20 years under Putin: a timeline

In late June, radical reforms of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) that presuppose the elimination of the Academy in its current form were approved in a Russian government session. The news shocked the scientific community, triggering an unprecedented storm of protests. However, after Vladimir Putin intervened, it became clear that the Kremlin had carried out a two-part move: it took control of the previously independent Russian Academy of Sciences and then labeled Medvedev’s government as the guilty party in the unpopular decision. Political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya describes how cynically the regime pushed the reform through.


Vladimir Putin (left) explained the reform to the new president of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vladimir Fortov (right). Photo: AP


The passage of a plan to reform the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) had been expected for a long time. In Soviet times, the Academy was organized both as a scientific and commercial corporation and as a ministry. It had the power to regulate the scientific sector and to set and distribute budgets to subordinated agencies. Today, the RAS owns huge scientific facilities, including land, real estate, and even scientific cities. In total, 15 million square meters of production space and hundreds of thousands of hectares of land have been assigned to RAS organizations.

After the collapse of the USSR and the radical reduction of funding for the sciences, the RAS went into decline. This trend was reversed over the past decade, when the RAS’s budget was significantly increased, eventually reaching 64 billion rubles in 2012. By law, the Academy has the right to rent out its premises and use the resulting money for its own needs.

Although the problems of the Russian Academy are known, they are not often publicly discussed by the scientific community, the public, or politicians. Among these problems are a lack of dynamic development, the advanced average age of academics (65 years), corruption, poor financial management, and a significant decline in scientific publications in reputable international journals (IMR wrote in detail about the degradation of the sciences at the beginning of June).

For more than 20 years, the Russian government did not dare to reform the RAS; its timid attempts were met regularly with strong resistance. The Kremlin could not manage to appoint a loyal candidate as president of the RAS in either Soviet or modern times. For example, academicians prevented the election of the Communist Party’s head of the department of science and education, Sergei Trapeznikov, in 1970. Andrei Sakharov remained a member of the Academy even during his exile in Gorky.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yuri Osipov became the undisputed head of the RAS. In 2008, when the “vertical of power” was already solid, the Kremlin tried to replace him with its protégé Mikhail Kovalchuk, director of the Kurchatov Institute and the brother of one of the most influential people in the country, Yuri Kovalchuk, the head of the Bank of Russia and a close friend of Putin. However, academics again failed to push through the Kremlin's candidate successfully.

In April of this year, when the new elections were held for the post of RAS president, a new problem arose: Osipov refused to participate. In this case, the all-powerful head of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, decided to promote his own candidate. He supported Alexander Nekipelov, the head of the oil company’s board of directors. However, the RAS presidential election was not to be so simple: Nekipelov lost the race, getting only 143 votes out of 1,313. Vladimir Fortov, a prominent Russian scientist who has actively criticized the government regarding the fate of Russian science and has argued for the need to preserve the institution’s autonomy, was elected as the new head of the RAS.

For more than 20 years, the Russian government did not dare to reform the RAS; its timid attempts were met regularly with strong resistance.

All these troubles occurred at the same time that a sharp conflict between the Ministry of Education and the RAS was growing. In the spring of this year, Minister of Education and Science Dmitry Livanov proposed the creation of an alternative scientific organization that would consist of a public council made up of “scientists of capable age.” He also criticized the work of the RAS extremely strongly: “Today the RAS is degrading in terms of scientific productivity, in terms of age and quality control.” In response, the minister was accused of incompetence, intemperance, and the use of profanity, among other charges. Putin chose to give moral support to the scientists in this conflict. In April, he stated, “The role and importance of the Academy of Sciences is enormous in the development of the economy, in the sciences, and ultimately in the social sphere in solving problems related to the defense of the country. And, of course, the Academy should develop in accordance with the times.”

In the course of the ongoing debate, the Ministry of Education proposed a reform of the RAS. The issue was put on the agenda during the government session of June 27. Deputy Chief Scientific Secretary of the RAS Presidium Viktor Ivanov explained to Gazeta.ru: “No one was notified that the reform was ready to be carried out.” Moreover, new RAS president Fortov was preparing his own plans for reform of the RAS. A source from the Academy informed RIA Novosti that three days before the fateful government session, RAS vice-president Valery Charushin was charged with completing by September a draft of a strategy for the future development of the Academy.

The news had the effect of a bombshell: during the week following the government session, there were tough fights in the Russian media and in the Duma. Academics demanded the resignation of Medvedev’s government; they accused the Minister of Education and the cabinet of betraying national interests and harboring a desire to destroy the legendary Russian scientific program. The information space was crowded with angry rebukes to the federal government. The RAS demanded the complete rejection of the proposal, and the RAS Union threatened to organize protests of thousands of scientists across Russia.


Hundreds of scientists went to the streets to protest against reform of the RAS. Photo: Sergei Kuzmichev (RB)


It seemed that the government would not withstand this onslaught. Indeed, it was initially planned that the draft law on the reform of the RAS would be adopted by the Duma in three readings at the penultimate meeting before the summer break on July 3. However, trouble quickly broke out in the lower house of the parliament, where even the government loyalists were confused. Putin remained silent on the matter, his position unknown. The leaders of United Russia claimed that the decision on the adoption of the reforms had been made at the very top levels of the government and that the bill should be supported. However, not everybody was in a hurry to believe this. As a result, the science committee of the State Duma recommended that the bill be rejected and the second (key) reading be moved to the fall.

The postponement of the reform consideration allowed academics to gain time and take the initiative into their own hands. However, at this point, Putin intervened personally. As it became clear, the reform was not being pushed by the Kremlin. Sources conjectured that Livanov, who served only as an official ram of public opinion, wasn’t the real author of the bill, but was instead Mikhail Kovalchuk. An ally of the latter may also be the former education minister and current presidential aide Andrei Fursenko. In addition, the fact that the reform was supported “at the top” confirms the position of United Russia: the members of the party were ready to vote for the bill in the first reading. The position of pro-Kremlin experts and the media is also indicative: they were either silent or gently criticized the RAS. Taken together, this indicated that the Kremlin had ordered that no one interfere with the reforms.

Putin’s meeting with Fortov became the final move in pushing through the RAS reforms. Andrey Kolesnikov, a journalist for Kommersant, wrote that given the mood of the head of state, the RAS president had no chance to resist. Putin did not like Fortov—neither his election nor his stubbornness in rejecting the reforms. “For the president it was a surprise—the academician’s participation in the election. Also a surprise for him was that during the election, things occurred that were far beyond the bounds of decency, according to many who were familiar with the struggle for the RAS presidency. And this was one of the reasons why this bill emerged,” said Kolesnikov.

With the RAS reform the government gets the right to deprive scientists of their rank as academics. This right is likely to become one of the “sticks” that will be used against those who did not support the reform.

Fortov asked the president to postpone the consideration of the reforms for a year. Putin, however, showed clear irritation with both Fortov’s talk and his lack of comprehension. The academician was given a choice: either he agree to head a new Academy of Sciences, which would include the Academy’s current property, or he retire. Fortov came to understand this choice a few days later, when he accepted Putin's proposal (as is known, in Russia, nobody can refuse the proposals of the president). And the resistance of the academicians was finally broken.

Meanwhile, the State Duma passed the RAS reform bill in two readings, although it passed with conceptual amendments, which, one can imagine, were originally provided by the Kremlin as a compromise. The essence of the amendments is that the RAS will not be eliminated; instead, it will retain its status as a federal state budget organization. At the same time, a separate institution “specially authorized by the Government of the Russian federal executive authority” will be created to “exercise the powers of the owner of the federal property assigned to the scientific organizations of the Russian Academy of Science.” In other words, Putin achieved his main goal: the separation of the scientific and administrative functions of the Academy. The RAS charter will now be approved not by the government of the Russian Federation, but by the general session of academics, and the government gets the right to deprive scientists of their rank as academics. This right is likely to become one of the “sticks” that will be used against those who did not support the reform.

Russian liberals and reputable economists have long called for reform of the RAS. The Academy has suffered from many problems, and good reforms may be politically useful. However, the nature of the current reforms and the speed with which they will be implemented are important factors to consider. These reforms, which permitted no serious chance for debate in the scientific community or society in general, represent a missed opportunity.

The reform of the RAS has a variety of policy implications. First, it is another act of humiliation for Medvedev’s government and Minister of Education Livanov in particular. These individuals took the brunt of the RAS’s anger and were assigned the label of “the murderers of Russian science.”. Second, the reforms are another demonstration of how the regime is ignoring the mood of society, in which the profession of scientist is respected and honored. The prestige of a scientist has fallen in modern Russia, even as pride in Russian science remains strong, as evidenced by Levada Center polls. Like most of Putin's reforms, the current legislation is emphatically antidemocratic. Third, the quality of legislative work has gone down markedly in the absence of proper political, public, and parliamentary control. Recent projects have been formulated quickly, without rigorous due diligence and due legitimacy. The draft law on the reform of the RAS was pushed through cynically, but the discontent of scientists has not disappeared—it has become latent. Therefore, Putin’s regime has created another long-term risk, which may turn into a political crisis.