British Council chief detained as Russia steps up diplomatic dispute

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The Independent Online

The head of the British Council's office in St Petersburg was detained on drink-driving charges in the latest escalation of the UK-Russia diplomatic dispute which yesterday saw the KGB successor agency enter the fray.

Stephen Kinnock – the son of Lord Kinnock, the former leader of the Labour Party and chairman of the British Council – was stopped by traffic police in the Russian city at 11.30pm on Tuesday after being followed and accused of driving the wrong way up a one-way street. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, police detected a "heavy smell of alcohol" on his breath. He was held for an hour before being released.

It is not known if the allegations against Mr Kinnock are founded as he declined to take a breathalyser test in line with international convention. The timing of the arrest appeared suspicious as it coincided with heightened tensions following the British decision on Monday to defy orders to close two British Council offices in Russia which were accused of operating illegally.

Russia used similar tactics in the recent past against Georgian officials during a crisis between Moscow and the Western-leaning former Soviet republic.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, warned that "any intimidation or harassment of officials is obviously completely unacceptable" after it emerged that the FSB, the successor organisation of the KGB, summoned for questioning Russian nationals working for the council in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

The St Petersburg office was forced to shut "temporarily" because of the FSB summons to local employees yesterday, some of whom had been visited on Tuesday night by interior ministry officials.

The Russian ambassador to the UK, Yuri Fedotov, was called to the Foreign Office by the head of the diplomatic service, who rejected the allegations against the council and urged Russian authorities not to target the cultural relations between the two countries.

A British Council spokeswoman said: "Our main concern is the safety and security of both our Russian and UK staff and we are deeply concerned by both these incidents."

UK diplomats are baffled by Russia's decision to escalate the crisis by targeting the British Council, the cultural arm of the British embassy whose offices in St Petersburg, Ykaterinburg and Moscow are visited by 1.4 million Russians every year. Russia could have gone to court in an order to back up its claims, and has not done so.

"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," Mr Miliband said. "I very much hope that there is still time for the Russian government to find a way to maintain the very important cultural work that goes on between our two countries."

Britain believes that Russia is only damaging its own reputation in the crisis, which was triggered by the killing, by radiation poisoning, of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. The UK has been seeking the extradition of the main suspect from Moscow, the former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoy, which has been ruled out by Russia, and relations have steadily worsened following the tit-for-tat expulsion of four diplomats in the summer. The thriving business relations between the two countries have so far not been affected.

The Russian Foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has made no secret of the fact that the Litvinenko affair is related to the move against the British Council at the end of last year.

The council has been accused of failing to pay taxes and of operating illegally on the ground that the convention under which it operated is no longer valid. Britain broke off negotiations on renewing the 1994 treaty after the Litvinenko murder. Britain argues that the 1994 convention remains in force pending its replacement.

Britain says it has no intention of retaliating in the cultural dispute on the ground that it would harm ordinary Russians.