British Council row continues

The row around the British Council is spinning like a roulette wheel. An exchange of civilities between Moscow and London has gone beyond diplomatic framework. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is talking about London's colonial manners, and retired intelligence officers are warning about British and American plans to partition Russia. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is accusing Moscow and his Russian counterpart of attempting to deprive ordinary Russians of an opportunity to partake of British sources of knowledge, while children of top Russian officials receive education in the UK. London has already complained about Moscow to the European Union (EU).

Let's note that the image of the caring Brits is a little tarnished by the prices of some services provided by the British Council. But London is right - this loud row around a foreign cultural organisation does not make Russia look any better. It doesn't matter here that the truth de jure is on the Russian side - having located British Council offices on the territory of consulates, the British have indeed violated Russian laws and international agreements.

British Council affiliates were mushrooming all over Russia and were not decent tax-payers, for which they were taken to court in 2005. There were questions to the British Council in connection with the funding of Russian NGOs. Last summer, the talks about its status were stopped altogether. This time, Moscow has resorted to tougher measures - the British Ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, FSB officers talked with the British Council's Russian employees, and its affiliates in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg were shut down.

Why have London and Moscow preferred a good quarrel to a bad peace? Is this a natural outcome of a legal dispute or a bargaining chip in a bigger game? It is hard to give a precise answer but the most plausible explanation is that the sides are engaged in tit-for-tat reciprocity.

Moscow did not extradite Andrei Lugovoi to London and London has curtailed counterterrorist cooperation between security-related services and visa talks. The Russian government has reciprocated by cracking down on the British Council. But neither side intends to go past the point of no return - the rumours about a break in diplomatic relations have no foundation. Despite the British Council's tribulations, cultural exchange is continuing. An exhibition of Russian paintings has finally made it to Britain despite some problems.

The Russian Foreign Ministry is linking the settlement of conflict around the British Council's regional offices with the resumption of talks on cooperation between Russian and British security-related services and simpler visa procedures between the two countries.
Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry's Information and Press Department Andrei Krivtsov said that if the situation with these issues returned to normal, talks on the status of British Council's regional offices could be resumed.

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