Sergei courtyard evacuation - Emil Salman
Workers removing office equipment and documents from a building in the Sergei courtyard in downtown Jerusalem, March 21, 2011. Photo by Emil Salman
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The Russian government is demanding that the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel vacate its offices in Jerusalem in the Sergei Courtyard complex.

The demand for the last Israeli group still using the building to vacate after departments of the Agriculture Ministry moved out six weeks ago, came about a week ago, according to SPNI head Kosha Pakman, when two representatives of the Russian Embassy came to the SPNI offices.

"We were sure they wanted to talk to us about cooperation. And then, without batting an eye, they told us they were being good enough to give us another seven months to vacate."

In late March the Russian government took possession of the 19th-century building. Originally built to house Russian pilgrims, it was nationalized by the British Mandate and later by the State of Israel.

Over the past decade,the Russian government has pressured Israel to return control of the complex to Russia, which it did ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Moscow in late March.

The SPNI said that the agreement with the Russian government allowed the SPNI to remain in the complex and for the complex to remain open to the public. The Foreign Ministry said yesterday that the agreement with Moscow stipulated that the Russians must coordinate the SPNI's departure from the building with the Israeli government.

The SPNI is concerned that the demand to vacate the premises is a preliminary step toward closing the historic building, which has been noted for its architecture, to the public. The SPNI said such a step would be a loss for Jerusalem and tourism.

"We made clear to the SPNI that the agreement states that two things will not change without the consent of the state," Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General Pini Avivi said. "One is that the continued accessibility to the public and the second is the departure of the SPNI. The Russians did not come to us in this matter and ... they cannot act without our consent."

"The Russians promised the site would remain open, but they also promised not to take unilateral steps. Therefore the concern is relevant," a source close to the issue said yesterday.

"It's a real concern," said Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tzur. "It will be irreversibly damaging even if the courtyard stays open, if public activities of the SPNI, courses, tours and lectures, do not continue," she said.

Boris Lemper, an attorney representing the Russian Embassy, says his clients have no intention of closing the compound, but to restore it, and that the Russians would honor their agreements.

However, he also said that while the two governments had to agree for the SPNI to vacate the premises, there was no argument over the actual requirement to vacate.

Lemper rejected rumors that the compound was going to be turned into a Russian spy outpost.