Russia: Draft Damocles sword

EducationWorld November 2022 | International News Magazine

FEARS OF A BROADER DRAFT COULD BE USED to suppress opposition to the Ukraine war and fur­ther limit free speech on Russian campuses, giving universities a “powerful tool” to silence potential dissenters. To date, the Kremlin has said it is drafting only reservists to fight in Ukraine, with the presidential decree explicitly ex­empting students at public universities. But there’s anxiety that more young recruits — including those with no combat history — could soon be tapped as Russian losses mount.

While university students are expected to remain exempt from Russia’s obligatory year-long military service, the war effort has increased the risk for students who step out of line, warn academics. “If you’re expelled, you go straight to the army… the universities now have an extremely power­ful tool to pressure students indulging in social or politi­cal activities,” says Anna Lyubimtseva, coordinator of the Freedom Degree project, which fields queries from Russian students facing dismissal.

Institutions could use the threat of conscription not only to stifle students’ criticism of the war, but also to maintain control over “basically everything which will make an im­pact on universities’ image”, she adds.

Igor Chirikov, senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berke­ley, says with an ongoing war, “the stakes are much higher” for young men. “The danger of being mobilised is still there for students, which is why a lot of them prefer to flee the country, despite assurances,” he says.

Dr. Chirikov says that inside and between institutions, mobilisation has created rifts. Distance learners are not cov­ered under the exemption for public university students, for example. More than 300,000 students at private universi­ties are also not exempt under the September 21 order. But while Russia’s defence ministry agreed to broaden the scope of the exemption on October 1, saying that private institu­tions would also benefit from an exemption, their earlier exclusion sent a message, says Chirikov.

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