Russian envoy: ‘Now we really have a crisis’

The diplomatic stand-off with Russia entered a dangerous new phase on Wednesday as British officials denounced ”a pattern of intimidation” by Russia’s security services against British Council staff.

The Foreign Office complained of unacceptable behaviour, after Russians working at British Council offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg were called in for questioning by the FSB, the successor to the KGB, and visited at home by interior ministry officials.

Stephen Kinnock, the head of the council’s St Petersburg office, was stopped and detained for an hour for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol and driving the wrong way down a one-way street. British officials denied Kinnock, the son of former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, had been drinking, saying he had refused to take a breath test and called for consular assistance in line with Foreign Office guidelines.

One official said Kinnock had been followed home after dining with friends in what the official described as ”a pattern of intimidation intended to disrupt the British Council”. The organisation said it was deeply concerned for the safety of its employees.

The St Petersburg office was forced to close on Wednesday night, after its staff were summoned for FSB questioning for the second time in 24 hours. The British Council will decide today on whether it is able to keep its regional offices open while its staff are being put under intense FSB pressure.

The organisation had attempted to continue its work this week in defiance of Moscow’s order to close the regional offices, on the grounds that the order was illegal under international law and incompatible with bilateral agreements. Russian officials blame Britain for the collapse of talks last year aimed at reviewing status of cultural organisations. The failure of the talks, they argue, left the British Council without a legal footing in Russia. Russia’s ambassador to London, Yuri Fedotov, was summoned to the Foreign Office to hear British complaints. Later he said, ”now we are really experiencing what can be called a crisis”, adding that he saw no immediate prospect of any improvement.

The battle over the British Council is the latest in a series of skirmishes between London and Moscow starting with the murder in November 2006 of the Russian dissident and former FSB agent, Alexander Litvinenko. It worsened with Russia’s refusal to extradite Britain’s principal suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, the subsequent tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats and restrictions on visas for Russian officials.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, issued a statement on Wednesday saying: ”Any intimidation or harassment of officials is obviously completely unacceptable. 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.” Peter Ricketts, the head of the British diplomatic service, told Fedotov that any ”attack” on Britain’s cultural arm would damage the Russian government’s reputation.

Russian officials say that the British Council’s Moscow offices could be targeted next if no agreement, encompassing the status of cultural organisations and the availability of British visas for Russian diplomats, was reached.

Miliband has already promised to respond, with the further expulsion of Russian diplomats now an option. The FSB — Russia’s main domestic counter-terrorism agency — on Wednesday said it called in the British Council’s Russian workers to warn them they might fall victim to a British ”provocation”. ”It was not a questioning. The British Council employees talked to the Federal Security Officers, who explained to them that the British organisation works illegally,” an FSB source told the news agency Interfax.

Russia has announced that it will not renew Kinnock’s visa nor those of other regional British staff, and will not give new visas. On Wednesday pro-Kremlin politicians and former KGB generals denounced Britain’s move and called for further punitive action.

Poor relations

November 2006: Alexander Litvinenko dies from radioactive poisoning

May 2007: Russia rejects UK extradition request for suspect Andrei Lugovoi

July 2007: Russian diplomats are expelled from London and Moscow retaliates by expelling four British diplomats

December 2007: Kremlin orders closure of British Council offices

Monday: British Council office in St Petersburg reopens. Kremlin promises punitive measures against the organisation

Tuesday: FSB question council’s Russian staff. Police detain Stephen Kinnock, director of the St Petersburg office – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

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