ST. PETERSBURG, January 16 (RIA Novosti) - The British Council's office in St. Petersburg suspended work on Wednesday after Russian officials interviewed its staff and allegedly detained the head of the office.
Russia ordered that the Council's regional offices be closed over alleged tax violations from the start of this year, but the offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg in the Urals resumed work after the New Year holidays in defiance of the ban, a move that Moscow called a provocation.
The British government has denied that its cultural arm has violated Russian law.
A spokeswoman for the Moscow British Council office said on Wednesday that Russian employees of the St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg offices had been summoned for "interviews" with Russian security officials. The U.K. Foreign Office has opened a probe into the questioning, condemning any attempts to threaten the Council staff.
The Russian Federal Security Service said on Tuesday that the interviews were designed to "save Russian staff from any possible provocations."
Russia's ambassador to London said today that a solution to the dispute between Russia and the U.K. over the British Council can be reached if Britain shows more respect for Moscow's position.
"A resolution is possible, but we need to gain more respect and avoid further public discussions which under the current circumstances are unhelpful," Yury Fedotov told journalists.
Media reports said Russian police had detained Stephen Kinnock, director of the St. Petersburg office, on Tuesday, citing drunk driving and other traffic violations. The office director is the son of former U.K. Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, who chairs the British Council.
The British Consulate in St. Petersburg confirmed the detention, but traffic police in St. Petersburg refused to comment on the issue.
The British Council, a non-profit organization which promotes education and cultural programs, first established an office in Moscow in the 1990s and went on to open a further 14 offices across the country. It 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 Council dispute continues the cold period in London-Moscow relations, aggravated by the murder of Kremlin critic and security service defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006. In July 2007, 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.