The British Council has this week opened its offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg in defiance of the Russian goverment’s order that the offices be closed.
The decision ratchets up Russo-British tensions another notch although, so far, the disagreement seems to be limited to a war of words – British Foreign Minister David Miliband accused Russia of holding the Council “hostage”; his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov hit back by accusing Britain of “nostalgia for colonial times”.
However, I’m not sure that this dispute will remain a war of words for much longer – at some point, it is bound to escalate. The British Council has clearly set out its position, so the ball is now in Russia’s court – in order to not seem incompetent it either needs to take action through the courts, or through more direct means.
The British Ambassador was summoned to the Kremlin earlier this week to explain his country’s actions. He told the Press Association that, while there, he had:
he had been presented with a “long piece of paper” setting out the Russians’ view of the legal position.
This would seem to indicate legal action of some kind, but it isn’t quite clear what form this action would take. The Russian authorities have hinted that they would soon attempt to claim back taxes from the British Council and bar its employees from receiving new visas, but this seems to be a rather long term approach.
I wonder how long the Kremlin can really allow the British Council offices to remain defiantly open before the Russian Government begins to seem impotent in the eyes of its people – particularly in the run-up to a critical Presidential election…
Lavrov (or was it some other talking head?) also referred to the analogous institutions of other countries (Alliance Francaise and Göthe Institute) and said that France and Germany comply with the Russian laws. I wonder if their legal position is really different from that of the British Council?