Freedom for Belarusians at European Humanities University

‘Exiled’ institution’s temporary Lithuanian home offers opportunity for critical thinking. Matthew Reisz reports

February 7, 2013

The European Humanities University is a strange anomaly in the world of higher education: a Belarusian university operating on Lithuanian soil after being driven into exile by Belarus’ authoritarian president, and now overseen by an international governing board of educational experts and civil society leaders.

The EHU was “basically created by philosophers”, according to the current director of the history department, Pavel Tereshkovich.

In 1992, he says, “a generation of philosophers, including the rector [Anatoli Mikhailov], had an idea to change the world and, in particular, Belarus. So they took advantage of a short period of real democracy to set up the EHU in Minsk.

Another goal was to overcome the ideological blinkers and lack of contact with the outside world, which had characterised the Soviet period: “After the Cold War, we didn’t understand our colleagues from the West when we met up with them. The main goal was to close the gap.”

“The focus on the humanities is embedded in the name,” explains Darius Udrys, vice-rector for development and communications, “which reflects one of the important goals of the founders. The humanities and social sciences had been heavily ideologised under the Soviet system and this was an attempt to create an alternative to that heritage as Belarus liberated itself from the Soviet Union: to re-establish the humanities as serious fields of enquiry and not ideologically driven.”

In 1994, however, when Alexander Lukashenko became president of Belarus for the first time, Tereshkovich recalls how the new leader “saw the EHU as designed to prepare a new Western-thinking elite and said, ‘We don’t need such an elite, we will prepare our own’”. This led to a concerted campaign to close the university, with the rector summoned to the Ministry of Education and pressured to resign.

Since he refused to do so, the authorities instigated a series of inspections but found no cause for complaint and had to fall back on a transparent ruse: the EHU campus, like all buildings in the centre of Minsk, was officially rented from Lukashenko’s administration, so in the summer of 2004 the agreement was simply withdrawn. The president would later take personal credit for the closure.

That might have been the end of it, but these events soon generated much outrage and support. Universities in Russia, Poland and Bulgaria all opened their doors to EHU students wanting to complete their degrees. Money poured in from the European Commission, the Nordic Council of Ministers and many US private donors such as the billionaire George Soros. Both Poland and Lithuania offered to house a reborn EHU.

Since the latter borders Belarus, it became the preferred option and the university reopened in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, a year later in 2005, initially with around 250 new students. It celebrated its 20th anniversary at the end of last year, notably with an event at the British Academy jointly organised with the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.

Students studying at computer workstations

Divided learning

Of about 1,600 students at EHU, a third are on programmes in Vilnius while the rest study online from their homes in Belarus. There are also around 250 academic staff, some of them expelled from the Belarus state university sector, who generally come to Vilnius for a week at a time and stay in hotels. Teaching is carried out in Russian and Belarusian, as students and staff prefer, unlike in the official Belarusian universities where native speakers of Belarusian are expected to use only Russian.

As well as land and funds, the Lithuanian government has been generous in issuing visas to relatives who want to visit resident students. Since Lithuania is part of the Bologna Process and the EHU is registered as a Lithuanian university, graduates obtain qualifications recognised just about everywhere except by public-sector employers in their native Belarus.

Tatsiana Chulitskaya, a lecturer in political science who came to London for the anniversary events, studied at the Belarusian State University. She calls the EHU “a normal academic space, where students are free- minded, perhaps sometimes too free, which is very different from my own student experience, where we were given vast amounts of descriptive information but no critical thinking or liberal arts. Although the students have all come through the Belarusian secondary school system, after two or three years they are much freer and see themselves as European students, partly because of contact with Lithuanian universities.”

One EHU alumna described what the institution meant to her. She had started a degree at the Belarus State Economic University and then left because she “couldn’t stand the huge ideological pressure, constantly being told that our state is the best, the system works perfectly and so on. When I tried to express myself and answered questions in ways I was not expected to, I was told I would fail my exams and might even be deprived of a place in the student dormitory.”

Switching to the EHU meant “an absence of ideological pressure and a healthy environment for critical thinking, where you can argue with your professors if you don’t agree, without getting told off.

“That creates dialogue rather than monologue, which makes the process much more interesting.”

However, all this has proved far less congenial to Lukashenko.

Tereshkovich reports crude television campaigns where the EHU is presented as “full of political activists, drug users, drunks and prostitutes”. There are reports of harassment at the border, allegations that Belarusian guards delay students and staff by confiscating computers and passports before eventually letting them through.

At times of political tension, things can get even worse. Students involved in monitoring the 2010 presidential election in Belarus were rounded up and imprisoned and one professor spent several months in a KGB jail (the nation’s intelligence agency kept its Soviet-era name). A few years earlier, Tereshkovich remembers “a typical piece of KGB provocation” when he was called in for questioning, told that the EHU discredited the Belarusian state and urged to think hard about what he was doing. The very same day, he was summoned by the local police and accused of stealing a mobile phone.

Student working at desk

Maintain the character

Looking ahead, Udrys would like to see more teaching in English and a slight increase in the proportion of non-Belarusian students, although “we wouldn’t want to dilute the Belarusian character of the university - it exists for the sake of Belarusians who don’t have access to this kind of education. Our students have told us they have never experienced such widespread use of Belarusian in university or educational settings as at the EHU. They feel particularly free as Belarusians, and respected as Belarusians, more so than in Belarusian institutions.”

The EHU now seems firmly established in what Udrys calls “our new temporary home - hopefully temporary, since we would love to return to Belarus if we could be assured our academic freedom will be respected”. In teaching the values its philosophical founders were committed to - critical thinking, free enquiry and personal responsibility - it should also help to create “the kind of engaged conscientious citizens we would like to see in a democratic Belarus”, he adds.

“But it is hard to know when that transition will take place,” Udrys continues. “We encourage our students to think about the betterment of their society, and certainly admire and support those who choose to go back, and wish it was possible for us all to do something productive for Belarus. But we also respect the choice of those who seek further education or experience outside the country.”

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Exactly one year after this article appeared, there seems to be something not quite right about the European Humanities University. The Chair of the Senate, Prof Pavel Tserashkovich, a prominent historian from Belarus, has been dismissed before the expiry of his contract. There are reports that the Rector wishes to ensure that he is unable to address the Donors' Conference.

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