Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Russian Academy of Sciences headquarters in Moscow.


Putin tightens control over Russian Academy of Sciences

The Russian government has taken further steps to tighten its grip on the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) in Moscow. On 23 June, the State Duma—one of the two chambers of the Russian parliament—passed the first draft of a new law that would give President Vladimir Putin the final say in the elections for RAS's presidency.

The bill introduces three main changes. The list of candidates must from now on be approved by the government, and can have not more than three names; a candidate can be elected by winning more than 50% of the vote, instead of the two-thirds needed until now; and the newly elected academy president must be approved by the Russian president.

Elections for a new RAS president were supposed to take place last March but were postponed after all three candidates withdrew for reasons that have not been announced. RAS President Vladimir Fortov stepped down in March, and an acting president, Valery Kozlov, took over.

The change to the election procedure is another step in a series of reforms at RAS. In 2013, the government established the Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations to manage the property of RAS and other research institutions; it also forced a merger of RAS with the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences and the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The government's professed motive is to make the academy's work more efficient.

Among the Duma members who introduced the legislation were members of the academy, says Mikhail Gelfand, deputy director of the RAS Kharkevich Institute for Information Transmission Problems. One of them was Gennady Onishchenko, who has become widely known for recommending bans on food products from countries that had offended the Russian leadership during his time as chief sanitary inspector. During the parliamentary debate, Onishchenko argued that in the Soviet era, RAS was always told which candidates the government preferred. "No one was annoyed by that," he said.

Before the debate in the Duma, Fortov and other academicians met twice with Putin behind closed doors to discuss the changes. Those meetings did not end in decisions, but were just "an exchange of opinions," Fortov told the TASS state news agency. Interfax quoted Kozlov as saying that Putin favored the proposal to have Russia's president approve a new RAS president.

The reform proposal has been strongly criticized by the 1st July Club, an informal union of regular and corresponding RAS members named after the day when they first protested in 2013. In a letter to President Putin and members of both chambers of the parliament earlier this month, the group calls the three-candidate limit "absolutely unacceptable." It notes that elections can go forward even if only one candidate has been approved, effectively making the process a "fiction" and replacing it with a presidential appointment.

RAS's "scientific level and reputation have been irreparably damaged by the merger with the medical and agronomy academies,” Gelfand says. “It has no muscle for resistance."

Russia's parliament is expected to pass the final version of the bill in the coming weeks. If that happens, RAS will hold presidential elections according to the new procedures in the fall.