute was probably started by an enthusiastic bureaucrat out in the sticks, looking to please central government. I’m also sure that Putin/Medvedev and that whole circle probably finds the whole issue to be a headache that they wish had never happened.

    Do any of you out there have friends teaching at British Council? It is a remarkably harmless organization, and certainly not very political. To make it a focal point of the Lugovoi extradition spat seems quite misguided. London may as well start dishing out the parking tickets and zoning violations at Pushkin House?

  3. The problems of BC in Russia did not start only after the Litvinenko/Lugovoy case.

    I worked for the BC Russia for four years. Indeed, it is a “harmless”, apolitical and law-abiding organization. The influence of BC in Russia is minimal. Their offices were a place of attraction for a tiny handful of people, mostly students. What’s important, though, is that these rare young boys and girls were very smart. Actually, BC was the place where I signed truce with the young ones — I learned that they are not really as stupid as they seem to be 🙂

    As for the BC internals, I’ve never worked in a company that would care less about the employees. So, I have no especially warm feelings toward BC and if my views are biased, the bias is not favorable toward BC. From this position, I can say that the image of this organization in the Russian mass media is extremely distorted. The accusations of political or commercial activity are absolutely unsubstantiated.

    Now, since the organization is so harmless, why would they engage in conflict with the Russian authorities? Why don’t they agree and close these two offices in St.Pete and Yekaterinburg? I think, it’s because they have already closed 11 (or so) offices.

    In my years in BC, I witnessed the beginning of the Russian attack. Somewhere in 2004 (if I remember correctly), the tax police visited the offices, searched them, seized documents and interrogated the staff. They accused BC of tax avoidance and illegal business. These attacks never really stopped, but the British embassy managed to keep the offices running till in 2007 Russia finally demanded that some offices be closed. In Sochi, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Tomsk, Samara, Volgograd and other cities, the staff was fired and the libraries were transferred to the local universities. Now, Russia wants to close two more offices, leaving only one in Moscow. I think I can understand why BC decided to try a new tactics of opposing the authorities.

  4. Andy says:

    “Now, since the organization is so harmless, why would they engage in conflict with the Russian authorities? Why don’t they agree and close these two offices in St.Pete and Yekaterinburg? I think, it’s because they have already closed 11 (or so) offices.”

    Absolutely – I couldn’t agree more. If the British Council wants to remain in Russia it has to, at some stage, start to oppose Russian government moves to shut it down. If not, its staff might as well just pack their own bags and head home under their own steam.

    I’m not quite so sure that I agree when you say that the British Council is entirely apolitical. It can’t help but promote British ‘values’ which, in many cases, are directly opposed to current Russian ‘values’ (or, at least, the values of Russia’s government).

    And the British government has weighed in on the side of the Council – Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in Parliament the other day that, if the Russian government were to close the British Council’s offices it would:

    “constitute a serious attack against the legitimate cultural agent of the British government, would show a disregard for the rule of law and would only damage Russia’s reputation around the world.”

  5. Promoting British values? No, I don’t think so. At least I never saw it this way. British Council may familiarize the visitors with these values, but only indirectly, through British culture, science, art and language — the things it really promotes. And I can tell that the values that would be ‘directly opposed’ to the values of the Russian government were thoroughly avoided by the BC. Unfortunately, IMHO 🙂

  1. January 17, 2008

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