Freedom to think for Yourself…

Demonstrations took place when President Lukashenko ordered the closing down of the European Humanities University in Minsk, in 2004. Back then Anastasiya was not yet a student at the university, but she has clear memories about the uproar that took place when the students and lecturers were denied access to their university premises. They took to the streets in order to protest and some were, as a result, forced to leave the country. The power and will of the students impressed her, and in 2005 she enrolled for EHU – in exile.

Anastasiya is a tough young woman, who wants to make a difference. She is a student in exile at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius, Lithuania. “I am completely different than from when I entered EHU,” says the determined and ambitious 21 year-old, now halfway through the third year of her bachelor in European and International Law.

She radiates self-confidence and single-mindedness, clearly thinks for herself and keeps up-to-date with current affairs. According to Anastasiya, however, thinking for yourself, having your own opinions and expressing them is far from the norm for the majority of her fellow Belarusians. “It is very important for Belarusians to think freely,” she says, and goes on to explain that this was not what she learned at the state university in Minsk, where she studied for a year before starting at EHU in Vilnius in 2005.

The university was originally situated in Minsk, but President Alexander Lukashenko closed it down in 2004, after unsuccessful attempts at forcing the rector Anatoli Mikhailov to resign. Officially the Ministry of Education revoked the University’s license for academic activity, due to deficiency of classroom and office space. Unofficially the EHU had become too western-oriented and unwilling to subordinate to the Belarusian President. The staff and students refused to be cowed though and, in 2005, the University re-emerged in Vilnius, Lithuania, where humanities and social sciences are now taught. EHU is sharing premises with another university in Vilnius.

Intellectuals in Exile

With help from the Lithuanian government, the University moved students, staff, books and thoughts from one country to another. It was a big operation. “It is amazing how the institution could re-institute itself and work in such a short time. It shows how committed people are to the cause,” says Artûras Vasiliauskas, project coordinator at the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Office in Vilnius. He administers the 7.76 million euros the EHU receives from the Nordic Council of Ministers and the EU during the period 2006-2011. For him, EHU is one of the most solid EU democratisation projects relating to Belarus, because it gives Belarusian students an alternative to the less free thinking state universities at home. It opens the world for at least one group of Belarusians.

From the mentioned funding, the students get a monthly grant and housing benefit, and according to Anastasiya it is enough to get by on. She opted for EHU because it is more interesting to study there and because it teaches in a completely different way to the state universities in Belarus.

“EHU is characterised by openness, independence, critical thinking and analysis, and the students are highly motivated and ready to make choices. I feel freer here. Here, I am independent. If I want to do something I will do it, even if my country does not want me to,” she says.

Anastasiya seems very happy about being at EHU, even though she is forced to live far away from her friends and family. It is not common for Belarusians to move far away from home in order to study, thus for many of the exiled students this can be very tough. However, the Belarusian students have their own expat community in Vilnius and they stick together. “Because of the language differences it is difficult to integrate with the Lithuanians,” says the law student.

Some students fled Belarus and started at EHU because they were politically active in opposition to the President at home, organised demonstrations or played music in independent bands. Not things that would bother anybody in other European countries perhaps, but activities that can force a Belarusian to leave home nevertheless.

No Good for the CV in Belarus

Being a student in exile is not necessarily easy. According to Anastasiya, many of the students have experienced harassment at the airport in Belarus on their way to Vilnius. Unpleasant questioning and the checking of laptop computers are common and it shows that the state is keeping an eye on them. Having EHU on their CVs also means their career opportunities are uncertain. What is certain is that they won’t be able to get jobs in the public sector while Lukashenko is in power.

“I would like to work with Belarus in one way or another. Either for an organisation working with Belarus, or as a representative of Belarus in an organisation,” Anastasiya says, with the world at her feet.

For lecturers in exile, the situation is even more complicated. There is a political risk connected to working with EHU. Many of the lecturers have been expelled from Belarus because of their academic work, some of whom were the best in their fields. The lecturers have no job security. They cannot officially be appointed as professors or publish articles in Belarus. Nevertheless, some of them still do a lot of underground work at home.

Courage and Devotion

One of them is Professor Anatoli Mikhailov, rector of EHU, an expert on German philosophy and one of the leading personalities fighting for democracy in Belarus. He looks like a healthy old man, his face marked by history and when he speaks he sounds almost intimidatingly intelligent. Mikhailov refused to subordinate to Lukashenko’s will back in 2004 and fought for EHU’s academic freedom. Since he left his motherland in 2004 he has not been able to return. Running a university in exile is challenging, he admits.

Mikhailov talks warmly about his students and lecturers. “They have courage and devotion to do something different. They are ready to meet challenges and solve problems that do not make their lives easier. For this they need support,” he says. “Belarus needs intellectuals who understand the issues of social transformation in post-totalitarian states,” Mikhailov adds with determination. He believes that is why EHU is important.

As a member of one of the first groups of Belarusians to experience their country from the outside, Anastasiya finds it interesting to see Belarus’ situation from this perspective: “You can analyse the situation with knowledge. Who are we in Europe? How can we integrate with the rest of Europe? I am sure Belarus will need that knowledge,” says the young woman.

EHU’s future depends, amongst other things, on donors. The EHU Trust Fund is on constant lookout for new donors. But as for Belarus, it is not a matter of finances: its future depends very much on President Lukashenko. The day he is no longer in power, the hope is that EHU’s students will be able to spread and make use of their knowledge at home and build a new future for their country. Anastasiya is deeply grateful to those who took the decision to support EHU.

“It’s pretty early to judge now what value our situation the future brings, but I am strongly convinced I will refer to it as something extraordinary and worth going through,” says the charismatic and determined student. Her certainty, will and charm makes one think that the world will see more of her in the future.

Illustration by Maija Kursheva, Riga

FACTS

  • Lithuania has hosted EHU since 2005. The Nordic Council of Ministers (NMR) began supporting the university in early 2006, after being contacted by Lithuanian officials.
  • The EU and NMR are providing EHU with a total of  €7.76 million during the period 2006-2011. EHU also has other donors. The EHU Trust Fund coordinates this financial support and is now looking for more donors.
  • The university has some 900 full time Belarusian students on Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes. Some also study via distance learning or part time.
  • The university cannot advertise in the usual way in Belarus. Much of its advertising is done through the independent internet media and by word of mouth.
  • Belarus became part of the Soviet Union after World War One. It declared independence from the Soviet Union on July 3rd 1990. Many western countries consider Belarus to be Europe’s last dictatorship.

 

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