Sasha Kuzmich, Belarusian Students' Association.

Sasha Kuzmich, Belarusian Students' Association.

Features Expulsion of students as a tool of control

In order to silence dissident voices within Belarusian higher education, students with uncomfortable political views are often expelled. International critique has resulted in a decrease in the number of expulsions, but the repression continues. The university administration merely has changed methods and nowadays focuses on the students with a capacity to lead others.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2018:4 Vol XI, pages 30-33
Published on balticworlds.com on mars 6, 2019

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In order to silence dissident voices within Belarusian higher education, students with uncomfortable political views are often expelled. International critique has resulted in a decrease in the number of expulsions, but the repression continues. The university administration merely has changed methods and nowadays focuses on the students with a capacity to lead others.

The university administration is able to hold on to the climate of repression when they target certain students with more influence, and they succeed in creating a climate of fear that prevents other students from engaging in any sort of dissident activities.

Yuri Lukashevich, Deputy Chair of the BPF Party, was expelled from the Belarusian State University in 2017. He was at that time the leader of the youth wing of the party, BPF Youth. He argues that the decrease in the number of expelled students should be perceived as a pragmatic choice on the part of the government.

“In comparison to 2006 or 2010, when we saw large anti-government protests in Belarus, the number of expelled student has decreased significantly. This has not resulted in less repression, and the authorities simply realized that if they force out, let’s say, a thousand students then the EU will react and many young people will leave the country. If, on the other hand, they expel only five or ten students the EU will not pay any attention but they will scare the rest of the students”.

Lukashevich, whose case has been brought to the attention of the network Scholars at Risk’s (SAR) Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, was expelled from the University in March, 2017.1 At that time he was engaged in the preservation of Kurapaty, a historic location where Joseph Stalin ordered mass executions, and thus a memorial site for the victims of communist repression.

The authorities planned to construct a business center on the site, which resulted in widespread protests of which Lukashevich was a part. He argues that the memorial site is important for the Belarusian nation.

“Representatives of our nation, and not only ours, were killed there. It is very important to remember these people, not only from a moral point of view, but also in order to prevent anything similar from happening again. If we forget, it could happen again. It is very important not to allow any kind of mockery of their memory. This is a place for sorrow for our people, not a place for business centers and restaurants”.

As a leader of BPF Youth, with all the public attention that entailed, he was in the spotlight for the authorities’ attention. The university administration subsequently became informed of Lukashevich’s participation in an unauthorized rally. He was at that time studying at the Faculty of History and was summoned to the deputy dean of the faculty and eventually got two reprimands — one for the participation in the rally and the second for truancy.

He admits that he skipped classes, but not as many as the university administration states, and Lukashevich argues that other students who had more absences were not reprimanded. In the end, after many twists and turns he was expelled for truancy and for late payment of university fees. The university claimed the expulsion had nothing to do with his political activities. He thereafter sought to re-enroll several times without success and is currently not studying.

Official reasons for expulsions

The university administration often motivates the expulsions with absenteeism on the part of the selected students. Sasha Kuzmich, the 2018 International Secretary for the Belarusian Students’ Association, BSA, says that the general position of Belarusian civil society, including the BSA, is that these expulsions are foremost politically motivated.

Kuzmich tells us that in 2006, when large-scale protests erupted after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a large majority win that resulted in his third term in office, hundreds of students were expelled as a result of their participation in the protests. In 2010, when the country again saw large street protests due to Lukashenko entering his fourth term in office, dozens of students were expelled.

In 2015—2017, there were at least 12 cases of politically motivated expulsions of students according to a joint statement by the Germany and Switzerland-based human rights organization Liberico Partnership for Human Rights, the Belarusian Students’ Association, and the Belarusian Human Rights Center Viasna.2 In connection to nationwide protests in 2017, demanding an end to the taxation of the unemployed, a number of students were detained and many of them were subsequently expelled from university when released from prison.

In 2018 one student was expelled, according to Dzmitry Salauyou, board member of the Human Rights Center Viasna. Hanna Smilevich, who was expelled from the Belarusian State University, was the newly elected leader of BPF Youth at the time of expulsion — the same position that Yuri Lukashevich held earlier. She does not hold this position anymore. The current leader of BPF Youth is Denis Mandik, who has previously been expelled from the Belarusian State University of Technology.3

Sasha Kuzmich from the Belarusian Students’ Association argues that the actual expulsions are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to repression within higher academic institutions. The students are not always expelled but could be threatened and silenced in other ways. For instance, they could be summoned to the university administration for a discussion about attitudinal and behavioral adjustments. Sometimes the university also contacts their parents to evoke pressure. Kuzmich says that the control on the part of the university administration is severe.

“Universities in Belarus are very depressing places. Some activities are allowed and others are not, and every activity could possibly be stopped. The university administration is checking students’ social networks to see if they post things that are not allowed, if they criticize the government and so forth. This leads to self-censorship among students. Those who do not follow the rules are a vulnerable group.”

Thus, few dare to question the rules, and even fewer ignore them, because those students risk being targeted and expelled. According to Kuzmich, nobody has yet been expelled for “liking” or re-posting somebody else’s comments on social media sites. It is the most visible activists, people engaged in party politics, the opinion leaders who are the main victims of repression, but the other students are indirectly affected by the atmosphere of fear created by the expulsions.

In order to keep control over the students, the universities commonly have some sort of ideological department and a vice-rector for ideology. Kuzmich argues that this makes universities part of the ideological vector of the Belarusian government. She states that if, for example, the country commemorates Belarus’ role in World War II, the universities will also organize such events due to them being part of this vector.

Furthermore, as argued by Lukashevich, the people in charge of the ideological departments often work for or are at least closely connected to the Belarusian secret service, the KGB. He says that the ideological departments’ main task is to identify dissidents and remove these people from the university by way of intimidation, persuasion, blackmail or expulsion. They also seek to spread a message about the positive development of the Belarusian state, President Lukashenko’s contribution to such development, the bad shape of the rest of Europe, and the need to feel grateful for the state of the Belarusian government all while undermining political opposition.

Consequences for those expelled

The repercussions for the students who are expelled are severe and life changing. They are, for instance, not able to work within the profession for which they originally studied. According to Dzmitry Salauyou from Viasna, some students try to re-enroll at university after having been forced out of university but are often quickly expelled again. Consequently these students are often forced to study abroad, for instance in Poland or Lithuania.

In the spring of 2017, Viasna launched the campaign “Teaching Repression a Lesson”, together with student organizations and other human rights organizations. The main aim of the campaign is to work towards the abolishment of repression within Belarusian universities. The focus is on overturning the practice of expelling students due to their civil engagement, even though other threats against academic freedom are also raised.

In June, 2017, Viasna, together with other national as well as foreign NGOs, appealed to several foreign partners of Belarusian universities to give a positive contribution to Belarus’ adherence to the values enshrined in the principles of the Bologna Process and the Belarus Roadmap for Higher Education Reform. Such principles entail, for instance, academic freedom, university autonomy, and academic mobility. Belarus joined the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) in May 2015. International partners and donors must take into account the reality of repression within universities and to a greater degree cooperate directly with the students and representatives of the academic community who are not part of the repressive structure.

Additionally, Viasna helps expelled students to continue their studies at Ukrainian universities, but by way of distance learning. The reason for focusing on distance learning is that many students wish to continue their civil engagement in Belarus and therefore do not want to leave the country for several years to study. The students are engaged in a fundraising project called “Cappuccino for higher education”, in order to finance their participation in the distance learning courses.

Students also plan to construct an informational blog, write articles at the site, and work towards the transfer of Ukrainian experiences of reforming higher education to Belarus. Dzmitry Salauyou states that Viasna has good contacts with organizations and experts in Ukraine that can assist in this matter.

International support

The repression within Belarusian higher education has received varied international attention. According to Lukashevich the repressive situation gets a certain amount of international publicity due to the work of different human rights organizations, especially through the activities of Viasna. Some EU countries are following the developments within Belarusian higher education more closely than others, however.

“In my personal opinion, particularly Sweden and Poland are paying a lot of attention to the matter and consequently offer support. By and large, all other countries are behaving as if nothing has actually happened, or alternatively they produce statements saying that they are concerned and are paying close attention to the matter”.

In his view, the Belarusian government has been able to go on with the repression without any real consequences. There has been insufficient international solidarity or mobilization to stop the Belarusian authorities from pursuing their goal of intimidating the students.

According to Sasha Kuzmich from BSA, critique from the international community would have little if any effect because the government pays little attention to such criticism.

“The Belarusian government really does not care. It has done nothing to fulfill the criterias set out by the Bologna Process, and it has not changed its attitude concerning the expulsion of students. International critique could, however, show the expelled students and civil society in general that there are people around the world supporting them.”

Furthermore, she argues that there are several issues of concern; the educational system is problematic in general.

She explains that, for example, around 90 % of the curriculum is being decided beforehand leaving students with very few electives; universities accept almost all students that wish to enroll and do not expel even the most unmotivated students who do not do the required tasks, that is, so long as these students are not oppositional political activists; and during election times the students are often forced to take part in early voting or otherwise risk losing their dormitories, generally presented as a gift from the university administration.

University education is considered very important in Belarus with around 80 % of school graduates choosing to enroll at university after graduation, according to Kuzmich. The fear of expulsion and the subsequent problems of establishing yourself in the labor market have serious repercussions for the development of academic freedom in the country.

“All these developments may not look very dramatic in isolation, but together they do create a very serious situation within universities. If you are seen as uncomfortable you are pushed out of the system, and this creates a lot of fear. In the end there is no one left to protest”.

References

1 Scholars at Risk, last accessed October 25, 2018, https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/report/2017-03-23-belarusian-state-university/.

2 Liberico — Partnership for Human Rights, ”12 cases of politically motivated expulsions of students in Belarus from 2015-2012”, last accessed October 25, 2018, http://www.lphr.org/en/politisch-motivierte-exmatrikulationen-von-studenten-in-belarus/#.

3 Human Rights Center Viasna, Video recording of Denis Mandik, published October 7, 2018, last accessed November 5, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuTP_qFM5SQ.

  • by Marina Henrikson

    PhD in Russian Studies from the University of Manchester, UK. Currently a freelance journalist with a focus on questions concerning human rights and the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

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