Treatment of British Council 'not worthy of great country'

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The offices of the British Council in two cities outside Moscow were closed yesterday after officials were questioned by the Russian authorities.

The offices in Ekaterinburg and St Petersburg were shut after Russian pressure against the British Council intensified, leading to members of the cultural body being questioned in their homes after calls by the Russian 'tax police' who claim they are avoiding tax, a charge they deny.

Condemning the action, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said: "Questioning ranged from the institutional status of the British Council to personal questions about the health and welfare of family pets."

He said the Russian actions were "reprehensible, not worthy of a great country". Earlier this week, Stephen Kinnock, director of the British Council in St Petersburg and son of Lord Kinnock, former Labour leader and chairman of the British Council, was targeted by police. They accused him of driving down a one-way street the wrong way and smelling of drink.

Lord Kinnock said the British Council had sought a more comprehensive cultural agreement with Russia for eight years. But it was thwarted by the authorities' claims that the council did not have appropriate legal status in Russia.

Mr Miliband tried to pull back from further tit-for-tat reprisals against Russian cultural activities in Britain. He said he was not taking retaliatory action "for example by sending back Russian masterpieces scheduled for show at the Royal Academy or by taking measures against two Russian diplomats at the Russian embassy dedicated to cultural work."