Russia: Gagarin Had Free Education

gagarin_space_suiteULYANOVSK, Russia | When Russia’s pensioners took to the streets early this year in protest at plans to reforms social benefits, observers predicted this would be just one of a series of demonstrations in a year in which the Russian government plans aggressive reforms. With thousands of students demonstrating last week against planned sweeping changes to the country’s system of higher education, it seems the observers were right.

The scale of two protests held on 12 April – around 4,000 attended a rally in Moscow and 300 another demonstration in Nizhny Novgorod – was substantially smaller than the rallies’ organizers had hoped. But the government’s radical education reforms will affect every student and have already been enough to turn Education Minister Andrei Fursenko into one of the most hated politicians in Russia.

On 12 April, Fursenko – who was pelted with eggs in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in March – again faced calls for his resignation. But the rallies also produced calls for President Vladimir Putin to step down, another worrying sign for a Kremlin that has already been disturbed by a wave of revolutions in the former Soviet bloc, the “chintz revolution” of Russia’s pensioners, and talk of a Kyrgyz-style “revolution” in Bashkortostan.

Students’ central complaint is that higher education will no longer be free to everyone. Instead, only poor and top-performing students will not have to pay for their studies. Precise details of the reforms are not known – a bill still needs to be presented to the State Duma, Russia’s parliament – but debate so far suggests that ordinary students will have to pay tuition fees and possibly living costs.

This would mark a dramatic break with the Soviet era, and the demonstrators deliberately tried to tap the sense that the education reforms would undermine Russia’s national greatness by holding the demonstrations on the anniversary of the first manned flight into space, by Yuri Gagarin in 1961.

“We organized our protest for the Day of Cosmonauts, because earlier an ordinary student could graduate from an institute and go on to work in his own area of specialization,” said Oleg Bondarenko, one of the organizers of the rally, the slogan for which was “Gagarin studied for free.”

“Ministers who studied for free at the expense of the state want to privatize education, limiting the right of Russia’s youth to education,” Bondarenko declared.

Making students pay for their education is just one element of a broader reform plan that would also involve the privatization of most of Russia’s state universities.

In a country where many people struggle to make ends meet, there is a fear that the reforms will give only the rich access to a proper education – or, as protestors put it, that the reforms will separate the “white,” those who can pay for their studies, from the “black,” those who cannot.

Those fears are compounded by reports that Moscow also plans to introduce two-tier secondary education, with a “normal program” topped up by an optional, paid-for special program.

Sergei Kuzin, leader of the Union of Education Workers, accused the government of conducting experiments on students, while a speaker at the Nizhny Novgorod demonstration, Mikhail Mirny said that the Kremlin “is depriving us and our children of a future.”

Putin has tried to placate students by increasing existing stipends, but this failed to convince the demonstrators. Starting in April, Putin raised the current monthly stipend for students from 400 rubles ($14) to 500 rubles ($18). “Putin, you should live on a stipend” was one of the irritated responses written on a banner at the demonstration.

This gesture has failed to soothe students partly because, like pensioners, students lost some of their traditional benefits in January. As part of the education reforms, they would also lose the right to free medical treatment.

Male students are also facing the prospect of losing their right to defer conscription. There had already been a number of student demonstrations specifically against that idea, which was floated by the Defense Ministry in December 2004.

For universities, the reforms would mean a double loss of income: As private institutions, they would receive less money from the state, while another element of the reforms would deprive them of their entitlement to some tax breaks. This incensed Ivan Melnikov, a professor at Moscow State University, who told the Moscow rally that, by removing universities’ tax benefits, the state was stripping universities of privileges that they have enjoyed for 250 years.

The reforms, he believes, will inevitably dramatically reduce access to higher education and lower the quality of a university education.

Paris ’68?

Melnikov himself is a deputy chairman of the Communist Party’s central committee, and these demonstrations – the first of what the organizers hope will be many – were closely linked to a number of opposition parties.

The rally in Moscow was organized by the Russian Association of Students’ Unions, which brought in students from the regions of Lipetsk, Orel, Tula, Bryansk, Voronezh, Tver, and Tambov. It was, though, supported by the Party of Pensioners, and Motherland, a nationalist party that frequently aligns itself with Putin, as well as the Communists. In Nizhny Novgorod, the organizers likewise included members of Motherland and the Communists.

Melnikov holds out little hope that the demonstrators can prevent the reforms’ passage into law.

“In the near future the bills will come to the State Duma, where ‘deputies/robots’ from the [pro-Putin] United Russia party will rubber-stamp them without a thought,” he told protestors.

The goal of the Communists and the Motherland party is now to force a national referendum that would stop a raft of “anti-social reforms” planned by the government, including reform of the energy sector.

Still, Dmitri Rogozin, the leader of the Motherland party, appeared to hold out little prospect for success there either, telling reporters that “we have used all passive means of influencing the government.” Rogozin suggested that “more active and risky forms of struggle” will need to be used, said. Rogozin sees the reforms as undermining the nation’s ambitions.

“If the country has well-prepared cadres, the country is more competitive,” he told reporters after the rally.

So far, the government has shown little sign of trying to meet the students halfway. But although the demonstrations failed to pull in very large numbers of participants, the Kremlin does seem to be taking the protests seriously.

Young Russians have been politically apathetic, only voting in relatively small numbers at past parliamentary and presidential elections. But opponents of Putin’s reforms have been raising the specter of student activism and there have been a number of recent efforts by a range of opposition parties to invigorate their youth wings.

Rogozin warned the Kremlin that it could see a wave of student protests like those in 1968 that “led to the overthrow of [Charles] de Gaulle’s regime in France.”

The Russian government is probably more concerned by Georgia ’03 and Ukraine ’04 than by France ’68. And the Kremlin’s fear of another “color revolution” – this time in Russia – helps explain why observers see the emergence of a new pro-Putin youth movement as evidence that the Kremlin is hurrying to create a counterbalance the opposition’s efforts to win support among the young.

The new movement, which calls itself Nashi (Ours), has explicitly stated one of its goals as been to defend Putin’s reforms. At its inaugural session in Moscow on 15 April it duly provided a direct counterpoint to the student protests by producing posters stating “Yuri Gagarin. That’s Where Nashi Is From!” on top of a picture of Gagarin wearing a sweater with the word “Nashi” on it.

It did not come as a surprise, then, that Education Minister Fursenko gave a speech at the conference, urging its members (3,500 in all and 680 in the hall) “to study, be healthy, and help Russia create an economy based on intellect rather than oil.”

Some Russian newspapers believe Nashi is the brainchild of the deputy head of Putin’s presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov. The movement has used state-owned buildings as venues and has said that its activities would not be possible without state support.

Nashi’s manifesto, which states that its enemies are “an unnatural union of liberals, fascists, pro-Western politicians and ultranationalists,” echoes earlier statements by Surkov that Russia faces a threat from “pseudo-liberals and Nazis.”

The creation of the Nashi movement is seen by some as tacit acknowledgement by the Kremlin that a pro-Putin movement Idushchiye Vmeste (Walking Together) is not capable of counteracting opposition youth movements. Idushchiye Vmeste, which was founded in May 2001, has come to prominence mainly thanks to a series of campaigns against what it sees as dissolute, liberal morals in Russian culture. The leader of Nashi, Vasily Yakemenko, resigned as the head of Idushchiye Vmeste to take up his new post.

In a comment carried by the Moscow Times, the political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, who heads the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow, called Nashi “an organization of young fighters, a preventive measure against a possible Orange Revolution in Russia.”

One of the men specifically highlighted by Nashi as an enemy, Gary Kasparov, was attacked on 16 April. The longtime world chess champion, who is now a leading figure in efforts to put together a strong opposition challenge to the Kremlin in presidential elections in 2008, was hit on the back of the head with a chessboard.

Nashi has denied any involvement, instead blaming the attack on another of its enemies, the National Bolshevik Party.

Whoever was responsible for the assault on Kasparov, it seems clear that a game of political chess is now being played on the fringes of Russian politics, outside parliament, on the streets, and by the young.


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