Why is someone trying to shutter one of Russia's top private universities?

What appears to be on full display is a hallmark of the Putin era: a new brand of domestic 'lawfare,' in which state-run courts enforce political conformity through legal pretexts.

Courtesy of the European University at St. Petersburg
Students listen to a guest lecturer in the Golden Hall of the European University at St. Petersburg in St. Petersburg, Russia, in March 2017.

Generally, prestigious private universities with hundreds of students don't get shut down over fairly minor, six-month-old technical issues that have since been resolved.

But that is precisely the predicament facing the two-decade-old European University at St. Petersburg, a bastion of Western liberal arts, which has been ordered closed by a district court after a furious conservative assault against it.

What appears to be on full display is a hallmark of the Vladimir Putin-era: a new brand of domestic "lawfare," in which state-run courts enforce political conformity through legal pretexts. Unlike blatant Soviet-style repression, outcomes are shaped through complicated, often years-long court battles that seem to lead inexorably to the politically desired verdict. One illustrative recent example is a local court's upholding of an embezzlement conviction against opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which has the collateral effect of barring him from running in presidential elections that are about a year away.

Kremlin supporters will denounce such a description as an example of Western arrogance, aimed at defaming Russian courts and rule of law. It's a debate that cannot be easily settled.

'Fake studies'?

But consider the case of the European University, a private post-graduate school that currently has about 260 students – many of them from abroad – and whose main campus occupies the magnificent Small Marble Palace in St. Petersburg's historic heart.

The school was founded in a different political era, in 1994, with support from the city's then-mayor, reformist Anatoly Sobchak, and substantial donations from a range of international organizations, including the Soros, MacArthur, and Spencer foundations. It's one of the few private universities in Russia that is fully licensed to issue graduate degrees by the Ministry of Education,  and has been consistently rated among the top universities in Russia.

The school's curriculum is heavy on political science, sociology, history, and economics. Many classes are taught in English and sometimes by foreign professors. Even among Russian universities, many of which have moved to expand their foreign connections and link with international schools in recent years, the European University is regarded as an extremely liberal-minded institution. Its board of trustees includes several foreigners, as well as leading Russian liberals such as former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin and the outspoken director of the Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky.

The school's problems began last June, when an ultraconservative lawmaker from St. Petersburg, Vitaly Milonov, lodged an official complaint against it, which under Russian law requires an official investigation to be launched.

Mr. Milonov is a key author of Russia's "anti-gay propaganda" law. Reached by telephone Friday, Milonov, now a deputy of the State Duma, insisted that he merely passed along complaints made to him by citizens, including a letter he allegedly received from five students of the university. The students "raised issues a bunch of issues about the quality and services of the school," he said.

"I can't remember most of them, but one was the teaching of gender studies at the school. I personally find that disgusting, it's fake studies, and it may well be illegal," he said. "But I'm not qualified to judge, so I handed it on to the proper authorities."

Under the microscope

Within weeks, 11 different agencies descended on the university to carry out snap inspections, and they logged 120 violations of various rules and regulations. None concerned the curriculum, and most were minor flaws in staff documentation, building code infractions, the lack of a stand displaying anti-alcohol information, and no fitness room for the staff. At the same time, the local real estate authority filed a lawsuit demanding cancellation of the university's rental permit over alleged failure to comply with some contract clauses.

Conservative St. Petersburg media outlets launched more explicit attacks on the school.

"The university, which positions itself as a leading non-state university and creator of professionals for the Russian state ... deals in very dubious 'scientific' activities," argued an unsigned column on a leading right-wing news site. "Staff and students at the 'European University' are seriously studying the values of the LGBT movement [and] neo-liberal development strategies for Russia.... One gets the impression that the true goal of this 'university' is not scientific breakthroughs and discoveries, but to train elite fighters for the 'democratization' of our country."

In December, the university did what would be considered a very odd thing in any Western country, but makes perfect sense in the Russian context: it appealed to Mr. Putin to intervene. Within a week, its license was reinstated.

But on March 20, the St. Petersburg arbitration court again revoked the university's license, citing the violations logged in court last September.

"We are stuck on the letter of the law," says Oleg Kharkordin, the university's rector. "We cannot deny that there were some flaws found last September. But we have taken vigorous measures to correct them all, and yet the court is still judging on those ones. The judge refused to consider any new facts, and ordered our license revoked [on March 20]."

There is one appeal to go. But if, as expected, the university is ordered to be closed, Mr. Kharkordin says the only further option would be to apply for a new license.

"We have already prepared the 20 kilos of paperwork needed to apply for our new license. That's our only backup plan," he says.

What's behind it all?

It's difficult to say what is really going on, but virtually all experts who will speak about it say it's either property or politics.

Some suggest it's mainly an effort to shift the now politically vulnerable school from the prized location it was given back in the liberal 1990s, the Small Marble Palace. According to that theory, the school may see its license renewed once it has moved.

Others see it as a political attack on the head of the European University's board, Mr. Kudrin, who is an old friend of Putin and whose return to government to carry out his program of liberal reforms is a constant topic of gossip.

Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, says it might be all of those things. But he worries that closure of the European University might also herald an attack on the teaching of Western-style political science in universities across Russia.

He says it's an old Russian paradox, dating back to at least Peter the Great, that Kremlin leaders want what the West can give in terms of technology, science, and managerial expertise, but definitely do not want its political ideas.

"The tone today is that higher education is good when it's about technology and hard science, OK when it's economics, but bad when it teaches Western political values," he says. "There is pressure on political science departments around the country to 'merge' with other departments, like state management, which will inevitably change the way they teach."

That trend could not be immediately verified, but it would indeed signal a significant shift in Russian academia if true. At Moscow's prestigious State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), a merger of the political science department with the international management department does indeed appear to be under way. But Kirill Koktysh, an assistant professor of political theory, insists its just about fund-raising synergy.

"We had two competing faculties, and our donors decided to combine them in order to improve the financing," he says. "It doesn't mean that political science is being pushed into the shade."

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