Fear ensures nothing changes

Students in Belarus are banned from university for their political beliefs

Expelled Belarusian student Piotr, in a short video from Libereco.

Due to their political views, students in Belarus are being expelled from the university without warning. Two Dutch academics have come to their aid. “It’s part of Europe too!”

“I’ve been expelled from university twice”, says Piotr Markiełaŭ (22) from Belarus. “The first time was in the spring of 2015, when I was involved in the local elections. We had set up a playful campaign, with funny internet videos, but the Dean thought I should be ashamed.”

Markiełaŭ had been studying Physics at the Belarusian State University. He’s not the only one to be expelled for his political views, which is why the Belarusian Students’ Association and the Belarusian human rights organisation Viasna launched a campaign, Teaching repression a lesson this summer, with the help of Libereco, a German-Swiss association consisting primarily of students and former students of Eastern European Studies.

The association has two Dutch members: Christie Miedema (33) and Kate Bellamy (36). Miedema, a historian and guest lecturer at the University of Amsterdam had been an active member of Amnesty International for some time before she met other Libereco members on her various travels. “After all, it’s a small world, the people who are interested in human rights in Eastern Europe”, she explains. Bellamy is a linguistic doctoral candidate at Leiden University whose research centres on Purépecha, an indigenous language of Mexico, rather than on Eastern European languages. “My educational background differs from the usual ones at Libereco, but, being a native speaker of English, I can make sure no one fights about the English translations of their message”, she continues.

She met Marco Fieber, Libereco’s German president, when she went to Tbilisi while doing a Master’s at Leiden University. “Nowadays, he’s a journalist for The Huffington Post. “I help him correct his texts for his own blog sometimes.” In 2016, her knowledge of languages proved handy for a Libereco project and she has remained involved in the association ever since.

“We’ve investigated twelve cases of expelled students”, says Miedema. “It’s not a large number for a country with nearly ten million inhabitants, but if something like this occurred in the Netherlands, there’d certainly be plenty of attention.” “They’re students with deviant political ideas, ones who talk to independent media or who attend protests”, adds Bellamy. “There always seems to be some academic reason to expel them from university.”
It’s what happened to Markiełaŭ. “In 2016, I paid my tuition fees again after being away for a year”, he recalls. “For one term, I attended lectures and passed all the tests that give you admittance to the exams. Despite that, a few days before New Year’s Eve, I was told I was to be expelled again.” The official reading was that he had skipped some lectures. “In reality, everyone skips something of the overloaded programme – there are even lectures on Saturday. But if they’re looking for a reason, that’s what they’ll say.”

He suspects the real reason is different. “The month before, there was a public holiday and there were some old Soviet flags and posters with Stalin on them at the faculty. I didn’t like it: my grandfather’s grandfather was sent to the Gulag and never came home. When I asked the Dean to remove the pictures, he just said: ‘No.’ So I decided to ring a journalist I knew. While I was on the phone, the Dean came up to me: ‘Right, now you’re in trouble...’ The posters vanished soon after.” But so did Markiełaŭ.

“It doesn’t just mean that those students can’t finish their education”, Bellamy points out. “The career and the life they had in mind are snatched away.”

“Well, at least we can still embark on another career”, says Markiełaŭ, playing it down. “It’s much harder for scientists to oppose the regime. Here, fear ensures that nothing changes.”

“For a while, it looked as if the regime was becoming more liberal,” says Miedema. “Belarus presented itself as the acceptable negotiating partner in the region, with everything that was happening in Ukraine.The European sanctions were withdrawn. However, when the regime was confronted with protests again this year, against a tax on unemployment, for instance, they immediately resorted to their usual measures, such as arrests.”

A Libereco report reveals that the drop in the number of arrests was in reality hiding something else. “In the meantime, more people were fined”, Miedema explains. “A smart move by the regime, because fines are not as mediagenic.”

The regime is the government under President Aleksandr Lukashenko. “He’s been in power since 1994”, says Bellamy. “Scarcely anything’s changed since then. Outside Belarus, he’s called Europe’s last dictator, which is why it’s so important to call attention to these issues. After all, it’s part of Europe. The Bologna Declaration applies just as much to those students as to students in the Netherlands. They ought to have the same rights as students in the rest of Europe.” The declaration, which was signed by 29 European ministers of education in 1999, means that the Bachelors- Masters structure is now used throughout Europe and encourages more international exchanges of students and academics.

Markiełaŭ is glad of Libereco’s efforts. “We really appreciate it. International attention is important because, in the end, there’s one way of getting things to change here: not from the inside, but from the outside.”

Libereco doesn’t have a Dutch branch yet – Miedema thinks that it might be due to the language spoken among the members, which is German – but Piotr Markiełaŭ and other expelled students believe Dutch students can help. “Piotr has set up a petition as part of the joint Libereco, Viasna and Students’ Association campaign. We’re asking for solidarity from each country”, Miedema explains. “We want to call attention to the issue, get the students back to university and prevent new cases. That last problem does not seem too bad, now that the academic year has begun.

Markiełaŭ enrolled again for the new academic year too. “But my application was turned down”, he says. For now, he’s studying at home. “Perhaps I can pick it up later. I might already be able to go back to university, if I went somewhere else, but I prefer to stay in. I’m still involved in politics, you see.”

The petition Teaching repression a lesson, which will be presented to the Belarusian Minister of Education and the Board of the Belarusian State University is available at Change.org.

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