Analytical paper: Challenges to Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area
In 2015 Belarus joined the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and committed to putting a Roadmap for higher education reform into effect by 2018.
The implementation of the Roadmap is running behind schedule, which poses a threat to fulfilment of Belarus' obligations by the due date.
This paper released by the Ostrogorski Centre today analyses the main challenges to implementation of the Roadmap in Belarus; it also provides recommendation which could help to do it on time and benefit a wider range of stakeholders.
Belarus as a new member of the European Higher Education Area
At a conference of 47 EHEA Ministers of Education (May 14-15, 2015, Yerevan) Belarus took on commitments to implement a Roadmap for higher education reform. It is expected that the harmonisation of Belarusian and European educational standards will ensure higher quality education, more opportunities for studying and employment, deeper integration in the European and global educational area, and inclusion of different social groups, including disadvantaged communities, in education.
The programme of higher education reform in Belarus stipulates a mechanism of international support and consultation for the implementation of the Roadmap by 2018, when the final report on the implementation of the Roadmap will be submitted at the Ministerial Conference in Paris.
An Advisory Group on Support for the Belarus Roadmap was established to assist in implementation of the Roadmap. It includes representatives of governments, supranational institutions, and civil associations of member countries of the EHEA along with three representatives of Belarusian state education sector.
Challenges to implementing the Roadmap
Belarus would like to avoid a painful breakdown of its educational system, bypassing ‘empty-headed copying of western models’, as Aliaksandr Lukashenka likes to put it. He has named several possible negative effects of internationalisation for Belarus, including brain drain and loss of ‘patriotic, moral, and aesthetic education’.
The fact that the country’s leadership takes this stance is a significant factor hindering the integration of Belarus into the EHEA. What’s more, relevant legislative changes proposed by the Ministry of Education are contested by other governmental bodies and ministries, which are often wary of change.
A group of experts from the Public Bologna Committee has developed methodology for monitoring the quality of Roadmap implementation. This allows monitors to use an index to measure the Roadmap’s progress. The term set for Roadmap implementation is three years. The final index value as of June 30, 2016 was 8,7%. This leads experts to conclude that Roadmap implementation is still in its initial stages, and in some areas has not even started.
It should be noted that the Advisory Group on Support for the Belarus Roadmap is more optimistic about the Roadmap’s progress, but its working documents are not available publicly, making assessment difficult.
Experts assert that the development and implementation of the National Qualification framework, the quality assurance system, ECTS credits system, and Diploma Supplement has been delayed for unknown reasons. For three years, the Ministry of Labour has been working on the National Qualification framework, piloting projects for professional standards.
Institutions which do not directly relate to the education system create barriers to student and staff mobility. For example, advertisements for activities by foreign universities are regulated by the anti-human trafficking law, developed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The state funding of academic mobility remains very modest and does not allow to reach the planned EHEA student mobility indicator of 20% by 2020
The obligation for students whose education is financed by public funds to accept work placements upon graduation has remained in Belarus since Soviet times, which does not correspond to EHEA and demand in the economy. Moreover, there is a discrepancy between the education sector and the needs of the labour market.
Most Belarusian HEIs are state run; they are subject to orders from higher executive powers. Rectors are appointed by the President and are under political governance.
Universities are still used as a tool for political education by means of state ideology courses, youth organisations such as the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, obligatory work, and participation in state holidays and political events. For the most part, civil society is only able to influence decisions by the authorities through external actors, primarily the European Union.
Recommendations on Roadmap implementation
To implement the Roadmap on time, the responsible institutions should consider the following recommendations:
Social dimension and labour market. The obligation to accept work placements should be limited to specific areas, where there is a significant need for professionals. Legislative measures should be taken to provide incentives to employ university graduates via preferential tax treatment for employers and other fiscal mechanisms. Tools to ensure this include ratings and monitoring of the quality of education. Moreover, HEI funding should depend on the level of employment among graduates.
Student and staff mobility. Bureaucratic barriers to mobility should be eliminated in cooperation with the stakeholders among governmental bodies. State funding of academic mobility should be significantly increased. To prevent brain drain, students should be offered prospects for professional development through social partnership with employers.
Conference panel on Bologna process in Belarus (December 2016, mostly in Russian)
Academic freedoms and principles of university autonomy. Guarantees of citizens’ and institutions’ rights to free teaching, learning, research, and protection from government interference should be codified in legislation. Institutional autonomy should be guaranteed in organisational, financial, personnel, and academic spheres. Administrative barriers to creating freely functioning student unions, trade unions, and other public associations should be eliminated.
Transparency and involvement of a wide range of stakeholders. The institutions responsible for the implementation of the Bologna principles should provide stakeholders and the public with up-to-date information on the progress of reform. The Advisory Group on Support for the Belarus Roadmap should engage a wider spectrum of stakeholders in its activity, including NGOs and business and student associations, as well as facilitate regular expert dialogue.
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Belarusian diplomacy in 2016 – annual foreign policy digest
In 2016, Belarusian diplomats succeeded in getting rid of most Western sanctions, improving the international legitimacy of the national parliament, regularising dialogue with Europe, and converting Poland from a strong critic into a good partner.
Nevertheless, they failed to make Lukashenka fully presentable to his peers in Europe, alienated Ukraine’s political elite, botched export growth and diversification of the export market, and turned Lithuania from a supporter into a foe.
Belarus Digest offers its summary of Belarusian diplomacy’s achievements and failures over the past year.
A farewell to EU sanctions. In February, Belarusian diplomacy scored a major victory when the European Union ended travel bans and asset freezes against most individuals and all companies from Belarus.
Meanwhile, in the months preceding the final removal of sanctions, the Belarusian authorities failed to systematically improve the human rights, democracy, and the rule of law situation in the country.
Geopolitical considerations played the decisive role in the EU's decision, even if European officials denied it. In the regional security context, Europe decided against rebuking Belarus, which had previously acted as a fairly independent player.
Maintaining an ‘optimistic status quo’ with the US. Unlike Europe, the United States refrained from definitively removing sanctions against Belarus. However, Washington remunerated Minsk for its renunciation of overtly repressive policies by suspending economic sanctions repeatedly.
Belarus and the United States focused their dialogue on regional security issues. They also resumed military cooperation.
President Alexander Lukashenka chose to become personally engaged in these talks. He received several mid-level US envoys without giving diplomatic protocol too much mind.
Similar to Europe, the United States prioritised Belarus’s distancing from Russia’s assertive behaviour in the region over long-time concerns for human rights and democracy. However, the lack of progress in these areas precluded further improvement of bilateral ties.
Mainstreaming dialogue with Europe. In 2016, Belarus developed high-intensity relations with Europe, in both institutional and bilateral dimensions.
Hardly a month went by without high or mid-level EU emissaries coming to Minsk or Belarusian officials visiting Brussels. Belarus and the EU launched a new format for structured dialogue, the Coordination Group.
While high-level bilateral exchanges with many EU countries has become quasi-routine, Belarusian diplomacy remained most successful in strengthening bilateral contacts with Central and South-East European nations, leaving the 'old' Europe behind.
Lukashenka has remained a political outcast in Europe. His only ‘visit to Italy’ in May was a mere face-saving encounter with an Italian ceremonial official on the way to his meeting with the Pope.
Befriending Poland. Regional security considerations and genuine economic interests have encouraged Warsaw to pursue greater engagement with Minsk, putting aside ‘ideological superstitions’.
The two countries managed to re-establish multifaceted interagency contacts, which included long-taboo parliamentary cooperation. However, they stopped short of highest-level meetings. Poland also cut down its support for the opposition in Belarus and considered shutting down Belsat, the only independent Belarusian TV channel, which it supports financially.
It is not clear what Warsaw got in return, besides strengthened economic cooperation and hesitant signs that Belarus is turning away from Russia.
Meanwhile, several unresolved issues, mostly related to ethnic minority rights and trans-border contacts, have hampered a full normalisation of bilateral relations.
Fending off Lithuania’s diatribe. Although Belarusian-Polish relations improved, Belarusian-Lithuanian relations deteriorated. The two countries’ disagreement over the construction of the Belarusian NPP near their shared border caused a crisis.
Lithuania expressed fear about environmental and safety issues. Belarus saw economic and political motives behind Lithuania’s claims.
Vilnius attempted to form an international coalition to block potential exports of electric energy from Belarus. Minsk countered these efforts by pitching cheap energy to Lithuania’s neighbours and gradually increasing transparency around the nuclear project. Bilateral trade and investment cooperation suffered as a result.
Legitimising the puppet parliament. Over the last twenty years, the international contacts of Belarusian MPs has remained largely limited to their Russian counterparts, the CIS, and developing countries. European legislators have overwhelmingly boycotted the rubber-stamp institution, which the executive branch appoints and controls.
In 2016, several Western parliaments apparently took the removal of sanctions as an encouragement to reengage with Belarus in all areas, including inter-parliamentary relations.
Exchanges of parliamentary delegations between Belarus and Europe have become commonplace. The visits of high-level MPs from Poland and Austria were especially instrumental in helping the marginalised Belarusian legislature to gain international recognition.
No convincing attempt to provide an explanation for the sudden need to ‘normalise’ the entity, which has no say in Belarus’s domestic or foreign policy, has been made so far.
Withstanding Russian pressure. In 2016, relations between Belarus and Russia reached their lowest point in years.
The two countries squabbled over a number of unresolved issues in different spheres: oil and gas supplies, market access, exports of Belarusian agricultural and food products to Russia, loans, transit of third-country nationals through the Belarusian-Russian shared border, and more.
Both countries avoided verbalising the intensity of disagreements at the political level. Instead, they took recourse to various ‘soft power’ measures. These included airing propaganda talk shows on Russian TV with speculation about pro-Maidan trends in Belarus; arrests of pro-Russian journalists in Belarus; fomenting fears of a Russian invasion of Belarus; and Lukashenka’s refusal to attend a Eurasian summit in Russia.
Belarus remained dissatisfied with Russia’s reluctance to provide its usual level of economic sponsorship. Russia was unhappy about Belarus’s decreased level of loyalty in foreign policy and security matters.
Disappointing the Ukrainian elite. In 2016, Belarus managed to increase its bilateral trade with Ukraine; this stands in stark contrast to its deteriorating commercial relations with most other countries. The two countries also succeeded in putting an end to a tariff war between them.
However, despite Belarus’s tacit refusal to support Russia in its hybrid war against Ukraine, political relations between Minsk and Kyiv deteriorated.
Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko have not met in a bilateral format since mid-2014. Their agreement to meet in late 2016 failed to materialise after Belarus voted against a UN resolution on human rights in occupied Crimea. This vote angered many among Ukraine’s elite.
Failing to achieve a breakthrough with ‘Distant Arc’ countries. Belarus sought to achieve a more balanced geographical distribution of its exports to decrease the national economy's vulnerability to stress situations in its main markets.
Lukashenka travelled extensively outside Europe and Russia – visiting China, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE. His diplomats also focused mostly on Middle-Eastern and Asian nations.
However, efforts to increase the share of ‘Distant Arc’ countries in Belarus’s trade have largely failed. In January-November 2016, exports to these markets decrease by 12.5%, from $7.13b to $6.24b, and the share in total exports remained at 29%.
Belarus took pride in improving its relations with China from a simple ‘strategic partnership’ to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership featuring mutual trust and win-win cooperation’.
Belarus's excellent political relations with China may serve to counterbalance Russia’s outsized influence on Belarus. However, these relations have failed to provide an immediate economic payoff as Belarusian exports to China in 2016 contracted to their lowest level since 2009.
Faltering at the United Nations. In 2016, Belarusian diplomacy invested much effort in reforming the process of appointment for new UN Secretary Generals. Throughout UN history, its leader has been chosen based on consensus of the Security Council’s permanent members.
Despite some external signs of greater transparency and inclusiveness, Belarus’s reform efforts have largely failed. Even Belarus’s closest ally, Russia, refused to support this initiative.
Minsk stuck to its non-consensual initiative in promoting the traditional family. It also created a group of like-minded middle-income countries, exploring a new way to access UN development assistance.
Belarus’s policy statements at the UN contrasted with its recent pragmatic approach to bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Using strong anti-Western and anti-capitalist rhetoric, they assigned blame for Belarus’s economic, social, and security failures to West-induced ‘global chaos’.
In 2017, Belarusian diplomats will continue to work wonders: developing relations with the West without a hint of meaningful democratic reforms at home; keeping Russia as its closest ally and sponsor without offering the usual degree of loyalty in return; and increasing exports and attracting investments without economic restructuring and reforms.