Belarusians Had to Mourn Chavez for Three Days
Alexander Lukashenka took part in the funeral of Venezuelan former President Hugo Chavez. Standing together by the coffin of their friend, Lukashenka and Ahmadinejad could not stop the tears.
Isolated from the West, the Belarusian ruler does not have much choice when it comes to finding foreign friends and partners.
According to the Belarusian state news agency BELTA, Chavez had closer friendly relations with Lukashenka than with any other foreign leader. The Belarusian authorities announced three days of mourning in the country. All TV and radio stations were recommended not to air entertainment programmes and state flags had to be flown at half-staff starting on 6 March.
That shocked many observers – when the greatest modern Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau died, the authorities announced no mourning at all. Just one day of mourning followed the Minsk metro bombing on 11 April 2011 that left 15 dead and hundreds wounded. Lukashenka is trying to demonstrate how highly he appreciated his personal relations with the Venezuelan leader, a stranger to most Belarusians.
Hugo Chavez used to be one of the most liberal friends of Lukashenka. At least Chavez never falsified elections in his own country. Other friends of Lukashenka, like Moammar Gaddafi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have a much worse record.
Lukashenka likes to cooperate with other authoritarian leaders, although that brings little financial gain to Belarus. Anti-Americanism and “resistance to the single-polar world” rhetoric are the main uniting factors here. Such cooperation serves the purpose of support for one another in the international arena and secures internal legitimisation.
Lukashenka’s regime often uses connections like that to show its autonomy from Russia and independence from the West. Further, these relations remain important for the internal stability of the countries. Unofficial sources claim that the special services of Belarus, Iran and Venezuela cooperate with one another and share the experience of preventing the “coloured revolutions”.
The leaders of Belarus and Venezuela made friends in 2006, when Chavez visited Minsk for the first time. Chavez suggested to Lukashenka that they form a “combat team”, and Lukashenka replied that they could create “a team in football, hockey or basketball”. That friendship looked very doubtful then, and the numbers confirmed it. In 2006, Belarusian exports to Venezuela totalled $6.0m, and imports zero.
Due to the personal friendship, the situation then changed drastically. In 2012, Belarusian exports to Venezuela totalled $254.4m, while Venezuelan exports totalled $326.4m. Moreover, in 2010 and 2011, imports from Venezuela surpassed one billion dollars. Unlike any other of Lukashenka’s partner, Chavez made Belarus a priority over Russia and irritated the Kremlin by selling oil to Belarus. Lukashenka promised to never to forget it.
Venezuela has become a great market for Belarusian goods. Often their quality is so low that only a friend would buy them. The majority of Belarusian economic projects may have to be be cancelled after Chavez’s death. The new President is unlikely to sympathise with the Belarusian leader so much.
Whoever becomes the new Venezuelan president , he will never become as popular as Chavez. Moreover, he will have to solve several complex internal issues and is unlikely to spend money on Lukashenka instead of his country's other mates.
At first, Lukashenka did not plan to participate in his friend’s funeral personally. His close aide Victar Sheiman was supposed to go to Venezuela. However, the Belarusian leader decided to put off festive ceremonies dedicated to International Women’s Day (an official holiday in Belarus) and flew to Caracas. He probably did this not only because he wanted to say goodbye to his friend, but also to try to support Belarusian interests in Venezuela.
Other Authoritarian Friends of Lukashenka
The more negative Lukashenka's relations become with Vladimir Putin or the West, the more he tries to create the impression of friendly relations with other countries. Lukashenka always liked to demonstrate his good relations with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Moammar Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe, Slobodan Milošević and even Fidel Castro.
Relations with Iran looked the brightest. Close relations with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad secured access to the Iranian market for Belarus. Belarus is now actively selling not just traditional potassium fertilisers, but also agricultural equipment, synthetic fibre and metal products to Iran. Moreover, Belarus got an opportunity to develop an oil field in Juffair while Iranians opened their “Samand” automobile factory in Belarus.
In 2006, Ahmadinejad told Lukashenka that he considered him his best friend ever. However, several years later the Iranians broke the contract for oil production with Belarusians, while the quality of “Samands” appeared so low that the Belarusian authorities decided to close the factory.
Today, Belarusian-Iranian relations are waiting for a new start. Ineffectiveness of economic cooperation overcame friendship.
Lukashenka also had close relations with Moammar Gaddafi. He even called him his brother in public. Like Chavez.
In 1999, Lukashenka visited Slobodan Milošević during the NATO operations against Yugoslavia, in order to support him and even to discuss Yugoslavia’s joining the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
Why Lukashenka Needs Such Friends
Lukashenka has been on the EU travel ban list for many years and cannot travel to most European countries or to North America. Therefore, the Belarusian authorities like to portray any minor international meeting or trip as a major international event. Lukashenka has no particular reason for hugging Mugabe, but he does it.
The second problem comes from the first one: the absence of recognition. The Belarusian regime makes a lot of fuss about its international relations in order to send a signal to Belarusian society that the international community recognises the Belarusian authorities and communicates with them.
Thirdly, the quality of some Belarusian products remains so low that other countries agree to buy them only on the basis of really friendly relations – they have to buy the goods in order not to destroy the friendship.
Nobody knows how real the friendship between the Belarusian and the Venezuelan leaders was, but Lukashenka will definitely miss Chavez. The Presidente indeed supported Lukashenka and asked for nothing in return. Chavez, Gadaffi, Milošević – those are friends whom Lukashenka will never see again.
Every year the Belarusian ruler leader keeps losing friends, and the list of his foes continues to grow.
Belarus Needs A Strategic Vision in Higher Education Management
On 26 February 2012, Minister of Education Syarhei Maskevich announced a substantial increase of a minimum passing grade to Belarusian universities.
The government wants to decrease the number of poorly performing students and to redirect young people to technical colleges instead of universities.
Belarusian officials seem not to care that much about the quality of an education. On the contrary, in every possible sphere of higher education's regulation they exercise rather utilitarian approach. Instead of making cosmetic reforms the government must have a strategic vision of educational reform.
Statistics Show Some Peculiarities
All in all, more than 428,000 students study at 54 institutions of higher education during the 2012-2013 academic year in Belarus. Approximately 377,000 of them get their degrees at 45 state universities, while the others study at 9 private institutions.
There are three forms of higher education in Belarus: full-time (49% of all students), evening (less than 1%) and part-time (about a half). Full-time education means attending lectures and seminars, while part-time students attend the university only for short periods of time and pass exams there. Evening education means studying at evenings after work.
The higher education in Belarus is either free or paid. To become "state-financed" an entrant must pass his or her exams substantially better than his fellows. However, following the Soviet tradition, a lot of students study for free – 49.4%.
The annual number of enrolled and graduating students is practically even and comprises approximately 80,000 – 90,000. Only 700 students study in the Belarusian language, while the overwhelming majority get their higher education in Russian.
It may look surprising, but even with plenty of free-of-charge places and simplified entering process only 18% of all men (above 15 years old) have higher education. Among women of the same age this figure is 20%.
The Low Quality is Evident
Generally, officials in such anachronistic systems as Belarusian tend not to admit their mistakes. But, the decline in the level of intelligence of Belarusian students becomes manifest and alarming even for governmental officials.
On 26 February 2013, Belarusian minister for education, Syargei Maskevich announced the decision to raise the minimum passing grade for entrants into universities. Till now it has been enough to get 7 out of 100 points at all the entrance tests to be entitled to pass. Starting this year this figure will vary from 15 to 20 (depending on the subject).
As Syargei Maskevich himself explained, this measure will leave 30% of entrants out in the cold. At first glance the decision is positive. But an utterly appalling conclusion follows these figures: for now every third school leaver cannot get 15-out-of-100 result during his or her tests. By the way, recent research shows that such a result can be reached by a simple random filling in the testing form without any preparation.
The declared purpose of the reform is to improve the educational level of students and to "exclude accidental people among the entrants", as the minister said himself. Another goal that he announced was the popularisation of technical schools and colleges.
The idea between the lines is the lack of technical specialists in the country. Belarusian authorities bet on industrial branches of the economy and therefore do not need more lawyers and financiers, but instead – workers and engineers.
Moreover, many students today means many educated people tomorrow. The latter tend oppose the authoritarian system. So to have the obedient population, the regime needs more uneducated people than self-dependent professionals.
Foreign Students as Lavish Sponsors
The Belarusian ministry for education exercises rather utilitarian policy towards foreign students. While the prestigious universities throughout the world do their best to attract young foreign talents, providing them with scholarships and benefits, Belarusian higher educational institutions raise foreigners’ fees two- and even threefold comparing with nationals.
In figures this looks like $1,100 – $1,700 for Belarusians (paid in roubles) and $2,500 – $4,250 for foreigners paid in U.S. dollars. The currency of payment matters a lot in Belarus because of frequent and unexpected devaluations. The gross currency inflow via foreign students’ payments during the 2012-2013 academic year will reach $20m.
Belarusian government concludes specific "educational" treaties with other countries in order to increase the stream of entrants from these states. Among them – Cuba, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Jordan, Turkmenistan, Lebanon, Ecuador, Vietnam, China, Kyrgyzstan etc.
The essence of these treaties is mutual recognition of the diplomas and relieved entrance procedure. In practice it means becoming students of top-rated Belarusian universities without any entering tests except for basic Russian (in order to communicate with their fellow students).
Except for favourable entrance conditions, practice shows that foreign students never get expelled even in case of an utter academic failure. All the facts bring to a conclusion that these students are used as a mere financial resource for the government. The fashionable "educational services export" has become an intentional policy of the authorities.
Meanwhile, the problems of low educational level, universal accessibility and the lack of academic freedoms remain untouched while the ministry for education does its best to absorb additional revenues from foreign students.
Belarusian government claims the desire to reach the European quality of higher education and to enter the Bologna process. In order to do it, officials should handle the multiple problems of domestic higher education with a strategic vision. But for now they choose performing merely cosmetic reforms and self-enriching measures.