Russia's demand that the British Council cease its activities, made before New Year, was the first sign that the quarrel might be moving beyond politics to threaten the vibrant relations that Britain and Russia enjoy in other areas, particularly business and culture. "We think it's very important that cultural relations remain distinct from any political disputes we may have," says James Barbour, a spokesperson for the British Embassy here.
He says the British Council, which runs English language teacher-training courses and organizes cultural exchanges, complies with both international and Russian law under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and a bilateral cultural agreement from 1994. But Russia has accused the council of having "an inappropriate legal status" and of earning huge untaxed profits from commercial activities such as English-language courses.
"Our complaints about the British Council have an exclusively legal and financial character, and are not connected with recent political issues," says Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the international affairs committee of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. "Basically, the British Council has to meet the legal requirements for such organizations, or it will cease to exist."