Behind the British Council Spat

britishcouncil011508.jpgWell, it’s official. The UK-Russia spat over the British Council has become the story of the week, which at least in my perspective is a disappointing distraction from other issues. I have spent a bit of time reading over the coverage of the latest tit-for-tat in this affair, and while there is very little substantive new information to share, I am left with some general impressions. In my view, behind the British Council dispute we can see a familiar methodology, a familiar thrust of revisionist history, and a clear political expediency toward perpetual conflict with a foreign power. In other words, it should not be at all surprising that things have developed in this direction.

It may be interesting to note that the only thing that this dispute is not about is the British Council itself, which has harmlessly operated for decades as a cultural institution (mainly providing English language classes) in a variety of both friendly and “hostile” foreign countries, even during the lowest points of the Cold War. The poor relations and high tensions between the UK and Russia rooted in the Litvinenko affair have inappropriately spread widely into totally unrelated spheres, including cultural and educational links between the two countries. The Council director James Kennedy put it quite simply and directly: “Our view is that the British Council is a cultural organisation and should not be involved in political disputes.“Regarding the threats made against the British Council by Russian officials for defying their orders, I am particularly struck by the decision, out of the full array of various administrative penalties and Kafka-esque bureaucratic instruments, to slap them with new punitive tax measures.It’s difficult to think of any other government that actually threatens to “invent” new tax issues as a way to leverage their interests, which is from its inception an admission that these tax claims would be entirely fraudulent and designed to achieve a different outcome for the state. I think that Moscow has really exposed their hand with this move, and further diminishes any legitimacy behind their claims against Yukos with this identical tactic. It is a familiar and exhausting pattern of bureaucratic, quasi-legal harassment of both foreign and domestic private enterprises and NGOs which we have seen time and time again.One thing we can be certain of is that the British Council dispute will no longer focus on what the organization actually did or is doing, but rather on how each respective government is handling it. This is how the Russians prefer it, and the British have been happy to comply with a little rhetorical skirmish which is threatening to go to the next level. Foreign Secretary David Miliband, well known for speaking clearly with Russia, put forward the first blow in a written statement posted to the FCO website: “Such threats can only make matters worse. It is not in the interests of either the UK or Russia for flourishing cultural, educational and scientific links to be held hostage to unrelated issues in this way.“The use of the word “hostage” certainly gave the Russians an opportunity to really tee off, and after finally making the first formal reference to the Litvinenko and Lugovoi extradition affairs as being the main issue behind the harassment of the British Council, they went for the kill. Sergei Lavrov struck back with a quick barb to Russian journalists today, audaciously remarking: “Of course, we understand that the historical memory is probably related with the nostalgia for colonial times, and it dominates. But this is not the language in which one can talk to Russia.“Well played, Sir, well played. Now what in theory started as a regulatory snafu with some English teachers, then extended to bitter extradition politics, and then all the way to Britain’s supposedly imperialist attitude and disrespect for Russia’s new strength. All at the speed of light.This revisionist historical narrative, like the tax attack, is a familiar measure. We have written many times on this blog about the “Russia-as-victim” story which the Kremlin has so aggressively promoted, seeking a special case status of exceptionalism in international affairs. It is an ongoing subtle subtext and framing of issues which positions Moscow as a disadvantaged player under the constant abuse of other nations. Sometimes the victim narrative is manifested as a delusion of persecution, other times it comes off like annoying whining. Regardless it has been endless effective in stirring up nationalism and distracting from other issues to focus on blaming outside forces for everything wrong in Russia.The direction in which the British Council dispute is heading, so eagerly encouraged by both sides, leads me to believe that there may be elements in the Kremlin which see the conflict as politically useful – a kind of general stability fueled by high-profile tension with an outside power. We’ve seen other examples in Soviet history that periods of internal instability with the Kremlin coincided with fiery verbal attacks on the United States and the West, and public lashing of diplomats. Given how thoroughly avoidable this British Council spat was in its early days, it could perhaps be something manufactured by the state to keep the restless ranks in order during the vulnerable succession period approaching. If that is the case, the UK has only been too happy to oblige.