Analytical Paper: Optimising EHU’s Impact on Belarus
The European Humanities University (EHU) was forced into exile in 2004 when the Belarusian authorities withdrew its licence. This followed the EHU’s refusal to acquiesce to government pressure to change its leadership. The exiled University found its new home in Vilnius, which is less three-hours by train from Minsk.
The current rector of the EHU should step down soon in line with the requirements of Lithuanian law, having served two terms. The Centre for Transition Studies publishes a paper authored by Yaraslau Kryvoi and Alastair Rabagliati which aims to launch a constructive public discussion on the direction of the EHU under the new leadership, to deal with the challenges facing both the EHU and Belarusian society.
The authors interviewed by e-mail and by telephone over 20 individuals related to the EHU, including its alumni, lecturers, administration, donors and well as representatives of Belarusian civil society who worked with the University in the past. Many agreed that an open discussion would benefit the university.
The EHU is an important and valuable institution for the future of Belarus. However, public information and debate about the direction of the university has been limited. Most media coverage has focused on the story of the university going into exile rather than its effectiveness. This paper intends to fill this gap.
The EHU is at a Crossroads
With no change in Belarus on the horizon, the university needs to prepare itself for continued exile. Ten years after the EHU established itself in Vilnius, many donors continue to support the EHU as they have taken natural sympathy for their struggle. However, they are now paying increasing attention to the impact of the funding, and considering in more detail whether the University could increase its self-funding.
Most media coverage has focused on the story of the university going into exile rather than its effectiveness. Read more
As this paper demonstrates, the university has recently shifted its focus from Belarus-related courses, publications, staff and the Belarusian language towards an institution aiming to cater a broader group of students from the countries of the former Soviet Union. The Belarusian component was more prominent during its early years in exile. Now the vision of the University mentions Belarus primarily as a source of students, among other students from the region rather than as the main target of its activities.
The internationalisation of the University, which features prominently in the description of the University’s vision for the future, is likely to lead to a decrease in Belarus-focused studies, staff and students. The EHU risks losing its distinction from other regional private universities, which raises the question about why it should continue to be eligible for donor’s support.
For example, Polish universities (especially private ones, like Lazarski University) have neither specific donor support, nor a special focus on Belarus. However, their prices are affordable and Belarusians are ready to pay for the benefits of an EU education. Perhaps ironically it is Lazarski University that has organised a series of conferences on historical and political perspectives on Belarus that observers argue should be the EHU’s trademark.
Another concern is that joint programmes with other universities are liable in reality only to amount to subsidising Belarusian students to study at regular regional universities rather than creating a specific Belarus focused environment.
Therefore to fulfil its role as a university in exile and centre of academic development for a new generation of Belarusians, the University should retain its Belarusian character and focus on areas of “added value” for Belarus. Rather than becoming an ordinary “internationalised” university, the EHU should learn from other successful émigré universities, notably the Ukrainian Free University in Munich, which educated generations of Ukrainians.
Towards Greater Sustainability through Focusing on Belarus
With its location away from the restrictive political climate of Belarus, areas where the EHU is well positioned to provide “added value” include political science, Belarusian history, human rights, Belarusian language and literature as well as journalism.
The EHU with its new concept of internationalisation risks losing its distinction from other regional private universities, which raises the question about why it should continue to be eligible for donor’s support.
The EHU has the potential to become the main scientific hub for Belarus, both for research and academic studies. In this way it would be ideally placed to obtain further funding (such as through EU university research programmes) or donor support (linked to democratisation in Belarus).
The EHU could work on meeting the need for high quality research on Belarus, especially linked to developing concrete plans for reforms in Belarus. Currently there is a lack of organisations that are able to perform this role.
To increase interest among young Belarusians in programmes such as political science, history or Belarusian studies the university should not only offer scholarships but also recruit and retain high calibre academics working in these areas providing them with job security guarantees typical for EU universities.
The paper suggests establishing a robust disclosure mechanism of research, teaching and policy impact based on measurable indicators. This mechanism could take the form of expanding existing oversight bodies to ensure that relevant donors, implementers, Belarusian civil society, Belarusian diaspora and the Lithuanian government all have a chance to review reports and be consulted on the most important decisions.
While the aim of a sustainable EHU, less dependent on donors’ funding, is supported, this paper argues that donors should continue to firmly back the EHU as a valuable institution, which could play a unique role in the future of Belarus. External support, however, should be targeted at the “added value” areas while other EHU programmes could be paving the way for self-funding.
Redrawing the geopolitical map: Belarus and its neighbours connect the Black and Baltic seas
Belarus and Poland are advancing a project to connect the Black and Baltic Seas via the E40 waterway. The 2,000 km-long waterway will run through rivers and canals in Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland and provide better access to seaports for landlocked Belarus.
Having already conducted a feasibility study, the participating countries are now considering ways to finance the project before making their final decision.
However, in July, several environmental organisations and public associations launched a campaign against the E40 waterway. About two dozen organisations from Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine signed a petition to halt the project.
If anything can ensure the sovereignty of Belarus and its neighbours, it is such projects which modify the political geography of the region. Unfortunately, many experts and politicians in the region do not seem to understand this matter.
Is the project really as large as it seems?
Linking up the Black and Baltic Seas, the proposed E40 route also connects many of the region’s major cities: Brest and Pinsk in Belarus, Gdańsk and Warsaw in Poland, and Kyiv and Kherson in Ukraine. The designers of the E40 project emphasise that their intention is to restore a previously existing waterway to move both people and cargo. In most parts of the waterway, ships are navigating even today.
The Polish leg of the project will require the most work, while Belarus has only to partially streamline the Prypiats’ River, construct seven locks, and build several other hydro-technical facilities.
The Polish Maritime Institute in Gdańsk carried out a feasibility study on the project with EU support. According to the institute, construction of facilities on the Prypiats’, i.e., the Belarusian part of the undertaking, would cost $150m. In comparison, about 12bn euros is to be spent on construction of the Polish part of the route.
Criticism from activists
On 19 July, certain environmentalists and economists expressed their concerns over Е40 during a press conference in Minsk. Ales’ Herasimenka, the press secretary of the Business Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers, criticised the project for the high investment risks it carries and the negative consequences for the Belarusian economy.
According to him, internal waterways are generally less efficient than automotive and rail transport in terms of rapidness, necessity of reloading cargo, and seasonal limitations. Therefore, according to Herasimenka: ‘We believe that government and institutional investors should come to terms with the decline of the role of inland water transport. … Waterways were relevant at the beginning of civilisation.’
However, such cursory dismissal of inland water transport is misjudged. In other European countries, this form of infrastructure shows no obvious signs of decline. Between 1990 and 2015, despite some ups and downs, the cargo volume of German inland water transport remained more or less static, at slightly more than 220m tons.
Likewise, some types of cargo, especially liquid bulk and dry bulk cargo, can be profitably transported through inland waterways, despite the limitations on speed. Several major firms in southern Belarus could take advantage of the waterway to transport large volumes of cargo. The Mikashevichy-based firm Hranit has been using the Prypiats to transport its granite for many years. Likewise, the Mazyr oil refinery or the Salihorsk–based potash company Belaruskali could transport their products using water transport.
Tourism cannot replace trade
Environmentalists insist that the project could have grave consequences for the local bird population, including several vulnerable species. Moreover, they claim it could potentially destroy the unique wetlands ecosystem.
However, the project does not envision any direct destruction of the wetlands. Moreover, nature in the area is not pristine anyway. In the 20th century, most swamps were drained in southern Belarus, and intensive economic activity altered the region significantly.
What’s more, the local environment is transforming because of global climate change. The water level in southern Belarusian rivers has been low for several years. Last year, because of the low water level in the Prypiats’, navigation on the river stopped much earlier than usual: by the beginning of autumn. On the other hand, because of rising temperatures and earlier springs, last year the company Belarusian Riverine Steamships started navigation on the Prypiats’ a month earlier than normal, in March.
One critic of the project, a representative of the Polish organisation Ratujmy Rzeki, Przemyslaw Nawrocki, urges Belarus to develop tourism along the Prypiats’. However, despite the beautiful landscapes along the river, the tourism industry is unlikely to be able to compete with the income brought by the E40. Belarus is simply too poor to leave the region undeveloped to satisfy environmental activists.
The waterway as a political game-changer
The E40 project also has political significance. ‘Death of Palissie [the name of the region in the Pripyats River Basin] or an alliance against Russia?’ exclaimed the US-financed and administered Radio Liberty, writing about the project on 24 July.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian government is negotiating a waterway which would help it use Polish and Ukrainian ports at the time when the Kremlin is urging Minsk to reroute its cargo away from Latvian and Lithuanian ports towards Russian Baltic ports. Minsk is not only resisting Moscow’s plans in this area, it even wants to make more intensive use of ports in countries Moscow considers unfriendly.
However, this concerns more than just Russia. Minsk is increasingly interested in the Polish port of Gdańsk and various Ukrainian ports because of very probable problems with using the Lithuanian port of Klaipėda.
The Lithuanian government has become unfriendly towards Minsk in recent years because of Belarus’s decision to build a nuclear power plant near the Lithuanian border. Moreover, on 14 July, the Klaipėda City council voted to expand the city at the expense of its port – a priority destination for maritime export of Belarusian products. Belarus had invested in the Klaipėda port and there was long-standing bilateral cooperation on using the port for Belarusian foreign trade. This decision of local authorities dissmisses the plans of the port administration to construct a new deep-water port for ocean-going ships – a dream for Belarusian exporters.
In sum, projects like E40 alter the geopolitics of the region, opening it up and providing it with further and better connections to the sea. Belarus cannot change its location, but it can develop its infrastructure in a way which mitigates its disadvantage as a landlocked country. Minsk can diversify its exports and reduce its dependence on Russia; it can also better integrate with its neighbours and the EU.
The environmental and economic arguments against the project are unconvincing, at least as far as Belarus is concerned. To survive, Belarus must reach the sea; the E40 is one way to do this.