Czechs offer tips to topple dictator

January 5, 2007

Student dissidents from Belarus are being coached in regime change by Czechs who experienced Prague's Velvet Revolution nearly 20 years ago, writes Nick Holdsworth.

A week-long "winter school" for a group of Belarussians hosted by Masaryk University is among the latest university and government-backed schemes to help promote democracy in the former Soviet Republic. President Alexander Lukashenka last March won a third term in elections that were criticised by the European Union as having been neither free nor fair.

Bohuslav Binka, an assistant professor at Masaryk's social sciences faculty, said the week-long series of seminars on the economic and political transformation experienced by the Czechs was designed to help school Belarussian dissidents in how to manage regime change.

"There are differences and similarities between the situation in Belarus today and that in Czechoslovakia in 1989; Belarussian propaganda, which is very emotional and manipulative, is closer to that used here in the 1950s, but the political atmosphere is similar to the late 1980s," said Dr Binka, who was 17 at the time of the Velvet Revolution and came from a family divided between loyal Communists and dissidents.

"I do think there is a chance of regime change in Belarus, but it depends on a number of factors, including Russia, which may or may not help Mr Lukashenka. The activities of the opposition in Belarus are certainly similar to those of the Czechoslovak opposition in 1987-88, which may be a sign that the regime is coming to an end, since that was the case here," Dr Binka added.

He warned that the experiences of one country under a totalitarian regime could not always be applied to another.

Organisers of the winter school selected 15 Belarussians from more than 100 who expressed interest in attending, although one of those chosen failed to arrive in Brno because of "problems with his passport".

Many of the students, aged between 19 and their late twenties, had been expelled from Belarussian universities, but some who had not yet come to the attention of the authorities were taking care not be identified in press reports about the school, Dr Binka said.

Although aimed primarily at Belarussian students, Masaryk's winter school was also open to Czech students, Dr Binka said, with between 60 and 80 observers turning up for each session.

Two Belarussian students from the group would be offered six-month scholarships to study at the social sciences faculty, which offers courses both in Czech and English.

Last year, Jiri Zlatuska, Czech senator and former rector of Masaryk, said that opening Czech universities to Belarussians was both a practical measure and a signal of disapproval of the Lukashenka regime.

The Czech Republic administers some 25 schemes to support Belarussian dissidents.

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