Kalinowski Scholarship: When Hopes Meet Reality

The Kalinowski scholarship for young Belarusians wishing to study in Poland is six years old but not not without controversy.  While those who run it underline its success, the post-graduation reality sometimes raises serious questions. 

In 2006  the Polish government launched the Kalinowski Fund to help the repressed youth who challenged the presidential elections results in 2005. It gives a chance to students who cannot enter universities in Belarus or continue their studies because of their pro-democracy activity.

Despite the good cause, the programme alumni face difficulties finding jobs in Belarus. The organisers should think not only about placing young Belarusians at Polish universities but also about helping them return to Belarus. 

146 new participants joined the programme in 2011. The programme participants do not need to speak Polish and receive a grant of 1240 Polish zloty (around €300) per month and a one-time allowance. This is enough to cover living expenses in Poland. The programme covers a period of up to five years until students complete their studies.

Who are the Kalinowski Scholars?

The scholarship targets ambitious Belarusian activists with pro-democracy attitudes.

Apart from receiving education at Polish universities, these young Belarusians are also supposed to acquaint themselves with with European values and to gain knowledge of the state institutions within the democratic framework. Inna Kulej, coordinator of the scholarship, hopes that it can create new political elites for the future Belarus.  At the same time, obtaining a diploma in Poland can be the first stepping stone to other European universities.

Each year the number of applicants varies. In the first round, after the repressions which followed the 2005 presidential elections, its number were at their highest. In 2006, 244 participants began their studies at Polish universities. In 2007, 71 Belarusians received the scholarship. In the aftermath of the repressions following the 2010 elections, the organisers increased the number of participants by 60. In 2011, 146 Belarusians joined the scholarship programme.

The KGB Keeps an Eye on the Scholars 

From the beginning, the Polish initiative appeared controversial to the Belarusian regime. Jan Malicki, director of the programme, recalls the increased attention which the participants may face in Belarus. Some have been questioned by the KGB or had their laptops searched. 

Pro-regime media in Belarus has attempted  to undermine the programme in the eyes of the Belarusian public. According to Narodnaya Gazeta, the scholarship organisers abandon the students and do not support them during their studies. Moreover, the newspaper reported on the alleged preparation of the students for extremist activity in Belarus. From a long-term perspective, according to the newspaper, participants of the programme were to be used for spying and influencing Belarus.  

On the other hand, the quality and honesty of some candidates is sometimes questionable. Allegations against them include buying the required documents to prove that they are pro-democracy activists. Furthermore, some of the successful candidates did not fulfil their academic obligations, including attending the obligatory classes. Certainly, such cases might have put a shadow on the whole community of ‘kalinoucy’.

Reasons for Departure

So far the Kalinowski scholarship and studying abroad experience appears to be popular among young Belarusians. The portal Generation.by reports on the Gallup survey’ results. According to the research, 32 per cent of Belarusians would like to study abroad or participate in a work-study programme.

Unfortunately, the Kalinowski programme shares similar drawbacks with the European Humanities University in Vilnius. Namely, neither provides support after graduation. Graduates have little opportunities to work in Belarus, despite having a diploma recognised in the European Union (but not in Belarus). The Kalinowski programme does not have mechanisms to encourage them to go back to Belarus and utilise their knowledge and skills there. Arguably this should be the main raison d'être of such programmes. 

… and Return?

Certainly, it might be interesting for graduates to return to Belarus and take part in the future reforms. Nevertheless, today opportunities in Belarus do not look promising. Under the current regime those young people often face difficulties finding a job.

The economic situation in Belarus and high level of unemployment in addition to their anti-regime attitudes are not appealing. It is difficult to estimate how many Belarusians will decide to go back. According to Inna Kulej, the vast majority of the graduates return to Belarus. However, it is hard to find any data proving that.

The graduates have already reported on the problems with finding jobs in Belarus after their studies. The Euroradio presented a few stories about recent graduates who could not find employment in Belarus. Their Polish diplomas are not recognised in Belarus. The easiest way seems to be to stay in Poland or go further West.

More Solidarity in Support?

Good will to create opportunities to obtain a higher education degree in Poland does not seem enough to help Belarusian student activists. The organisers of the scholarship should think about widening the framework of the programme, rather than just increasing the number of recruits.

The organisers have already made one serious step in that direction. In 2011 the programme opened up to the PhD researchers and academic teachers. Its number may increase with time. It is important to target more academics who can then reach young Belarusians with new ideas and share their experience. 

The Kalinowski Scholarship Fund could also become a joint initiative of more European universities. It could certainly benefit from financial support of other EU countries.

More can be done to help organise internship programmes for graduates in Belarus. The goal is to widen the range of involved institutions and thus the number of possible opportunities for young Belarusians.

Creating in advance employment opportunities and fellowships with Belarusian private companies, NGOs and academic institutions might be another option. This could help Kalinowski scholars to enter the job market and ease their return to Belarus.  

Paula Borowska is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. Originally from Bialystok, she studied at the University of Gdansk and the University of Bologna.

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