Belarus police pursue dissident draft dodgers

January 5, 2007

Belarussians attending university abroad are ordered home to complete compulsory national service, writes Vera Rich

Young male Belarussian students who have gone abroad to study after being expelled from home universities are being sought by police for failing to complete compulsory military service.

Students who remain in Belarus can defer military service, but this automatically expires if they face expulsion.

In recent weeks, Charter 97, the human rights organisation, has logged several cases in southern Belarus of police telephone calls or visits to parents of students who have gone abroad.

"Police phoned us at home and told me that my son is a criminal," one woman from Svietlahorsk said. Another said: "They said that if our son could not be found, they would search for him through Interpol." The students would be brought back to Belarus "in handcuffs" and face criminal charges, the police said.

Under the constitution, Belarus is a neutral state and does not engage in military activity outside its frontiers, including United Nations peacekeeping operations. It has more young men reaching military age than are needed for its armed forces, and many male students avoid the draft by taking "military studies" courses while at university.

The threats against young activists studying abroad and the pressure on their parents would appear to be politically motivated, although draft officials denied this.

It seems unlikely that Interpol would be willing to get involved. However, such students could be arrested if they returned to Belarus. Even if only a few were caught and charged, the threat would alarm many parents into pressing their sons to abandon their studies overseas.

There are several hundred Belarussians studying abroad after losing their university places at home for participating in political activities deemed hostile to the ruling regime.

A number of foreign donors, including the European Union, have established scholarships for them. One leading establishment for such studies is the European Humanities University, formerly based in the Belarussian capital, Minsk but closed on the orders of Alexander Lukashenka, the Belarussian President, in 2004. It now operates in Vilnius in neighbouring Lithuania.

Lecturer Sviatlana Naumova, speaking at a conference at the EHU last month, said that the Belarussian regime was constructing a new iron curtain around higher education.

The websites of major Belarussian universities offer virtually no information about international co-operation or student exchange programmes.

The regime was "cultivating two myths," she said: first, that the Belarussian education system, being heir to that of the Soviet Union, was the best in the world; and, second, that since Belarus trained its graduates for employment within the country it could ignore developments in higher education abroad.

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