As students protest, Belarusian universities aid regime crackdown

Observers say the country’s universities are led by loyalists, and have long supported president by expelling opposition students and teaching pro-government ideology courses

October 2, 2020
Students make V-signs as they stage a protest outside Minsk State Linguistic University. Mass protests erupted in major cities across Belarus after the announcement of the results of the 2020 Belarusian presidential election on August 9
Source: Getty
Focus of opposition: students stage a protest outside Minsk State Linguistic University in September

For close to two months, students and academics have been prominent among the hundreds of thousands of Belarusians braving arrest, beatings and reported rape and torture to protest the re-election – widely seen as fraudulent – of president Alexander Lukashenko.

Less obvious, say Belarusian academics and observers of the regime, is the reality that Belarusian universities themselves are pillars of Mr Lukashenko’s 26-year-old creaking power structure.

He has tried to make universities “backbones of his regime”, though not always successfully, said Maksimas Milta, a political scientist at the European Humanities University, a liberal-leaning institution itself forced out of Belarus to neighbouring Lithuania in 2004.

Mr Lukashenko’s control starts at the top. In Belarus, university rectors are appointed by the president, and the rectors in turn appoint much of the university management.

Heads of department are seen as somewhat more independent, in some cases even being directly critical of the government.

In some institutions there are bodies with names like “academic councils”, said Mr Milta, but in reality, these are merely for “propaganda” purposes, possessing no real autonomous, senate-like power.

The result is that the upper echelons of many Belarusian universities appear to have lined up firmly behind the regime during this year’s protests.

At the beginning of September, the Belarusian National Technical University, based in the capital Minsk, approved new rules for employees, telling them “not to rally, not to express political sympathies, [and] not to use non-governmental symbols”, according to local media reports.

George Vershina, first vice-rector of the institution, told Times Higher Education that the new rules had been “under consideration since May 2020”, before the election, but stressed that “the university must be beyond politics”.

In mid-September, a physics lecturer at the Belarusian State University who helped organise a strike in the early stages of the protests was fired. The university claimed this had nothing to do with politics and was instead about her missing classes on a day the previous week.

Then, in late September, the rector of Minsk State Linguistic University (MSLU) reportedly banned unauthorised protests on campus. MSLU has been a focus of opposition since the election: in mid-September academics released a hard-hitting video denouncing violence after riot police snatched several student protesters who had gathered to sing, among other things, Do You Hear the People Sing? in protest against the regime.

This kind of reported repression on campus is likely just “the tip of the iceberg”, said Tatsiana Chulitskaya, a political scientist focused on Belarus at Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania.

Even so, Mr Lukashenko has sought to further consolidate his power over the academy. On 21 September he replaced three out of four rectors at Belarus’ medical universities. “Patriotic and loyal people” need to be in charge, he said, according to local media.

This is probably because medical students have played such a large role in the protests, explained Dr Chulitskaya. “In the eyes of Lukashenko, these [former] rectors were not supportive enough,” she said.

Belarusian universities also have a long history of expelling students involved in opposition politics, say critics. From 2015 to 2017, there were 12 politically motivated expulsions on other pretexts, according to the Libereco Partnership for Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation based in Germany and Switzerland.

Scholars at Risk, a global body that promotes academic freedom, has also documented multiple expulsions, often on grounds of missing classes.

So far, since the election, observers have not yet noticed universities deploying similar tactics.

But some fear that institutions will wait until the winter exams, giving themselves cover to expel protesters on the pretext of low marks. Since 2010, universities have become “more sophisticated” at using these tactics, said Dr Chulitskaya, waiting at least a few months between protests and expulsions to hide the link between the two.

“As yet, there is no massive dismissal of students,” said Mr Milta. “But my assessment is that it is just coming.”

Reports have been flying around Belarusian social media of students having their grades retrospectively marked down as punishment for protesting.

Universities also help prop up the regime by teaching a mandatory course called “The Fundamentals of Belarusian State Ideology”, introduced in 2003 because of Mr Lukashenko’s fears that professors were spreading seditious ideas about pluralism, democracy and liberalism. This course tends to lean in a pro-Russian direction, cultivating positive memories of the Soviet period, said Mr Milta.

But as with the tedious, compulsory courses on Marxism-Leninism forced upon students in the Soviet era, few think Belarus’ ideological education is particularly effective.

“This is brainwashing – that no one believes,” Mr Milta said. One review of ideological education in Belarus concluded that the module “is seen by many students as a boring and useless subject”.

“It has little effect on the consciousness of students and is perceived as an annoying necessity,” said Sergej Korchitskij, a professor of Latin at MSLU.

With no resolution to Belarus’ political crisis in sight, its universities are arguably a microcosm of the country at large: a majority of academics and students protesting for change against a senior management clinging to power through repression.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Universities ‘pillars’ of Belarusian regime

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