Belarussians seek places abroad

June 26, 1998

Efforts are being made to find places abroad for students excluded from Belarussian universities on political grounds.

But places at universities in Russia are being refused because it could be interpreted as an acceptance of the policy pursued by President Alaksandr Lukashenka to achieve a greater integration between the two countries.

Belarus's Helsinki Watch Committee, which monitors the implementation of "Basket 3" (human and civil rights) of the 1985 Helsinki Accords, is central to the exercise and one member, who visited London this month, said the effort was not a matter of emigrating "for life".

"They will go abroad to study so that they can develop their talents and knowledge in order better to serve Belarus and the cause of democracy." How and when democracy will come, he did not know. "I should be lying if I said I saw light at the end of the tunnel", he said. "We can but hope."

The Finns have offered a number of places on courses where the language of tuition is English. But not all Belarussian students are fluent in English. The standard of foreign language teaching in Belarus is still low - a relic of Soviet times, when the Communist leadership viewed western languages as potentially dangerous knowledge. For those with insufficient English, places are being sought in the Czech Republic and Poland, where the languages, more similar to Belarussian, should be easier to learn.

One option has been turned down; all Belarussian school children learn Russian - indeed, under President Lukashenka, Russian has been raised to the status of a "state" language, and there has been a drive to return to the situation of Soviet times when virtually all teaching was carried out in Russian.

Pro-democracy Russians, in particular the Andrei Sakharov Foundation in Moscow, have offered to find university places in Russia for the expelled Belarussian students.

But this option has had to be rejected. The whole thrust of President Lukashenka's rule is to "integrate" Belarus into Russia. Students, whose political "offence" has been to speak out for their country's independence and who want closer ties to Central and Western Europe, feel that to accept it would give the wrong message.

President Lukashenka appoints all university rectors and has made them and their deans responsible for imposing political conformity on students.

Student hostels are subject to random police searches, and students who take part in overt anti-presidential political activity are to be expelled. University officials who refuse to comply with this ruling risk losing their jobs.

As one young Belarussian now doing postgraduate work in London said, since all exams in Belarus are oral, it is easy to oust a "dissident" student from university simply by claiming that he or she failed the sessional examinations. Without written papers there is no mechanism for appeal.

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