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Russia on Wednesday ordered a British cultural organization to suspend all of its operations outside Moscow at the beginning of 2008, the latest move in a long-running dispute.
Russian officials accused the British Council, a non-governmental organization that acts as the cultural department of the British Embassy, of operating illegally in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement that British Council operations in those two cities violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Russian officials have long claimed the council is a for-profit organization subject to taxation.
Natalia Minchenko, marketing director for the British Council's main Moscow office, denied that contention and told The Associated Press that "we have no plans to shut down" the regional offices.
"Any action against the British Council would constitute a serious breach of international law and would deprive Russians of cultural and educational resources," a spokesman for the British Embassy said on condition of not being named, in line with usual practice. He said the regional offices also conformed with a Britain-Russia cultural agreement signed in 1994.
The order comes amid tense relations between Moscow and London.
Britain this year called for Russia to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, whom it identifies as the main suspect in the 2006 killing in London of dissident former security agent Alexander Litvinenko. Russia says its constitution prohibits it from doing so.
Russia, in turn, is furious at Britain for refusing to extradite tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a fierce Kremlin critic, and Chechen separatist envoy Akhmed Zakayev. Both men have been granted political asylum in Britain.
In July, Britain expelled four Russian diplomats in protest of the refusal to extradite Lugovoi. Russia countered by ordering four British diplomats to leave.
The order also demonstrates Russia's general suspicion of foreign non-governmental organizations. Many officials accuse them of meddling in the country's politics and even of attempting to organize opposition movements to try to undermine the government.
"I know for sure that the British Council's projects have been closely associated with education programs rather than politics," prominent Russian human rights activist Lev Ponomarev was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
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