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Thursday 14 October 2021

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Sergei Zuyev, the rector of Moscow's Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences, was controversially arrested by Russian authorities on October 11. (file photo)

When news emerged on October 12 that Sergei Zuyev, rector of the prestigious Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences – known as Shaninka -- had been detained in connection with a fraud investigation against a former education official, the arrest was quickly framed by critics as the latest salvo in the Kremlin’s ongoing crackdown against dissent.

“This is complete trash,” tweeted Lyubov Sobol, an exiled aide to jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, alleging that law enforcement officials were targeting the school to facilitate corruption. “Hands off Shaninka!”

Zuyev’s blood pressure exceeded 200, and the 67-year-old was suffering from acute hypertension when he was taken from a Moscow hospital late in the evening of October 11 and placed under arrest, a friend later wrote on Facebook.

Zuyev had been the head of Shaninka for more than a decade.

The school is one of four Russian universities that have launched highly regarded U.S.-style liberal arts programs and have helped pave the way for the model to spread in a country where education continues to be heavily influenced by staid Soviet-era practices and hampered by inadequate funding.

In a statement, Russia’s Interior Ministry said Zuyev’s arrest was tied to an ongoing probe into Marina Rakova, a former deputy education minister who was detained last week on charges of embezzlement.

Former Russian Deputy Education Minister Marina Rakova (file photo)
Former Russian Deputy Education Minister Marina Rakova (file photo)

The ministry alleged that Rakova had lobbied for the redirection of state grants toward an educational foundation that was meant to finance projects at Shaninka under Zuyev’s oversight but misused the funds.

Zuyev, who was placed under house arrest on October 13, denies the charges.

His supporters have rallied to his cause, alleging that he fell victim to a criminal case that was opportunistically used to target a plucky school that some officials see as an incubator of dissent. On October 12, Zuyev’s pregnant daughter, Daria, held a picket outside the police headquarters in Moscow, holding a poster that read: “Release Sergei Zuyev. No to fabricated cases.”

In addition, more than 200 of the university's students havesigned an open letter in Zuyev's defense.

A New, Ruthless Campaign?

Aleksandr Arkhangelsky, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics (HSE) who said he has known Zuyev for “a quarter of a century,” said the veteran pedagogue had been used as collateral after previously resisting officials’ attempts to shut Shaninka down.

Aleksandr Arkhangelsky
Aleksandr Arkhangelsky

“He fell between the millstones of a criminal case [against Rakova],”he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “They were simply looking for an excuse to rope her into a criminal case. And the easiest way was to point to a grant and say it wasn’t used.”

But recent developments surrounding another liberal arts program, the country’s oldest, have prompted fears that the moves against Zuyev augur a new, more ruthless campaign against Shaninka and Russian liberal arts education in general.

On June 21, less than two weeks before students at Smolny College in St. Petersburg gathered for their graduation ceremony, the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office declared Bard College -- Smolny’s partner institution in the United States -- an "undesirable" organization representing "a threat to the foundations of Russia's constitutional order." Any involvement with the school suddenly became a potential crime.

“This is simply a coordinated campaign of pressure against Shaninka,” opposition politician Yulia Galyamina told RFE/RL’s Russian Service about Zuyev’s arrest. “Russia has few remaining intellectual centers where modern forms of humanitarian study are blooming. And it’s clear that none of the people in power today needs them."

The Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences was founded in 1995 by Polish-born British sociologist Teodor Shanin, who opened the school with funding from the Open Society Institute, a nongovernmental organization created and funded by billionaire George Soros. The school’s graduates have gone on to join prestigious foreign universities and take high-status jobs in the Russian public and private sectors.

The Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences is one of a handful of Russian universities to offer a highly regarded U.S.-style liberal arts program. (file photo)
The Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences is one of a handful of Russian universities to offer a highly regarded U.S.-style liberal arts program. (file photo)

But the university has faced pressure just like Smolny, HSE, and other outspoken institutions in Russia. In June 2018, it was stripped of its license as a university, with officials citing vague reasons for the move but critics alleging that the university was being targeted for its liberal stance. The license was reinstated in 2020, returning to Shaninka the right to issue state-recognized diplomas.

“Everyone in academia should be aware that there are no protected people,” said Arkhangelsky, warning of a new purge. “It’s not enough to be obedient — you have to be absolutely loyal. But even that won’t save you. They can take away anyone they want.”

With reporting by Lyubov Chizhova of RFE/RL’s Russian Service
Tensions are high in the northwestern Serbian city of Sombor after a local man was targeted by a far-right extremist group for opening his hostel to migrants. (file photo)

SOMBOR, Serbia -- For providing migrants with a place to sleep at his hostel in Sombor in northwestern Serbia, Sinisa Sevo has been labeled a traitor by Serbian right-wing extremists and targeted with death threats on social media.

His photo and those of five others, plus personal data, were included on posters that were plastered across the city of some 80,000 by the far-right group People’s Patrol, which accused the six of profiting by illegally providing accommodation to migrants.

“This is a small town. And when someone labels you like that, it matters,” Sevo told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

Police say they are investigating, but in the meantime, Sevo has been forced to shut down his hostel.

Serbia currently accommodates some 5,000 refugees and migrants, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. The country is on the so-called Balkan route that is used by migrants and refugees escaping conflict, hardship, and persecution.

The number of migrants illegally entering the European Union by crossing the Western Balkans has almost doubled this year, EU border agency Frontex said in August, with the majority coming from Syria and Afghanistan.

In Sombor, not far from the border with EU members Croatia and Hungary, refugees and migrants are housed in a state-run center that is unable to cope with the numbers. Private hostels, like those run by Sevo, have stepped up to fill the gap, something right-wing extremists don’t like. They have marched in Sombor and other Serbian cities over the past year and carried out other actions, including confronting and threatening migrants, fueling fears and prejudices amid an already tense situation, observers say.

People mostly from the Middle East and Asia have stayed at his hostel over the last year, Sino said.

Onslaught Of Hatred

On October 9, posters including the photos and data of those accused by People’s Patrol of profiting from the migrant crisis appeared across Sombor. On social media, the right-wing extremist group spread the same accusations.

"Sombor citizens, these are your neighbors who illegally rent out accommodation to migrants,” the group wrote on its Facebook page, which has more than 43,000 followers.

That triggered an onslaught of hatred, says Sevo.

“There have been comments like, ‘Hang them from trees,’” Sevo recounted.

Others called those targeted “traitors” who "should be expelled from the country with the migrants.”

Sevo said his concerns grew after his wife began to receive threatening messages on social media as well.

“At first, I didn’t take it seriously, but after a while I began to worry, especially about my family,” he said.

On October 12, those singled out on the posters filed a report --including details of the threats they had received on social media -- with police, who said their complaint would be forwarded to local prosecutors.

“Now we are waiting to see whether the prosecutors will take action,” Sevo said.

The Serbian Interior Ministry confirmed to RFE/RL that such a report had been received by police in Sombor and that it would be forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for “further proceedings.”

A day after the posters appeared, People’s Patrol organized a demonstration, with chants of “We don’t want migrants” heard as a few dozen protesters marched through the streets of Sombor.

A migrant camp in Sombor (file photo)
A migrant camp in Sombor (file photo)

The right-wing activists are escalating an already tense situation in the city, where many migrants are forced to sleep in parks and elsewhere because of the shortage of accommodations.

"They are literally harassing them (refugees)… They are literally looking for a reason to attack them," says Sevo.

His hostel and others providing shelter to migrants have been closed by police amid the pressure from the right-wing activists, and for violating Serbian law.

Fertile Ground’ For Extremists

Under Serbian legislation, only migrants who have formally applied for asylum can legally be provided with private accommodation. Hoping to reach the EU, most migrants do not apply in Serbia.

The authorities needed to take firm action to counter the campaign launched in Sombor by People’s Patrol, opined Rados Djurovic, a member of the Belgrade-based NGO Center for Protection and Assistance to Asylum Seekers.

"Such expressions of prejudice, even hatred, are illegal and must be prosecuted," Djurovic said.

Poor communication between officials running migrant centers and the local populations where such facilities are located has fueled fears and prejudices, ratcheting up tensions, Djurovic said.

Serbia has 20 refugee centers – including the one in Sombor – that are managed by the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration.

That agency’s mismanagement of those centers, according to Djurovic, has created “a critical mass of problems that are fertile ground for extremist parties and movements that operate by stoking fear and prejudice.”

Djurovic said the refugee agency's mismanagement has meant that as many as 1,000 migrants mill about the refugee center, unable to find shelter. In turn, Djurovic continues, they are preyed on by those offering to smuggle them out of Serbia at exorbitant prices.

The Commissariat for Refugees and Migration did not immediately respond to RFE/RL's request for comment on the situation in Sombor.

The so-called People’s Patrols date back to 2020, when they first appeared in several Serbian cities, organizing anti-migrant protests and other actions, some of which they have shared on social media networks.

Damjan Knezevic, who identifies himself as a leader of the group, posted a video to social media in February 2020 showing a group of hooded men confronting what appears to be a group of migrants and refugees in downtown Belgrade, telling them they would "have a problem" if “Serb women and men” were attacked.

Although the Serbian Interior Ministry later confirmed to RFE/RL that police had forwarded details of the incident to prosecutors, the Prosecutor’s Office of Serbia did not respond to requests for comment from RFE/RL.

RFE/RL senior correspondent Tony Wesolowsky contributed to this report.

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