Thursday, 17 January 2008

Time to remember where you put all your suitcases?

I think the commentators at (snazzy new look) Siberian Light have got it about right when they say that, however London tries to spin it, the closure of the British Council offices in St Pete’s and Yekaterinburg is a slam-dunk victory for the Russian government.

From the very first it was clear that, closure having been ordered, there were never going to be any circumstances under which the British Council would be allowed to keep these outfits open, in bald defiance of the Russian government’s orders.

Seen from the perspective of us Brits living in Moscow, this looks like a classic UK New Labour spin doctor’s game: adopt a position certain to provoke a Russian reaction and then pretend to ‘take the moral high-ground’ and spin out how – while not conceding Moscow’s point – London has shut down the two complained of offices (as initially instructed) ‘in the interests of staff safety’. It is exactly how I would have played it. As chess moves go, there have been no missteps here, by either side. This game has played out in a way that each side can exploit to the full.

It is clear though that Official Russia – and the tabloid storm it whips up – would gladly like now to see some Brits in the private sector expelled, thus to enforce the idea that Britain has sent enemies into Russia, far and wide across the country. I think that will be next.

This is purely a personal observation, for which I have no empirical evidence, but it seems to me there is more than the Litvinenko thing going on here. I suspect the Russian government has good reason to suspect a substantial upsurge in UK SIS activity in Russia.

That said, and less melodramatically, even the British Council’s best friends would say that some of their cultural programs were sailing very close to the wind. I was slack-jawed, at a private lunch with BC managers last year, as they described their support for Chechen activists…sorry… theatre groups. To be fair, one BC manager privately conceded to me that they needed to tone down the politics of some of the arts programs they were supporting. It seems they didn’t do so soon enough.

My sense of unease today was not helped when one staffer, with FSB mates, warned me: “I’ve been told that all British citizens resident in Russia are being reviewed by the FSB”. Needless to say, as someone who – as it says at the top of this blog – is ‘An Englishman in Moscow, whose life is a slalom between the attitudes, aspirations and realities of modern Russia and the prejudices and politics of the West’ – one feels the tiniest bit exposed…

No comments: