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Russian scientists stage rare anti-government protest

Russian president Vladimir Putin at a press conference, 18 December 2014
Russian president Vladimir Putin at a press conference, 18 December 2014 Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev

Several thousand protesters, including scientists and intellectuals, took to the streets of Moscow on Saturday to express fears for the future of scientific research, which is becoming mired in red tape.

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The protest was originally called in support of a top private foundation, Dynasty, whose 82-year-old founder, philanthropist Dmitry Zimin, has come under fire for financing Russian science from overseas accounts.

The justice ministry in late May added the ex-telecoms magnate's foundation to its list of "foreign agents" under a 2012 law.

The legislation, described by President Vladimir Putin as "self-defence" against the financing of political activities in the country from abroad, was met with huge protests at the time.

Fears are mounting that this will be part of a broader Kremlin crackdown on the media, rights activists and the opposition.

Zimin, a widely respected former radio engineer who has spent millions of dollars supporting scientific research, has threatened to shut down Dynastybecause he refuses to continue his work whilst being effectively named a traitor to his country.

He has demanded an apology from the authorities and temporarily left Russia.

Dozens of prominent scientists have said the foundation's closure would have a disastrous impact on the future of scientific research in Russia.

The centre funds schools, teachers and supports docorate students who are on low salaries, reports RFI Moscow correspondent, Thomas Lowe.

At the rally, Lowe said, many prominent scientists gave speeches, while others brandished placards with phrases such as"Russia without science is just a pipe" referring to Russia's oil dependance.

"I would say in the sense of efficiency and the quality of organisation, Dynasty was the best I ever met," Andrei Saturin, a head research scientist at Moscow University told RFI. "I was a lecturer at the schools that were supported by the Dynasty foundation and I’ve seen what kind of young people they put together … I do realise the scale of the disaster."

More than 250 Russian scientists, most of them working abroad, signed an open letter in support of Zimin, saying they were "outraged and extremely worried" by the pressure on the fund and its possible consequences.

They say the government is boosting defence spending at the expense of science, education and health care, most likely due to tensions with the West over the Ukraine crisis.

"Alas, science is slowly dying," astrophysicist Boris Shtern told the rally. "The massive advance of ignorance is being supported by the media and authorities."

For many young scientists Dynasty's grants were the only reason to stay in Russia.

Mikhail Nikitin, a 32-year-old biologist finishing a book he was hoping could be published with the help of the fund told AFP that "without the Dynasty young scientists would begin leaving the country abruptly".

Zimin's foundation has a 2015 budget of 435 million roubles (6.9 million euros).

Dynasty will convene a meeting on Monday to decide its future strategy.

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