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Analysis & Opinion
28.02.08 Ousting The Ideological Enemy
By Yelena Biberman

A prominent ivory tower in the Russian cultural capital has become one of the tragic casualties of Russia’s cold clash with the West. The shuttering of the European University (EUSP) in St. Petersburg on Feb. 8 by the Dzerzhinsky district court sent shockwaves through the international academic community.

The ruling to shut down the university for a minimum of 90 days came after inspectors discovered 52 violations of fire safety rules during a routine annual check. Having corrected over 20 of the violations, the university filed an appeal asking for permission to resume teaching, while gradually correcting other violations. But on Feb. 18 the court upheld its decision to close EUSP.

In response, the European University made arrangements with the Institute of Economics and Finance to rent the space necessary to conduct classes from Feb. 25 to July 1. This agreement appears to have fallen through, as on Feb. 27 EUSP President Nikolai Vakhtin said that he is looking for “partners ready to offer their spaces for temporary rent.” However, he noted that the situation is further complicated by the fact that the university is only allowed to rent space from private learning institutions that have full property rights to the space in question, as well as all of the appropriate licenses.

The lives deprived of space

With its world-class political science and sociology curriculum, EUSP has served as a hub of exchange and cooperation between renowned Russian, European and U.S. scholars since 1994.

Aleksandra Kasatkina first learned about the European University from her mother, who was enthused about its scholarship program and the opportunity for her daughter to get into high academia without leaving Russia. Kasatkina doubted that she could get admitted, but started attending lectures given at her university by some of the EUSP faculty. She made a good impression on these professors and was soon accepted into the EUSP ethnology department. “New discoveries and realizations; at last, starting to understand the foundations of science – all came to me during my first semester,” she said.

Kasatkina was also inspired by the community she had encountered at EUSP. “While, of course, there were challenges, those who were around me helped me – sometimes just by smiling, saying hello or being eager to engage in a dialogue with me,” she says. “I made big plans for my final year and a half inside the university walls. There are so many courses that I have yet to take, so many questions that I have yet to ask, so many books from our library that I have yet to read…”

Like most other students serious about an academic career, Anna Zhelnina planned to go abroad for her graduate education. Now, a third-year student at the EUSP political science and sociology department, she is glad that she remained in Russia. “I don’t know what I will do if they close the university. To be honest, I don’t even want to think about it,” she says. Zhelnina worries that she might have to modify her dissertation topic. “I will do what I can,” she says. “But the main question is who will want to work with a student from a university that was deliberately shut down.”

120 Russian graduates are presently enrolled in the European University, along with 10-15 Western students studying for a Master’s degree in Russian studies.

“I profited immensely from the opportunity to study at the European University and personally learned more than in any other year in higher education,” described foreign alumnus Andrej Novak, who came to EUSP after completing an undergraduate degree at the Free University in Berlin. “The relatively small size of the university and the limited number of hand-picked students from many regions of the country and beyond create a particular intellectual atmosphere, where almost everyone is accessible and one is perceived as an individual.”

“European University is number one on my list when I recommend my Harvard students to do research in Russia,” said Svetlana Boym, a Harvard University professor and member of the executive board of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

“I moved from the European University to Cambridge University in 2005, and found that my EUSP students were as talented and, in some cases, even more enthusiastic than my students at Cambridge,” said Alexander Etkind, having taught at the European University from 1999 to 2005. “My colleagues at the Department of Political Science and Sociology were extraordinarily gifted, broad-minded and energetic people; they gave selflessly to their students and to the research. Before and after the EUSP, I studied and taught at some of the best universities in the world (Harvard, Cambridge, Princeton) and I know that this department at the EUSP could compete with any group of colleagues,” he adds.

Klaus Segbers, professor at the Free University of Berlin and director of the Center for Global Politics, said that many of his German students have studied at the European University. As a result, he said, they “learned a lot about the current and changing Russia.”

The closing down of the University would teach a bad lesson about Russia, Etkind cautions. “Those who have done this should know that thousands of students and scholars in St. Petersburg and in the world will hate them for this decision. Usually outgoing presidents are concerned with their legacy. There is no better way to destroy it than to create enemies of dozens of historians and other authors who will write about this experience for decades to come. Those presidents coming into power are usually interested in their reputation among the young and ambitious,” he said. “There is no easier way to alienate the young, to spread insecurity and to divide the society than to use force against its best educational institutions.”

Selective law application

The shuttering of the European University has been widely seen as a measure taken by the Kremlin and its overzealous bureaucrats in response to perceived Western interference in Russia. In October 2007, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for relations with the European Union, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, accused EUSP of acting as an agent of foreign meddling in Russian affairs. He cited a European Commission grant of roughly $900,000 meant to support a project of improving elections monitoring in Russia. The university canceled the project several months before Yastrzhembsky made his comment.

European University being the target of what appears to be an anti-Western campaign is quite ironic. Firstly, EUSP was launched at the initiative of Putin’s (and Dmitry Medvedev’s) mentor, former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak.

Secondly, EUSP’s social science and humanities programs made the university the most competitive Russian academic institution in the world. “One of the Kremlin’s favorite buzz words is ‘konkurentnosposobnost.’ They want to make Russia competitive in the international arena,” said Harley Balzer, EUSP trustee and Georgetown University professor. “The European University is the one institution that has made Russians successful in the global social science market by offering an education that respects Russian traditions while insisting on graduates also mastering the international literature available in their fields.”

Michael Urban, a member of the university’s international advisory board for sociology and political science and professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz noted that when it comes to its social science education, Russia has much catching up to do.

“Because of Russia’s long isolation from the West, most of the twentieth century simply bypassed the country with respect to social sciences and, to some extent, humanities. My familiarity with many Russian scholars over the past 30 years has led me to the conclusion that most of them have few clues when it comes to social science thinking – in the areas of both theory and analysis,” Urban explained. “Many of these same people are obviously intelligent, some of them especially so. But their ways of thinking – engendered by the Soviet establishment and its Russian successors – leave them intellectually handicapped and out of the larger, international discussion.”

The controversy surrounding EUSP is also ironic because rule of law has become the central theme of Medvedev’s election campaign. In his letter to university trustees, Vakhtin wrote that Medvedev has committed himself to “specifically targeting his campaign against selective application of laws.”

Vakhtin admitted that “all violations that the fire service has found in our building are quite real.” However, the university’s historic building is among thousands of St. Petersburg structures that violate fire safety regulations. Also, as Balzer pointed out, the initial 10-year lease was renewed last year for another ten years. “Surely the City knew about its condition,” he said.

Issues surrounding the university’s facilities have long been a challenge for EUSP. Fulbright Scholar Olesya Tkacheva, who worked at EUSP in 2006-2007, admitted that a shortage of adequate space is the university’s major weakness.

Nevertheless, Novak, who now works as a trading adviser on questions regarding projects in Russia for a London-based carbon finance company, questioned the reason why it was the European University that was targeted by the authorities. “I do not think there was a deliberate political decision to target the university,” he said. “But in an atmosphere where law is applied selectively and courts are not sufficiently independent, one naturally asks why several government agencies developed a particular hitherto unseen interest in EUSP’s compliance with regulations at this particular time.”

Marshall Goldman, professor emeritus at Wellesley College and senior scholar at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, believes that the measure was inspired by fear of a color revolution in Russia come the March presidential elections. “I don’t think Russia has anything to worry about, but it is clear the authorities are worried that they might be faced with a color revolution of the sort that forced a change of government in Georgia and Ukraine.”

The Belorussian precedent

The controversy surrounding the European University eerily echoes the shuttering of the European Humanities University in Belarus in 2004, several months before Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko held a constitutional referendum that gave him the right to seek unlimited terms in office. Like the European University in St. Petersburg, the European Humanities University in Minsk was a private institution modeled on European and American universities. When the United States and EU increased their pressure on Belarus, the Belarusian president responded by strengthening his grip and intensifying his attacks on those he considered to be agents of the West, including Belarus’ only private higher learning institution.

There has been much speculation on whether Medvedev will continue Putin’s line or fashion his own style. While neither Medvedev nor Putin has commented on the controversy surrounding the closure, the way the Kremlin handles this situation will reveal the future of not only academic freedom in Russia, but also the direction of Russia’s long-term relations with the West. It will also help predict whether Russia will regress to the Lukashenko-style approach.
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