Medvedev suggests British Council spying

Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister and presidential front-runner, Dmitry Medvedev attends an economic forum in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on Friday. Ilya Naymushin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Vladimir Putin's likely successor suggested in an interview published Monday that the British Council and foreign NGOs spy on Russia, echoing accusations that have strained ties between Moscow and the West — in particular Britain.

The remarks from Dmitry Medvedev were striking because he has tended to take a less confrontational tone with the West than Putin, leading to speculation that his expected election on March 2 might ease tension that has built up in recent years.

In an interview with the weekly Itogi, Medvedev suggested supporting Russian actions that led the British Council — an international cultural body funded by the British government — to suspend operations at its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. Moscow said the offices were operating illegally.

"If someone allows you in their home, act decently," Medvedev said in the interview published on Itogi's Web site. sate

"After all, it's known that state-financed structures like the British Council ... conduct a mass of other activities that are not so widely advertised," Medvedev was quoted as saying. "Among other things, they are involved in gathering information and conducting intelligence activity."

Medvedev said he was unaware of any Russian NGOs allowed to "operate freely" in Britain.

"Try registering one of our NGOs in London — a headache is guaranteed," he was quoted as saying.

Strained relations with Britain
The confrontation over the council further poisoned relations between Britain and Russia, already strained by both countries' refusal to hand over suspects for prosecution. Raising memories of Soviet-style scare tactics, Russian staff of the council were interviewed at night by Russian police and intelligence agents.

Medvedev indicated that Russia would continue to confront the West on issues large and small. "If you meekly put up with any pressure, others stop taking you into account," he said.

Medvedev also rejected Western accusations that Russia uses its energy riches as a tool in political blackmail, saying similar charges could just as easily be pressed against the United States.

"If one so desired, one could call the U.S. a financial aggressor and economic terrorist for forcing its currency and its business standards on the world," he said.

Advocates strong presidency
Support from Putin and the Kremlin virtually ensures Medvedev victory in the March election.

In the interview, he said Russia cannot survive without a strong presidency and sought to counter speculation that he might serve as a figurehead while Putin, who Medvedev says he will make his prime minister, would continue to rule.

"There are not three, four or five centers" of power, Medvedev said. "The president governs Russia, and according to the Constitution there can be only one."

At the same time, he said he would work closely with Putin in an atmosphere of "trust and partnership."