Belarus poised for unrest

March 23, 2007

Campaign to free an academic jailed for challenging the country's president starts to take off, writes Vera Rich

The wife of Alexander Kazulin, physicist and former rector of the Belarussian State University who in March 2006 challenged Alexander Lukashenka for the country's presidency, has called on academics and students throughout the world to campaign for her husband's release from "inhuman prison conditions".

Dr Kazulin is serving a five-and-a-half year sentence in connection with the protests that followed Mr Lukashenka's re-election.

More demonstrations and resulting repression are expected after "Freedom Day" (March 25), the anniversary of the declaration of Belarussian independence in 1918 and a year since the controversial elections.

Dr Kazulin has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. According to his wife, he "staged a 53-day hunger strike in prison, protesting against human rights violations in our country, abductions and murders of people, the suppression of newspapers, and beatings of women, journalists and young people during peaceful demonstrations".

Another prominent scholar, historian Yauhien Anishchanka, recently lost his job for failing to follow the party line, having been declared a person inconsistent with the post of an academic and a research assistant.

The exact grounds for this allegation were not stated, but Mr Anishchanka believes that it is because of his interest in the 18th-century partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which brought what is now Belarus under imperial Russian rule.

Restrictions of all kinds are rife in Belarus, such as constraints on students travelling abroad and harassment of those who do go, even during holiday periods. One group of language students who visited Ukraine last month were interrogated for ten hours.

Not surprisingly, Belarus has suffered a major brain drain as young graduates have left the authoritarian regime. The Government views such students as deserters from reservist military service so that, if they return home for a visit, they are liable to arrest.

However, since science and engineering graduates, especially, have a good chance of finding work abroad, their departure represents a major challenge for Mr Lukashenka, who is keen to develop the country's nuclear capacity.

The Government has plans to commence construction of its first nuclear powerstation next year. But Vasyl Nestyarenka, a Belarussian expert on nuclear safety, warned that Belarus has no qualified staff to run such a power station and that to train them would take at least ten years.

During the 1990s, the Sakharov Institute of Radio-Ecology in Minsk produced some 20 graduates a year in nuclear engineering. But since the death of its first rector, Alexander Lutsko in 1997, the profile of this institution has changed. The institute is now known as the Sakharov Environmental University and focuses for the most part on alternative energy sources rather than nuclear power.

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