Russia ‘wins’ British Council battle?

It looks as though the British Council is going to reluctantly cede to Russian demands that it close its offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

According to the BBC, the British Council are to release a statement later today:

A formal statement from the director of the British Council is expected on Thursday.

Sources have told the BBC there does not appear to be much appetite for retaliation at the Foreign Office, where there is a recognition that Britain has few options left in the row.

Each and every Russian member of staff at the British Council was either questioned yesterday by the FSB, or received a late-night home visit from an interior ministry official. They were apparently told in no uncertain terms that their jobs were illegal, and that if they continued to work for the British Council, they would be breaking the law.

The British Council, in their statement, are likely to stress that their decision was motivated by a desire to ensure the safety of their staff – and quite rightly so. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Council’s British staff can just go home at the end of this dispute – the Council’s Russian staff have to stay and face any consequences.

One thing that hasn’t been raised is what the immediate future of Russian British Council staff members – I’m sure the Council will do what it can fothem, but in the very near future, they will officially lose their jobs, and their monthly paychecks.

Overall, I agree with the British Council’s decision at this point. Any responsible employer would do the same. The British Council played the hand they were dealt as well as they could, but ultimately it was a weak hand – the Russian government held all the aces.

According to the BBC, the British Council plan to take the ‘moral high ground’ over this issue – to stress that this is Russia’s loss, rather than Britain’s.

This may play on the international stage but, on the Russian domestic stage, I think this will look very much like a victory for Russia, and a triumph for Putin and Medvedev in the run up to March’s Presidential election.

Update: Both the British Council and British Foreign Minister David Miliband have issued statements on the issue. Here are a couple of hefty excerpts:

British Council statement (pdf):

At the start of this week the Russian Government initiated a campaign of intimidation against our staff in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

On Tuesday 15 January, the Russian State Security Services (FSB) summoned over 20 Russian staff to attend individual interviews.

Late that night 10 members of staff were visited at home by the Russian tax police and called to further interviews yesterday.

The interviews had little to do with their work and were clearly aimed at exerting undue pressure on innocent individuals.

Our paramount consideration is the wellbeing of our staff and I feel we cannot continue our work without significant risk to them.

David Miliband statement to Parliament:

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.

Later on in his statement, Miliband (correctly, but rather smugly, it seemed to me) outlined the moral high ground that Britain plans to occupy:

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.

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7 Responses

  1. Kyle & Svet says:

    Britain Should have never opened back up after being told to keep the doors closed. Then this would never have become a well published victory for Russia! Britain by trying to play hardball in the first place just gave up chance of a diplomatic work around. They also put the Moscow branch in big jeopardy of being shut done also.

    Kyle

  2. Andy says:

    I agree that, once Russia began to play hardball, the British Council never had a chance of winning this dispute.

    You simply cannot keep your offices open in another country if that country’s government really wants them closed.

    But I suspect that the Council, as well as the British Government, recognised that from the outset. Instead, they wanted to publicly make the point that they felt they had done nothing wrong.

    I think they always knew that they would ‘lose’ this battle, in the sense that the offices would close. Instead, they were aiming for a PR victory on the international stage.

    Whether they have achieved that or not, I’m not sure.

  3. Red exile says:

    I think Siberian Light and these commentators are spot on. For spin-obsessed New Labour, it has played out very nicely for the message their want to deliver to domestic audiences while, in truth, having no strategic come-back on themselves. But I do think UK-Russo relations are going to get worse, not better, and some more nastiness is on the way.

  4. Aleks says:

    I always find it a bit disturbing when the Brits bleat on about ‘international law’ being on their side. Have they already forgotten that when ‘international law’ does not suit their purposes, they invent most imaginative circumelocutions and excuses to ignore it….

    It’s bizarre that they decided to pick this fight. They gambled that Putin would not want to up the stakes and keep certain Russo-British affairs separate (i.e. that it would not affect trade or BP), but they seem to have forgotten that Putin is a spy (once a spy, always a spy) and has on a number of occasions pulled rabbits out of hats. Always being ‘predictable’ does not necessarily server ‘his’ interests being so would make him easier to deal with. Only look at how the Chinese are dealing with the US calls for ‘greater clarity’ about their ‘military intentions’! It’s certainly not the Chinese military who are moving and projecting their forces/power West..

    I don’t think this has too much to do with the upcoming elections
    either. Putin drew his red lines and is showing that he is prepared to push back. NATO and the West have already pushed too far towards Russia for Russia’s comfort. On a more local level, it seems to be a question of respecting Russia’s sovereignty, something which the West seems to respect less and less, especially those who are not ‘allies’.

    The whole episode was dumb and there was absolutely no reason for it.

  5. @Aleks – Russia murdered a British citizen on British soil using nuclear material. You are very quick to point out faults with American and UK policy, which is fine. I don’t see you criticising Russia for such a brazen assassination. The UK is entitled to feel very aggrieved with Russia’s recent behaviour.