IMAGE: BRITISH COUNCIL OFFICE IN MOSCOW
Alexander Nemenov  /  AFP-Getty Images
This British Council center in Moscow was reopened Monday despite a ban by the Russian government.
updated 1/14/2008 3:10:54 PM ET 2008-01-14T20:10:54

A British cultural organization reopened offices in two Russian cities Monday in defiance of an order to close, drawing an angry response from Russia, which called the decision a "deliberate provocation" and promised punitive measures.

Britain refused to back down. Its ambassador said the British Council offices would remain open and that any Russian action against the organization would violate international law.

The British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg reopened after the holiday break, despite Russia's warnings that defying orders to suspend their operations by Jan. 1 would worsen bilateral relations.

Ties between Britain and Russia already are at a post-Cold War low, badly frayed by the 2006 poisoning death in London of the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.

Russia last month ordered the closure of the two regional offices of the British Council, a nonprofit organization that acts as the cultural arm of the British Embassy, saying they were operating illegally. British officials dispute that claim, and the offices reopened on schedule after a holiday break.

The defiance prompted Russia's Foreign Ministry to summon British Ambassador Anthony Brenton for a dressing down.

"The ambassador was told that the Russian side sees such actions as a deliberate provocation aimed at inciting tension in Russian-British relations," the ministry said.

Back taxes could be claimed
It promised "a series of administrative and legal measures," including possible moves against the council's main office in Moscow and efforts to recover what it said are back taxes owed by the St. Petersburg office.

In addition, Russia said it will stop issuing visas for new employees assigned to posts related to the British Council at Britain's consulates in St. Petersburg and the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, and will not renew the accreditation of existing staffers.

"We expect our British partners to stop ignoring obvious facts and refrain from a line of further confrontation that is fraught with the most negative consequences for Russian-British relations," the ministry said.

Britain remained defiant.

"I said to him ... that the British Council is working entirely legally and it will continue, therefore, to work _ and any Russian action against it would be a breach of international law," Brenton told reporters after meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov.

Russia contends that the British Council acts as a for-profit organization, and said St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg offices violate the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. British authorities say the organization's operations comply with that pact as well as Russian law and a 1994 bilateral agreement.

"We have received no information to indicate that our work is not legal," James Kennedy, director of the British Council in Russia, told reporters at the St. Petersburg office after it opened Monday.

Part of poisoning dispute?
The dispute has been politically charged amid broader tension over Litvinenko's 2006 poisoning death in London. Russia has refused Britain's request to extradite the man it considers the main suspect. Last year, Britain expelled four Russian diplomats in protest, and Russia in turn kicked out four British diplomats.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last month called the British Council order a "countermeasure" to the diplomat expulsion.

"There is an issue about Mr. Lugovoi ... but to turn that issue into an attack on an institution that is valuable to Russia, and valuable to the United Kingdom, is frankly mystifying," Brenton said.

Brenton said "we need to be quite careful to prevent this situation from infecting all the other pieces of business which we need to work on together."

Russia also has been angry at Britain for years over its refusal to extradite Kremlin critic and billionaire Boris Berezovsky and Chechen separatist envoy Akhmed Zakayev.

President Vladimir Putin and his government have criticized foreign organizations operating in Russia, accused them of meddling and seeking to undermine the government.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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