Lord Anderson of Swansea: You are absolutely right, Ambassador, to point to the exhibition as a very good example of that co-operation but it would be remiss of us not to mention the British Council in this context. I think it is fair to say that most people in this country are puzzled and saddened by the relationship of the Council, whose aim is to build bridges of understanding between this country and Russia, yet political motives seem to have supervened, frankly, to the cost of those Russian citizens who want to learn English, who want to come to this country. How do you read this and what is the objection to a cultural agreement which would find a place for the British Council to do its very valuable work within Russia?
Mr Fedotov: Russia does not have any concerns about what the British Council is doing in Russia, and we believe it is doing well in terms of cultural exchange and education but, unfortunately, the activities of the British Council in Russia lacked legal grounds. As a matter of fact, the 1994 agreement which provides for the development of cultural relations between Russia and the UK mentioned only the possibility of opening cultural centres and also indicated the need to have a special agreement on that, which, unfortunately, has not yet been signed although we were quite close to finalising an agreement last year. Then, unfortunately, because the Lugovoi/Litvinenko case was over-politicised by the British side, all tracks of negotiations between Russia and the UK on some bilateral issues were suspended, including the discussion of the agreement on cultural relations and the British Council, which so far does not have any legal ground for its activities in Russia. As a gesture of good will, although all the legal problems which are applicable to the British Council offices, for instance, in Saint Petersburg and the Yekaterinburg are also applicable to the British Council in Moscow, the Russian Government is not insisting on the suspension of the British Council offices in Moscow. We hope that the situation will improve and we will be able to resume the discussion of the bilateral agreement on cultural centres and that will allow the British Council to have a very solid legal foundation for its future activities in Russia.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: Are those negotiations likely to begin soon?
Mr Fedotov: We are prepared to resume these negotiations as soon as the British side accept that the other tracks should also be resumed, including the visa agreement. I mentioned our progress with the European Union but unfortunately we are lagging far behind the European Union with our bilateral visa problems with the UK. Unfortunately, the visa problem now creates an impediment to contacts between the people of Russia and of England and that is very unfortunate. There are other matters, like the suspension of co-operation in counterterrorism bilaterally. That was another step taken by the British Government against Russia. What we are basically suggesting is a kind of zero option, coming back to the situation in July last year, which will allow us to resume the negotiations on the agreement for cultural centres. As I said, we were very close to the finalisation of this agreement. There are a few remaining not very important details and that of course will help the legal foundation for the British Council in Russia.
Lord Crickhowell: Ambassador, this is an issue which the European Community has expressed complete support for the British position on. It is a European issue as well as a British issue. What I find difficult to understand and I found difficult to understand as I listened to you was that you started by saying that there were no concerns about what the British Council was doing in Russia. You pointed to some legal disagreements which you thought could be resolved anyway but you made it very clear, as has your Foreign Ministry in Russia, that what has brought this about are political differences between the British Government on certain political issues. What I think we all find very difficult to understand is on a cultural issue, an educational issue, an issue on which you say there are no concerns, which relate to your opening statement about Europe and Russia and Russia and Europe, is how political differences on other issues, visas or anything else, can be allowed to create a situation in which these educational and cultural exchanges can be broken off, interrupted and interfered with. We simply do not comprehend how these kinds of political differences can involve something like the British Council.
Mr Fedotov: First of all, I do not think the suspension of the activities of two regional offices of the British Council, small, regional offices, would be a real impediment for the cultural education and co-operation between Russia and the UK. As a matter of fact, this co-operation continues and always, by the way, even when the British Council was active in Russia, more active than now, there have been other channels for contacts as a matter of culture, education. To take another side of the coin, we have such European institutions as the Goethe Institute, Cervantes, Alliance Française, which continue to operate in Russia because they have a very firm legal foundation and there have been no problems with them. The British Council was established in Russia in 1992 without any agreement. They just came and started to work and only two years later was a framework agreement signed which had a special provision for further consultations in order to get legal status for the offices of the British Council. It would also help us to have the same legal foundation to open a Russian cultural centre. We do not have cultural centres in Russia. Unfortunately, the discussion of this matter has been influenced by the political choice of the British Government to take another legal matter, that of the extradition of Mr Lugovoi, at the highest political level, to make out of it a matter of policy, and that is why other important matters were affected.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Ambassador, I think we do need to be clear. You have made some very categorical statements, and your last statement, I think, is at least helpful in so far as it does clarify the issue for us – maybe in a stark way but nonetheless such that one could not misunderstand what you are saying. Can I just be clear about this point though? Are you saying that we can resume the discussions about trying to put the British Council, all the British Council offices, on a legal footing in those negotiations at such time as we resume a discussion about the visa issues, or at such time as we have concluded on the visa issues? You have mentioned very specifically a discussion about terrorism issues and you have also raised quite specifically the extradition issues. That is quite a substantial menu on the side of those (a) agreements and (b) a quite specific issue about extradition. Is that the full menu, if I can put it that way, the full list of the issues that you want resolved before we can begin these discussions, or are you saying that if we all do get together to be able to look at these together, that will be the point at which discussions might be resumed?
Mr Fedotov: The Russian Government has offered the British side an option. A few months ago we suggested that if the British Government is prepared to go back to the situation before July 2007 – of course, diplomats were expelled and no-one is asking to let them back but at least the negotiations on the visa issue must resume, our bilateral contacts on counterterrorism must resume, and also, in this case, we are prepared to resume our consultations on the agreement on cultural centres. That does not mean that the progress in all of these tracks must be inter-related, so to say. The most important thing is to start. We realise that for the visa issue we need more time because we are only at the beginning stage but on the cultural centres, we were quite close to the finalisation of this agreement, so it is a matter of a kind of good will from both sides. Unfortunately, this option which was offered by the Russian Government was rejected by the British side as an ultimatum and that brought us to square one again.