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New rules complicate German-Russian academic ties

November 21, 2019

German and Russian academic institutions cooperating on more than 290 projects — for now at least. Leading German academics have said they are alarmed by new Russian guidelines — and restrictions — for scientists.

Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow
Image: DW/Alexander Kauschanski

There is a rumbling in the German academic world as concern grows over the newest Russian guidelines for cooperation with foreign researchers.

"We are greatly concerned by the Russian Federation's new dictate strictly outlining rules for cooperating with foreign academics," read an open letter penned by four education trade associations — three German and one British — published in early October.

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The groups warned of a threat to international cooperation and spoke of "concern and resentment" within the scientific community over the Russian rules. Jens Strackeljan, president of the State Rectors' Conference of Saxony-Anhalt, was quoted by the German daily Mitteldeutsche Zeitung as saying, "Scientific co-operation cannot survive under such rules." 

According to data from the German Rectors' Conference (HRK), which informs rectors at the country's colleges and universities,  there are currently some 290 cooperative projects underway between German and Russian institutions.

'Limiting scientific freedom'

Dieter Lenzen, president of the University of Hamburg, said Moscow "intends to limit the scientific freedom of Russian colleagues and monitor and control their communications."

"Such changes to global guidelines governing exchange among scientists is unacceptable," Lenzen wrote in a letter DW has seen to scientists at his university.

A statue at Moscow University
Some have said new rules complicate the exchange of academic ideas in RussiaImage: DW/Alexander Kauschanski

Bring a copy of your passport but leave your cellphone at home

Those concerns were brought on by a dictate released by the Russian Ministry of Sciences in February. Among other stipulations on visiting academics, it dictates that the "reception of foreigners" is to "take place in special rooms dedicated to that purpose" located in department administrative buildings.

The ministry also demanded it receive detailed information on all such meetings and copies of foreign scientists' passport five days before any meetings take place. The rules also call for foreign scientists to be accompanied at all times, and "at least two Russian representatives" familiar with the topic of discussion must be present at every meeting.

There are even rules regulating the use of "technical tools for modifying and storing data," which in addition to computers, calculators, dictation devices and mobile telephones even includes watches and cameras. All such items are to remain off-site.

Peter-Andre Alt, president of the HRK, said on Wednesday in Berlin that the strict new rules were "an attack on scientific freedom" and were "clearly designed as an attack on the free exchange of ideas."

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Germany's Federal Research Ministry (BMBF) said it is aware of the situation.

"We are following developments closely and have conveyed concerns to Russian partners at every level," a spokesman told DW.

Last December, German Education Minister Anja Karliczek of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union traveled to Moscow to sign a lauded "German-Russian roadmap for co-operation in education, science, research and innovation."

Currently, the two countries are engaged in a 2018-2020 academic and scientific co-operation, which the German side has often touted in the press.

Fabian Burkhardt, a Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) who recently worked as a political science researcher at a Moscow university, told DW that Russia's new guidelines were a "strain on cooperation," adding that scientific freedom in Russia "is increasingly limited."

'Contradictory' Russian academic policy

According to Burkhardt, exchange in the social sciences and the humanities is already tricky, though he said cooperation in the natural sciences seems more promising. Ultimately, Burkhardt added, Russia's academic policies are "totally contradictory."

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He said Russia initiated a 2018-2024 national project designed to internationalize the Russian sciences and make the country more attractive to international scientists, but then at the same time established exceedingly high bureaucratic hurdles.

Dieter Lenzen of Hamburg University said the guidelines "are not something that can be applied generally, but which must be determined on a case-by-case basis." He asked scientists at his university to report any abnormalities they notice, saying the university would evaluate such complaints at the "appropriate time."

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C