British Council

Bullies with something to hide

Culture and civil society are places to nurture shared values – that is especially important during times of diplomatic strain. Closing British Council offices doesn’t strengthen Moscow’s insistence that it played no role in the Litvinenko assassination. All it does is make Putin and the Kremlin look like bullies – with something to hide.

International Herald Tribune editorial, January 21

An offer that can be refused

After the British government denied that there were any plans to expel Russian diplomats in London, as some newspapers had claimed, the Kremlin began to try a different ploy, offering a proposal that the British Council’s offices in Russia could reopen if the Britain resumed talks on counter-terrorism and entry visas, broken off in the wake of the Lugovoy/Litvinenko affair. Now Britain’s foreign secretary has responded by refusing to link the matter of the closure of British Council offices in Russia with political issues that affect relations between the two countries. The British Council issue is not a political matter – solely a cultural one.

Sauce for the Gander – II

From the Mail on Sunday:

The Government is preparing to expel dozens of Russian spies operating in Britain as the diplomatic tensions with President Putin escalate.

MI5 has helped draw up a list of suspected agents, including at least 34 diplomats in the Russian embassy, who could be targeted in a mass expulsion.

Words of Warning

In the Daily Mail, Edward Lucas has some words of stark warning about what is happening to Russia now:

Russia still, outrageously, belongs to the G8 club of big rich Western countries and the Council of Europe, a talking shop that also guards the continent’s human rights conventions.

But that should fool nobody.

Russia has explicitly abandoned Western values of political freedom, the rule of law and multilateral security, in favour of its own ideology, “Sovereign democracy”.

That is a mixture of xenophobia, nationalism, autocracy, self-righteousness and nostalgia for the Soviet – and Stalinist – past.

Kennan on Russia

“At the bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area.

“Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological systems of Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between the Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within… ”

George Kennan, in a document sent to President Harry S. Truman in 1946

Sauce for the Gander

From the Financial Times:

But Mr Putin should beware. The British Council has operated in Russia for many years in an open and transparent manner. By contrast, there is plenty of covert financial and lobbying activity by Russian individuals inside the UK. If Mr Putin wants to start challenging the way foreign organisations operate inside his country, he had better realise that the British have plenty of questions of their own.

Via Robert Amsterdam

Russia’s Reputation

The British Foreign Secretary has said that Russia’s actions against the British Council call Russia’s reputation into question. Though after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the radiological poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, and the hounding of the British ambassador by Nashi thugs, one might have thought that Russia’s reputation had already fallen to its lowest point ever:

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband has described Russia’s actions against the British Council as “reprehensible” and a “stain” on the country’s reputation.

He said council staff had been grilled by Russian security services on issues including their family pets’ health.

Such actions were “not worthy of a great country”, he said, reading out EU and US messages of support for Britain.

The council has suspended work at two Russian offices, saying “intimidation” made it impossible to continue.

British Council Statement

Statement by Martin Davidson, British Council chief executive:

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.

The Russian authorities have made it impossible for us to operate in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg so I have taken the decision to suspend operations in both cities.

I want to reiterate that the British Council is a cultural relations organisation. Our work connects ordinary people around the world.

It is wrong to draw cultural relations and the British Council into an international political dispute.

I am bitterly disappointed that the Russian authorities have sought to limit our cultural and educational links at the very time when they can be of most value.

I want to reiterate that we operate in Russia in full accordance with international and Russian law and I am deeply grateful for the strong support of our fellow cultural organisations across Europe.

We remain committed to Russia and hope to continue to work with our one-and-a-quarter million Russian partners and customers from our Moscow office.

True Colours

 

By its recent actions in harassing, threatening and intimidating British Council staff in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, the Russian government has shown its true colours. This is not a government for which the ideals of friendship and cultural co-operation between nations have much or any resonance at all – rather, it is a narrow-minded, vengeful and politically-motivated clique, intent upon cynical troublemaking and the stoking of international tensions.

BBC correspondent Paul Reynolds has drawn attention to the link between the present crisis and the legal ramifications surrounding the actions of the Russian nationalist Andrei Lugovoi, who is suspected of involvement in the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in the autumn of 2006. Again, the Putin government’s support and protection of Lugovoi points to its true nature, and should leave no one in any doubt as to what its inclinations are.

An interesting feature of the present crisis, which was obviously prepared in advance by the Russian authorities, is the flooding of British media comments boards (the Mail and Telegraph are the two leading examples at present) with anti-UK and pro-Putin messages posted by Russians posing under English-sounding names.

British Council Fights Back – V

Via BBC:

Foreign Secretary David Miliband has warned Russia that “intimidation” of British Council officials is “completely unacceptable”.

The council is “deeply concerned” about its staff’s safety after its employees were interviewed by security services and a director was detained by police.

Mr Miliband said the Russian ambassador in London would meet the head of the diplomatic service over the issue.

“Any intimidation or questioning of officials is completely unacceptable.”