Belarussian students critical of their country's regime have welcomed a €5 million (£3.5 million) European Union scholarship programme for students expelled from universities for their political activities.
Under instructions issued by President Alexander Lukashenka, expulsion is in effect mandatory for students involved in activities officially deemed hostile to his regime - including for those who openly supported opposition candidates in the presidential election last March.
The EU's three-year scheme will fund tuition fees and maintenance grants for undergraduate places and 170 postgraduate places at the European Humanities University; it will also provide maintenance grants for students already enrolled there. The EHU, which was closed on Mr Lukashenka's orders in August 2004, is now operating in Vilnius, capital of neighbouring Lithuania.
The EU scheme will also provide maintenance grants for 100 students in neighbouring countries, in particular in Ukraine.
The Belarussian Committee for the Support of Political Victims (set up earlier this year by supporters of Alexander Milinkevich, a former physics lecturer at Grodno University and an unsuccessful presidential candidate) said in August that almost 400 students who had been expelled or were facing expulsion had applied for assistance.
Belarussian students at last month's All-Europe plenary session of the European Youth Parliament in Kiev commented that the EU initiative would "take away the fear" of losing their chance of higher education, although people who study abroad could face more trouble on their return.
They also foresaw logistical problems. "It's great, but how will people know about it?" wondered one student. "There have been scholarship schemes before - but people didn't know about them."
"I hope that the EU people will check that these really are political expulsions - and not people who failed their exams or just feel they'd like to go abroad," another said.
An EU spokesman said that these checks would be made.
The students said that the EU scholarships would not only provide financial assistance but would also offer moral support.
"I'd rather study in Belarus," said a third student, "but if I can't, then Ukraine is the best place for us.
"Belarussians don't need visas for Ukraine, and studying here would be a great experience of life."
One man admitted to having experienced "difficulties" connected with his political views.
He said: "These scholarships are really important, for these young democrats are the future of Belarus."