Fee refusniks take to the tennis court

December 19, 1997

Protests over a surprise rise in tuition fees at Belarus State University in Minsk have taken a sporting turn after the presidentially-appointed rector accused students of playing at politics.

Members of the free students' union, who had been staging pickets and demonstrations against the decision by the rector, Alexander Kazulin, to double fees to $500 a semester, changed tactics and organised a tennis tournament.

The publicity stunt boosted their credibility among students and allowed them to poke fun at Kazulin, who has a reputation for slavishly following the line of the republic's dictatorial president Alexander Lukashenko.

About 50 members of the free students' union have refused to pay the new tuition fee - levied on 850 of the university's 17,000 students - arguing it is illegal.

Irina Dubovik, a journalist who has covered the story for the Workers Bulletin, the newspaper of the Belarus Free Trade Union, said: "Most of the students who pay fees meekly followed the rector's order and paid up at the beginning of term, but the refusniks argue that the university does not have the power to dictate in this fashion."

The students are talking with the rector about how the dispute may be resolved without it going to court. Meanwhile they are attending classes as normal.

Human rights activists in Belarus estimate that more than 1,800 young people, mostly students, have asked for help in court cases following demonstrations and other protests in the past six months.

University authorities habitually allow the police access to student halls of residence to search for evidence linking them to anti-Lukashenko groups.

Andrei Navumchik, a theology student at Minsk's European Humanities University, said that many pro-democracy activists who got into trouble were being forced to continue their studies in Poland or Russia.

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