Survivor presses on with reform

June 27, 1997

Vasily Strazhev, the Belarussian minister of education, is a political survivor. In a republic where the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko punishes the slightest dissent, Strazhev, a physics professor, has seen two deputies dismissed from under him during his five years at the top.

Deputy education ministers Gennady Petrovsky and Tatiana Galko lost their jobs in a notorious episode when President Luka-shenko threatened to ban all history and literature textbooks published since Belarus gained independence in 1991, alleging nationalist bias and anti-Soviet sentiments.

President Lukashenko, a 42-year-old former collective farm boss, whose style of government is characterised by an inexorable drive to stifle opposing views and control all areas of society, later denied he had sought to ban the books, a point Professor Strazhev is quick to use as evidence that political interference in education is a fiction.

But diplomatic sources give the lie to this and suppression of Belarussian language instruction in schools and colleges is a fact.

One western European diplomat said: "I saw the order Lukashenko signed banning the books, but pressure from education authorities, who pointed out that banning books in September would create havoc at the beginning of an academic year, ensured it was never implemented."

Pressure on academics to toe the government line is evident throughout higher education: teachers are not allowed to discuss politics with students and risk losing their jobs if they declare their opposition to President Lukashenko, who dismissed parliament last November following a referendum giving him greatly expanded powers.

Deans at Belarus State University have been censored by the Lukashenko-appointed rector Alaksandr Kazulin, after students from their departments took leading parts in pro-democracy demonstrations in April and the Soviet system of forced work placements following graduation, has been reintroduced.

Students graduating from state universities will now have to spend two or three years working in the public sector. Many young teachers and doctors are being sent to the heavily contaminated Gomel region, which suffered radioactive fall-out following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

None of this bothers Professor Strazhev overmuch: he happily talks of the educational reform programme he is implementing in Belarus, mouthing the slogans of progress apparently unaware of the potential irony in his words.

Professor Strazhev, a large and rather relaxed man, said: "The motto of educational reforms in Belarus is to give appropriate education to each student according to his or her abilities. We want to see increased humanities and democratic education."

There is no doubt that his ministry is serious about educational reform in Belarus. Reform, starting with primary and secondary education has already begun and European-style transition from secondary school to university is the subject of a British-backed experiment. The minister's confidence in the future of the Lukashenko regime is reflected by his stolid assertion that major university reforms will follow logically within five years once work on the general reforms is complete.

"We want to abandon the uniformity we have inherited from the Soviet system and introduce the flexibility we need to make education appropriate to today's conditions."

The key challenges in higher educational reforms he identifies are familiar throughout Eastern Europe: a lack of money, poverty-level salaries, decrepit equipment and anachronistic attitudes. Graduation standards within the country's 39 state and 18 independent universities are still not uniformly applied and the old Soviet idea that workers and peasants should be guaranteed a higher education along with the intelligentsia still too often translates into "a teacher pitying the student and giving a better mark than he or she deserves".

The universities themselves are already beginning to meet the challenge and seek parity with the European system. Most institutions now offer four-year bachelor degrees with an optional two further years leading to a master's in place of the old Soviet five-year diploma system.

Professor Strazhev does not consider the repressive nature of the Lukashenko government a stumbling block to the creation of a genuinely modern university system. "Lukashenko supports the reforms in education and understands the necessity of change. These reforms are impossible without the support of the government," he said.

He dismisses student protest and participation in anti-government demonstrations as the natural excess of youth: "It's typical of any society that you find protests in the universities, think of France in 1968 - it's natural."

What is less natural is the sort of low-level, but persistent, pressure to conform to a political ideal within university departments, which finds closer parallel not in the 1990s, but in the dark days of Stalinism.

Anatoly Fedorov, a lecturer in English at the Academy for Business Administration Under the President in Minsk, says that Lukashenko's reintroduction of the old Soviet practice of sobotnik days - enforced communal public clean-up sessions on days off - leaves dissenters open to peer criticism and worse.

A member of the nationalist group Revival, allied to the Belarus National Party, Mr Fedorov does not advertise his anti-government beliefs at work, but neither does he make a secret of them.

"When they put up the lists of those expected to join a sobotnik day in my department, they included my name, but of course I refused to support this Lukashenko initiative. When I returned to work I found my name displayed on the wall as one of those the administration did not wish to thank for help on the sobotnik day."

His department's deputy has since made it clear that refuseniks will forgo salary bonuses academic staff habitually get every few months, although his recent refusal to join a compulsory May Day official demonstration, was simply ignored by co-workers.

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