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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Cloud Support Engineer

£25000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a team player who likes...

Recruitment Genius: Skilled Machinist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of additional skilled machini...

Recruitment Genius: Toolmaker

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of additional skilled toolmak...

Langley James : Head of IT; e-commerce; Blackburn; up to £55k

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Langley James : Head of IT; e-commerce; Blackburn; ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Sting may be in for a shock when he tries to save his Broadway musical

David Lister
 

David Cameron’s immigration speech: I broke my promise; this time will be different

John Rentoul
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game