MPs outraged as Russia orders closure of British Council

British politicians have attacked Russia’s order to the British Council to close down all operations outside of Moscow in the new year.

The Russian government has told the non-governmental organisation to close its offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg from next year.

The latest move marks a continued decline in relations between Russia and the UK.

Mikhail Kamynin issued a statement saying the council’s operations violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and also accused the organisation of breaking the country’s tax laws.

The diplomatic status of the British Council, which is sponsored by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has been in dispute, with Russian authorities claiming it operates for profit.

But more significantly the order continues the diplomatic standoff developing between the two countries.

Relations have been worsening since Russia refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi to face charges for the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.

Mr Lugovoi has since been elected to parliament, making any future trial highly unlikely.

Russia claims it is constitutionally barred from extraditing Mr Lugovoi, further pointing out the UK has refused to extradite Boris Berezovsky and Akhmed Zakayev, who have both been granted asylum.

In July the foreign secretary David Miliband ordered the expulsion of four Russian diplomats and Moscow followed suit.

The Conservatives say the British Council, which fosters cultural links, has since been targeted and has been subjected to “completely unacceptable” harassment for some months.

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague said: “Our government should protest most vigorously and call on Moscow to reconsider its decision and to allow the British Council to work unhindered.

“The British Council has been present in Russia for many years and hundreds of thousands of people across Russia have been able to benefit from its activities. This opportunity should not be denied to Russian people.”

The Liberal Democrats branded the move ridiculous and unjustified.

Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman Michael Moore said the closure has no basis in international law and instead “smacks of trumped up charges to cause Britain difficulty in retaliation for the pursuit of Lugovoi”.

Mr Moore speculated Russia has made the order now to take advantage of Gordon Brown’s “weakness”.

He said: “The prime minister must not let his isolation elsewhere in Europe get in the way of a tough response.”