Presidential duress: fears for Belarusian academic freedom

Scholars and students imprisoned as Alexander Lukashenko tightens grip. Colin Graham reports

February 10, 2011

Leading Belarusian academics are calling for urgent reform of higher education in the country amid international concern about the treatment of students and scholars who opposed the recent re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Mr Lukashenko has been in power in the former Soviet state for 16 years and reportedly won 80 per cent of the vote in December's presidential election.

However, the result has been widely questioned and there is widespread disquiet about the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators who protested against the result, including many academics and students.

The European Students' Union is attempting to ramp up international pressure by persuading 10 European governments to condemn the move.

In a draft letter to Sergei Maskevich, the Belarusian education minister, the participating governments, which include Norway, Estonia, Denmark and Lithuania, say it "is deeply unjustified" to prevent "the quest of knowledge" because of people's political views.

Bert Vandenkendelaere, chairman of the union, warned that students were facing a repeat of the persecution previously suffered in the country in 2006.

"We are disgusted to see the same situation happening all over again," he said. "We receive reports of house searches and KGB interrogations that remind us of Stalinist times.

"If international pressure is not enough, we ask for additional measures to be taken, especially to protect those who stood up for their opinion."

Spare the staff

Vladimir Dunayev is the former rector of the European Humanities University, a Belarusian institution now based in neighbouring Lithuania (it was closed by the authorities in 2004 but relaunched in Vilnius the following year). He urged the Lukashenko government not to seek further reprisals against its opponents in the academy, amid fears that the arrests could be followed by a wave of academic expulsions.

"We need to protect what are unshakeable academic values and freedoms," he said.

"It is essential that any charges against students and dismissals from universities do not occur under the guise of academic failure and (accusations of) truancy. Students should have the right to peaceful protest."

Yet meaningful reform looks unlikely following the announcement last month of plans for a new Code of Education, which students will be forced to sign from September.

In a move described by Professor Dunayev as an "administrative" approach to education, the contract will set out students' "rights, duties and responsibilities". He argued that what was needed was something that guaranteed "the academic rights of students and teachers".

Others have called for reform of the way Belarusian universities teach. Viktor Martinovich, a professor in the Faculty of Politics at European Humanities, said the pedagogic approach had not changed for a century, with lecturers speaking and students writing.

Such rote learning was completely ineffective, he added.

Professor Martinovich also bemoaned the level of foreign language teaching in Belarus, adding that there "was no other country in Europe where it is so bad".

Exile on Vilnius street

One student who has fallen victim to the government crackdown is Vladimir Kumets, who until recently was a student of foreign affairs at the International Humanitarian-Economic Institute in Minsk. He is now in exile in Vilnius after choosing to campaign for the opposition presidential candidate, Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu.

He told Times Higher Education: "There is no doubt that they got rid of me because of my political activity. The papers for my expulsion were completed retroactively after I attended a meeting aimed at nominating delegates for the All-Belarusian People's Assembly."

Mr Kumets claimed that one of his lecturers had been "forced" to reduce his examination score, which resulted in him failing his course.

But by being in Vilnius, he does have some hope of continuing his studies.

Although there are as yet no figures on the number of students expelled from universities in Belarus, European Humanities has launched an emergency fund to help pay for placements for students kicked out for opposing Mr Lukashenko.

The fund has already gained some high-profile backers, such as the Nordic Council of Ministers, which donated €20,000 (£17,000), and the Danish government, which has contributed €75,000.

"It is not clear yet how extensive the expulsions will be and the number of students who will want to transfer to European Humanities," said Irena Vaisvilaite, vice-rector of the university. "But we want to be ready if and when this happens."

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