RUSSIA: Putin’s new dissidents

Russia’s ageing but revered scientific geniuses are on collision course with the Kremlin after the 1,200-strong members of the country’s leading scientific body rejected government proposals to seize control of its vast property holdings.

For nearly 300 years since it was founded by Czar Peter 1st, the Russian Academy of Sciences – an august body based in an elegant neo-classical palace in parkland in the centre of Moscow – has enjoyed autonomy and independence from government interference.Freedom to think and work unfettered has enabled 17 of its alumni since 1904 to win science’s highest plaudit – the Nobel prize. Fourteen of those were within the last 50 years and the latest, superconductivity researchers Professors Vitaly Ginzberg and Alexei Abrikosov, shared the prize for physics in 2003.

State-funded but otherwise left to its own devices, the academy and its members – who reach either corresponding or much-coveted full academician status only after a lifetime of world-beating scientific research and discoveries – even managed to maintain their relative freedom in Soviet times when they struck a complicit deal with the Communist leadership: we stay out of politics and you leave us alone.

It is this tradition that allowed the academy to ignore Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s demands that it expel dissident physicist and 1975 Nobel peace prize winner Andrei Sakharov.

As Russia fast approaches that most dangerous of moments – the transition of power next March when President Vladimir Putin steps down at the end of his second term – the Kremlin’s inexorable drive to clamp down on any free-thinking group has come knocking on the academy’s gold-leaf gilded doors.

Not content with beating the small but vocal activists of opposition grouping the Other Russia – who took to the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg in April – neutering the independent press, cracking down on foreign-funded charities, and the latest blatant proposals to force journalists to rely on government websites for information rather than expect any ‘chinovnik’ or senior bureaucrat to answer their questions directly, Putin’s urge for complete control has turned to the nation’s cherished elite of aging boffins.

Nobel laureate and academician Ginzburg (91), who has worked for the academy since 1940, said Putin’s Russia was worse than Stalin’s Soviet Union.

“The situation for science has become worse in some respects,” Ginsburg said. “Of course, in Stalin’s times the academy was under the control of the central committee of the Communist Party. But in those days you could come up with an idea and create – that’s how we put the first ‘Sputnik’ satellite into space. Now the government thinks science must bring only income or profit, which is absurd.

“Of course it is about Putin. Our democracy is far from ideal and my opinion means almost nothing but I am absolutely against the decision to bring in this new charter. Putin’s government must come to its senses and change its mind.”

Moves to gain political leverage began last year after a failed attempt by senior politicians and officials to gain election to the academy, some of whom were said to be so ignorant they could not explain the law of gravity.

Adopting a different tactic, the Kremlin then seems to have used its Ministry of Education and Science as a Trojan horse to take over control when the academy’s Soviet-era constitution – or charter – came up for revision.

Education Minister Andrei Fursenko’s proposal to set up a new supervisory council and stuff it with Kremlin cronies and dupes from the Duma, the Russian parliament, set out to seize control of the academy’s finances and vast property holdings. These are worth billions of dollars and spread out across Russia in 400 affiliated institutes that employ 200,000 people from Moscow and St Petersburg in the west to Vladivostok in the east.

“The education ministry proposed introducing a new so-called supervisory council that included representatives from the federal powers, the legislature, the Duma and the Federation Council – the upper house - and the presidential administration,” said Professor Valery Kozlov (57) the academy’s vice-president.

Kozlov, a top-flight mathematician and director of Moscow’s Steklov Mathematical Institute, weighs his words carefully: “This version of our new charter granted vast oversight over a huge swathe of our functions – financing, funding principles, property, questions of personnel and the appointment of academy institute directors.

“This violates the principle of the academy’s self-government that is both traditional and clearly set out in the [Russian federal] law on science: these functions are vested in the academy’s presidium…this is simply an attempt to seize control of our finances and property.”

Kozlov stresses that the education ministry’s take on the academy’s new charter was never formally tabled – it was circulated on the Internet and received widespread media coverage.

Such was the furore that when a full meeting of academicians gathered in late March in Moscow to vote on the academy’s own carefully thought-through new charter, the more than 1,000 members present voted all but unanimously to accept it, effectively rejecting any moves to scrap its 287 years of autonomy. The one member who abstained did not offer an explanation.

Kozlov agreed that rapid developments in technology, innovation, the dissemination of information and other pressing issues of the 21st century, demand responses from an academy that some have cast as an aging dinosaur resisting change.

Complicated and delicate issues of who owns the intellectual property produced through scientific progress by researchers working in state-funded institutes, and how the commercial exploitation of such ideas should be shared and managed, obviously demand answers, if only because the academy enjoys an annual federal budget of 43.5 billion roubles (US$1.7 billion)

“The whole question of patents, rights, respective ownership and funding and investment issues is a key issue right now,” Kozlov added. “There is no clear legislation in Russia today that covers innovation and this must be addressed.”

But control of its property remains key to the academy’s central aim: the promotion of first-rate scientific research.

“The education ministry proposals come down to a clash: independence versus control,” he said. “Only the academy can determine how to distribute its state budgetary money because only we understand the spending priorities that scientific research dictates. Outside managers, no matter how professional, lack that competence.”

Although at pains to deny that the academy was on a collision course with the Kremlin, Kozlov said he regularly met with Putin, who chairs the Presidential Council of Science and Higher Technology sessions. He does not doubt that Putin supports the academy but he fears the clash has only just begun.

Dismissing suggestions that he and other academicians are casting themselves as dissidents to the Putin regime, Kozlov expresses the hope that negotiation and good sense will prevail and that the education ministry – like others, such as the departments of culture and agriculture – will accept academic autonomy as sacrosanct.

Alas, his optimism may be misplaced. Shortly after the vote, Dmitry Livanov, at the time Deputy Minister for Education and Science, dismissed the academy’s sweeping vote for continued independence in one breath: “Since [its] document does not agree with a key ministerial [paper] it will be returned for reworking.”