Students under pressure as Putin runs for re-election

One of the biggest events in 2018, although one with an entirely predictable outcome, will be the re-election of Russia’s long-standing leader, Vladimir Putin. In March 2018, Putin will extend his presidency for another six years.

Although he is unlikely to secure the landslide victory of the despots in Central Asia, Putin would nevertheless like to see himself voted in with an overwhelming majority of the votes and with a high voter turnout both in Moscow and in Russia’s numerous regions.

Despite Putin’s visible popularity, many Russians dislike the authoritarian nature of his regime and the extensive corruption in the country. Many also consider Putin’s regime to be stagnant rather than stable.

Weak student activism

Given that students often tend towards political activism, one might ask what Russian students think about Putin? Clearly, Putin’s Stalinistic bureaucratic system does not tally well with the world of iPhones, tweets, global social networks and international travel, which many young people are used to or aspire to. One would expect a large number of students to be opposed to Putin’s regime and his re-election.

But student activism has remained very weak during the entire period of Putin’s reign. Those few student protests that have taken place in different parts of Russia are always small in scale. Leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who was arrested at a protest last week, is best known for his anti-corruption campaigns. He has been trying to secure mass public support for his protests, including among students.

But while some young people have shown up at anti-Putin protests and in support of Navalny, their numbers are nowhere near what you might expect of students in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and other large Russian cities.

It is not just that students are politically passive, but about how student protests affect their universities’ relationship with the ruling regime. In Russia, the governing regime finds itself in a privileged position, pressuring leaders of public universities into compliance with its demands, including with regard to the presidential election.

The regime also puts pressure on independent private universities.

One of the best known victims of Putin’s regime is the European University at St Petersburg, a graduate degree-granting higher education institution focused on social sciences and the humanities which introduces Russians to the Western curriculum and places a heavy emphasis on research. The research conducted at the university aims to equal the highest Western standards, something which is atypical in Russia.

Corruption, so widespread in Russian institutions of higher learning, has no place at the European University. As a result, the university has been under pressure from the regime. First, it was stripped of state accreditation. A few months later, education bureaucrats took away its teaching licence. Finally, the city authorities have recently forced the university to hand over its main campus building, meaning it may become homeless.

Bribery allegations

Putin started his electoral campaign on 5 January and it has already caused controversy. Putin’s visit to Tatarstan in mid-January caused a scandal after social networks reported that students from Kazan University of Aviation were forced to meet with the president. Some allege that students were promised an additional point on their examination scores if they attended the meeting and told they would lose a point if they didn’t.

A few days earlier, there was a report that the administration of St Petersburg Polytechnic University had strongly advised its first-year students to support Putin’s presidency bid and were told that doing so would have an impact on their academic grades. A similar situation allegedly took place at Stavropol State Agricultural University.

Putin has to get 300,000 signatures in order to be officially nominated. The politicisation of universities is illegal under Russian law. Both university administrators and the electoral committee deny the allegations of pressuring students to support Putin.

Schools targeted

However, the pressure on students isn’t restricted to universities. Earlier in 2017, it was reported that some high school students took part in anti-corruption protests, including those initiated and led by Navalny. The regime reacted immediately: the pro-government media aired allegations that the pupils were paid or promised money to protest and school administrators tightened their control over their pupils’ contacts, political views and leisure time.

The Minister of Education, Olga Vasilieva, said that children should be kept out of politics, period. She clarified that underage included people up to the age of 20.

The chair of the Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, called for a legal ban on underage students taking part in political protests. However, such calls do not seem to prevent certain school teachers from teaching their students a pro-Putin song about Uncle Vova [a reference to Vladimir Putin]. Such are the practices in classrooms in Krasnodar. The song also mentions the return of Alaska to Russia.

The pro-Putin ideology imposed on universities and schools by the ruling political regime seems more and more reminiscent of Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality.

Politically motivated protests have to have a base of support and in many societies it is the young who are the most active campaigners. In Russia, though, it is likely that student protests will soon be limited to asking universities to fulfil their contractual obligations in terms of quality teaching and housing as marketisation and commercialisation of higher education gain momentum and interest in democratic protest ebbs away.

Ararat L Osipian is a fellow of the Institute of International Education, New York, and honorary associate at the department of political science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.