Moscow vs the West Dancing On the Edge

Russia Risks its International Reputation After Suspending British Council Operations

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs behind the Kremlin in Moscow, where the decision to suspend the British Council was made | Photo: NOV

The year 2008 began another round in the turmoil of diplomatic relations between Russia and Great Britain. This time the international political elite felt the chilling wind of the Cold War blowing in again from Russia.

The regional offices of the British Council in two Russian cities – St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg – did not open on the morning of Jan. 16. The Russian Federal Security Service had appeared at the door and was quizzing the staff about their work for the foreign cultural organization.      This was not an interrogation, the FSS said, just an information session. Still, it continued long into the night, when some British Council employees were visited further at their homes.

According to BC chief executive Martin Davidson, the interviews had little to do with the work and were clearly aimed at exerting undue pressure on individual members of staff. It reminded many of the “personal interviews” of Stalin’s era often conducted at night under conditions of intimidation. The same night, the head of the Council’s St. Petersburg branch, Stephen Kinnock, was arrested and publicly accused by the Russians of drunken driving. The St. Petersburg police refused to confirm the arrest and never submitted any proof supporting the accusation. The British Council immediately suspended its work for the safety and well being of the staff.

All this took place just as Moscow was waking up from the long dream state of the traditional Russian New Year. On Jan. 14, the Foreign Ministry called a meeting with British Ambassador Anthony Brenton to complain about the two Council offices. The Ministry claimed that the branches were illegally constituted and also owed back taxes. A statement on the Ministry website, in Russian only, traced the dispute back to early in 2007, when the Russians requested a freeze on all activities for the rest of the year, until the relevant legal documents could be signed. They saw the British Council’s disregard of this request as a deliberate provocation aimed at forcing tension in the bilateral relations between the two countries.

The British Council denied the charges, saying that it operates under a Cultural Agreement of 1994 between the UK and Russia. Apparently, that Agreement is no longer enough.

The reasons for the delay of the paperwork were somewhat vague. While claiming that the two sides had long been working on the needed agreement, the Foreign Ministry put the blame on the British:

“It is well known that unfriendly actions taken by the British side towards our country last July derailed the work on this document,” officials said. In effect, the Ministry was admitting, at least indirectly, that the British Council was being sacrificed in the long dispute that started over the poisoning of former Russian KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, a British citizen and strong opponent of Putin, and the subsequent extradition of four Russian diplomats from London.

Russia’s own refusal to extradite the main suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, and his election to the State Duma soon after, had been taken by the UK as a slap in the face. Neither the Russian nor the British Constitutions presuppose extradition. Even though, before giving Lugovoi a parliamentary immunity, Russia could have conducted an investigation within its borders with the assistance of Scotland Yard.  But instead, Russia answered by shifting the blame, criticizing London for not extraditing Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky.

The British Council has worked in Russia since 1967 and was registered as a charity institution until 2006, when it received the status of a non-profit organization. It appears to have taken Russian authorities a while to realise that the question of legal status could be used as a political tool.

Russian antagonism towards the West, and in particular the UK, is nothing new. In recent years, political observers have learned to expect Putin and his cabinet to act with unreasonable harshness. In Russian official-ese, this attitude is called the “restoration of the status of Russia as a great power.”

In reality, this new doctrine is also reflected in Russian policy towards Iran, that contradicts that of the West. It is also seen in Kosovo, where Russia is defiant. The new Russia has withdrawn from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, and with considerable motivation of its own, flirts with several anti-US regimes, like Venezuela. It also claims the whole of the Arctic because of its ocean shelf and openly supports the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas. Claims by the opposition that such “status restoration” leads only to further separation are hardly heard in the Kremlin.

The story created a furor in the international media. “There were similar actions during the cold war but we thought we had put them behind us, ” said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in an address in Parliament, and the term “Cold War” then appeared repeatedly in the headlines of European media of Jan. 17, including Sky News, France 24, Reuters and The Independent.

It all seemed to fall into an old pattern of Western countries expressing outrage, and Russia shifting the blame. Nevertheless, Russians seem unable to pass up any chance to show that they can, and will, create obstacles for the West. Playing tough on the international stage brings two benefits: Such tensions temporarily raise oil prices, and at the same time lift the government’s standing inside the country, a country that since the middle ages has been extremely suspicious of foreigners.

In the Russian mind, the main attribute of a great power is in the ability to dictate its will to others. The poorest stratum of the Russian society still sincerely believes that, although they live life below the poverty level, their country is strong and can influence the world. Poverty is a price these people are used to paying.

As Ivan Babst (1824-1881), a professor of Moscow and Kazan’ Universities, once commented on the Russian attitude towards the West: “[It is a] strange conviction of [Russians] that Western Europe cannot manage without us and our bread, that it depends on us and that it’s in our power to starve it or to feed it.” For centuries, Russians have believed that they are indespensable, although resource necessities change.

The antagonism of Russian international policy can be useful up to a certain point. Russian business, which feeds the power structure and financially supports the pro-Kremlin party United Russia, is unlikely to tolerate an intensification of this policy. Russian so-called oligarchs are used to the jet-set life style and Western shopping; they have their bank accounts, real estate and offices in the West, and their children are getting a first-class education there. Russia cannot afford to step over the line; for many reasons, it needs the West.

That being said, Russia is likely to continue with small acts of harassment that can affect cultural cooperation and the handful of Russians, some 485,000, that the British Council says have participated in the Organization’s projects in 2007/06.

Still, it has been an ugly story. The British Ambassador Antony Brenton attended the meeting of Another Russia opposition party in July 2006. For that reason the pro-Kremlin and rather unrestrained youth movement NASHI started a vigil in front of the British embassy, waving posters featuring Brenton’s face and stamped with the English word “Loser.” NASHI claimed that Brenton had supported fascists and insisted that he apologize for “demonstrative disrespect and open disdain of the point of view of the leadership of the country where Brenton works as an ambassador,” according to an open letter to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, published on the NASHI web-site. One of the demonstrators got into a fight with embassy security. Later, in January 2007 Lavrov allegedly met with the head of NASHI, Vasily Yakemenko, to request that NASHI behave appropriately in front of the British Embassy.

Brenton is still receiving offers of “advice” from the NASHI movement.

“Antony Brenton has to understand that Russians are not muzhiks in ushankas (peasants in a fur hats) that drink vodka while sitting on the oil pipe-line with their bears on a chain,” said Tikhon Chumakov, the one who got in the fight outside the British Embassy. “We have a rich culture and heritage.”

So if Russian culture and heritage are so rich, who needs cultural input from the British Council?

 

***As of Jan. 29, NASHI has decided to close its regional offices, leaving only five of more than 50 open. Some commentators, according to the Russian Kommersant newspaper, see this as a “quiet political death” of the movement.

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