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Navalny Supporter's Expulsion Ignites Fresh Row Over Russian Student Activism

Oleg Alekseyev and his fellow protesters took to the streets of central Kaliningrad on June 12, despite having had their application for a rally in the city center rejected, and he and dozens of others were detained.

Oleg Alekseyev, a university student in Russia's western Kaliningrad exclave, says his problems began last month after he requested formal permission to stage an anticorruption rally in the region's capital.

Alekseyev is a supporter of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, and his bid to organize the rally was part of nationwide protests that Navalny spearheaded and which led to widespread detentions in Moscow and other cities.

Four days before the June 12 demonstrations, the 21-year-old was called into a meeting at the city's Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, where he is a third-year student, with a professor who attempted to persuade him to avoid the protest.

Alekseyev recorded the conversation and leaked the audio to the media. In the recording, the head of the university's law institute warns that taking part in an unsanctioned protest "to yell something and prove yourself is not battling corruption."

"What changed after you, for example, went to [an earlier] rally and yelled that we have to fight corruption? What changed? Nothing changed. Absolutely nothing changed," professor Oleg Zayachkovsky can be heard telling Alekseyev in the recording, a copy of which was obtained by Current Time TV, a Russian-language network jointly run by RFE/RL and VOA.

The meeting was also attended by two unidentified men who Alekseyev believes were law enforcement officials.

Alekseyev and his fellow protesters nonetheless took to the streets of central Kaliningrad on June 12, despite having had their application for a rally in the city center rejected. Dozens of protesters were detained, including Alekseyev, though they insisted they had a constitutional right to gather there.

Alekseyev was subsequently released, and he says he heard nothing from the university about the matter until last week, when school officials demanded he explain his detention at the rally and reputational damage the university allegedly suffered due to the audio recording he leaked.

Less than a week later, on July 11, he received a letter informing him that he had been expelled for "unlawful behavior," citing his "lack of respect for the law and courts in the public sphere."

Protest Politics

Alekseyev's dispute with the university was one of several standoffs over opposition protests between Russian students and teachers that have grabbed national attention this year.

In several regions, high-school and university students have leaked video and audio recordings featuring teachers and administrators railing against Navalny and recent anticorruption protests in which young people have played a visible role.

Protesters hold posters reading " Corruption steals the future" and "Miserable cowardly thief" during an anticorruption rally in central Moscow on June 12.
Protesters hold posters reading " Corruption steals the future" and "Miserable cowardly thief" during an anticorruption rally in central Moscow on June 12.

Kremlin detractors have accused officials of exploiting the country's education system to scare young people away from political activism critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government.

Senior Russian officials, meanwhile, have publicly expressed concerns that the government is failing to reach a younger, Internet-savvy generation that has come of age under Putin's 17-year domination of the country's political life.

Navalny, an anticorruption crusader who has built a substantial and loyal youth following, is seeking to run in next year's presidential election to deny Putin another six-year term despite signs that authorities will prohibit Navalny's candidacy on the basis of a criminal conviction that he and supporters say was politically motivated.

Alekseyev says he believes he was expelled due to his political activism and refusal to toe the university's line. The university, meanwhile, has connected his expulsion to poor grades, missed classes, and his previous attempt to pay an intermediary for physical-education credits he needed to make up.

"Unfortunately, the morbid interest in this situation that one of its participants has created has forced others to see politics where it doesn't exist," the university said in a July 12 statement on its Facebook page.

But it also referenced the dispute over the June 12 protest, criticizing Alekseyev for "distorting" the nature of his talk with the professor that he leaked to the media and "knowingly and publicly calling for the violation of administrative norms."

The statement added that the university "does not interfere with the expression of political views or the participation of students and staff in the country's public life.

Expelled Over Political Views?

Alekseyev disputes the university's characterization of the circumstances surrounding his expulsion. He says that he had already admitted to -- and apologized for -- his attempt to buy credits, and that the university had made no issue of the matter until last month's opposition protest.

"It all started after I submitted my notification about staging a rally," Alekseyev told RFE/RL in an interview. "Everything that the university is writing -- it has nothing to do with the matter."

The standoff has attracted the attention of officials in Moscow. Andrei Yemelyanov, a spokesman for Russia's Education and Science Ministry, told RFE/RL in an e-mailed statement on July 13 that the agency will examine the circumstances of Alekseyev's expulsion.

"Political views by themselves cannot be the basis for expelling a student," Yemelyanov said.

Aleksandr Dobrovolsky, a lawyer representing Alekseyev, told RFE/RL that he and his client planned to challenge the expulsion.

"If he weren't so active or if he had more convenient political views, he wouldn't have been expelled," Dobrovolsky said.

Written by Carl Schreck based on reporting by Yelizaveta Mayetnaya of RFE/RL's Russian Service and Current Time TV
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    Yelizaveta Mayetnaya

    Yelizaveta Mayetnaya is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service.

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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.