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Closure of the European University at St Petersburg: a dead cert?

The attack on this institution is another example of how Russia has chosen to ignore the international community — and how Putin’s political order is changing. RU, Deutsch


A rally in support of EUSP, St Petersburg. Image: Anna Klepikova. All rights reserved.Recent events around the European University at St Petersburg — the refusal to grant an education license (accompanied by an openly mocking comment by the deputy head of Russia’s education watchdog) as well as the loss of the building that the university has occupied since opening its doors — tells us something that the international academic community has already long warned of: the attack on the European University, a private and internationally-backed postgraduate school with an international reputation, is not a conflict over property ownership.

Instead, we are dealing with a serious violation of academic rights and freedoms. In March this year, the influential international organisation Scholars at Risk already posted a warning about the threats to the university on its academic freedom monitoring site.

Total control over education and science

Academic rights and freedoms consist of two interdependent elements. On the one hand, they’re about the freedom of teachers and researchers “to teach, research and learn”. On the other, they’re about academic autonomy, guaranteeing a university’s right to decide not only the content but also the form of its teaching.

It has to be said that the history of academic freedom in Russia is minimal, whereas authoritarian traditions are strong, especially where academic autonomy from the ideological diktat of the state is concerned. Ideally, the state should restrict its oversight of education to the support of fundamental research and the social welfare of students, guaranteeing them not only academic freedom but also the “usual” constitutional rights and freedoms. As for ideology, in a democratic country a university should be a school of civic education with a bit of academic stuff thrown in. A university graduate should be not only a professional in his or her field of study, but a critical thinker and socially responsible citizen.

The attack on academic rights and freedoms is a product of the Putin era

Authoritarian states, on the other hand, have little interest in civic freedoms. They are more interested in maintaining loyalty to the political regime: here, “freedom from politics” is understood as a ban on criticising the authorities and total control over educational and scientific institutions. And those who hold this view see any free thinking that uses the language of analysis and a critical approach to sources instead of ideological clichés as “criticism of the political system”. Hence the moral panic around such banalities as “western ideological aggression” or “a threat to Russia’s unique spirituality”. It wasn’t always like this, however. This attack on academic rights and freedoms is a product of the Putin era.

A new facade for the mansion of A.G.Kushelev-Bezborodko by architect E.Schmidt (1859). Credit: European University at St Petersburg. Free Art License.Indeed, it was the spheres of education and research where Russia, it seemed, chosen internationalism and active role in the global educational and scientific community at the start of the 1990s: the Bologna Process, aimed at the convergence and harmonisation of higher education systems in Europe; the rivalry over international educational ratings; conversations about the knowledge-driven economy. In 1988, the Magna Carta Universitatum — a declaration providing a framework for academic freedom and institutional independence from government — was signed by almost 400 heads of universities across Europe, including many in Russia, such as those of Moscow and St Petersburg’s state universities (although the Magna Charta website doesn’t list them as participants in this academic rights and freedoms movement).

A fire safety problem

The first attack on the European University took place in 2008, when it was accused of “interfering in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation”. The accusation was made at the highest level, making it clear that the university’s desire for innovation and modernisation was inconsistent with the open and democratic nature of this process. Its involvement in an EU funded “Interregional Electoral Support Network” research and training project then triggered an official rebuke in the form of a “fire inspection crisis”: fire inspectors who had previously signed the necessary certificates suddenly discovered a number of serious breaches of health and safety regulations in the university’s venerable building, including a “previously unnoticed” cast iron staircase (installed in 1881) in the front hall. The building was immediately shut down (in the interests of student safety, naturally) and the courts dutifully rubber stamped the fire inspectors’ decision.

"Terrorising higher education institutes isn't patriotic". Students lay a hose at the city's monument to Mikhail Lomonosov in response to accusations that the EUSP building breaks fire safety regulations. Source: YouTube / Polit.Ru. Some rights reserved.The European University was saved from closure thanks to wide Russian and international support, mostly from the academic community but also from Russian Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin himself. The university also showed that it was ready to make serious compromises, withdrawing from the EU-funded project. The conflict was resolved: the same court that a month earlier refused to listen to the university’s side of the question then ruled that EUSP could continue to function while gradually sorting out the “serious violations”. Making an 18th century palace conform to 21st century health and safety regulations is, after all, not easy.

That said, even before the crisis, EUSP didn’t stand out among St Petersburg’s educational facilities in terms of violating fire regulations, but afterwards it was certainly the safest educational facility in the city.

An international reputation questioned

The present crisis around EUSP, which has brought it to near-closure, has also re-activated the question of how this small but very influential and exceptional in all senses educational establishment could have an effect on higher education reform in Russia. If in 2008 it seemed like a storm in a teacup against a background of cooling relations between the EU and Russia, the situation today seems very different. There are, to begin with, two main differences between then and now: the serious decline in Russia’s international reputation and the no less serious change in higher educational trends.

In 2008, Putin’s Russia still obviously valued its reputation on the global stage. An international scandal, especially one connected with international cooperation in education, would have been pretty inconvenient. But the resolution of the conflict also suited its initiators: all “political activity” was withdrawn from the university and its leadership constantly stressed the “unpolitical” nature of the crisis.

One element of the 2008 crisis was the obvious unwillingness of its initiators to make it public. But the students of both EUSP and other international universities were equally obviously unhappy with the outcome, and their letters of support provided a direct link between the university’s problems and the politicians. I was studying at the university at the time, and took part in EUSP’s public defence to the best of my ability — among other things, made a joint application for a permit to hold a rally in its defence (the permit was issued, of course, after the crisis had passed).

A politically-motivated attack is now more difficult to define, but you can’t beat the bureaucracy where abuse of power is concerned

Law enforcement took an active part in putting pressure on university management, convinced that it was the university’s rector himself that was in charge of the informal student protest. One of the things the students organised was a Shrove Tuesday comedy ushow, which included a specially written short play on the subject of fire regulations and the threatened closure of EUSP, and included a couplet by a “Burgomeister” who threatened: “I won’t allow you to learn/ Subjects that are out of turn / For European cash”. It’s clear from the play that even then there was a political motive behind the “routine” fire inspection: the inspectors were just following the direct instructions of their handlers in the Russian power ministeries, who had also received a clear order to “punish and close”.

Unfortunately, the result of this incident was a general belief that administrative procedures are managed: the main thing about this tacit (?) agreement was the proviso that the rector would always deny that there was anything political in what had happened, and in return he would always be able to “come to some arrangement” — which is what indeed happened. It was evidently an essential condition for the conflict to be resolved. And this is still the situation today: a politically-motivated attack is more difficult to define, but you can’t beat the bureaucracy where abuse of power is concerned.

The increasingly obvious demise of the university is not just a local problem. Sociologist Grigory Yudin calls the attack on EUSP not just a warning sign for Russia’s universities, but a catastrophe, no matter who is organising it:

“The attack on EUSP is a signal that the state doesn’t take its own development strategy for education seriously and is prepared to destroy those who are effectively implementing the tasks they have been given.”

The point, however, is that the European University misunderstood the goals and mission of Russian academic and scientific development, or rather, it took them literally.

When you are looking at a statement of goals and tasks, you must remember good old Soviet habits and read between the lines. And what you find between the lines is a pretty old Russian tradition: modernisation without political reorganisation, or milk skimmed to the point where it is indistinguishable from water. In this situation, when a university tries to implement its officially announced plans, it becomes the object not just of political accusations, but of innumerable inspections. (It’s like the old Dick Francis detective story, Dead Cert.) While at the same time, the Russian Ministry of Education has recognised EUSP as excellent according to a whole range of criteria that it itself created for higher education leaders.

It’s telling that EUSP has been accused of “subversive activities” only by an unknown informer, via the leak site “Close to the Kremlin”, though from here the picture of a global plot against Russian science, education and government is more than gloomy. For the author of this “investigation”, EUSP is a foreign-financed think tank that educates the people who will in the future become “agents of influence strongly convinced in the superiority of liberal values and the inferiority of Russia’s governmental system”.

Attempts to generalise these threats have already been made in a well known 2014 report by the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, written in the form of a direct denunciation of numerous scientific and research facilities, including the highly respected Levada Center. According to the report’s authors, independent research bodies like this are seen as “trendsetters”, so that Russian experts feel they need to be “on trend”. In other words, they try to think along prescribed lines and adjust their opinions to fit these, so that they can maintain their popularity and remain in demand in the media”. For the authors of the report, this is exactly what constitutes “propaganda”, which should be punished as the activity of a “foreign agent”.

The report, however, for all the coincidences in its accusations, omits any mention of EUSP (possibly because it was written in February 2014, before there was, it seems, any question of the university’s closure).

In the university community itself, these issues are not normally formulated in such an alarmist manner. Nonetheless, in “ideologically sensitive” faculties such as history or political science, charges of partiality to western sources — i.e. grovelling before the west — are to be frequently heard. The most recent example I know of this are the accusations against my Smolny Faculty colleague Pavel Kononenko (a fellow-graduate of EUSP), who was accused at St Petersburg State University of “using exclusively foreign material” and having a “pessimistic” view of Russia’s political development, as well as using “politically engaged” textbooks.

There are many examples of this, but given that EUSP has been refused a teaching licence, it’s hardly a coincidence that Irina Shirokopad, one of the experts who decided not to issue it, has written the following in one of her research publications:

“Certain forces (the so-called “global cabal” and their agents in the US government) have tried to create a unipolar system in the world and, with this in mind, have made every possible attempt to trigger the collapse of the Russian world. During Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, they tried to force an unacceptable value system on our country, mobilising hidden technologies to artificially aggravate tensions within the country, as a zone of their interests — conflict between the older and younger generations, for example, or between members of different religions. With their stooges in Russia’s power structures, they produced permanent reforms in our governmental and education systems and social habits, and used international foundations and NGOs to stir up campaigns for rights and freedoms that were blown totally out of proportion, while they filled young people’s and students’ consciousness with ideas of “liberation from government influence”.

Given the EUSP’s own history and the general context, it’s hard to imagine that ideas like this have no influence on the expert’s objectivity. In other words, I have a suspicion that both the group of experts in general, and this expert in particular, are a special “expert killer squad” who are essential for using the formal licensing procedure to close down an inconvenient favourite institution in the process of Russian education reform.

Officially, of course, the whole thing is just “a matter of licensing and observing Russian law” and “nothing to do with politics”. The instigator of the public prosecutor’s inspection, United Russia Duma deputy Vitaly Mironov, sees nothing wrong in the inspections and says that “you just need to work with documents better” — although he has more than once made statements about “students there being made to write essays defending the rights of sexual minorities and other devils and demons”. And another St Petersburg politician, Andrey Anokhin, a city council deputy, wrote in the denunciation he sent to the public prosecutor’s office that “the university’s website promotes western values”.

Russia has already decided to ignore international public opinion. The possible demise of one, however respected institution will do little to further worsen the Putin regime’s international reputation

Comparing the crises of 2008 and today shows how the nature of the Putin regime has changed somewhat. In 2008, questions of “ideological security” were in conflict with concerns over international reputation and the desire to maintain contact with the west — and this made protests by the international academic community quite effective. Now, our post-Crimea situation makes such protests (EUSP has received dozens of letters of support) irrelevant. Russia has already decided to ignore international public opinion. The possible demise of one, however respected institution will do little to further worsen the Putin regime’s international reputation.

At the same time, the fact that in 2008 there was a single (and predictable) line of attack against EUSP (the fire inspection), plus the presence of a single “organiser”, meant that this conflict could be resolved. The person who gave the command to “destroy” then went and retracted it. In our present state of affairs, there seems to be no such central authority. Instead, there are more interested parties who are united, it appears, only by Putin’s obvious refusal to intervene directly. Given the logic of the situation, perhaps the regime has changed to the extent that Putin can no longer become involved in the conflict, according to the logic that “the vassal of my vassal is not my vassal”.

The case of the European University in St Petersburg is yet another example of how Russia is entering a “new Middle Ages”. As everyone knows, a broken clock tells the right time twice a day, but one that is fast or slow never does. After Crimea, the Putin regime’s clock is showing yesterday’s time.

Translated by Liz Barnes

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