Mary Dejevsky: If it's back to the Cold War, it may be our fault

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The British Council and I go back a long way. It was thanks to the British Council that I was able to take 10 months out of my course at Oxford to study at a Russian university in one of the more frigid seasons of the cold war. More recently, I have been the grateful recipient of invitations to seminars and conferences, meeting people I might not otherwise have met in places I might not otherwise have visited.

At its best, the British Council uses cultural contacts to help oil diplomatic wheels. It can also keep intellectual channels open when pretty much everything else is closed – as with the student exchanges to Russia between the 1960s and 1970s. In the fashionable international affairs jargon of today, the British Council – which is essentially the cultural arm of British foreign policy – has been described as being at the "soft" end of "soft" power.

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining why I am as perturbed as the most ardent proponent of cultural diplomacy about the present stand-off between the British and Russian governments over the British Council. The whole affair has a very nasty whiff of the Cold War about it – and by no means only from the Russian side.

The affair has now reached a climax of sorts, marked by the closure (suspension, say the diplomats) of the British Council's offices, in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, after the harassing of Russian staff and the brief arrest of the head of the St Petersburg office – Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil – for allegedly driving the wrong way up a one way street – and a tub-thumping denunciation of the "reprehensible" Russians from theForeign Secretary, David Miliband.

So strong was the language of our top diplomat that his staff felt the need to "spin" further about how disgracefully the Russians had behaved, in case – could it be? – a shadow of doubt might have happened to cross someone's mind. It has certainly crossed mine. As presented by London, this whole dispute has been defined as a struggle between the small, noble and irreproachable (the British Council), and the big bad Russians (those same Russians who murdered Alexander Litvinenko). In other words, the treatment of the British Council has become another stick for us to beat the Russians with.

Yet it is somewhat more complicated. The Russians have not been happy with the activities of the British Council for several years – and not just because they harbour Soviet-era suspicions about the purpose of foreign cultural representations. Sticklers for constitutional small print, they were put out when the Council shifted its English language teaching – long a major part of its work – on to a commercial basis. In their eyes, this changed the operation from charitable cultural outreach to business, and required it to be on a different legal footing and tax liability – a fact Mr Miliband recognised when he referred to back taxes paid.

A second difficulty relates to the status of the British Council as not quite a diplomatic establishment and not quite a charity or business. Russians like clarity in such matters, and I have to say that the "corporate website" of the British confuses me a little, too. This is fine when relations are good; there can be give in the system. But when they are not, that element of turning a blind eye and giving the benefit of the doubt is the first thing that goes by the board.

The Russians have not spelt out, at least for public consumption, precisely what legal provisions the British Council has transgressed – though British allusions to the 1994 agreement and the Vienna convention suggest that they have a pretty good idea. And the Russian foreign minister made confusion worse when he linked Russia's action against the British Council with the continuing fall-out from the assassination of Litvinenko.

If there is a link, it is surely the very tenuous one that the resentment on both sides makes flexibility on other issues much more difficult – especially in the middle of Russia's six-month election season. Yet no sooner had the foreign minister made the Litvinenko link than other senior Russian officials promised that as soon as the British Council regularised its legal position, it could resume its work. The Russians, for their part, may be equally confused by British behaviour. Last winter, they seemed to have a deal of a sort. Andrei Lugovoi, the man Scotland Yard wanted for Litvinenko's murder, would not be extradited, and Russia's most wanted oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, would stay in London. Relations were inching back to their pre-Litvinenko cool.

Within days of Mr Miliband becoming foreign secretary, however, four Russian diplomats were expelled, ostensibly because of the non-extradition of Lugovoi. Could it be that the new foreign secretary was listening to different advice from that taken by his predecessor? The Russians have every reason to be as perplexed by the apparent change of mood in London as we are by Russia's tougher stance on the British Council. Unfortunately, the ambiguity that is the essence of diplomacy has a habit of vanishing at the very times when it is needed most.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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