Skip to main content

Russia: Authorities Targeting Free Speech at a University

Prosecutor Demands Data on Student Protesters, Contact with Foreigners

Tens of thousands of people rallied in central Moscow Russia, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, for the third consecutive weekend to protest the exclusion of opposition and independent candidates from the Russian capital's city council ballot. © 2019 AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

(Moscow) – Prosecutors have ordered a university in Moscow to submit detailed information on students and faculty who participated in mass protests and had contacts with foreign groups, Human Rights Watch said today. The order is part of an inspection of the university by a local prosecutor’s office.

The inspection comes a year after mass protests in Moscow attracted thousands of students and other younger people. It seems aimed at intimidating students and faculty, limiting free speech and academic freedom, and falsely portraying critics and protesters as linked to foreign influence.

“Demanding information on politically active students and lecturers appears to be yet another attempt by Russian authorities to stifle activism and academic freedom” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This kind of inspection cannot but send a chilling signal to people in academia who have dissenting views that they could be driven out for political activism.”

On October 16, a trade union of higher education workers published an instruction issued by the rector of the university, the Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, directing its officials to gather information required by the prosecutor’s office for the inspection. Attached to the instruction is a letter from the prosecutor’s office, dated October 4, notifying the rector about the inspection, listing the required information, and setting an October 18 deadline for responding.

The local prosecutor’s notification states that inspections of academic institutions’ compliance with Russian law are conducted at the request of the Moscow City Prosecutor Office. The BBC reported that the Academy declined to comment on the instruction and that at least one other university had said that it had not received such a request.

The first part of the inspection notice requests generic information about state accreditation, licenses, and general compliance with the Law on Education and the labor law.

The language in the second part of the notice, and the types of data it requires, make clear that one aim of the inspection is to uncover “destructive” foreign influence on Russia’s younger generation. It singles out the need to report on, among other things, “pro-American groups of influence that can be used by international NGOs trying to achieve their destructive goals,” the “falsification of global and Russian history to achieve the geopolitical interests of ani-Russian forces,” and the “destruction of Russian traditional spiritual and moral values.”

The notification requires the Academy to provide a list of all of its international projects or programs funded from abroad and to explain how they comply with Russian law, joint programs with foreign nongovernmental groups, and any activities within the university by groups deemed “undesirable” in Russia or threatening state security and “the foundations of Russia’s constitutional order.” The latter includes training election observers, monitoring elections, “ideological propaganda” such as promoting “American and European democratic and liberal values,” and meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs by, for example, monitoring government practices, publishing findings, and proposing recommendations for improvements.

For years, Russian authorities have used the pretext of protecting the state from foreign influence to demonize, intimidate, and shut down nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activists who criticize or seek change in government policies.

The Kremlin’s efforts to marginalize critics crystallized with the 2012 “foreign agents” law, requiring Russian organizations that accept foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” a term that is widely understood in Russia to mean spy or traitor. Challenges from at least 66 groups against this law are pending before the European Court of Human Rights. The 2015 law on “undesirable” foreign organizations” banned the activities of foreign or international NGOs deemed to be undermining state security, national defense, or the constitutional order and set out administrative and criminal penalties for Russian citizens who cooperate with them.

The prosecutor’s office also required the Academy to submit information about students who participate in unauthorized mass protests, about protest organizers, whether protesters were paid, and whether they had previously taken part in international exchange programs. It demanded data on events that develop “civil protest skills,” such as organizing mass public gatherings or legal defense in case of detention during a protest.

In summer 2019, numerous unauthorized but peaceful protests took place in Moscow, triggered by the exclusion of independent candidates from the city legislature’s elections. The authorities responded with force and harassment through abuse of the legal system, prosecuting dozens of people.

Many students from Moscow universities joined the protests, and some faced administrative and criminal charges. Some universities threatened to expel student protesters. An official with the Higher School of Economics, one of Russia’s leading universities, initially supported students’ right to peacefully protest during summer 2019. But in January 2020, the university introduced restrictions on students’ political activism on campus in an effort to distance itself from such activities.

Although the notice states that the inspection is based on Russian laws on education, the purpose is to require universities to monitor the peaceful and lawful activism of faculty and students with dissenting views, which goes beyond the main goals of an educational organization, Human Rights Watch said.

“The prosecutor’s order frames peaceful activism as something that is destructive and that should be monitored and rooted out,” Williamson said. “This is a blatant violation of the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and assembly and fosters an atmosphere that jeopardizes academic freedom. The authorities should ensure that students and faculty can openly express their opinions without fear of reprisal.”

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country