The Blog

Russia's Regression

Now a crackdown on the British Council.

11:00 PM, Jan 30, 2008 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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The Foreign Ministry's response was as swift as it was predictable: It threatened to stop renewing or issuing visas for diplomatic staff of the Council's regional branches outside the main Moscow hub, which would be allowed to remain open, although, like the other branches, subject to administrative and legal penalties.

It didn't take long for these to be applied. On January 15, the FSB hauled in more than 20 Russian employees of the St. Petersburg branch for questioning about their work. That night, Russian tax police visited ten others in their homes--an example of psychological intimidation straight out of the Stalinist playbook. An FSB spokesperson later told Interfax, "these were no interrogations . . . British council workers talked with FSB officials, who told them that the British organization was operating illegally"--a claim that is plausible if one believes those same workers had stayed silent about such rampant illegality up until the secret police came calling. Further, the FSB, ignoring the popularity of the Council within Russia, said it was conducting such non-interrogations for the people's own good:

"In order to safeguard Russian citizens from being used as tools in the Britons' provocative games, the Federal Security Service institutions have started a campaign to explain the situation surrounding the British Council and the Russian government bodies' position in relation to this organization's branches in Russian regions to Russian citizens working for this organization."

DUI was evidently one form of provocation. Stephen Kinnock, the British Council head in St. Petersburg, was detained that same night for allegedly driving through the intersection of Konyushenny Pereulok and Naberezhnaya Moiki, where traffic is prohibited. City police followed him home and claimed they smelled alcohol on his breath when they pulled him over. (Kinnock and the Council maintain he was sober and committed no traffic violation.) Adhering to diplomatic protocol, he refused to leave his vehicle and admit to a breathalizer exam, fearing its results would be doctored and sensationalized. Kinnock was released from custody upon the arrival on the scene of the British Consul General William Elliott.

The St. Petersburg office of the British Council closed the next day, January 16; the Yekaterinburg one the day after that.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, striking an uncharacteristically blunt note, called the Russian tactics "reprehensible," and not befitting a "great nation." He also indicated the only losers would be the Russian people themselves, who have long benefited from the Council's magnanimity. Indeed, Irinia Ishchenko, the deputy pro-rector for international relations at St. Petersburg State University, told Interfax: "Our students and teacher's use [the British Council's] wonderful library. However, recently, fewer of our students have managed to get supplementary education in the UK with the council's help." One appreciates why this is regrettable: Sixty Russian students who were given scholarships by the Council have signed a collective letter of protest against their government's actions, expressing sadness that "this decision has been taken after all the Council has done for Russia in the last 15 years."

And Russia has done a lot to the Council in that time. A January 15 article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta written by Yuliya Petrovskaya and Andrey Riskin carefully examined prior cases of shuttered branches of the organization.

The one in Nizhniy Novgorod, for instance, stopped its activities when the oblast, or regional government, complained that it had never paid for its leased office in the center of town. Back rent was assessed at 5 million rubles. Yet that office had been given to the Council in the early 1990's, shortly following Margaret Thatcher's visit to the city, by then-Governor Boris Nemtsov. He stipulated that in lieu of rent, the Council should simply refurbish and maintain the space, which it did. (It is perhaps worth noting that Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under Yeltsin, is the co-founder of the pro-democratic opposition party, the Union of Right Forces. A strong critic of Putin, he recently withdrew from the Russian presidential race in order to make way for his firend Mikhail Kasyanov, now facing criminal charges for alleged signature forgery on his nominating ballot.) Curiously, when Nizhniy Novgorod chose to re-evaluate the Council's lease in 2004, it found that there were no formal documents in existence due to the ad hoc agreement struck a decade before. Anthony Brenton and new Governor Valeriy Shantsev failed to negotiate a proper new lease in 2006, and the oblast decided last summer that it was evicting the branch for its unwillingness to "make up the budget losses." However, eclipsed by such angry public accountant's rhetoric was the fact that the Council had invested 1.5 million rubles annually in Nizhniy Novgorod--added value far outpacing the ambiguously determined default sum.

Never letting a good deed go unpunished was also the policy of the local officials in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. The krai accused the Council branch there of overstepping its mandate in holding competitions and granting foreign study opportunities to locals citizens. In actuality, of the 100 or so students that did take advantage of Council-sponsored foreign travel, all of them returned to Siberia; a two-way ticket was a prerequisite for enjoying this privilege. (The disingenuousness of the Krasnoyarsk complaint is underscored when one considers that a Russian citizen can't very well travel abroad without a passport, a document the British Council is hardly in a position to supply.)

Even where branches closed due to internal bureaucracy or the reallocation of resources, the exit strategy was always pretty graceful. Take the center in Tomsk, which operated for four years on the campus of the city's Polytechnic University. When the Council withdrew its staff in the spring of 2006, it donated all of its materials to the university, an act of largess that earned the gratitude of Polytechnic President Yuriy Pokholkov. The branch that shut down in Samara last December similarly bequeathed its entire library of over 3,500 books to Samara State Aerospace University. And the last community event it sponsored? Raising money on behalf of the Russian Children's Fund.

All of which makes the St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg orders seem particularly thuggish and unnecessary. "The British Council's connection to the Litvinenko affair is non-existent except insofar as its UK-appointed staff have diplomatic status," ran an angry editorial in London Times on January 15, entitled "From Russia With Spite." "This, Moscow believes, gives grounds for reflexive attacks on the council's operations whenever any aspect of the bilateral relationship is causing irritation, without risking a full diplomatic rupture. It is true that closing libraries and cultural centres may be less dangerous than shutting embassies. It is also true that Russia's latest round of bullying is shot through with schoolyard spite, and entirely self-defeating." The Guardian, too, marveled at how the Kremlin had pulled off that rarest of feats--uniting the whole of European opinion against itself. Even the EU's Slovenian presidency has taken the position that Russia should climb down and allow the Council offices to reopen in order to hasten a rapprochement between the Lion and the Bear.

Unhelpful in its attempt to portray itself the victim of a decade-long tax dodge is Moscow's doublespeak about what is really motivating its latest cycle of intimidation. Officially, the authorities maintain that they are simply sticking to the letter of the law and calling in old debts. Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the State Duma's international relations committee, has told reporters that the "legal and financial" grievances with the Council in various cities have existed for years and are "in no way connected with the latest complications in Russian-British relations." Yet this does nothing to explain why the Foreign Ministry has interfered in revenue or real estate disputes, clearly the domain of the Russian judiciary. The Moscow Times has urged the Council to bring itself up to whatever code the regime has put in place (or says it has) for foreign NGOs, which indeed it should, but also insists, "the Foreign Ministry should stop acting like a law enforcement agency and court--just what it is doing by threatening to investigate the council for tax arrears and order their payment."

It should also stop thinking in Brezhnevite mental categories. Sergei Lavrov, Russian's Foreign Minister, has said, "The historic memory (of the British side) stemming from the days of colonization is not something that can prompt a language in which one can talk to Russia," which certainly prompts a number of interesting questions about what long lost Victorian imperium in the Caucuses he has in mind.

Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, does one better in his sheer paranoia. He thinks the British are plotting to destroy his country and has even traced the conspiracy back to age of Shakespeare: "Since the time of Elizabeth I, agents have been guided by the principle of the end justifying the means," he told Argumentiy I Fakty in October. "Money, bribery, blackmail and exemption from punishment of crimes are their main recruitment methods."

Which in a slightly different context might be termed "projection." Yulia Latynina, a popular political radio host, as well as a contributor to Novaya Gazeta, the best muckraking newspaper in Russia, has replied ironically in print:

"As a true patriot, this particular allegation horrified me. But I would really like to find out one thing: Exactly who among the employees of the British Council was planning to occupy Russia and just how and when was this endeavor to take place? If Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev knows that such a plan existed but doesn't know who was behind it or when it was to take place, then he should be fired on the spot for gross incompetence. And how could a foreign organization that is fomenting plans to occupy a huge chunk of our territory get off with only a fine for back taxes?"

Or does George Smiley even have the attention span these days, with a different order of menace to protect against? Despite there being more Russian spies in Britain now that at any point since the collapse of the Soviet Union, M15 head Jonathan Evans' rhetoric tends not to reverberate quite so clangingly off the Iron Curtain: "It is a matter of some disappointment to me that I still have to devote significant amounts of equipment, money and staff to countering this threat. They are resources which I would far rather devote to countering the threat from international terrorism--a threat to the whole international community, not just the UK." One might add that a British subject has not yet imported a radioactive isotope into Moscow for the purposes of assassinating a Russian citizen.

One theory popular among Putin's domestic enemies is that the FSB is quite happy to level charges of espionage and "provocation" at so harmless an outfit as the British Council because its own agents desire to live in England. (Lavrov's daughter studied there, as have the children of so many other Kremlin officials.) After all, the greater the supposed threat posed by Her Majesty's Secret Service, the more spies from the other sides are required for surveillance and counterintelligence. Many a grizzled KGB agent has reminisced about his cushy Andropov-era posting near the Thames, and it should come as no surprise that, in a country ruled by ex-KGB agents, there is still the willingness to manipulate national security to obtain la dolce vita. Bottomless accusations against the British Council therefore play into a much larger scheme of what might be called siloviki self-gratification. And that's enough to make even a dispassionate observer sick without polonium.

Michael Weiss is the New York editor of Pajamas Media.