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Moscow Times
May 30, 2008
Academy Votes Against Putin's Friend
By Nikolaus von Twickel / Staff Writer

In an apparent show of independence, the Russian Academy of Sciences failed to grant full membership to a government-connected academic who had been widely tipped as the next head of the country's most eminent scientific institution.

Mikhail Kovalchuk, who along with his brother, billionaire banker Yury Kovalchuk, is a close friend of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was not among the 44 academics elevated from associate member to full member of the Academy's General Assembly, Interfax reported Thursday.

Analysts said the vote showed at least some ability on the Academy's part to resist political meddling, despite its dependence on state funds.

"Kovalchuk was being pushed by the Kremlin as the choice to take over the Academy soon," said Edward Lozansky, the president of the American University. "This is a great setback [for the government] and speaks well for Academy's independence," he added.

Kovalchuk heads the influential Kurchatov Institute, a former nuclear research center that received $1 billion from the federal budget last year to develop nanotechnology.

Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Center of Current Politics, a think tank, said the lavish funding that had been bestowed on his institute caused envy in the Academy.

"The majority [of the General Assembly] did not want him because he was given a lot of money that the rest of the academic community did not get," Vinogradov said.

Kovalchuk also is director of the Shubnikov Institute of Crystallography, which made headlines following the mysterious death last week of one of its deputy directors after she opened a letter addressed to Kovalchuk that contained a white powder. Authorities said Svetlana Zheludeva's death was unrelated to the letter.

Kovalchuk retains his status as a correspondent member, his spokesman Alexander Pisarevsky said Thursday. He refused to comment on the result of the elections.

Others who failed in the vote included Deputy Economic Development Minister Andrei Belousov, Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin and Gennady Semgin, head of the Patriots of Russia party. All three had been vying for spots among the 120 associate members that were elected, Vedemosti reported.

Calls to the Academy's press service were not answered Thursday.

The assembly, which convened on Monday and is meeting for seven days, is choosing a new president Friday, and observers expect that it will re-elect the incumbent, Yury Osipov, to the post.

Osipov, who will turn 72 in July, has been at the Academy's helm since 1991. Two other candidates, Vladimir Fortov and Valery Chereshnev, will oppose him.

There have been increasing rumblings within the Academy that it is time for a change in leadership, Kommersant reported this week.

Regardless of the leadership issue, Putin has promised to boost funding for the sciences. In a televised address to the Academy's assembly on Thursday, he promised spending of around 600 billion rubles ($25 billion) on scientific institutions through 2010.

He also promised to boost the average monthly salaries of scientists to 30,000 rubles ($1,270) this year from the current 20,000 rubles.