Belarusian Nobel laureate Sviatlana Alieksijevič hit by a smear campaign
On 19 June, the Russian information agency Regnum published a widely discussed interview with Sviatlana Alieksijevič, the 2015 Nobel Prize Winner from Belarus. Despite the fact that Alieksijevič forbade Regnum to publish the interview, the news outlet went ahead and released the article.
In a conversation with journalist Sergei Gurkin, Alieksijevič touched upon the issues of Russification in Belarus, the war in Ukraine, and the status of the Belarusian and Ukrainian languages. The interview led to widespread discussion of Alieksijevič in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
The Russian media in particular was keen to discuss the interview, accusing Alieksievič of holding a 'Russophobic position'. Meanwhile, reactions in Belarus and Ukraine were more of a response to the scandal in Russia than to Alieksievič's own words.
Why did the interview go viral?
On 19 June, the Russian news service Regnum published a conversation between Belarusian Nobel Laureate Sviatlana Alieksijevič and Sergei Gurkin, a journalist for the media outlet Delovoy Peterburg. Although Alieksijevič explicitly stated during the conversation that it should remain off record, Gurkin insisted on seeking publication.
This decision would cost the journalist his job: Delovoy Peterburg refused to publish the interview for ethical reasons. Thus, Gurkin offered the interview to Regnum, which accepted the article. Delovoy Peterburg subsequently fired the journalist for violating journalistic ethics, but the published interview was already causing heated discussion in Russia.
Alieksijevič highlighted Russia's militant position and named Russia 'a country of wars and revolutions'. The war in Ukraine and Maidan were another focus of the interview. Opposing the opinion of Gurkin, Alieksijevič claimed that the regime change in Ukraine was the people's will and the country aims to move towards Europe.
Perhaps Alieksijevič's most notable statements related to the murder of pro-Russian writer Oles Buzina: the Nobel Laureate claimed that she understood the murderer's motives.
Alieksijevič also covered the issue of the status of the Belarusian and Ukrainian languages. Both Ukraine and Belarus endured a long period of Russification; the number of people who think in Russian is thus unsurprising. Alieksijevič then explained that restricting the usage of Russian language in Ukraine could help unite the nation.
A threat to Russian propaganda?
Alieksijevič’s interview immediately provoked a reaction in the Russian media and among politicians and political analysts. Russia's largest news portal, Lenta.ru, gave much attention to Alieksijevič's opinion on the murder of the pro-Russian writer Oles Buzina.
Lenta.ru interpreted Alieksijevič's statement that she understood the motive for the murder as a justification for it.
After the publication of the interview, Russian State Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov called on the Nobel Committee to consider retracting Alieksijevič's Nobel Prize for ‘the violation of moral principles’.
Immediately following the interview, two Russian bloggers contacted Alieksijevič and played a prank on her: one of them introduced himself as the Minister of Culture of Ukraine and spoke of his intention to award her the National prize ‘Order of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes’ and organise a meeting with President Poroshenko.
The other prankster introduced himself as a representative of the Russian Ministry of Culture. He offered her the national Russian award ‘Orden Druzhby’ and a meeting with Putin. After the prank publication, Alieksijevič told the Russian oppositional journal Novaya Gazeta that she would never accept such awards.
Dmitry Kiselev, a well-known Russian TV host, called Alieksijevič 'a wolf in sheep's clothing' on a Russian Channel 1 broadcast. Kiselev referred to Alieksijevič as Russophobic, racist, and intolerant of Russian culture, history, and language. Kiselev described Alieksijevič ’s opinion about Russians as ‘dull militarists incompatible with Europe’ who ‘do not have the right to compassion’, and who 'can and should be killed’.
Reactions in Belarus and Ukraine
This is not the first statement of Alieksijevič which has provoked debate in Belarus. Publicist and literature critic Aliaksandr Fiaduta believes that Alieksijevič's status allows her to ignore the pranksters and journalists attempting to abuse her, writes Radyjo Svaboda.
On Radyjo Svaboda, Belarusian journalists Jury Drakachrust and Zmicier Hurnievich discussed whether the pranks would influence the reputation of Alieksijevič. Drakachrust argued that Alieksijevič was just repeating statements she had made previously. However, she could have been less ambiguous when explaining her position.
On June 9, in an interview with the Russian TV channel Rain, Alieksijevič said: ‘the war that Russia started in Donbass is on Russia's conscience. Such a war could start in Belarus: let in tanks and guns and there will be Catholics killing Orthodox or anyone else’.
This statement provoked strong reactions from both the Catholic Church in Belarus (Archbishop Kandrusiewicz reacted to the statement in an open letter) and Belarusian politicians and public activists. This forced Alieksijevič to further explain that her metaphor had been misunderstood.
This time around, Alieksijevič's interview did not attracted much public attention in Ukraine. The Ukrainian media have largely focused Alieksijevič's opinions regarding language, identity, and the war in Eastern Ukraine.
Thus, two days after the interview's release, the newspaper Depo analysed Alieksijevič's position on why the Russian media reacted so heatedly to the interview. Hromadske TV also highlighted the development of discourse surrounding the interview in Russia. However, Alieksijevič's conversation with Gurkin was not so widely discussed in Ukraine.
Alieksijevič's puzzling personality
Sviatlana Alieksijevič has often received criticism for her ambiguous opinions related to her national identity, languages, and position on wars.
Her controversial interview with Regnum led to further discussions of her personality, especially in Russia, while the Ukrainian media focused mostly on Alieksijevič's previous statements on Ukrainian issues.
The Belarusian media and public figures also analysed the reaction to the interview in Russia. However, the harshest criticism came from the Russian media and activists, who upbraided Alieksijevič for her radical position towards the Russian language and the Ukrainian conflict.
The sharp reaction from Russian media outlets and politicians can be explained by the fact that many of her statements related to ‘sore points’ of Russian politics: the war in Ukraine and Russia's role in it, the promotion of the concept of the 'Russian World', and confrontation with the West.
Alieksijevič, who writes in Russian, has made statements that completely contradict official Russian propaganda. Many public figures in Russia perceive this as a threat or an attempt to change Russian public opinion on issues important to the Putin regime.
The Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner has not received much attention in Belarus for winning the Nobel Prize. Nevertheless, many of her subsequent interviews have caused heated debate.
The unexpected rise of Belarusian universities in international rankings
According to recent QS World University Rankings, two Belarusian universities appeared on the list of the best 959 universities in the world. The Belarusian State University received a higher rating than all universities in Poland and Lithuania.
Nevertheless, despite the high position of two Belarusian universities, higher education in the country still faces serious issues, including restriction of academic freedom, dependence on the state, and plagiarism. According to QS, Belarusian universities score highly in student teacher ratio. However, this criteria appears unimportant when deeper flaws in Belarusian higher education are taken into account.
What does the QS ranking measure?
The Belarusian State University has appeared among the best 959 universities in the world for several years now. In 2016, The Times Higher Education World University Ranking placed BSU among the 601-800 best universities. Quacquarelli Symonds rated BSU as 36th among almost 500 universities in Emerging Europe & Central Asia.
In ranking universities, QS assesses six main criteria. The agency first looks at the academic reputation of an educational institution. Gathering responses from 40,643 employers, QS measures the reputation of a university as a source of new employees. The agency then counts citations of research papers per faculty.
The final score also depends on the ability of a university to attract international employers and students. 20% of the final calculation is based on the faculty/student ratio, which analyses the capacity of a university to provide enough teachers for a quality study process.
Nevertheless, the QS university ranking has received criticism for how they measure citations. Another cornerstone of their methodology is the high importance of academic reputation, which comprises 40% of the final score. Despite these criticisms, however, many believe that QS is one of the most reliable university rankings. TheTelegraph, The Guardian and Times named the ranking as the most reliable.
The top three advantages of Belarusian universities
BSU's academic reputation remains lower than that of Polish and Lithuanian universities. At the same time, QS takes into account the number of teachers and students at a university. The Belarusian State University received 92.3 points out of 100 for its faculty/student ratio. In comparison, Vilnius University received 69.2 points and Warsaw University 29.1.
The Belarusian State University has around 55,000 students, much more than Warsaw University (44,000 students) or Vilnius University (20,200).
Despite restricted academic freedom and political pressure, Belarusian universities have several advantages. Higher education remains available for almost everyone able to pass a test after high school. Although Centralised Testing doesn't correspond very well to the school programme, many can pass it and enter university. Universities accept students even with 20 points out of 100.
An additional advantage of Belarusian Universities is the opportunity for students from low-income families to receive a scholarship. The scholarship money, roughly $30-$45 per month, barely covers living costs. However, almost every scholarship student can receive it providing he or she retains adequate grades every semester.
Belarusian Universities also provide students with cheap housing, which gives them the chance to live independently. Although the number of available places in student dorms and the quality of living accommodations remain low, international students and those coming from other cities or villages are guaranteed a place in the dormitories. The cost of rent for these dorms is extremely low, especially compared to renting an apartment. In 2017, students could rent a dorm for only $5-$20 per month, depending on the area and quality.
Improving Belarusian universities
Both the Belarusian State University and the Belarusian National Technical University received the lowest scores in the 'academic reputation' section of the QS rankings. They could both improve their scores by addressing issues of academic freedom, independence from the state, and plagiarism. These factors directly influence the reputation of universities.
Universities still remain dependent on the state. Teachers and students have no influence on the election of provosts – these are assigned by the authorities. University and school teachers are part of electoral commissions which participate in election falsification. The loyalty of the educational system to the current political regime has become a hallmark of Belarusian universities.
Another urgent problem is plagiarism. According to the independent online magazine Idea, 74% of Belarusian students have downloaded ready-made essays, 63% have rephrased existing texts, and 30% have ordered papers for money. The Ministry of Education and Universities could easily introduce a system to check for plagiarism. However, this does not seem to be a priority for Belarusian authorities.
Although international rankings rate Belarusian universities higher every year, there are still many obstacles to development. Belarusian universities would benefit from granting students and teachers more economy – this would ensure the development of the Belarusian labour market and improve the quality of higher education. Independence from the state and extension of student rights could also prevent brain-drain in Belarus.
Does the Rating Ignore Reality?
Despite the fact that BSU and BNTU appeared in the QS ranking, certain aspects of higher education in Belarus are problematic.
In May 2015, Belarus became a part of the Bologna process. Nevertheless, the Bologna Committee, an independent monitoring organisation, reported that the Belarusian system of higher education is failing to implement the norms of the Bologna process.
Uladzimir Dunajeŭ, the head of the Bologna Committee, noted in Bolognaby.org that besides the underdevelopment of higher education in Belarus, ‘Belarusian people fear reforms, thinking that they will only lead to deterioration. The history of educational reforms can explain this position.'
In 2010, many instances of political pressure on students occurred during post-election protests. Among the 700 people arrested after protests, many were students. In November 2015, the European Student Union called on the Belarusian authorities to put a stop to the increasing pressure placed on Belarusian students who participated in demonstrations, reports Belta.
In spring 2017, Belarusians protested against the social parasite tax, which obliges people to pay a tax for being unemployed. Students became active participants in the demonstrations, leading to yet more suppression from the authorities. For example, a student named Aliena Kisiel was kicked out of a university in Mahilyow for taking part in protests.
In assessing universities, research agencies often ignore issues related to political pressure. However, this factor remains important in non-democratic countries, where students become actors in political or social protests. The absence of this factor in the rankings may make the position of Belarusian Universities higher than they should be.
Regarding the citation rate of research papers, one of the six criteria of the QS ranking, BSU does well. However, the abundance of plagiarism might influence the quality of cited research papers. Additionally, the high citation rate might be explained by the rare use of foreign languages in Belarusian academia.
It seems that the official ranking of a university depends on many valuable formal indicators (such as the number of students and teachers, etc.). However, they fail to take into account factors such as the degree of academic freedom.