UK-Russian Tension Growing

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Elena Palm / AFP / Getty

A woman cleans a door of the British Council office in St. Petersburg

"Khozyain — Barin." This terse Russian phrase means, "One lords it over on his turf as one pleases, legally or not."

And Since December, on its own turf, Moscow has fought with the British Council (BC) — Britain's cultural and educational cooperation arm. The conflict now threatens to grow into a full-scale diplomatic war between Russia and Britain with potentially dire consequences.

The Russians claim their sovereign right to have guests abide by local laws, accusing the BC of acting outside its official status due to tax and other irregularities. The Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) ordered BC branches in Saint Petersburg and in Yekaterinburg in the Urals closed. They were the last remaining regional outfits of the erstwhile 15. The Moscow BC office has permission to carry on — so far.

The British defied the orders, saying that they operated quite legally based on the Russian-British agreement of 1994, and reopened the Yekaterinburg office on January 9, right after the New Year break was over, while St. Petersburg's office resumed operations this Monday. However, by Thursday morning, both shut down under pressure.

"The British made a major mistake neglecting to place the British Council's activities in Russia on a solid legal base," a senior MFA official told TIME. "We have been lenient for 14 years." The official didn't beat around the bush as to why the "lenience" abruptly ended: "It's in tune with the general deterioration of our relationship with Britain, there is no denying that. Otherwise, we could have kept looking the other way."

British-Russian relations have seriously soured since 2006, when the former KGB/FSB officer-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London with polonium-210, and the Brits demanded extradition of their prime suspect, Russian businessman Andrei Lugovoi. Citing the Constitution, the Kremlin turned down London's demands — and promptly elected Lugovoi as a Duma member on the ballot of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's rabble-raising nationalists.

Another Russian diplomat, when asked to comment upon the MFA's statement threatening "coercive" actions to have the British Council's regional offices closed, just shrugged: "No need posting a cop at the gate to turn people away. A phone call to those Russians who cooperate with the British Council, appealing to their civic duty, will suffice."

Such Russians range from students to university rectors and from library managers to theater and film directors. After Putin's eight-year rule, the majority of people will comply when Big Brother calls. For example, in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, a crowd of students showed up outside the BC's office, demanding it closed. Sure enough, once the "vox populi" spoke, the Yekaterinburg BC branch shut down Thursday morning.

The Federal Security Service (FSB, heir to the KGB) tersely said on its website that it was conducting "explanatory work" with the BC's Russian staff with the aim of "protecting Russian citizens from being drawn into the Britons' provocative games as tools."

The St. Petersburg's BC office closed down yesterday, with all the Russian employees summoned to the FSB. At the end of the day, the Ministry of the Interior cops visited the Russian staffers at their homes to drive the message in.

The Russians didn't comment on how exactly the FSB was "protecting them." However, The Moscow Times — an expat community English-language daily, quoted the St. Petersburg's FSB spokeswoman on Thursday claiming that the Russian staff had been told that the BC was operating illegally and that their employment might be illegal.

On Tuesday, traffic police briefly detained the director of BC's St Petersburg office Stephen Kinnock (and son of former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock), claiming they "detected the strong smell of alcohol" emanating from him. The BC rejected the claim that Kinnock had been drunk, and protested the harassment. U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband also accused Russia of "completely unacceptable" behavior. In a statement to MPs in the House of Commons on Thursday, Miliband expressed "anger and dismay" at Russia's actions adding: "We saw similar actions during the Cold War but frankly thought they had been put behind us ... Russia's actions against the British Council are a stain on Russian's reputation and standing."

The story is just all too depressingly familiar: back in 2005, the Belarus KGB detained me for exactly the same reason the St. Petersburg police detained Kinnock. This is from my 2005 Belarus notes: "A traffic cop pulls us over ... and 'detects' the smell of alcohol on the driver's breath." They hadn't even bothered to vary their vocabulary this week.

Last but not least: back in 1986, I was one of those Soviet citizens who worked for the U.S Embassy in Moscow, and were ordered out overnight by the Soviet government to retaliate their having over 50 Soviet diplomats expelled from the U.S. The techniques were much the same, except the cops didn't harass us at home. It was a masterly Cold War stroke, as withdrawing Soviet support staff totally paralyzed the U.S. embassy for months. However, it was one of the very last such strokes, as the Cold War was dying rather than it being a sign of a new one coming. Yet just over 20 years on, the monster of a new authoritarian state simply stretches his limbs in Russia — and believes, once again — that "Khozyain — Barin."