A group of Oxford graduates and Russian human rights activists have written to the Guardian calling for Oxford University to reconsider a £75 million donation it accepted from billionaire Leonard Blavatnik in 2010 and review “The Award for Excellence in Foreign Investment in Russia,” an annual award given by the Saïd Business School and Alfa Bank.
The letter calls for the university to “carry out new and independent due-diligence investigation,” for “politicians and other prominent public figures who endorsed the BSG [Blavatnik School of Government]…to withdraw their support” and for a “vigorous public debate that involves students, alumni, tutors, NGOs, political dissidents and industry experts”.
Blavatnik, a Russian-born businessman living in London, provided the donation to fund the construction of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government (BSG), which is now moving into a new, permanent facility on Walton Street.
It is in light of BSG’s move that the letter’s signatories, which include Soviet dissidents and some non-Oxford academics, hope to draw attention to what they perceive as corrupt business practices by Blavatnik and a group of other Russian billionaires, like Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, both of whom are involved with the Alfa Bank.
The petition states the three men “belong to a consortium of Russian billionaires called Access-Alfa-Renova (AAR). The consortium has long been accused of being behind a campaign of state-sponsored harassment against BP. In 2008-09 dozens of British and other western managers were forced out of Russia. These corporate abuses took place in Russia with active official support.”
A university spokesperson told Cherwell, “Oxford University has a thorough and robust scrutiny process in place with regard to philanthropic giving. The Committee to Review Donations conducts appropriate due diligence based on publicly available information. The University is confident in this process and in its outcomes.”
“Generous philanthropic donations help make [our world-leading work] possible, supporting outstanding teaching and research discoveries of worldwide benefit,” the spokesperson added.
Professor Ngaire Woods, Dean of the BSG, stated, “Leonard Blavatnik is a philanthropist who has given to many British and American charities and Universities. He has made Oxford’s School of Government possible by stepping up to the plate as the first major donor to the School.”
However, Ilya Zaslavskiy, an Oxford graduate and former head of the Oxford alumni society in Moscow, who was responsible for organizing the petition, told Cherwell, “Oxford’s response reminds me of a broken hurdy-gurdy that repeats the same empty words which hardly any of those who took decisions on cooperating with oligarchs genuinely believe or practice.
“The press service can continue pouring phrases like ‘thorough and robust scrutiny process’ into the ears of the majority of Oxford Congregation [the University’s governing body] who sadly have little clue about actual human rights abuses in Putin’s Russia.
“This is not what should be expected from the leading global institution that teaches good governance and states high ethical norms in its own regulations as a goal.”
He also claimed that Professor Woods compared the positive effect of Blavatnik’s donation to that of Cecil Rhodes and told him in 2010 “that, while Blavatnik may not be an angel, he is better than other oligarchs”.
Zaslavskiy went on to say that “Putin’s oligarchs have essentially colonized Russia in the worst traditions of the nineteenth century.”