Friday, February 22, 2008

Academic freedom alert - The Kremlin shuts down the European University in St. Petersburg

Part of the Putin government's long-term campaign to consolidate an increasingly tight system of authoritarian control, while maintaining some of the outward forms of representative democracy and constitutional government, has been a systematic and wide-ranging effort to shut down, suppress, or marginalize independent institutions, organizations, and associations--especially, though not exclusively, those with any western or other international ties. (Of course, independent journalism has also been systematically undermined and suppressed, in a process that has included some suspicious deaths.)

So far, this campaign has largely spared the academic world. But that is no longer the case. The European University in Saint Petersburg has been the object of strident public attacks, and now it has been shut down on the basis of what looks to everyone like a transparently fraudulent pretext.

The Guardian article below spells out the story. There is also a good piece about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The EUSP deserves the strongest possible international support from everyone committed the principles of academic & intellectual freedom and the defense of political liberty.

=> Anyone who has ever had any direct association with the EUSP, however slight (I myself was once invited to give a colloquium there), can sign THIS LETTER OF SUPPORT.

=> There is also a petition aimed at the international academic & intellectual community as a whole--academics, students, and other scholars & intellectuals: Letter of Support for European University at St Petersburg. Please read it and consider adding your signature.

Yours for intellectual freedom & democracy,
Jeff Weintraub

[Update 2/25/2008: A website has been set up that usefully collects relevant information, updates, and suggestions for constructive action: "Save the European University at St. Petersburg"]
The Guardian
Monday, February 11, 2008
Russian university that advised on election monitoring closed as fire risk
By Luke Harding

The Kremlin was today accused of mounting an unprecedented attack on academic freedom after officials in St Petersburg closed down one of the country's top universities.

The European University at St Petersburg has been forced to suspend teaching after officials claimed its historic buildings were a fire risk. On Friday a court ordered that all academic work cease.

Academics at the university today said the move was politically motivated, and that it followed a row last year over a programme funded by the European commission to improve monitoring of Russian elections.

The university accepted a three-year, €673,000 EU grant to run a project advising Russia's political parties. The programme instructed parties on how to ensure elections in Russia were not rigged.

Last October President Putin launched a vitriolic attack on the European University - which has close links with universities in the UK and US - accusing it of being an agent of foreign meddling.

On January 31 the university's academic council bowed to Kremlin pressure and abandoned the monitoring project. On Friday the court in St Petersburg sealed off classrooms and shut the university's library.

"It's clear this was politically motivated. We are observing a change in the political regime in Russia from authoritarianism to totalitarianism. What happened here is one example among many," Maxim Reznik, leader of St Petersburg's opposition Yabloko party told the Guardian.

He added: "This hasn't got anything to do with fire risk. The university was carrying out important work in connection with election monitoring. Now it's being punished for it."

Putin has launched frequent attacks on non-governmental organisations, human rights groups and Russia's small reformist opposition - accusing them of being tools of the west and traitors to their own country.

But the Kremlin has largely ignored the higher education sector, allowing Russian academics a relative degree of freedom and autonomy over teaching, student selection and research. Universities no longer appear to be an exception.

Yesterday the university's rector, Nicolai Vahtin, told the Guardian he hoped the university would reopen soon. "There's obviously been a misunderstanding. We are hoping to solve this in a couple of days," he said.

There were "no facts" to support or deny the suggestion the university's closure was political, the rector said. He added: "We are one of the best schools in the city and in the country. It would be a waste of talent and motivation to put us out of business."

Asked whether the university was still functioning today, he replied: "The administration is working. But the courts have sealed the classrooms so there are no classes. The students are having an unexpected vacation."

The EC-funded project - known as the Project of Interregional Electoral Chains of Support - was launched in February 2007. Its aim was to develop and raise the effectiveness of electoral monitoring in Russia's regions.

Putin's United Russia party took an immediate dislike to it. Last summer a United Russia deputy demanded an investigation and accused the university of trying to influence the result of Russia's parliamentary and presidential elections.

Russia has been highly sensitive to persistent outside criticism of its election process, which independent observers say falls well short of international commitments and standards.

Last December the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) described elections to Russia's state Duma as "not fair". It said there had been overwhelming pro-Kremlin bias in the media and "unprecedented abuse" of office by Putin himself.

Last week observers from the OSCE's Organisation for Human Rights and Development announced they were boycotting Russia's March 2 presidential elections because of Moscow's refusal to cooperate with the monitoring process - prompting a furious Kremlin response.

Today Grigorii V Golosov, a professor in the faculty of political sciences and sociology at the European University at St Petersburg, described his now-dumped project as innocuous.

"Its goals were to provide better information and better analysis on election monitoring. It was to increase public knowledge about elections and to provide academic expertise to practitioners," he said. Asked what would happen to the university now, he said: "Nobody knows."

Explainer: the European University at St Petersburg

Founded in 1994, the European University at St Petersburg is one of Russia's top universities, with close links to leading higher education institutions in the UK and US.

Launched at the initiative of St Petersburg's liberal mayor Anatoly Sobchak, the graduate university is known for its progressive views and western-educated teaching staff. It currently has 120 Russian graduates and 10-15 western students studying for an MA in Russian studies. Uniquely, the university attracts students from Europe to study in Russia.

Its aim is to integrate Russian scholarship with scholarship in Europe and America, at a time when Russian scholarship is becoming increasingly isolated from the west.