( The Washington Post ) - Escalating a diplomatic dispute with Britain, Russian security agents called in Russian employees of the British Council for questioning Wednesday and police briefly detained the Briton who heads the cultural organization's St. Petersburg office.The British government condemned what it called intimidation and harassment.
"The only losers from any attack on the British Council are Russian citizens who want to use the British Council -- and the reputation of the Russian government," Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters in London Wednesday.
Russian employees of the British Council, the international cultural arm of the British government, were also visited at their homes late Tuesday night by officials from Russia's Interior Ministry.
Russia has demanded that Britain shut the offices of the British Council in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, charging that they are operating illegally. But Britain has defied the order and argues that they are protected by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations as well as a 1994 agreement between Britain and Russia.
The Federal Security Service, or FSB, the domestic successor of the KGB, said in a statement that it had called in the Russian employees for interviews "in order to safeguard Russian citizens from being used as tools in the Britons' provocative games."
The British Council has 80 Russian employees in Moscow, 20 in St. Petersburg and four at the council's office in Yekaterinburg, which unlike the other two is located inside a British consulate.
The head of the St. Petersburg office, Stephen Kinnock, was stopped by police Tuesday night while driving in that city. "During an ID check a heavy smell of alcohol was noticed on Kinnock's breath," reported the Russian news agency Interfax, citing an anonymous law enforcement source. "He refused a medical examination. However, road police officers wrote a report and had it certified by witnesses."
A spokesman at the British Council in London said the British consulate in St. Petersburg, following standard diplomatic procedure, "instructed" Kinnock not to take the breathalyser test after he phoned the consulate from the scene. "We strongly reject any allegations that Stephen Kinnock was drunk," said the spokesman.
Kinnock, son of Neil Kinnock, the former British Labor Party leader and current chairman of the British Council worldwide, has diplomatic status in Russia. He was released after 30 minutes.
"Our main concern is the safety and security of both our Russian and U.K. staff and we are deeply concerned by both these incidents," the British Council said in a statement.
The government-funded organization, which provides English lessons for a fee as well as cultural programs, has been the subject of tax probes by the Russian authorities. But the dispute escalated in the wake of Britain's rejected demand that Russia extradite Andrey Lugovoy, a former KGB agent, to stand trial for the London murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former domestic security service agent and fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced Monday that it would not issue or renew visas for British consular officials to work at the British Council's offices outside Moscow.
Yury Fedotov, Russia's ambassador to the United Kingdom, told the BBC that the British Council office in Moscow was "spared as an act of goodwill." But he warned it will be shut if the council continues to "defy the Russian authorities."
Some Russian commentators have begun to accuse the British Council of being a front for Western intelligence. "The British Council's work is directly connected with British and U.S. special services," said Yury Drozdov, head of the KGB's covert operation department from 1979 to 1991, speaking to Interfax. "An analysis of the management of this organization shows that some them underwent special training" in these organizations.
British officials dismissed the accusation as laughable, but such charges against foreign non-governmental organizations have become commonplace and can gain widespread currency here.
The British Council was forced to temporarily close its St. Petersburg office Wednesday because "all of the Russian employees are at the FSB," a British diplomat in Moscow said. But British officials say they are determined to keep all the British Council's offices in Russia open.
Miliband said Tuesday that Britain will respond to Russia's visa restrictions after consulting with its "international partners."
Russian officials have been dismissive of British protests. "We understand that historical memory, perhaps related to nostalgia for the colonial era, sometimes overshadows the legal side of matters," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in comments broadcast on state television Tuesday. "But this isn't the right language for talking with Russia."