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The Bush administration hopes that the U.K.'s cultural arm, the British
The Bush administration hopes that the U.K.'s cultural arm, the British Council, will continue its activities in Russia, a State Department spokesman said.

In mid-December Russia announced it would temporarily close the British Council offices in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg from January 1 over tax and legal status violations.

Tom Casey said that Russia should explain the reasons for the closure of the British Council's regional offices, adding that he could see no reasons why the organization that plays an important role in developing Russian-British cultural ties should be closed.

The EU on Saturday called Russia's British Council ban an issue between Russia and the U.K, and refused to comment on statements made by the British Ambassador to Moscow Tony Brenton that the move could hinder negotiations between Russia and the EU on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

Last week the EU expressed its concern over the Russian-British dispute and urged Russia to "revisit [its] decision concerning the closing down of the offices of the British Council."

The latest Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between Russia and the EU was signed on June 24, 1994 in Corfu, Greece. The document came into force December 1, 1997 and expired at the end of November 2007.

"The European Union underlines the valuable and important role played by cultural institutes in fostering cooperation between the Russian Federation and EU member states and hopes that the development of their activities in all countries of this partnership will be seen as constituting an essential element for the mutual knowledge of peoples and cultures and will, therefore, be supported," the EU said in its official statement.

The non-governmental organization, the British Council, which is the cultural arm of the British Embassy, promoting education and cultural programs, first established an office in Moscow in the 1990s and went on to open a further 14 offices across Russia.

The British Council has been involved in three years of legal wrangling with Russian authorities over the alleged non-payment of tax and questions over its legal status.

The Foreign Office and the British Council have repeatedly denied tax laws have been breached, and said the council was operating in compliance with both Russian and U.K. legislation.

In October the council said it would close all its offices in Russia apart from in Moscow, Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg, where Britain has an embassy and consular offices. The council said the decision was made due to a change in the organization's global strategy.

In defiance of the Foreign Ministry's demands to close down operations, Natalia Minchenko, marketing director at the British Council in Moscow, said the British Council had "no plans to shut down in either Yekaterinburg or St. Petersburg," adding that they would "continue working."

Russia's Foreign Ministry said there was no bilateral status agreement in place to permit the opening of the organization's regional offices, and the British Council had in fact made no requests to open the branches.

Britain argued that the British Council's presence in Russia was "entirely consistent with international law, including the Vienna Conventions," with the British foreign secretary also referring to "a 1994 U.K./Russia Agreement on Cooperation in Education, Science and Culture, signed by Russia."

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