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Russia's Regression

Now a crackdown on the British Council.

11:00 PM, Jan 30, 2008 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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George Orwell once warned writers seeking a supplemental income not to lower themselves into shilling for the organization, although his objection was to how this might affect literary talent rather than conscience. Adding to the aura of postwar intrigue was the Council's slightly haphazard placement at the fault-line between diplomacy and espionage. John le Carré chose one of its first "audio fairs" in the Soviet Union as the opening backdrop for his glasnost-era spy thriller The Russia House (it is to a Council book salesman that the beautiful Katya hands off her friend Yakov's manuscript containing Soviet nuclear secrets).

The Council first opened its doors in Russia in 1945 during the brief honeymoon period that followed the Allied victory. It persisted for a mere two years of Stalin's reign until the exigencies of the Cold War forced it withdraw, as it also did in Eastern Europe after the Warsaw Pact. In 1967, at the unlikely moment of re-Stalinization under Brezhnev and the suppression of Soviet dissidents, the organization appointed an ambassador to Moscow who became a one-man-band operation. In 1992, a full-fledged Council center was established in the Russian capital, and by 2006, about a half million Russians partook in one of its many creative programs or exhibitions. Last year, another half million were taught by teachers who graduated from its pedagogic institutes, and 40 Russians traveled to the UK on scholarships it dispensed.

Yet throughout the Putin regime there have been three distinct phases of buffeting the Council in order to pain Whitehall. The method has always been to accuse the organization of conducting "illegal" commercial activity on Russian soil and failing to pay taxes (and never mind that the Council doesn't pay them in any other of its 108 host countries). In 2004, it was pressured to pony up for arrears after the UK refused to extradite the oligarch Boris Berezovsky and the Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev. Berezovsky, a media mogul largely responsible for Putin's election in 1999, dispatched himself to London shortly after falling out with the president, who then nationalized Berezovsky's holding, the television station Channel One, and made it another handmaid of state disinformation. As for Zakayev, a one-time deputy prime minister and special envoy under the Yeltsin-backed Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, he was granted asylum in 2003 by a British magistrate, who surmised that the Russian evidence suggesting he was a terrorist, kidnapper and mass murderer was politically motivated. (The British are not alone in casting a skeptical eye on the reasons Moscow's erstwhile negotiator for Chechen peace is wanted back home. In 2002, after Zakayev traveled to Copehagen to take part in the World Chechen Congress, he was arrested on an Interpol warrant filed by the Kremlin; the Danish courts freed him, claiming the case was wafer-thin.)

In 2006, the Council once more found itself in bad odor after the FSB, the successor intelligence apparat to the KGB, claimed to have uncovered a message container disguised as a rock, which it believed British embassy officials were using to pass coded information to their Russian sources.

And now the current contretemps over Lugvoi, which began on December 12 when the Foreign Ministry declared that, due to its inappropriate legal remit and history of tax evasion, the Council would have to cease its operations in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg on January 1. Both offices had been closed since December 24, due to the Christmas and New Year holiday, and were scheduled to reopen on January 14. In the event, the Yekaterinburg resumed its activity few days early, on January 9; the St. Petersburg branch, as scheduled, on the 14th. This was the same day that Tony Brenton, the British Ambassador, was summoned to a meeting with Ministry officials and emerged defiant, saying the orders of closure were baseless and would therefore not be upheld. James Kennedy, the director of British Council in Russia, stated that he had received no information from the Russian government indicating that his organization's work was unlawful--there was only the diktat that it must shut down. London's position is that all Council branches in Russia operate well within the boundaries of a 1994 bilateral agreement between the two countries, and also the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations, which governs diplomatic protocol. (A famous violator of the latter covenant is Nashi, the fascistic pro-Putin "youth group," which operates with money and support from the Kremlin, and routinely harasses British Embassy personnel without interference by the Russian authorities.)