Top academic arrested

The Bell

Hello! This week our top story is the arrest of Sergei Zuev, the influential head of one of Russia’s most prestigious independent universities. We also look at Putin’s announcement that Russia will go carbon-neutral by 2060, the diplomatic ‘exile’ of anime star and ex-Crimea prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya and record COVID-19 death rates.

Outcry as head of top independent university arrested in fraud case

Sergei Zuev, rector of the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Science (known as Shaninka), was arrested Tuesday after a 30-hour interrogation by police. Shaninka is one of just two successful, independent universities in Russia and the arrest sent a tremor of fear through the country’s academic community.

  • Zuev was taken for interrogation directly from hospital where he was being treated for high blood pressure, according to Pyotr Shchedrovitsky, a political strategist, philosopher, and friend to Zuev. After a public outcry, including a statement of support in parliament, Zuev was moved to house arrest Wednesday. He is accused of embezzling 21 million rubles ($300,000) from an Education Ministry foundation, part of a broader fraud case against ex-deputy education minister Marina Rakova.
  • Investigators allege Rakova, 38, commissioned Shaninka to do research work, but that the payment was actually stolen and falsified reports were submitted by a scientific research committee to cover up the crime. Zuev said he was innocent, and the university insisted it had fulfilled all its contractual obligations.
  • The Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Science was founded in the mid-1990s by Teodor Shanin, a British sociologist who was born in pre-war Poland and spent several years in a Soviet prison. Shaninka is regarded as one of Russia’s leading universities, and one of the country’s few reputable non-state institutions.
  • Education watchdog Rosobrnadzor deprived Shaninka of the right to award Russian degrees in 2018 — at the time, a source told The Bell that Shaninka was under increased scrutiny by the intelligence services amid a conflict between Moscow and London. However, an academic partnership meant Shaninka continued to award U.K. degrees to its students and its accreditation was eventually restored last year. The school is seen as a “real hotbed of liberalism” by many in the Russian elite, one source told The Bell.
  • After leaving the education ministry in 2021, Rakova was appointed vice president at state-owned banking giant Sberbank. Earlier this month, she was put on a federal wanted list and charged in absentia with fraud. Rakova reportedly gave herself up a few days after this announcement — after the arrest of her partner Artur Stetsenko — and she is currently in jail awaiting trial. Apart from Rakova and her partner, other defendants in the case include two top managers at state-owned bank Sberbank, Yevgeny Zak and Maksim Inkin (Rakova worked with the two men when in government), and Kristina Kryuchkova, former executive director of Shaninka.
  • The basis of the Rakova case is reportedly an investigation into state contracts carried out by the Russian Academy of Education, which is headed by Olga Vasilieva, the former education minister and Rakova’s old boss. Vasilieva and Rakova were apparently enemies and clashed repeatedly during their time working together.
  • One of Rakova’s signature achievements in government was the so-called Quantorium project that teaches industrial design, technical English, mathematics, robotics, and programming to children in 84 Russian regions. Notably, Quantorium was backed by influential Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov. One of The Bell’s sources recalled how Rakova and Belousov often appeared in public together. “Belousov’s people would call, insert this [Quantorium] project into the technical specifications of other, more modest proposals, and throw money at it,” he said.

Why the world should care

Like the notorious criminal case against theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, the Rakova-Zuev case highlights the risks faced by independent institutions that work with government funding. The problem is they rarely have a choice. Russian officials have worked hard in recent years to scare off foreign donors, and make charities, cultural organizations and universities almost entirely dependent on state money.


Putin announces Russia to go carbon neutral by 2060

Amid intensifying discussions about climate change, President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Russia will aim for carbon neutrality by 2060. This is the most ambitious official target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ever announced in Russia.

  • Speaking at the plenary session of Russian Energy Week in Moscow, Putin told attendees that Russia will “strive for carbon neutrality of its economy,” and that this should be achieved by 2060. At the same time, he could not resist criticizing Europe’s energy transition, blaming the rise of renewables for the continent’s current energy problems. “Systemic flaws have been gradually introduced in European energy over the past decade, which led to a major market crisis… Thankfully, problems of this kind have no place in Russia,” said Putin.
  • Details about Russia’s plans for carbon neutrality were outlined in the country’s low-carbon development strategy, which envisages a baseline scenario of a 0.6 percent increase in emissions through 2030, and a fall of 79 percent from the current level (89 percent of the 1990 level) by 2050.
  • Notably, a previous government strategy did not envisage achieving carbon neutrality, while reduced emissions were slated to come primarily through increased absorption of greenhouse gases by Russia’s forests.
  • Putin’s new plan still relies on the rising absorption capacity of forests and other ecosystems, but much less than before. Among new measures to reduce carbon emissions are carbon pricing (quota systems, regulations, incentives for low-carbon technologies, and tax adjustments for mineral extraction), green finance, support for energy origin certificates and the creation of a public reporting system.
  • For the first time, Russia’s climate strategy is being linked to economic growth. “We are factoring in global competitiveness and sustainable economic growth in Russia in the context of a global energy transition,” Economic Development Minister Maxim Reshetnikov told Kommersant. To implement the strategy, Russia will require cumulative investment in emissions reduction. Through 2030, this would run at 1 percent of GDP, rising to as much as 2 percent of GDP between 2031 and 2050.
  • The government reportedly set-up a working group in June to look at ways of adjusting to the global energy transition and it was reported that Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov would be in charge. Others involved in the issue included Sberbank head German Gref and 1990s privatisation tsar Anatoly Chubais, who is now Putin’s ‘representative for international relations in sustainable development’.
  • To achieve carbon neutrality, Russia will need to restructure every part of its economy, Chubais said the day after Putin announced the new target. According to Chubais, Russia will need to create up to a dozen new industries, including building a hydrogen industry from scratch.

Why the world should care

Russia ignored the climate crisis for many years but the issue now appears to have reached the highest levels of government. Russia’s new carbon neutrality goal has won praise from experts, who said that, with these plans in place, Russia need not be embarrassed to attend next month’s UN Climate Conference in Glasgow.


Anime icon and ex-deputy Natalia Poklonskaya made ambassador to Cape Verde

Former parliamentary deputy Natalia Poklonskaya was appointed as Russia’s ambassador to Cape Verde on Wednesday. The posting is a significant step down — dubbed ‘exile with honor’ by some media outlets — for a woman who shot to fame for her zealotry as a prosecutor following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

  • Poklonskaya said her new job in the Cape Verde islands off West Africa was a source of “great joy, honor and pride” (although Russia has no significant interests in this country of about 500,000 people) and that she had long wanted to work in diplomacy. She said it was odd that some people were describing the role as a demotion. “If somebody thinks that to be appointed as an ambassador and plenipotentiary of a great country like Russia, anywhere in the world, is some kind of demotion, I find that strange. It’s some kind of perverse taste,” she said.
  • Rumors of Poklonskaya’s appointment to Cape Verde were first reported by media outlet RBK in late August. A source close to the Kremlin said at the time that, due to her extravagant positions and unpredictable behavior, neither the Kremlin, nor the ruling United Russia party, nor the Crimean authorities wanted to see her continue in her role as a deputy in the Russian parliament.
  • Poklonskaya shot to fame in 2014 when she became the first prosecutor of Crimea following its annexation by Russia. She previously worked as a prosecutor for Ukraine, but switched allegiance following the Russian takeover. Her pro-Russia statements, youth and classical good looks quickly made her a symbol of the so-called Russian Spring and she gained a huge internet following, especially in Japan, where she was made into a popular character in anime and manga art.
  • Poklonskaya left Crimea in 2016 after she was elected to the Duma on a United Russia ticket. She was made chair of the parliamentary commission that monitored the income of deputies, but lost that job in 2018 after parliament passed a controversial bill raising the age of retirement. Poklonskaya was the only member of United Russia to vote against the bill, and was accused of breaching party discipline. Poklonskaya declined to take part in United Russia’s primaries earlier this year, explaining that she was transferring to a new role.
  • One of Poklonskaya’s most notable campaigns during her time in parliament was to oppose the movie Matilda, which tells the story of a premarital relationship between Russia’s last tsar, Nikolai II, and ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya. A fervent Orthodox believer and devotee of Nikolai II, who was executed following the Russian Revolution, Poklonskaya submitted repeated complaints about the movie, accusing some of the actors of Satanism and blasphemy. However, she later publicly repented of her role in the campaign, which culminated in the firebombing of the director’s offices and an attack on a cinema.
  • Ukraine has opened several criminal cases against Poklonskaya in relation to the annexation of Crimea and she is under sanctions from Ukraine, the European Union, the U.S., Canada and Japan. “Even in Africa, you cannot hide,” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement following her ambassadorial appointment.

Why the world should care

Poklonskaya’s new job in the political backwater of Cape Verde demonstrates not only how the Kremlin deals with unruly deputies, but how it continues to defend the legacy of events in Crimea in 2014. Had she not been an iconic figure of the annexation, Poklonskaya’s exit from parliament would likely have spelled the end of her political career.


Daily COVID-19 deaths pass 1,000 for first time, cases rising

Russia reported 33,208 new coronavirus infections Saturday — the biggest single-day total for the entire pandemic. There was also a new record number of deaths – 1,002. Russia has now set a new record for COVID-19 fatalities on 14 of the last 18 days. In Moscow, there were 6,712 new COVID-19 cases Friday, the highest one-day figure since July 4, and City Hall is reportedly considering re-introducing its controversial QR-code scheme. The Moscow authorities briefly introduced QR-codes (confirming vaccination status) for visitors to restaurants, cafes and other public places last summer. In the three weeks for which the rules were in place, visitor numbers fell by up to 90 percent. Dozens of Russian regions have already introduced QR-codes, and some regional authorities are carrying out compulsory vaccination schemes: this has affected Moscow Region and St. Petersburg, among others. In total, about a third of Russia’s population is vaccinated. Denis Protsenko, chief doctor at Moscow’s main COVID-19 hospital, warned Friday that the situation was “nearly critical.”

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