The slow, torturous turning of the screw

August 19, 2005

Faisal al Yafai explores the erosion of academic freedom in Belarus, where critical thinkers are forced underground

Even now, it is not clear why Pavel Krasovski was expelled from university. Officially, it was because he did not gain enough credits during the second year of his history degree. But that is not the full story. For the past four years, Krasovski has been involved in the Youth Front, a Belarusian opposition organisation that has been outspoken in its criticism of the Government. He even founded a local chapter in his home town. His problems started when the Youth Front put up candidates in local elections. That is when the KGB, as Belarus's post-Soviet state security service is still known, got involved.

Krasovski was expelled last October from the Pedagogical Minsk State University after indulging in activity that elsewhere might be seen as civic participation. But in the increasingly repressive Eastern European country that emerged after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, such freedoms are being slowly eroded and democratic gains chipped away. Sitting in a spartan milk bar in the heart of Minsk, the Belarusian capital, the 22-year-old sips Coca-Cola and tells how the KGB started putting pressure on the principal. "When that happens, the principal begins to wonder whether the school needs that student," he observes. In fact, the principal bluntly told him: "You don't want problems and I don't want problems."

Krasovski's expulsion is not unprecedented. Between September 2004 and May this year, seven politically active students were ejected from Belarusian universities and secondary schools, often without explanation. When two schoolgirls were threatened with expulsion, Krasovski organised a hunger strike. Eleven expelled students took part, calling on the Government to back off. They gained the support of the Belarusian national newspaper Nasa Niva . After 11 days, the group won a partial victory. The two schoolgirls were told they could stay on. But there was silence on the fate of the rest of the group. Krasovski has not been able to return to his studies and survives by doing odd jobs.

Reports from Belarus are infrequent and limited - a student denied graduation, an academic expelled, a university closed - but the trend is clear. While the eyes of the world are elsewhere, the screws are tightening on a country whose president has been called "Europe's last dictator". And higher education is on the front line. When Alexander Lukashenko was elected president in 1994, he issued a decree banning all textbooks written after the collapse of the Soviet state. He wanted to turn back the clock. One result is that students in every discipline feel they simply cannot trust the content of their courses. As one economics undergraduate says: "You look at the book and if it's from the Soviet era you think, aha, and close it."

Over the border in northern Poland, some 30 students from across Europe meet for a four-day conference on citizenship near the sprawling landscape of the Bialowieza National Park. The Belarusian authorities take a dim view of such gatherings and regard any of their nationals who attend as engaging in unwelcome political activity. Three months ago, the KGB reportedly declared such meetings a front for plotting the overthrow of Lukashenko. Its chief was quoted as saying: "Preparations for so-called colour revolutions are currently under way under the guise of international seminars and conferences."

As he walks through the quiet lanes of Bialowieza, Alan Flowers seems an unlikely revolutionary. He is a genial man who enjoys a good rapport with students many years his junior. The Kingston University life sciences lecturer has visited Belarus regularly since 1992. But last year he was met by a KGB officer who informed him that his name was on a list of people prohibited from entering the country and he would have to leave. He was banned from returning for five years.

Academics, Flowers says, "are under increasing pressure from authorities to conform, under threat of dismissal. Any subject that has political connotations is suspect to the regime, especially history and politics. If you're an academic in those fields, you're expected to toe the line." Flowers believes he was expelled because of his work in encouraging Belarusian students to form debating societies. But other reports have speculated that it was because of his work in radio ecology, linked to the Chernobyl disaster that in 1986 had a severe impact on Belarus. Either way, the suggestion is that he was viewed as a threat by the authorities. Just last month, another foreign academic was expelled. Terry Boesch, a US law professor who had lived in the country for two years, was given two hours to get out.

Flowers does not expect the situation to improve. The Ministry of Information has issued a decree to dismiss students and staff who engage in "inappropriate activities". "It's a very vague term and is aimed clearly at any students who stray from the government line," he says. To further ensure compliance, the state goes directly to the parents, warning them to raise their children properly. State employees, who have their contracts renewed annually, have been threatened with the sack if they do not keep their offspring in order.

When the KGB turn up to threaten students, they target people such as Tanja Anatsko - young, bright and proud of her country. The 22-year-old graduated a few weeks ago with a degree in foreign languages from Baranavichy State University. In a leafy park in Brest, a city in southwest Belarus, she tells a story that reveals the degree of political conformity enforced at her institution. Last year, when Anatsko wanted to take part in a debate in Russia, she had to submit a list of questions for approval to university authorities. They made it clear that nothing political was permitted. Such interference has become routine. "They have this stereotype, maybe paranoia, that all issues about politics are to do with Belarus and democracy and Lukashenko," Anatsko says. And yet she continues to attend such events when most might seek a quieter life.

"Debating is a chance for us to open the eyes of people of the world to our country," she says. "Many think Belarus is the last dictatorship. That's not right. I'm very proud of Belarus and this is partly what motivates me." Anatsko stuck to her guns over the issue of debating and still graduated. But she explains that the uncertain nature of the threats makes other students think twice. "The pressure is not obvious, but if you spend five years studying for your diploma and you think maybe you will be expelled two months before you finish, it makes you nervous about getting involved," she says. And she senses that things are getting worse. "It's not that I feel I can't say something in the road or to my friends - but it's just the start," she adds. "They are taking freedoms bit by bit. We have to think of the future." It is the desire to shape that future that persuades many to eschew the threats. Asked why students were risking their futures, another Belarusian student put it succinctly: "It seems a smaller danger to oppose the system now than to have it continue for our whole lives."

Far from being faux-revolutionaries, these students take real risks. They don't "disappear". They are not jailed. But the psychological pressure is relentless, as outlets for expression are slowly closed. A gentle turn of the screw. In December 2001, the Government deregistered the Belarusian Students' Association, the biggest student union in the country. The courts agreed with the Ministry of Justice that the BSA should be shut down because of the colours the organisation used in its logo. Because the BSA is a non-registered organisation, the press could be fined or closed down simply for mentioning it. But the association survives underground, with a membership close to 1,000.

In a grey, nondescript apartment block in the south of Minsk, a humble flat lined with books, files and music has become a refuge for student activists. Here, Alena Talapila, 20, who became chair of the BSA two months ago, explains why it was closed: because it mobilised students to vote - and that was seen as a potential threat. "We just want to give true information to people," she says. "Now state propaganda sees the European Union as some sort of monster and Russia as an angel. And it isn't like that. People need to know they have a choice."

In the two months since Talapila became chair of the BSA, the authorities have begun working on her. She has been placed under subtle but consistent pressure, with the tacit endorsement of her university. She gets summoned to the dean's office. There, she is met by a man who introduces himself as a member of the KGB. He talks about her activities and "suggests" it is time for them to end. Sometimes the threats are explicit: "You will fail your course, you will be expelled, your parents will be visited." Talapila observes how the intimidation works: "You're not sure what they can do, how powerful they are." One student tells of the severe stress of being called into the dean's office for ten hours in one month, enduring questions such as "why are you wearing that T-shirt?" or "are you going on any demonstrations today?".

Although past members of the BSA have been expelled from university, for now Talapila seems confident about her future. She says the BSA provides a support network for those threatened by the Government. But with three years of study to complete her languages degree at Minsk State Linguistic University, she admits that there could be trouble ahead.

If the pressure on students is growing, some institutions have already paid the ultimate price for their independence. On the northeast side of October Square in the centre of Minsk stand the classical columns and statues of the Trade Union Culture Palace. Behind it, the former site of the European Humanities University is crawling with construction workers. At one time, this well-respected private institution had more than 1,000 students and ran graduate courses in philosophy, law and languages. It was the only university in Belarus that offered a critical "Western" approach to education, where students could debate what they were taught rather than simply absorbing it. In July last year, the Government terminated the lease on the building and attempted to force its rector to resign. Both the EU and the US-based MacArthur Foundation stepped in, pledging funds to keep the EHU going. But it could do so only by moving to neighbouring Lithuania.

A year previously, the Yakub Kolas National Humanities Lyceum, the only school in the country that teaches pupils in the Belarusian language, was also forced underground. Lukashenko, who at one time sought a union with Russia, prefers Russian. In an outdoor cafe in Minsk, surrounded by a handful of bright, inquisitive 15-year-olds, sits Vladzimir Kolas, the founder and director of the Lyceum. He is a friendly, paternal man with a sure command of English. But there is steel in him.

Kolas founded the Lyceum in 1989 for gifted students aged between 13 and 17. Soon after Lukashenko became President in 1994, the school found itself under pressure. Attempts were made to acquire its building, to merge it with another school and, more recently, to replace Kolas with another principal. "She didn't even speak Belarusian," he recalls. But each time protests from parents and students thwarted the plans. Finally, the Council of Ministers simply issued a decree shutting the Lyceum for "the optimisation of the system of educational institutes". Now it runs clandestinely, teaching five days a week from rented flats around the city. "You can't imagine how difficult it is," Kolas says. "We are followed, we are watched, and it is especially hard for the teachers." He says the Government is probably aware of them and simply tolerates the situation. "They understand that there is a line they can't cross and that's when it comes to kids," he says. But that tolerance may not last. Kolas admits that he will probably be forced to move abroad if Lukashenko retains power in 2006.

The elections scheduled for early next year loom large over the country. They present a chance for change, while for the Government they raise the spectre of a Belarusian version of Ukraine's Orange Revolution. Kolas says the situation is getting worse as the election draws near. "They're changing the content of the curriculum and firing free-thinking lecturers," he says. "More than 50 per cent of academic hours are now dedicated to ideological teaching. Lukashenko has only a single state ideology - it's education in the spirit of totalitarianism." Kolas sees the attacks on nonconformity as an attempt to eliminate opposition. "If Lukashenko wins next year, this will continue and we'll lose our capacity to be part of Europe," he says. "We'll just get lower and lower. It will be a disaster."

Any prospect of forestalling such a fate rests on the existence of a credible opposition. Much of this is currently drawn from the student movement but is not well organised. Nevertheless, it could find a focus in a figure such as Alexander Kozulin, a 50-year-old former university rector who is spoken of as a potential challenger to Lukashenko. Kozulin calls the President's attacks on academe "absolute lawlessness" and warns that Lukashenko is transforming the education system into "an army barracks". "The consequences of such an approach will be catastrophic on all spheres of the state and society," he says. "But Lukashenko doesn't think about the people's future, only his own present."

Kozulin was one-time deputy in the Ministry of Education and was appointed rector of the Belarusian State University in 1996, the most senior position in the country's most prestigious university. He says BSU "achieved real autonomy" as a university. But when Lukashenko received the backing of just 18 per cent of BSU's students in the 2001 election, Kozulin's card was marked. There was even talk of sending him out of the country, into "exile" as the country's UN representative in New York. In 2002, Lukashenko was quoted by the opposition e-newspaper Charter97.org as saying that Kozulin "failed to fulfil all tasks set before him by me and to ensure maximum honesty in the presidential university. He failed it, so let someone else do it in his place". Then, in November 2003, within days of the arrest of the director of one of BSU's spin-off companies on suspicion of theft, the President fired Kozulin. Six months later, the company director was back in his post, all charges dropped. But Kozulin remained out.

Kozulin now leads Gramada, the Belarusian social democratic party. But he remains tight-lipped on whether he will challenge the President until the election is called. Furthermore, it is not clear what support he has. Although many students recognise Kozulin's name, other individuals, including Kolas, are considered possible contenders.

Back in the Minsk milk bar, Krasovski finishes his drink and talks of the future. He says the Government has to realise it must change. "The more they tighten the screw, the greater the risk that the situation in Belarus will explode," he warns. "The more you limit people's freedom, the more they want it. Within two years, I think there will be a change in people's minds and a crisis of government. If we use it positively, we could use this explosion to build a new government. If not, the prospects don't look good for the next 20 years."

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