RUSSIA has sparked a diplomatic row after it appeared to compare the UK and Scottish Governments' decision to snub a cultural events project with book-burning episodes in European history.
Vladimir Putin's top diplomat in Scotland also hit out at "overzealous politicians and bureaucrats" after both governments withdrew from the UK-Russia Year of Culture.
In response, Tory MSP Elizabeth Smith yesterday criticised the official, Andrey Pritsepov, the new Consul General of the Russian Federation in Edinburgh.
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Russia was condemned in March after its military took advantage of instability in Ukraine by annexing Crimea. Russia is also extending its military influence in eastern Ukraine, with some in Kiev claiming an invasion by the Kremlin in support of pro-Russian separatists is under way.
As a response, both the UK and Scottish Governments ceased participation in a year-long celebration of cultural ties between Britain and Russia.
The agreement was struck last year between former foreign secretary William Hague and Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
The Year of Culture includes more than 250 events in both countries and covers the arts, sport and sciences. But after the military action in Ukraine, a Scottish Government spokesperson said the SNP administration was "no longer actively supporting" the initiative.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also said that, due to the "illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia", ministerial and senior official involvement was withdrawn.
Pritsepov hit back in an article for the Scotland Russia Review magazine. The diplomat wrote: "Once invited to write on the importance of international cultural exchanges, I did not hesitate to give my consent - after all it is so obvious, who would argue against this message?
"Now, giving it a second thought, it becomes clear to me that in fact nowadays it is not so evident to everyone any more."
He continued: "Cultural links and exchanges could be downgraded and even blocked at will by overzealous politicians and bureaucrats looking for another tier of punitive sanctions."
He then compared the downgrading of cultural links with banning the books of two giants of Russian literature: "It is a shame we cannot ban Dostoevsky or Gogol. Or can we?"
He noted: "Books can be easily incinerated in street bonfires," and added: "It has happened in Europe before and it could happen again if we fail to learn from our history but keep rewriting it."
Book burning in Europe is strongly associated with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, although Pritsepov did not mentioned the Nazis by name.
He said Russia would continue to make best use of the project agreed between both countries: "This year we have a chance to move forward by celebrating the Russia-UK Year of Culture, and no eager apparatchiks will deny us this chance."
The article comes as Russia imposes an embargo on food imports from the West in retaliation for extensive sanctions by the US and EU.
Scotland exports £45 million of food and drink to Russia annually, with seafood, beef and poultry amongst the biggest sellers.
A meeting of the Scottish Government Resilience Committee is to discuss the issue.
Ms Smith, the Scottish Tory spokeswoman on culture, said: "The situation in Ukraine is extremely sensitive and I believe diplomats on all sides have to be careful about the language which they use so as not to inflame the situation any further. In that context, the direct reference to book-burning is not helpful and I am sure there will be many people who will be concerned by that."
A spokesman for the consul general said Russia was focusing on the "positive aspects" of the Year of Culture. The UK Government declined to comment.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "While Scottish ministers do not intend to attend events in the UK/Russia Year of Culture, in line with the UK Government position, we would not advocate a boycott of cultural events.
"Performances in the UK/Russia Year of Culture at the Edinburgh Festival are going ahead and the public can see Russian performances or exhibitions here in Scotland, such as the world premiere of the Chekhov International Theatre Festival's The War at the Edinburgh International Festival."