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Higher Education: Lukashenka-Style

Belarusian university and college curricula officially contain a new subject this semester, "Fundamental Ideology of the Belarusian State," a course of 16 lectures and eight seminars introduced on the direct instructions of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But getting started is another matter. On the eve of the new seminar, the newspaper Belarus Today revealed that the necessary textbooks had not yet been written, and the Education Ministry was advising universities to wait until the books were ready. In any case, Nadzeya Hanushchenka, head of the Education Ministry's department for teaching social sciences, said the lecturers for the new courses had been specially trained at the Presidential Academy of Management and the Republican Institute of Higher Education and "could manage quite well without a textbook."

Hanushchenka further claimed that the Education Ministry would not try to control the ideology lecturers or the content of their teaching. But this is no guarantee that others may not do so, and the fact that lecturers are being trained at an establishment directly answerable to the president is widely seen in university circles as a further blow to academic autonomy.
Over the past year, there have been several such blows, some of which have evoked high-level diplomatic protests. These include:
The Jakub Kolas Belarusian Humanities Lyceum. Founded in 1992 by Uladzimir Kolas (no relation of the poet after whom the school is named), by 2003 this was the last school in Minsk using the Belarusian language as the teaching medium for all subjects. In May 2003, the Ministry of Education tried to replace headmaster Kolas by a ministry appointee who spoke only Russian. When the staff, pupils, and parents protested, the ministry ordered the school closed - ostensibly because the building was unsafe - and announced that in due course a "Minsk Humanities Lyceum" would replace it. In spite of police repression, a protest campaign was launched and still continues; the teachers and pupils continue to hold classes in makeshift premises. Last month, the Ministry of Education formally abandoned its plans for a replacement, Russian-taught lyceum ? there had been not a single applicant for a place in it.
The European Humanities University (EHU) in Minsk. This is a private institution, with strong international links and exchange programs. There is no language issue here, its Rector Anatol Mikhaylau favors Russian and considers the Belarusian language inappropriate for academic teaching. But its foreign links were suspect: in December 2003, Education Minister Alyaksandr Radzkou accused it of "turning itself into a walk-through courtyard" for foreigners. Then on 21 January, Radzkou sent for Mikhaylau and "invited" him to resign the rectorship. With the full support of his colleagues, he has so far refused. Ten European ambassadors and charges d'affaires called on Radzkou to express concern. The U.S. Embassy issued a statement calling the EHU "a symbol of Belarus' attempt to be open and cooperate with Western countries" and Mikhaylau's leadership the best guarantee of its "fruitful activity and independence." Foreign academic bodies, in particular the Oxford-based Europaeum, which sponsors the work of EHU, showed similar concern, and both the European Commission and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are reportedly watching developments.
The International Humanities Institute (MHI) of the Belarusian State University (BDU). This was set up in 1998 as a center for Jewish studies in order to reintroduce Jewish studies in Belarus after a break of 50 years. Again, there was considerable international funding, both for its academic programs and new classrooms and dormitories. In mid-February, when students and staff were dispersed for the inter-semester break (and hence protests were more difficult to organize), the MHI was closed on Education Ministry orders. The official reason was "reorganization" of the BDU; some teaching and research in Jewish studies would continue, dispersed to other departments. Jewish leaders, in Belarus and abroad, linked the closure with the growth of what they term "state-sponsored anti-Semitism" in Belarus and expressed fears that the MHI's assets may be assigned to the BDU?s proposed new theological department where teaching would focus on the Orthodox Church, which Lukashenka (although a professed atheist) favors for ideological reasons.
But the MHI also fits into the larger picture. As one EU diplomat in Minsk (who declined to be identified further) observed: "The common thread is political. The lyceum is widely regarded as a hotbed of pro-democratic sentiment, the students of the EHU solidly voted 'the wrong way' last time round, and the Jewish connection of the [MHI] means its political contacts and sympathies are unwelcome to the authorities who...are promoting a home-grown ideology."
Other institutions are not immune. Even the BDU - considered the flagship of Belarusian higher education - has suffered; its right to elect its own rector has been withdrawn and the rector's former ex officio ministerial rank cancelled.
And the Minsk-based International Sakharov Environmental University (ISEU ? again a body with strong international links - was left 14 months without a head, following the sudden death of its rector, Alyaksandr Milyutsin, in October 2002. Under Milyutsin, a student English-language debating society had flourished at ISEU, but during the interregnum, it was forbidden to invite outside participants - a development which ISEU's foreign associates found perturbing in an institution named after a champion of freedom of speech. The new rector, Syamyon Kundas, has continued this ban.
Even more significantly, the Higher Attestation Commission, which grants all postgraduate degrees in Belarus, recently received a letter - ostensibly a copy of one sent to President Lukashenka by a group of World War II veterans - protesting against a doctoral dissertation on 20th-century Belarusian emigre literature presented by literary scholar Ales Pashkevich. The veterans begged the president - in language reminiscent of the Stalin era - to protect Belarusian scholarship from the "antistate, antipatriotic, national-traitorous ideology of fascist lackeys." The commission, which had previously approved the dissertation, took note, and Pashkevich?s doctoral degree has been withheld.
Nor do less prestigious institutions escape. Although membership in the Lukashenka-sponsored Belarusian Republican Youth League (BRSM) is not formally obligatory for students, those who join get priority access to stipends and dormitory accommodation, while nonmembers are threatened with unspecified future "problems." Last week, however, the BRSM chapter at Baranavichy Light Industry College announced that they were quitting the BRSM, and put on the badges of the banned pro-democracy youth organization Zubr. To the Lukashenka regime, the public defection, even of an obscure provincial college, was clearly inadmissible. As the Charter-97 website reported, the next day, the defectors were pressured to disavow their actions in writing, and when they refused, 15 BRSM members from other Baranavichy BRSM chapters were bussed to the television studios in Minsk to appear on a news program and repudiate the defections as a "provocation" and "fabrication" - an attempt to "rewrite events" that, with fitting irony, occurred on the anniversary of the death of one of the greatest exponents of the technique - Joseph Stalin.

Vera Rich is a London-based freelance researcher.
Source:RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report, March 9, 2004.

This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 16, No 1
Copyright 2004 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.

Vera Rich

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