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Russian University's Plan To Honor Philippines' Duterte Stirs Criticism

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte meets with his Russian counterpart at the Kremlin on May 23.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte meets with his Russian counterpart at the Kremlin on May 23.

An elite Russian university that serves as a training ground for diplomats has come under fire over its plan to grant an honorary doctorate to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whom rights groups accuse of a brutal campaign of extrajudicial killings targeting drug suspects.

The honorary degree from the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs (MGIMO) was set to be part of a warm welcome for Duterte this week in the Russian capital, where the Kremlin and its surrogates have embraced his apparent bid to strengthen ties with the Kremlin and pivot away from Washington.

The planned May 24 ceremony at MGIMO, where Duterte was to deliver a lecture, was called off at the last second after the visiting leader cut his trip short due to fighting on the Philippine island of Mindanao between security forces and militants with ties to the extremist Islamic State group.

But the university's decision in the first place to grant the honor to Duterte -- who has claimed that he personally killed criminal suspects -- triggered outrage and criticism both within the MGIMO community and among Russian social-media users.

"Won't it be embarrassing for foreign guests and our professors to see the portrait of this honorary doctor on the wall next to the rector's office among photographs of prominent figures in global politics," MGIMO professor Andrei Silantiev wrote on Facebook on May 23, calling the planned honor a "shame."

After news emerged that the ceremony honoring Duterte had been canceled, Silantiev added later on Facebook that the point of his original post still stands.

Fierce Criticism

Duterte, who met with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on May 23, has faced fierce criticism from rights activists -- including the UN's top human rights official. They say his push to stamp out drugs with the help of security forces and volunteers has resulted in thousands of people being killed without due process.

But the Philippine president, who called then-U.S. President Barack Obama a "son of a whore" in 2016 and has criticized what he calls Washington's interference in other countries' affairs, has received positive assessments from Russian officials, state-run media, and Kremlin-connected political analysts who portray him as a leader capable of standing up to the United States.

Meanwhile, U.S. media reported on May 24 that President Donald Trump praised Duterte in an April 29 telephone call between the two leaders for doing a "great job" in combating drugs. The reports were based on a leaked Philippine transcript of the call, a copy of which was published by the U.S. website The Intercept.

MGIMO, which is run by the Russian Foreign Ministry and is considered one of the country's most prestigious universities, frequently invites visiting foreign leaders to speak at its campus. Previous recipients of its honorary doctorates include former French Presidents Nikolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

'You Have To Think About Your Honor'

Yelizaveta Vereshchagina, a Moscow-based activist and 2015 graduate of MGIMO, told RFE/RL that she was relieved the ceremony honoring Duterte did not happen.

"But on the other hand, the fact that our alma mater can act like this really hurts me," Vereshchagina, a coordinator with the Moscow Open School of Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization, said in a telephone interview.

MGIMO alumnus Aleksandr Alekseyev wrote that he understood Russia, which is under Western sanctions over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, was "looking for allies."

"But you have to think about your honor as well," Alekseyev, a 2015 graduate, wrote in a May 23 post on the Russian social-networking site VKontakte.

One Twitter user suggested the notorious Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo should be "rehabilitated and handed a medal for humanism."

MGIMO scrubbed announcements of Duterte's planned appearance from its website and social-media accounts on May 24, though an archived version was still available.

'Not An Independent Institution'

It was not immediately clear if Duterte would still receive the honorary doctorate.

Viktoria Kalashnikova, a spokeswoman for the university, told RFE/RL by telephone that she could not provide any comment other than that Duterte's planned speech had been canceled.

Repeated calls to the Philippine Embassy in Moscow went unanswered on May 24, and officials there did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Andrei Zubov, a historian and former MGIMO professor who was fired in 2014 over his criticism of Russia's annexation of Crimea, said it was not surprising that the university would present Duterte with an honorary doctorate.

"MGIMO is just executing the will of the Foreign Ministry," he told RFE/RL. "It's not an independent institution that can act based upon its own principles, unfortunately."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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