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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Now, Neo-Soviet Russia Goes After the Universities

The International Herald Tribune reports:

A Russian university has been forced to suspend its activities over a fire safety check. But an opposition party the closure Monday as an official punishment for its EU-sponsored election monitoring course.

St. Petersburg's Dzerzhinsk district court ordered the city's European University to temporarily stop its work because of violations of fire safety rules. The university's head, Nikolai Vakhtin, said the order suspended the school's activities for a week. Vakhtin denied that there was any political intent behind the court's order. But Maxim Reznik, the head of the St. Petersburg branch of Russia's liberal Yabloko faction, said the real reason for the order was an election monitoring course funded by the European Union. "No doubt, it's about politics," Reznik said. "Fire inspections is just an excuse. It's another example that the authoritarian regime is going to the new stage, to the stage of totalitarianism."

The suspension of the university's activities comes amid tensions between Moscow and the West over Russia's March 2 presidential elections. An election monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has refused to send observers to the vote because of restrictions on their activities — an announcement likely to strengthen Western concerns about democracy in Russia.

President Vladimir Putin has taken an increasingly assertive posture toward the West and accused it of bias and meddling in Russian politics. Western observers described Russia's parliamentary vote in December as unfair, pointing to intimidation of opposition forces.

Amid the acrimony, some Russian officials and lawmakers have grown suspicious about the European University's election monitoring course, which is conducted on a €673,000 (US$976,000) grant from the EU. One member of the Russian parliament denounced it last summer as an attempt to interfere with Russia's elections.

Worried by the signs of official discontent, the university terminated the course ahead of schedule last month. Grigory Golosov, who oversaw the election monitoring course, said it included lectures and seminars to exchange information on the election process, and was not intended to train observers. "We did not pursue any political goals," Golosov said.

Vakhtin, the university's head, dismissed the allegations of a link between the vote monitoring course and the suspension of the university's activities as a "fantasy." He said the university had fixed fire safety flaws and he expressed the hope it will be allowed to resume work.

Last month, Russian authorities ordered the British Council, a government-backed cultural organization, to suspend operations in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, a city in the Ural Mountains. The move came amid tensions between London and Moscow over Russia's refusal to extradite the main suspect in the 2006 poisoning murder in London of dissident former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko.

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