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British Council office defies Russia ban, opens up after holidays

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The British Council office in Yekaterinburg resumed its activities after the New Year holidays on Wednesday, despite a Russian Foreign Ministry statement that it had closed down its regional branches.
YEKATERINBURG, January 9 (RIA Novosti) - The British Council office in Yekaterinburg resumed its activities after the New Year holidays on Wednesday, despite a Russian Foreign Ministry statement that it had closed down its regional branches.

"It's business as usual at the British Council, starting from today, the ninth," a source at the British General Consulate in Yekaterinburg said.

In mid-December Russia announced it would temporarily close the British Council offices in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg from January 1 over tax and legal status violations.

The non-governmental organization, the British Council, which is the cultural arm of the British Embassy, promoting education and cultural programs, first established an office in Moscow in the 1990s and went on to open a further 14 offices across Russia.

The British Council has been involved in three years of legal wrangling with Russian authorities over the alleged non-payment of tax and issues relating to its legal status.

The Foreign Office and the British Council have repeatedly that denied tax laws have been breached, and have said the council operates in compliance with both Russian and U.K. legislation.

In October the council said it would close all its offices in Russia apart from in Moscow, Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg, where Britain has an embassy and consular offices. The council said the decision was made due to a change in the organization's global strategy.

In defiance of the Foreign Ministry's demands to close down operations, Natalia Minchenko, marketing director at the British Council in Moscow, said the British Council had "no plans to shut down in either Yekaterinburg or St. Petersburg," adding that they would "continue working."

Britain argued that the British Council's presence in Russia was "entirely consistent with international law, including the Vienna Conventions," with the British foreign secretary also referring to "a 1994 U.K./Russia Agreement on Cooperation in Education, Science and Culture, signed by Russia."

Relations between the two countries hit an all-time low following the murder of Kremlin critic and security service defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006. London expelled Russian diplomats, imposed visa restrictions and suspended anti-terrorism cooperation with Russia after it refused to extradite the main suspect in the case. Moscow followed suit.

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