Britain warned Russia on Wednesday that any attempt to intimidate staff of its cultural arm was ”completely unacceptable” after Russia’s state security service summoned local employees to speak to its officers.
Britain’s consulate in St Petersburg said the British Council office in the northern city had been forced to shut temporarily because all its Russian staff had been told to report to the authorities for the second time in 24 hours.
Russia has demanded the British Council close two regional offices in a row that has its roots in a dispute over the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a Kremlin critic and ex-Russian agent who died in London from a massive dose of radiation.
Britain has refused to close the two council offices — in St Petersburg and the Urals city of Yekaterinburg — and rejects Russia’s allegation that they are operating illegally.
A council spokeswoman in London said its staff in both cities had been summoned on Tuesday to see the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB secret police.
The staff were also visited at their homes on Tuesday evening by Interior Ministry officials, she said. Russian officials said they were holding explanatory talks with council staff, not questioning them.
The council also said Stephen Kinnock, the head of its St Petersburg operations and son of former European Commissioner Neil Kinnock, had been stopped by police on Tuesday evening for a traffic violation.
”Any intimidation or harassment of officials is obviously completely unacceptable,” British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters in London.
He said the head of the British diplomatic service, Peter Ricketts, would explain Britain’s position at a meeting with Russian ambassador Yuri Fedotov on Wednesday.
”The only losers from any attack on the British Council are Russian citizens who want to use the British Council … and the reputation of the Russian government,” Miliband said.
The council promotes British culture abroad by putting on concerts and exhibitions and organising educational exchanges.
Ties at low ebb
Relations between Britain and Russia are at their worst since the Cold War, soured by the Litvinenko murder, mutual espionage allegations and political asylum given by Britain to prominent enemies of President Vladimir Putin.
On December 12 Russia ordered the British Council to halt work from January 1 at its two regional offices, saying Britain had broken a host of international and domestic rules.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a source in the FSB as saying the council’s staff were not subjected to questioning.
”The … employees talked to federal security officers, who explained to them that the British organisation is operating illegally,” it said.
The FSB said late on Tuesday it would speak to the staff to prevent them from being used by Britain ”in provocative games”.
A Reuters photographer outside the British Council office in St Petersburg said the doors were shut and the premises were deserted. A recorded telephone message said its closure was ”due to the recent action against us by the Russian authorities”. — Reuters