Monday, January 14, 2008

Russia summons UK envoy over row

The Russian foreign ministry has summoned the UK ambassador amid an escalating row over the reopening of two British Council offices.

British Council's St Petersburg branch on Monday 14 January 2008

The Council's branches reopened on Monday despite a government ban.

Russia called the move a "provocation" and said it would not issue new visas to British Council staff.

The offices were ordered to shut last month in the latest clash over the fatal poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko in London.

The branches which reopened are in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. The ban does not apply to the British Council's Moscow office.

'Inflaming tensions'

A statement on the Russian foreign ministry's website said: "Russia views such actions as an intentional provocation aimed at inflaming tensions in Russian-British relations.

Nov 2006: Alexander Litvinenko dies in London
May 2007: UK accuses ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi of murder
July: Russia refuses UK request to extradite Mr Lugovoi
July: UK expels four Russian diplomats
July: Russia expels four British embassy staff
December: Russia tells British Council to shut two offices
Jan 2008: British Council re-opens both offices

"The Russian side will not issue visas to new employees sent to work in the (British) consular offices of St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg to carry out British Council work."

The UK embassy in the Russian capital declined to comment on the schedule of the ambassador, Sir Tony Brenton.

But BBC Moscow correspondent Richard Galpin says the envoy will appear at the Russian foreign ministry on Monday afternoon.

He says the escalating diplomatic crisis between the two countries is now coming to a head and it is not clear if either side is willing to back down.

The British Council, which aims to promote cultural and educational ties, was accused of violating Russian tax rules.

A spokesman for the Council insisted on Monday that its activities were "fully compliant with Russian and international law".

"We believe we're caught up in a political matter," the spokesman told the BBC News website.

'Valuable work'

The British Council's chief executive, Martin Davidson, said they would continue talking to the Russians in the hope of continuing their work.

He told the BBC: "We have to understand the issues, the problems they have with our work, but we believe [our work] is enormously valuable.

British Council in Moscow
Russia has linked its action to wider British-Russian tensions

"We know ordinary Russian people believe it is of real value to them, as well of course to us here in the UK, to have that relationship with Russia."

The offices in Yekaterinburg are on the premises of the UK consulate-general.

The row came on top of continuing tensions over the death of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006. He had been given a fatal dose of radioactive polonium 210.

The UK wants Russia to hand over businessman Andrei Lugovoi, whom UK investigators suspect of murdering Mr Litvinenko.

When Russia refused to extradite Mr Lugovoi, Britain expelled four Russian diplomats and Moscow followed suit.

Russian officials have described the action against the British Council as a retaliatory measure.