Demands of donor lead Russians to spurn cash

February 20, 2004

A Russian university that accepted more than 2.7 billion roubles (£50 million) from the Yukos oil company has voted to sever ties with the company unless it receives a guarantee on academic independence.

The Russian State Humanities University in Moscow, one of the country's top institutions, said its decision was prompted by Yukos' interference in the running of the university and not because the head of Yukos had been arrested and other senior managers - including the university's previous rector - had been put on a wanted list by Russian state prosecutors.

Valeri Minaev, the university's new rector, said the oil company had sought total control over university finances even though its sponsorship was equal to only one-third of the annual budget.

The sponsorship deal was struck last year with Yuri Afanasyev, the university's founding president and a senior figure in Yukos. It gave Yukos full financial control over the university and its 35 regional affiliates.

But the political climate changed with the October arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder and head of Yukos, on charges of fraud and tax evasion and the November resignation of Leonid Nevzlin as university rector. Mr Nevzlin, a senior Yukos shareholder, fled to Israel.

Khodorkovsky is in jail awaiting trial.

Professor Minaev, a historian and former vice-rector for academic affairs, was elected rector after Mr Nevzlin left. Last month, he pushed through changes in the university's constitution. "Yukos can control its part of the budget, but it must not manage or control the university. I don't think I look like a madman - 284 million roubles a year is not a sum for which I am prepared to lose our university," Professor Minaev said.

He said his decision was not politically motivated, but he declined to say whether he had come under pressure from the education ministry to stop taking Yukos cash, as has been widely reported in Russia's press.

Professor Minaev insisted that the conflict with Yukos began before Mr Khodorkovsky's arrest. The oil company had forbidden the university to rent out its buildings and had tried to restrict some of the courses and affiliated institutions it ran, he said.

The university had spent less than 107 million roubles of the Yukos money since donations began last year, Professor Minaev said. But this was offset by the loss of income from property rentals. "We don't want to lose the money - if Yukos accepts the new conditions, we are ready to continue working with them, but we are not prepared to hand over the management of the university."

If Yukos pulled out, the university would try to fill the coffers by almost doubling the annual cost of tuition for fee-paying students to 169,000 roubles, Professor Minaev said. But staff salaries, pensions and student stipends would be unaffected, he said. Some 40 per cent of the university's total student body of 30,000 - of which only 5,000 are based in Moscow - pay tuition fees. Exchange programmes and relations with foreign universities, including Durham, Wolverhampton, Leeds and Manchester Metropolitan, would be unaffected.

University staff are likely to remain divided despite the vote in favour of the new constitution. Ilya Smirnov, director of the university's Institute of Eastern Culture and Antiquities, who ran for the rector's post, was quoted in the business daily Kommersant as saying: "They say that the ministry of education told Professor Minaev that unless he refused the Yukos money, his election as rector would not go through."

Teaching staff had been receiving steady salaries only in the past three months thanks to the Yukos money, he added. Open Russia, the charity run by Yukos that administers the donations to the university, made no comment.

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