Attracting Foreign Students to Belarus: Success or Failure?
On 1 September, around 20 thousand foreign students will start the academic year in Belarusian universities and technical schools.
This figure has almost doubled over the past four years, with Turkmens accounting for half of all foreign students in Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities are trying to make a profit from the educational sector, hoping the relatively low price of living and learning will draw in foreign students. However, the poor quality and self-isolation of Belarusian universities may dissuade foreigners from studying in the country.
Belarus looks to attract foreign students
In early August, the Belarusian state-run Capital TV Channel proudly reported that 20 thousand foreign students will be studying in Belarus during the upcoming academic year. This figure also includes students at technical schools, although this is a much less popular option than universities.
Statistics from previous years show that Belarusian universities primarily attract students from Turkmenistan, Russia and China. International relations, economy and philology programmes at the Belarusian State University, the most popular university for foreign students, attract almost half of the international students in Belarus.
While IR and economy programmes are popular among Belarusians as well, philology programmes stay afloat partially thanks to foreigners. While such degrees may appeal to foreigners, Belarusians remain reluctant to major in Belarusian philology, seeing the discipline as useless in a Russian-speaking country.
Having understood how popular the education business can be, Belarus is rapidly looking to attract more foreign students. Moreover, during the economic crisis Belarus lacked additional funds for education, and foreign students' tuition fees supplemented university budgets. According to the Minister of Education Mikhail Zhuraukou, Belarus earned $73 mln from foreign students in 2014. The fees at the Belarusian State University amount to around $3 thousand per student per academic year.
For many international students this sounds like a good deal, as the price of tuition and accommodation in Belarus remains much lower than, for example, in Russia. As one Janapese student explained to Naviny.by, dormitories are 40 times cheaper than in his home country.
However, tuition fees do not seem so low compared with neighbouring Poland or Lithuania. Lazarski University in Warsaw, for example, where many Belarusians study, costs $2.5 thousand per academic year. Students also have the opportunity to study in an English language programme leading to a diploma much more respected in the West. The European Humanities University, a Lithuanian institute with Belarusian roots, also has tuition fees of around $3 thousand per year.
Limits of possible
Belarus can in fact attract more students, but two main obstacles remain in place. While Belarusian education may satisfy Turkmen students, may others perceive it to be sub-par The ranking of the best university in the country, the Belarusian State University, is 421-430 according to the QS World University Rankings. Other universities in the country are rated much worse.
In order to attract foreign students, Belarusian universities need to internalise. National Academic Recognition Information Centres around Europe do not recognise all Belarusian diplomas, although adherence to the Bologna process should improve the situation. For this reason, after completion of a five-year programme in Belarus, alumni cannot apply directly to a PhD programme in a Western university, but need to apply for an MA programme first.
Moreover, there are not enough courses taught in English or teachers with overseas teaching experience in Belarus, thus almost all foreign students study in Russian. On the other hand, Russian language programmes remain one of the reasons students from Turkmenistan or China come to Belarus.
Secondly, unnecessary bureaucracy and low professionalism of education agencies may deter some foreign students. In order to enter a Belarusian university, one needs to pay for registration, pass a paid medical examination, and translate and notarise documents. Moreover, according to Belarusian law, foreign students are not allowed to work during studies.
While it may excel at creating unnecessary bureaucracy, Belarus under-performs in other areas. The websites promoting education in Belarus, such as edu-belarus.com, remain misleading, to put it mildly. Among reasons to study in Belarus listed online, one can find “enrichment of learning experience through visiting professors from USA, Canada and the UK” or “good prospects of permanent residence and settlement in Europe following completion of the programme”.
Unfortunately, it remains difficult to find visiting professors from Western countries, and education in Belarus has nothing to do with getting the right to reside in the European Union.
Another problem is that Belarusian universities lack influential alumni organisations that can help attract new students. Several famous Vietnamese people, such as Nguyen Dang Quang or Fam The Long, who currently head universities or large companies in Vietnam, studied in Belarus. However, Belarus has few students from the country at present.
How many foreign students will arrive?
Currently, Belarus has two options – one of which seems much more desirable than the other.
On the one hand, the number of foreign students is still going to rise, as prices for housing and education will remain low for rich students no matter what. Moreover, Belarus attracts students with lower educational expectations. Many Belarusian lecturers and students complain that foreign students (especially from Turkmenistan) have shown little desire to learn. However, universities do not expel them, as they need their money. Therefore, the flow of such students will continue to grow.
On the other hand, Belarus faces difficulties attracting students with higher expectations (as well as those who have more money). Education in sub-par universities not internationally recognised in a country stereotyped as the last dictatorship in Europe is not tempting to everyone.
So far, Belarus has already succeeded in bringing many foreign students, but it should improve its education system to attract more.
Nomination and Registration of Candidates – Digest of the 2016 Parliament Elections
On August 11, the registration of candidates for the September 11 parliamentary elections ended. District Election Commissions (DECs) reviewed registration documents for 630 potential candidates. Below is a summary of nomination and registration of candidates followed by a detailed report.
As of August 12, 521 candidates were registered, 93 were denied registration, and 16 withdrew their nomination. Political parties nominated 63.5 percent of all registered candidates, labour collectives 24 percent, and citizens (through signature collection) 38.2 percent.
Opposition candidates constitute more than one-third of all registered candidates. Based on the Central Election Commission (CEC) and party reports, registered candidates include 16 from “Tell the Truth” (TtT), 49 from Belarus Popular Front (BPF), 67 from the Centre-Right coalition (“For Freedom” (FF), United Civil Party (UCP), “Belarusian Christian Democracy” (BCD)), 27 from Belarusian Social-Democratic Party – Gramada (BSDP-G), 38 from “Fair World” (FW), and five from the “Greens.”
One hundred fifty-six of 180 nominated candidates from pro-governmental political parties were registered. All 28 nominated incumbent MPs and 43 of 51 nominated local counselors were registered.
Candidates used different means, including the collection of nomination signatures, to apply for registration. The Centre-Right coalition reported that they collected over 50,000 signatures, and TtT reported 38,000. Two pro-governmental candidates submitted over 15,000 nomination signatures each, though the validity and collection methods of these signatures were challenged by independent observers.
Many contenders from opposition forces were denied registration due to alleged mistakes or omissions in their nomination papers. Some democratic candidates were rejected by DECs claiming their nomination signatures failed verification.
Belarusian election observers published reports noting “unequal signature collection conditions.” They stressed the “untransparent manner” of signature verification in DECs. Earlier, domestic observers condemned the Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) formation process, stressing the low rate of opposition inclusion (10.31 percent of nominated opposition PEC commissioners were approved).
ElectBy.org – in partnership with the “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” (HRD), “Right to Choose-2016” (R2C), and Election Observation Theory and Practice (EOTP) – launched a new version of the mobile application “Vochy,” which informs citizens about their electoral rights and allows them to quickly send recorded election violations from their phone.
As of August 10, observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) constituted 243 out of 303 accredited international observers. Fifty-one accredited observers are from OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), two from OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and seven from Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
Candidate Nomination and Registration Processes
Elections to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus, the lower house of the parliament, are scheduled for September 11. Early voting will take place between September 6 and 10. There were three ways for parliamentary hopefuls to be nominated and registered as candidates: (1) by collecting 1,000 signatures in their district, (2) party nomination at a congress, or (3) through the nomination of labour collectives. In total DECs reviewed documents of 630 potential candidates. Over 100 utilised more than one of the methods listed above.
Between August 2 and 11, commissions in 110 parliamentary districts held candidate registration meetings. According to CEC data, as of August 12, 521 candidates were registered (82.7 percent of applicants), 93 were denied registration (14.8 percent), and 16 withdrew their candidacies (2.5 percent). Political parties nominated 63.5 percent of all registered candidates, labor collectives 24 percent, and citizens 38.2 percent. A table below summarises the share of registered candidates from political parties.
Approximately 200 out of 521 registered candidates represent opposition forces. Over 40 opposition candidates were not registered (see a note under the above chart). The number of opposition candidates nominated and registered is higher in 2016 than other parliamentary elections going back to at least 2004.
One hundred fifty-six of 180 nominated candidates from pro-governmental political parties were registered. All 28 nominated incumbent MPs and 43 of 51 nominated local counselors were registered.
A chart below summarises some of the demographic and occupational characteristics of registered candidates.
In 2016, 136 more candidates applied and 158 more were registered than during the 2012 parliamentary elections. The registration denial rate in the 2016 elections is 10 percent lower than in 2012. CEC Chair Lidzija Jarmošyna described the registration process being “more liberal” than four years ago.
Registered candidates began campaigning the moment of their registration. The campaigning period will last until September 10 (no campaigning is allowed on Election Day, September 11). Candidates may not spend more than 21,000 Belarusian rubles ($10,000) on their campaign expenses. The fund may be formed exclusively from the candidate’s own money.
Each candidate is eligible to have one five-minute radio and television speech. Speeches will be broadcast on regional state-owned channels between August 15 and September 2. Debates will be held on state TV if at least two candidates express a willingness to debate. CEC Chair Jarmošyna stressed she is against “forced” participation in debates. Debates will be held in all parliamentary districts of Minsk.
Candidates began submitting their election platforms to be published in state newspapers. Candidates can publish their program in only one approved state newspaper in order to avoid multiple publications. The CEC updates a list of candidates, who have already submitted their programmes for publishing.
Some of the opposition politicians, particularly former presidential candidate and political prisoner Mikalaj Statkievič, call for post-election protests to demand “real elections.” A peaceful protest rally is one of the scenarios supported by the Centre-Right coalition forces. CEC Chair Jarmošyna responded to protest plans stating “participants of 2010 events did not learn anything even in prison.” She also remarked that protests are the “biggest threat” for parliamentary elections.
Candidate Registration Incidents
There were several widely covered incidents of registration denial in the non-state media. One of the mostly discussed cases relates to Alieś Lahviniec, a “For Freedom” (FF) contender in Minsk. He attracted significant media attention by holding a combined signature collection picket and concert featuring opposition-minded artist Liavon Volski. The media estimated more than 1,500 people attended the event.
Officially, Lahviniec’s candidacy was rejected due to two official warnings he received. One alleges he distributed campaign materials and the second accused him of “bribing voters.” Lahviniec found the person who allegedly filed one of the complaints against him, but the supposed claimant said she had not done so. As a result, Lahviniec then appealed his non-registration and requested the police investigate the alleged “document falsification.”
Several other opposition candidates were denied registration due to alleged omissions in their filing paperwork. For instance, a prospective United Civil Party (UCP) contender Mikalaj Kazloŭ, who is well known for attempts to prevent electoral fraud in previous elections, was not registered because he “allegedly incorrectly filled out an income and tax declaration.”
At a press-conference on August 15, UCP claimed Kazloŭ’s denial of registration was “politically motivated.” Kazloŭ’s appeal of his denial was rejected by both the territorial election commission (TEC) and the court. Similar incidents occurred to BPF, FF, TtT, and FW hopefuls in Brest, Viciebsk, Orša, Žodzina, Baranavičy and other settlements.
A number of non-registration incidents were related to DEC challenges to the the validity of collected nomination signatures. For example, human rights observers reported that in Maladečna, the DEC #73 did not register “Belarusian Christian Democracy” (BCD) contender Paviel Prakapovič, who allegedly submitted 999 nomination signatures instead of 1,000 required.
In addition, observers noticed that the list or registered candidates had been already published on the local executive committee website prior to the DEC registration meeting. The “Tell the Truth” (TtT) contender Uladzimir Ščarbatych was not registered on the basis that a significant part of his signatures were collected in another constituency.
According to human rights observers, as of August 13, TECs had received 17 appeals concerning denial of registrations.
Signature Collection Outcomes
After signature collection, Centre-Right coalition forces, BCD, UCP, and FF, organised a press conference to present their assessment of the first stage of the campaign. They announced that coalition’s initiative groups collected over 50,000 nomination signatures. However, only 10 FF contenders, who collected 15,700 signatures, applied through signature collection. UCP and BCD contenders applied for registration under the auspices of UCP rather than submitting signatures. Sixty-seven out of 81 coalition’s candidates who applied for registration were approved. BCD separately reported that eight out of 32 BCD nominees were rejected.
On August 2, TtT campaign organised a press conference in the first stage of their campaign. TtT reported that their candidates collected 38,000 nomination signatures. Twenty-five of 29 prospective candidates submitted signatures to DECs. Sixteen out of TtT 25 candidates were registered by DECs, including the leadership Andrej Dzmitryjeŭ and Tacciana Karatkievič.
There were cases in which independent election observers openly questioned the validity of signatures, as well as collection methods, of candidates referred to as “officials.” For instance, Mahilioŭ Centralny DEC #85 announced that the Chief Doctor of Mahilioŭ Central Hospital Aliaksandr Staravojtaŭ collected over 15,000 signatures to get registered as a parliamentary candidate in the constituency with approximately 65,000 voters.
An election observer Aliaksej Kolčyn questioned the validity of signatures and claimed that the DEC did not allow him to see the submitted by Staravojtaŭ signatures. Furthermore, an observer from “Belarusian Helsinki Committee” Siarhej Niaroŭny reported that in neighbouring Kryčaŭ district #83, the DEC did not find any invalid signatures within the 15,000 submitted by Tacciana Maračkova, the Chair of Kryčaŭ district executive committee. The observer also said that civic activists reported the “use of administrative resources” during signature collection for Maračkova.
Domestic Election Observation Efforts
Both domestic election observation initiatives “Right to Choose-2016” (R2C) and “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” (HRD) published reports on the formation of PECs and stressed the low rate of opposition inclusion (10.31 percent of nominated opposition PEC commissioners were approved). After the candidate nomination period, observers published another report noting “unequal signature collection conditions” and stressed “untransparent manner” of signature verification procedures. HRD stressed its observers were not allowed to observe signature verification in 36 of 49 observed DECs.
On August 15, HRD observers held a press conference on candidate registration, during which they stated that the authorities made “formal changes” but “[…] in reality the hard administrative control remains the same over the election commissions. In fact, election commissions serve the local administrations that supervise their work.”
R2C, HRD, ElectBy.org and EOTP launched a new version of a mobile application “Vochy,” with updates to the version that was used in the 2015 presidential election. The application informs citizens about their electoral rights and allows them to quickly send recorded election violations from their phones. Reported incidents are received by independent observers and appear on the ElectBy.org online map. The application is available for Android devices at the Google Play store.
On August 10, representatives of nine political parties and organisations gathered within a framework of the campaign “Women against Falsifications!” to discuss strategy for the 2016 parliamentary campaign. The initiative aims at “urging members of election commissions to overcome a fear and dependence on the authorities in order to make a choice in favor of democratic elections without falsifications and fraud.” The meeting was also attended by “For Fair Elections” and R2C representatives.
The Chair of “Belarusian Association of Journalists” (BAJ) Andrej Bastuniec was included on the Supervisory Council, formed by the CEC and Information Ministry, to monitor the compliance of pre-election campaigning to mass media rules.
International Organisations Launch Observation Missions
On August 2, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) officially opened an election observation mission for the Belarus’ 2016 parliamentary elections. The OSCE/ODIHR mission, headed by Tana de Zulueta, plans to deploy ten core experts, 38 long-term observers and 400 short-term observers from 24 countries.
The same day, the mission leadership held a press conference in Minsk and discussed the ongoing parliamentary campaign during a meeting with the Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Aliena Kupčyna and CEC Chair Jarmošyna. Additionally, there are reports that OSCE/ODIHR leadership met with “Belaya Rus’” representatives and human rights observers, and in an interview to BelaPAN they disclosed that they planned to meet court representatives to observe the process of hearing complaints. Long-term observers started their work on August 11.
On August 8-9, the observation mission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) led by Gisela Wurm conducted a pre-electoral visit to Belarus to “assess the election campaign and political climate.” During the visit, the PACE held meetings with representatives of the Belarusian political opposition, experts, civic activists, the CEC, and “Belteleradiocompany” leadership. After the visit to Minsk, PACE concluded that Belarus’ recent amendments to their electoral legislation “fail to address some of the key recommendations of international organisations, including those of the Council of Europe Venice Commission.”
The media reported that in connection to parliamentary elections, the Deputy Chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Kent Harstedt is on official visit to Belarus on August 14-16. He is expected to meet with Belarusian officials as well as participants of the election campaign. On the first day of his visit, Harstedt held a meeting with opposition politicians to discuss the ongoing campaign. He also gave an interview to TUT.BY, stressing the importance of these elections in terms of the “image of Belarus in the eyes of OSCE.”
The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observation mission reported “candidates enjoyed equal conditions” thus far. In addition, the head of CIS mission Sergey Lebedev suggested Western observers develop a “common election assessment approach.” As of August 10, CIS observers constituted 243 out of 303 accredited international observers. Fifty-one accredited observers are from OSCE/ODIHR, two from OSCE PA, and seven from PACE.
Michael P. Murphy & Juljan Jachovic
National Democratic Institute