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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

European University in St. Pete Shut Down

St. Petersburg city authorities have temporarily closed down one of the city's leading independent universities for fire-safety violations in a move that opposition activists call politically motivated.

The European University at St. Petersburg, a private institution founded in 1994 that receives funding from Western foundations, received a court order to close last Thursday after fire-safety inspectors uncovered violations in January.

"Classes have completely stopped," university president Nikolai Vakhtin said by telephone Monday.

Vakhtin said he had no reason to believe that the shutdown had political motives, but opposition activists call it payback for the university's research into Russian politics.

"This is a political decision," said Maxim Reznik, head of the St. Petersburg branch of the liberal Yabloko party. "That is perfectly obvious. The fire-safety violations are just an excuse."

Reznik linked the closure to a grant the university received last year from the European Union to study Russian elections.

Part of the EU grant was initially earmarked for the training of election observers from various parties -- including opposition ones like Yabloko -- which provoked the ire of pro-Kremlin lawmakers and city officials last summer.

State Duma Deputy Gadzhimet Safaraliyev, a member of the United Russia party and deputy head of the Duma's Education Committee, accused the university in June 2007 of violating its charter by participating in activities that were overtly political.

The science committee of the St. Petersburg city government agreed with Safaraliyev in August 2007, and Vakhtin canceled plans to train election observers.

He said Monday the university had never trained any election observers and denied that politics were behind the safety violations.

"One can fantasize about this and come up with all sort of reasons, but the facts that I have do not bear out this explanation," Vakhtin said.

A woman who answered the phone at the fire-safety office in St. Petersburg's central district, which discovered the violations, said nobody was available to comment Monday.

A spokeswoman for the city's branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry, which oversees fire-safety inspectors, also said nobody was available to comment.

Reznik, however, called the university an "uncontrolled space" that had long rubbed city authorities the wrong way, and he charged that the controversy over the EU grant had inspired them to find an excuse to shut it down.

Vakhtin said the university had eliminated the violations and filed a petition requesting a follow-up inspection, which he hoped would take place Tuesday, allowing the university to reopen.

The European University at St. Petersburg frequently hosts visiting scholars from abroad. It currently has about 150 Russian students and 20 foreign ones.