Minsk campus loses powers

June 6, 2003

Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenka has assumed powers to hire or fire the rector of the "flagship" Belarusian State University in Minsk.

The university lost its right to elect its rector or to recommend that a rector be removed under a decree issued last month.

The appointment of heads of other universities in Belarus is a presidential prerogative but the state university had retained a certain autonomy - although over the past two years its status had been gradually eroded.

Until autumn 2001, the university ranked as a government ministry and its rector had the status of a minister and member of the government. Its financing (which amounted to one-third of government spending on higher education) formed a separate item in the state budget.

But in the presidential elections of autumn 2001, the university failed to give President Lukashenka the support he had expected. As a result, the rector was deprived of his ministerial rank just as the university was about to celebrate its 80th anniversary. The celebrations were boycotted by the president and all senior government figures.

From then on, President Lukashenka took a deep interest in the university.

He spent two days looking into its financial and educational activities, after which he concluded that the university leadership devoted too much time to thinking about its own financial matters and not enough on its principal task - serving as an arm of government.

On President Lukashenka's orders, the department of fundamental and alternative medicine was closed, followed by the department of architecture.

When, late last year, the Belarusian parliament tried to appoint university rector Aleksandr Kozulin as permanent representative of Belarus at the United Nations, President Lukashenka vetoed the move - although this parliament is made up entirely of the president's supporters.

Professor Kozulin remained at the university amid speculation that he would soon be dismissed.

In March, President Lukashenka warned academics who did not agree with the views of the head of state that they had no place in state universities. He advised university personnel who could not accept the presidential "ideology", to "resign quietly without giving any reason".

Although the Belarusian constitution guarantees freedom of "creative, scholarly and technical activity and teaching", Human Rights Watch has previously criticised President Lukashenka for centralising control for campuses and banning political activities.

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