Test of Integrity: Detained Professor Savva reconciled ethnic communities; criticised Tkachev and Cossacks

20 April 2013 

By Yulia Galyamina 

Natsionalnyi aktsent 

Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Professor Valery Tishkov rarely comes out with sharp criticism of the Russian authorities. As director of a major scientific research institute, member of the Presidential Council on Inter-Ethnic Relations, and indeed as a former Federal Minister, he tries to keep his comments neutral and, when he does make a criticism, to do so understatedly with a smile. However, a post the academic wrote on his Facebook page on 15 April could in no way be described as understated: "The Investigative Committee and FSB have evidently been told to clamp down on all those who somehow try to object to these searches and seizures at the offices of NGOs. In doing this, they are striking at completely loyal citizens, turning them into committed critics of the authorities and of the situation in the country. At the same time those who hate Russia are rubbing their hands with delight - and not only that. Who and when and are we going to call to account for such acts of idiocy against our country?" 

An unprecedented event gave rise to the academic's indignation - the arrest of Mikhail Savva, Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor of Kuban State University, director of Grant Programs at the Southern Regional Resource Center (SRRC), human rights defender and member of various public councils. The well-known Krasnodar academic was first subjected to a 6 am search out of the blue (it will be recalled that investigators acting in such a way were once called "assholes" by prime minister Dmitry Medvedev) and then detained for 48 hours, which became two months. 

After the court hearing, which was held in closed session, it emerged that Savva was being accused of appropriating 366,000 roubles that the SRRC had received as part of a federal grant amounting to 800,000 roubles for implementing a 'Peace Building' project. "The point of the project, wrote FederalPress.South, was to train moderators with legal knowledge from the Tajik and Uzbek diasporas to handle conflict situations in their community. This project was the winner of the 'Advocacy' All-Russia Festival of Social Projects, supported by the Ministry of the Regions and the Civic Chamber of Russia. As part of that grant, around 30 million roubles was distributed in Krasnodar Krai, it says on the Professor's VKontakte support group

Investigators concluded that Savva should have used the allegedly stolen 366,000 roubles to carry out research into "Migrants' capacity for socialisation in Krasnodar Krai" but had carried out this research using other funds and had appropriated the "intended funds". So did he carry out the research or just pocket the funds? The Russian justice system long ago ceased to surprise us. But even if the charge were not quite so absurd, it is completely incomprehensible why pre-trial detention should have been chosen for such a distinguished person in the later stages of his life who, incidentally, has many colleagues willing to stand bail for him. 

But in fact, most paradoxical of all is not this, but the fact that the FSB is managing the case, rather than the Investigative Committee! Many observers have taken this to be a clear signal that the case was both political and ordered from above... 

"He is a competent and modest person with moderate views on public policy. I can vouch for his integrity so far as his dealings with money are concerned. His work to support NGOs was done in a correct manner and without politicization. Professor Savva has never been either a politician or an ardent opposition activist. He cooperated with the authorities until the very end and placed strong hopes in them. He also variously served as member of the Public Council of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for Krasnodar Krai, the Public Advisory Council of the region's Migration Service and the Public Council on the Development of Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights under the Governor. And yet, if you study his biography, public and professional activities, it is clear that his speeches were always moderate in tone, and he was always a principled and decent person, never saying or doing anything that could be interpreted as anything other than loyalty to the Government. 

The Professor's integrity was most recently demonstrated by his work defending Krasnodar NGOs. Savva wrote a very scathing article accusing the FSB of using medieval working practices. The article was published in Novaya Gazeta after the working practices of the security services it described had been used against Savva himself. The article featured an NGO representing the Tajik community, amongst others... 

However, the Professor's support for NGOs went further than this. Savva was arrested on the eve of a meeting of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, which was to present a report on the pressure NGOs in Kuban were being subjected to. From prison, the Professor could no longer write about  the practices that regional security officers were employing against NGOs. And it must be said that Krasnodar Krai is conspicuous for its legally questionable approach – even by comparison with other regions, where mass inspections of NGOs have already caused several international scandals. 

Some observers claim that the Professor was arrested because his organisation had, for many years, been receiving grants from international foundations, in addition to the Russian budget. However, this hypothesis can hardly be given credence, as the recently adopted law on foreign agents made things much simpler for the authorities and untied their hands. There is now no longer any need to look for round about ways to conduct prosecutions, such as embezzlement charges. 

It is most likely that Professor Savva was the victim of a "cumulative effect" and that his recent appearances were simply the last straw – or a good pretext – for the masters of Kuban. His position on the issue of inter-ethnic relations has always been too far removed from that of the Krasnodar authorities. And that subject has always been a controversial one for Krasnodar Krai! 

As a member of the Network for Ethnological Monitoring and Early Warning of Conflict, established in 1993 with assistance from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Savva always occupied a peacemaking positionhelped migrants to integrate,provided them with legal support, including in their fight against slavery, and researched xenophobia amongst Cossacks, who had the full support of Governor Tkachev. The Professor made his position known and, in connection with the famous comment by the Governor about people arriving from the Northern Caucasus, Savva accused Tkachev of failing to see a difference between Russian nationals, who have the right to travel throughout the country, and illegal migrants. 

It must be noted that Savva always expressed his views intelligently and had "moderate views on public policy", as Tishkov put it. But today, it seems, such a position is becoming untenable in the eyes of a government of siloviki that is gaining momentum, enjoys absolute power and profits from the impunity of regional mini-Tsars. In these circumstances, any decent person would speak out, just as Professor Savva did first by defending his  colleagues in the human rights movement, just as the academic Tishkov did later on by vouching for his colleague… 

I wonder how many will follow suit? Is anyone else prepared to rise to his defence from among former Ministers for Nationalities, members of the Presidential Council for Inter-Ethnic Relations or colleagues of the persecuted academic? 

Everything that is happening now concerning the Kuban Professor is a test of the decency and courage of individuals and of civil society in the country as a whole. And as they said in one fine Soviet film: "A test is a test for everyone."