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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Russian Oligarchs in Oxford

The University of Oxford, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities, is under fire for accepting a donation of £75 million ($115 million) from Len Blavatnik to build new facilities for the Blavatnik School of Government.

It is also criticized for holding a joint business award with Alfa Bank in 2007-2011. Access Alfa Renova (AAR) consortium played a role in a Kremlin-sponsored harassment campaign against British Petroleum in Russia. This group of Russian billionaires included Len Blavatnik, the richest man in Britain, born in the USSR but now an American citizen.

The Guardian reports that in 2008 and 2009 dozens of British and western managers were “forced out of Russia”-as told by a letter by members of the Russian opposition- in a bitter dispute between BP and a group of powerful Russian billionaires. The billionaires, including Blavatnik, were joint partners with BP in TNK-BP, once Russia’s third-biggest oil company, a dispute that Oxford admits it didn’t investigate, despite a spokesman for the university claiming “Oxford University has a thorough and robust scrutiny process in place with regard to philanthropic giving. The Committee to Review Donations conducts appropriate due diligence based on publicly available information. The University is confident in this process and in its outcomes.”

In a letter to the Guardian, 21 academics, activists and dissidents have claimed that Blavatnik is a member of a consortium that “has long been accused of being behind a campaign of state-sponsored harassment against BP”, as part of which “Vladimir Putin’s FSB intelligence agency fabricated a case against two Oxford graduates”.

The letter in response to the controversy penned to The Guardian scathingly criticizes the university, claiming that Oxford must “stop selling its reputation and prestige to Putin’s associates”, while also calling on the university to set in motion comprehensive reform in regards to transparency and procedure with regards to foreign donations.

The letter has many prominent dissidents’ signatures on it from both past and present. Pavel Litvinov, who openly protested the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and was sent into five years’ exile for it is one of them, as well as Vladimir Bukovsky, a dissident who has spoken in great detail about the KGB’s psychiatric treatment against supposed enemies of the state. Vladimir Milov, who leads Russia’s Democratic Choice party and a friend to the late Boris Nemtsov, and the letter’s organizer, Ilya Zaslavskiy. Mr. Zaslavskiy, an expert of Free Russia Foundation, graduated from Oxford, ran Moscow’s Oxford alumni association, and has worked for TNK-BP.

The letter says that until a proper investigation is done politicians and other public figures who have endorsed the Blavatnik school should withdraw support. It also urges the university to carry out urgent “transparency and procedural reforms” with regard to foreign donations.
 
It’s true that Oxford’s faux pas won’t lead to dozens upon dozens of Oxford graduates going into the real world defending the Kremlin’s actions against the Russian people, and it’s silly to think the School of Government will be some kind of indoctrination centre reminiscent of the Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean ideological crusades, even if it does have an oligarch’s name attached to it. However, in principle, this decision is rife with hypocrisy. Oxford is one of the world’s best universities and for centuries has been a place for people of all ages and backgrounds to gain new perspectives on the world around them. Academic freedom is vitally important to any stable society and educational institutions must adhere to strict guidelines to uphold that freedom. If Oxford, already in hot water for its decision to accept the donation and for speaking in vague platitudes when confronted on its reasoning, is to stay the course and ignore popular discontent with its decision, it will, whether purposefully or not, reflect values that run contrary to what it as an educational institution is supposed to stand for, namely, secretive and perhaps even corrupt bureaucratic practices. It looks even worse when the school receiving this donation is a school of government, offering education in a public policy setting centered on the critical thinking necessary to be effective in the field.

On top of that, the school’s construction is not looked upon favorably by some directly involved in the university’s day-to-day operations. The Guardian reported that one Oxford academic, anonymously dubbed it an “architectural calamity”. He added that the university which contributed £25m towards the school had “squandered money on a frippery”. In addition, Martin Dewhirst, an Oxford graduate and former lecturer in Russian, accused the university of not carrying out adequate due diligence when it considered the prospective donation in January 2008. Dewhirst submitted two freedom of information requests asking Oxford to reveal who carried out checks on Blavatnik’s business activities inside Russia. Again, the opposition was met with artificial, vague explanation from the university, which said a donations acceptance review committee approved the donation “based on due diligence conducted by the Development Office”. The Guardian goes on to show that “In response to the freedom of information requests, the university said it did not consult Bob Dudley or anyone from BP about the donation. It said no articles were translated from Russian concerning Blavatnik’s business activities. It was unable to say how many members of the due diligence team “had a good reading knowledge of Russian”.

Ilya Zaslavskiy, the organizer of the letter opposing the donation, argues that Mr. Blavatnik “could have voted with BP against his Russian partners but in the end did not. Zaslavskiy also alleges the price was excessive and an “awful” deal for ordinary Russian taxpayers, frustratedly wondering “How is this good governance?”

Oxford has a choice to make here. It can either ignore the criticism, take the money, and continue on with a stain on its record unlikely to go away. Or it can order a more comprehensive review of the donation and its merits and continue from there. It will likely lead to some short-term embarrassment, but if the university reverses its decision it will ultimately keep its record much cleaner and likely avoid a scandal like this in the future. The latter is likely being taught to its students within its hallowed halls as the preferable alternative. Practice what you preach, or in this case, teach.

 

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