Lost languages gain a strong voice

December 29, 1995

EASTERN EUROPE. The year 1995 could go down in history as the year in which the validity of a Polish presidential election was challenged over whether or not the successful candidate could be said to have received a higher education.

Of the 600,000-odd complaints alleging irregularities in the election of Aleksander Kwasniewski to the presidency, all but a handful dealt with his academic record. Undoubtedly, the query over Kwasniewski's curriculum vitae was a convenient tool for the Catholic/right-wing to challenge the election of an ex-Communist. But it underlines how emotive an issue higher education can be in the post-Communist lands which effectively have no other elite.

"Academics are the jewels of the nation", proclaimed the founding assembly of the Congress of the Ukrainian Intelligentsia in October, challenging the Ukrainian president and government with a long list of demands including halting the brain drain, payment of arrears of academic salaries, and upgrading the use of Ukrainian.

These demands are typical of much of the post-Communist world. In some areas of the former Soviet Union - the Baltic States and western Ukraine in particular - the teaching of Russian in schools stopped almost overnight with independence in 1991. But decades of Soviet emphasis on Russian as the language of science means that the languages of the newly independent states lacked the necessary technical vocabulary in many new and expanding fields.

Terminological conferences, and the publication of specialist dictionaries have continued this year to be a major feature of academic life, and are considered an important part of the state-building process. With one exception, Belarus, whose president, Alaksandr Lukashenka, is promoting all things Russian, in August banned post-independence textbooks in the humanities and social sciences trying to reinstate the old Soviet texts he considers "unbiased".

But state-building efforts of the ethnic majority may be seen as a threat to minority rights, in particular, as regards mother-tongue education. This year, new legislation in Slovakia and Romania has been so perceived by their substantial Hungarian minorities, and have evoked protests and student demonstrations. In Moldova, however, the language protests have come from the majority: with Moldavian students demanding - in the name of patriotism - that their language should officially be termed Romanian. Otherwise, they fear, Moldova may be reabsorbed by Russia.

Unofficial "minority" universities continue to operate in Vilnius, where the private Polish-language university depends a lot on financial help from Polish communities in North America and western Europe. In Kosovo, the (illegal) "alternative" Albanophone university this summer produced its first cohort of graduates since the Serbian takeover of the Pristina University campus.

In neighbouring Macedonia, the Albanian-taught University of Tetovo (founded in December 1994), began its teaching activities to the accompaniment of police violence and the arrest of its rector, Fadil Sulejmani. Harassment by the Macedonian authorities (who claim that the existence of the university is "unconstitutional") has continued with such bizarre incidents as the seizure of Albanian-language metallurgy textbooks by the Macedonian customs.

These unofficial universities operate under considerable financial difficulty. But so does the higher educational and research establishment. Arrears of salaries and non-payment of bills remain endemic - and, on occasion, can reach spectacular proportions. (In November, Russia almost lost its most modern research ship, impounded for debt in Bremerhaven, and rescued from auctioneers with only hours to spare.) In most countries in the region, free higher education for all is evidently on the way out. The founding of private colleges and universities in the early 1990s has to a certain extent helped prepare public opinion for the eventual introduction of tuition fees in the state sector. However, the unexpected introduction of fees in Hungary this year evoked nationwide student protests, and the founding of a new, radical, student union. But in the Czech Republic, the passage of the enabling legislation for fees caused no such outcry - possibly because student loans were included.

Universities and research institutions throughout the region still look to western colleagues and funding institutions for assistance. UK contributions this year have ranged from an aid programme, sponsored by the Association of University Teachers, for the universities of Sarajevo and Tuzla in Bosnia, to the handover of an entire Antarctic research station to Ukraine. Learned conferences in the post-Communist lands likewise continue to depend significantly on funding from the Soros Foundation and similar bodies.

But the first signs of improvement are appearing. Slovenia, at least, is now able to make a financial contribution to international academic life. For this November, the first-ever Slovene Studies' Day in the UK took place at London University's School of Slavonic and East European Studies - with the sponsorship and financial support of the Slovene embassy and Slovene business interests.

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