Belarusian Students Unite in Lithuania

Belarusian youth studying abroad have three days left to send their applications to participate in the annual Rally of the United Students of Belarus, which will take place in Lithuania on 1-5 October 2014.

Young people studying abroad and in Belarus will meet for the eighth time to exchange contact information and share their academic and personal experiences.

Since 2007 the project has become the largest group of alumni of young Belarusians living abroad. The rally offers a chance for informal and formal ideas to be presented about the future of Belarus.

During recent years, Belarus has become a country of young emigrants and this trend is set to continue. The United Students of Belarus link these people together and can play a big role in the future of the country, including potential future changes in the political establishment.

The Vilnius-based Eastern European Studies Centre, based in Vilnius, serves as an organiser of the event.

Need for a Common Platform

It would be fair to call Belarus a country of emigrant students. Belarusians have a university in exile - European Humanities University, and a large number of scholarship programmes exclusively for Belarusians that help they study abroad.

The Kalinowski Scholarship and the ​​European Scholarship Scheme for Young Belarusians remain the most prevalent in terms of the size of their programmes. The first programme offers education for youth that have dealt with repression, while the other is for all Belarusians. Moreover, thousands of Belarusian students receive education through smaller schemes, college scholarships, or pay their own way.

The number of Belarusian students abroad, by all indicators, will only increase in coming years. According to a survey by the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, only 13.7% of young Belarusians do not want to leave the country to study or work. Many remain reluctant to return to Belarus as they do not see any prospects for themselves.

This is why the United Students of Belarus remains the only inclusive platform for Belarusian students and graduates abroad. Besides USB Rallies, alumni of Kalinowski Scholarship or graduates of British universities organise meetings now and then, but these events lack regular gatherings and remain rather exclusive events.

In comparison, Ukraine has dozens of such associations of professionals who have been educated in the West. Ukrainians usually integrate into clubs of university graduates, like the Harvard Club of Ukraine or the Association of Fellows, or as alumni of the Fulbright programme.

Today, these clubs have become the core of the Professional Government initiative involved in the replacement of corrupt officials with young Ukrainian experts. It is possible that the United Students of Belarus will once play a role in building a new government in the country.

Origins of the Initiative

The first Rally of the United Students of Belarus took place in 2007 and tried to support the emergence of an informal network of the country`s future leaders. The rally played a large role insofar as it helped maintain connections between Belarusians stranded abroad after the wave of repression in 2006. After the presidential elections, the authorities expelled hundreds of students from universities.

The project has become the most extensive network of young Belarusians who live both in Belarus and abroad. Belarusian students from over 15 countries participate in the project and every year about 50-60 people come to the rally to share their ideas and network.

USB participant Zhenia Tsikhanovich admits that ‘in the course of just one Rally people build a new network of Belarusians throughout whole Europe and the US’.

Since 2007, about 300 Belarusians have attended the rally, and some people try to attend the event every year. The author of this text met the editor of Belarus Digest during the 2012 USB gathering.

The Rally brings together two worlds of Belarusians - those who remain in country and those who have emigrated. It is noteworthy that the students abroad and those residing in Belarus lack a single major organisation or association that can bring them together. The United Students of Belarus fills this gap.

The event program combines work and fun in the form of the intellectual debate or concerts by popular Belarusian groups. Each rally has its own theme. Organisers and the USB Community devoted the 2014 Rally to the development and promotion of multicultural dialogue and the maturation of Belarusian identity.

The USB has a good reputation not only among young Belarusians. Representatives of the Lithuanian authorities, Western diplomats located in Vilnius and NGO staff attend rallies to share their views on the future of Belarus with young leaders of the country.

Aivaras Žukauskas, coordinator of Rally 2014 said that besides opening ceremony with high-profile officials, one seminar about constructing of an image will be conducted by well-versed diplomat.

Room for Growth

Belarus has long been affected not only by the lack of formalised structures of students and graduates, but also bringing together new generations of Belarusian emigres.

Last year USB participants launched a new organisationthe Global Belarusian Leaders. The organisation is going to recruit new members from among young and perspective Belarusian professionals from all over the world.

However, this organisation, as is often true of most emigre organisations, has failed to remain active over a long period of time. The GBL is just one example of the new ideas popping up within Belarusian civil society, but still faces the typical problems associated with the Belarusian community.

For one, new emigre organisations tend to become too politicised, as they usually unite around a particular political group. Such structures fail to attract a large number of people. Traditional emigre communities appear to be too old-fashioned, so they cannot offer new emigres incentives to build networks.

Therefore the United Students of Belarus has set before itself the serious task of inventing new fresh ideas that will connect Belarusians from the world over.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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