Weekly 5 July 2021

Academic soul-searching

Hello! This week our top story is on why the resignation of the head of one of Russia’s most prestigious universities is a significant moment for society. We also look at how Moscow’s ‘backdoor lockdown’ is wreaking havoc on the hospitality sector, the highlights of Putin’s annual call-in show and the police questioning of three top investigative journalists.

 

End of ‘liberal era’ at top Russian university

The resignation this week of the head of Russia’s Higher School of Economics (HSE) created shockwaves that reached far beyond academic circles. Economist Yaroslav Kuzminov confirmed Friday that he was stepping down as dean of the university he founded in the 1990s and which is today Russia’s finest institute of higher education. 

Who is Yaroslav Kuzminov? 

Kuzminov’s story is closely intertwined with HSE. A Soviet-era economist, he was appointed dean when the university was set-up in 1992 by a decree of then-Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, one of Boris Yeltsin’s closest allies. He is the husband of Elvira Nabiullina, the influential head of Russia’s Central Bank.

Why is HSE special?

HSE was the first new university established in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union — and it turned out to be the most successful. This year, it was ranked in the top 25 universities worldwide and the top 3 in Russia by the Times Higher Education Emerging Economies. The most recent Forbes academic rating put HSE top in Russia, ahead of Moscow State University (MGU).

From day one, HSE built its reputation on a strong academic team, strict and transparent entry requirements for students, high teaching standards and a focus on research. Konstantin Sonin, a professor at Chicago University and HSE, compared Kuzminov with legendary MGU founder Mikhail Lomonosov. “There is no comparable figure in our higher education between Lomonosov and today,” he wrote on Facebook. 

Although HSE is renowned as a stronghold of liberal views, Kuzminov has always insisted the university be above politics. As well as dean, Kuzminov was a member of countless expert committees, a deputy in the Moscow city parliament and co-chairman of the Moscow branch of the pro-Kremlin All-Russia Popular Front. Kuzminov also worked on economic and public administration reform programs.

What’s the background to Kuzminov’s departure? 

HSE has become repeatedly embroiled in political scandals in recent years. Outspoken student magazine Doxa lost its official status at the university in 2019, and when Doxa’s editorial staff faced criminal prosecution earlier this year, the university released a widely-condemned statement that merely said they understood “the wish of several colleagues to support their students and graduates”. Another controversial move was the expulsion of post-grad student Yegor Zhukov who became an opposition symbol when he was put on trial in the wake of 2019 Moscow protests. 

During winter rallies in support of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, Kuzminov said it was unacceptable for HSE to allow itself to be dragged into political struggles. “The university should not agree to live by the law of the street, nor the law of the barracks,” he said at the time. HSE formally banned students and staff from speaking about political matters on behalf of the university in 2020

The university’s stance has caused anger among both staff and students. Last year, former HSE teaching staff announced the foundation of a new, independent university. 

Why did Kuzminov leave? 

Kuzminov explained his decision by saying he was tired of managerial responsibilities and did not enjoy taking “important, sometimes tough” decisions. Two of The Bell’s sources linked the rector’s resignation to his health and a weariness of constant compromise with the authorities. Independent television channel Dozhd reported a similar assessment of Kuzminov’s motives.

What happens next? 

The acting dean of HSE has already been named as Nikita Anisimov, the head of Russia’s Far East Federal University. It’s not yet clear what to expect from him, although it’s interesting that Russia’s leading university for economics will now be led by a mathematician who has no particular experience of either finance or economics.

Why the world should care It’s hard to escape the cliché that this is the ‘end of an era’. This isn’t just about Kuzminov’s departure, but the official end of HSE’s liberal period.

 

Moscow’s backdoor lockdown hits hospitality sector

Russian officials scrupulously avoid using words like ‘lockdown’. Last summer, the official euphemism for lockdown was ‘non-working days’; today, officially, not even that. However, Moscow’s hospitality sector is suffering from a strict de facto lockdown that does not come with state support and has little chance of taming the pandemic.

  • Since Monday, entrance to Moscow’s cafes and restaurants has only been possible with a QR code. Anyone can dine on a veranda — but only until July 12. The QR codes are issued to those who have recovered from a COVID-19 diagnosis (i.e. those treated in state institutions) and/or those who have received both doses of a vaccine. However, Moscow wouldn’t be Moscow if it all worked smoothly: 19,000 people, including this writer, were unable to get a QR code because of ‘technical reasons’.
  • When the new rules were announced, we reported on industry fears that this was a new lockdown in all but name that would have a catastrophic impact on the hospitality sector. According to Igor Bukharov, the president of the Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers, businesses without outside seating have lost up to 90 percent of their trade and those with terraces have seen a 60 percent drop.
  • The owners of cafes and restaurants and figures in the banking sector have given different assessments, but in most reports takings are down up to 60 percent. Either way, there is a general agreement the restrictions are having a serious impact on the economy. The fact is that the introduction of QR codes means cafes and restaurants in downtown Moscow are deserted. Many terraces are also empty because they are not legally recognized as outdoor areas.
  • The decision to close restaurants and cafes to the unvaccinated shocked the hospitality industry — particularly as many were expecting nothing more than a requirement to vaccinate 60 percent of their staff. Restaurateur Dmitry Levitsky signed off an account of one meeting with City Hall officials with the words “Sobyanin is power” (Segei Sobyanin is the mayor of Moscow). Now, Levitsky, who has said his takings have fallen fivefold, is reminded of these words under almost every post on his Telegram channel. Others are enraged by the authorities’ insistence that the measures haven’t seriously impacted businesses.
  • There is no state support for those affected beyond tax deferrals and a few extra loan options. Those that survive until fall will benefit from the cancellation of VAT if their revenues drop below 2 billion rubles a year. 
  • Every expert contacted by The Bell — or any other independent media outlet — agreed that these restrictions will not stop the powerful Delta variant from continuing to spread rapidly. And it doesn’t take an epidemiologist to understand that the virus is not transmitted solely in cafes and restaurants — but also on public transport full of unmasked passengers or among crowds of holidaymakers at Black Sea resorts.
  • The numbers of infections and deaths from coronavirus continue to rise rapidly, with Moscow and St. Petersburg particular hotspots. Across the whole country, over 24,000 new cases are being recorded each day, with more than 600 daily deaths. Most of these cases are in Moscow, where 116 people died and 7,500 were infected Friday. The Moscow authorities have admitted that they could run out of hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients.

Why the world should care Public resentment over coronavirus restrictions is nothing new. But Russia is following its own path. Right now, it appears that the major flashpoints are a mandatory vaccination campaign and targeted restrictions. But who knows how this will change if infection and death rates do not begin to level off.

 

Is Putin still a man of the people?

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday held his 18th televised call-in show. This annual event has evolved to the point where it has become almost a parody of itself. Despite rising public discontent over coronavirus restrictions and approaching parliamentary elections, it largely passed off without incident.

  • Putin’s call-in show is a type of event that has much in common with the personality cult practices of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez — though he held such a show every week and it lasted almost eight hours.
  • Over the years, Putin has fielded answers to phone calls, video messages and texts (all tightly controlled by Kremlin officials). But the essence remains the same: the president, like a magician, promises to help with a litany of petty problems like supplying a village with gas, a new prom outfit or an unpaid pension.
  • Putin even held these call-in shows even when he was prime minister between 2008 and 2012, and it’s a format that fits his image as a ‘man of the people’ who can empathize with the travails of ordinary men and women.
  • However, with each passing year, Putin appears less and less interested in such everyday issues (he’s understood to be far more preoccupied with geopolitics). In this year’s call-in show, he answered most of the questions on auto-pilot, immediately delegating decisions to the relevant officials. Unlike on previous occasions, he did not publicly scold officials – perhaps because of the approaching parliamentary elections.

What did Putin talk about?

Successors — Putin answered a traditional question about when he might step down by promising to name a worthy candidate when the time comes. He didn’t say when this might be. Asked what he wanted to do when he steps down, Putin said he wanted to take a break.

Vaccination — Putin finally revealed he was vaccinated with Russian vaccine Sputnik V (he previously stated that would not reveal the manufacturer of the vaccine he used so as not to be an unwitting advertiser). He said that another Russian vaccine — EpiVacCorona — is “also good” but that it does not last as long as Sputnik V (a claim the creators of EpiVacCorona swiftly denied).

United RussiaThe ruling United Russia party has seen a sharp fall in its popularity in recent years, but Putin spoke out in its favor. He reminded his audience he was the de-facto founder of United Russia and said he would back it at upcoming elections.

Why the world should care Surprisingly, Putin did not say much about the most important political topic in Russia today: the coronavirus. There were some questions about the pandemic, but they did not touch on the most sensitive issues. And Putin did not use the occasion to issue an unequivocal call for all Russians to get vaccinated. It seems that unpopular measures like mandatory vaccination will be the sole responsibility of local officials.

 

IN BRIEF

Investigative journalists targeted after report on minister

Three journalists from the media outlet Proekt were questioned as part of a criminal case Tuesday, the day after they published an investigation into business affairs and real estate holdings of Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev. The apartments of editor-in-chief Roman Badanin, his deputy Mikhail Rubin and reporter Maria Zholobova were all searched and all three were questioned by police.  

Badanin, Rubin and Zholobova face possible prosecution not in a new criminal case, but as part of a 2017 libel case involving Ilya Traber (a St. Petersburg businessman with a murky past who was acquainted with President Vladimir Putin in the 1990s). All three have the status of witnesses, although this could be upgraded to ‘suspect’. An interview the journalists gave after their interrogations can be read here, while Proekt’s Kolokoltsev investigation is here.