The first representatives of the Russians made their initial appearance a few days ago in the Russian Compound. According to an agreement that had been signed between prime minister Ehud Olmert and the Russian government late last year, the Sergei Building and its beautiful courtyard are to be handed back to their original owners - the Russians. Despite some protestation from institutions housed in the building and the courtyard, as well as the municipality's opposition, the agreement is valid, and the only recourse left for those organizations - which include the local branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Center for Green Culture and the Jerusalem district of the Society for Preservation of Israeli Heritage Sites - is to see that the status quo in the building is maintained. At the moment the future of their tenancy is unclear. Talks between the Foreign Ministry and the Russian representatives regarding this issue will begin in early March. Since the news of the end of Israeli control of the Sergei Building spread about a year ago, the local tenants, especially the SPNI, have been worried about what will happen. Thus the presence of Russian representatives, including some non-Israeli workers, in the courtyard about 10 days ago has roused a lot of suspicion and concern. On top of that, the fact that the Russians had their own key to the building added fuel to the fire. "They entered the building through the door on Rehov Monbaz, which is an entrance we have not been using for at least 20 years," explained an employee, who asked not to be identified. How the Russians got the key to that ancient door remains unclear. According to the employee and her colleagues, the Russians refuse to talk to anybody inside the courtyard, let alone to answer such a question. On Monday, the spokeswoman for the SPNI sent out a press release stating that a group of Russians has been showing up at the courtyard almost every morning, examining the condition of the building and even starting to do some refurbishing work here and there. The press release invites Jerusalemites who want to enjoy the sight of the famous courtyard to do so, and announces organized tours of the place. Meanwhile Mayor Nir Barkat, while still head of the opposition on the city council, was against handing the building over to the Russians. In a letter addressed this week to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Barkat expressed his concern regarding the current situation and the fear that the status quo may not be preserved. Barkat asked to be part of the negotiation team or to send a representative from the municipality to protect as much as possible the city's and the residents' rights to the historical building. Barkat, like many others who oppose what is called the too-acquiescent action of the prime minister to the Russians - in this case, former president Putin's request - say that the final status of the Israeli organizations in the Russian Compound will serve as "a beacon for the future regarding other buildings and land in the city that belong to foreign churches or states." The Foreign Ministry had not responded by press time.

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