Council of Europe 'concern' for Belarus academy

May 12, 2011

Concern for academics and students in Belarus came to a head at a recent meeting of the Council of Europe's steering committee for higher education and research.

As Times Higher Education has reported, mass demonstrations followed the re-election in December of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 16 years.

Students and academics, among hundreds of others, were arrested for taking part in the protests and some were jailed for several weeks.

Bert Vandenkendelaere, chairman of the European Students' Union, said that although all the students seemed to have been released, "a group of 20 remain expelled from their courses, officially for poor academic progress, although in reality for missing exams in December and January while they were in prison".

He said that the authorities had told the students that they must wait a year to reapply.

Mr Vandenkendelaere said the climate for students in Belarus "is really bad ... We are talking about the abuse of higher education to prevent people from exercising their freedom of association and expression."

He deplored a return to the persecutions of 2004, when close to 200 students were expelled and the European Humanities University was obliged to relocate over the border to Lithuania.

Today, academics who protest are being "kicked out or forced to flee the country", Mr Vandenkendelaere said. The ESU persuaded the education ministers of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania and Sweden to raise the issue with their Belarusian counterparts.

Last month, the Council of Europe's steering committee expressed "concern" about the situation, in the face of strong objections from the Belarusian representative.

While welcoming this, Mr Vandenkendelaere raised concern about a "codex", or code of conduct, set to become law in Belarus in September.

While restating Belarus' commitment to joining the Bologna Process, the code prohibits, within educational institutions, "the creation and operation of political parties and other public associations that pursue political goals".

Although students' unions are not explicitly mentioned, Mr Vandenkendelaere said it seemed likely that the codex would apply to them.

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