Conflict between EHU Senate and Administration: How to Find a Peaceful Solution
Belarusian lecturers from the European Humanities University are getting ready to strike soon.
This was the message coming out of the University's labour union shortly after the EHU administration dismissed professor Pavel Tereshkovich, the head of the EHU Senate, who was elected last November.
Prior to these elections a group of lecturers launched an electoral platform criticising the conditions of their employment contracts and the upcoming hiring campaign.
They proposed to include Belarusian academics into the governance of the University and to strengthen the role of the EHU Senate, a self-governing body that ensures the quality of education and research.
Despite resistance from the Senate the University administration thinks that it is important to proceed with a competition for a set of soon-to-be-established permanent faculty positions.
Both EHU academics and its administration recognise the need to reform. As the conflict inside the university escalates, both sides need to sit together at the negotiating table sooner rather than later, perhaps with a respected mediator who could guide the reconciliatory talks.
History of Disagreements
In November 2013, the Belarusian media widely covered the vibrant electoral campaign of Belarusian acedemics entering into the EHU Senate. The Senate itself is a self-governing body, which consists of 21 members, representing both academics and students.
Back in those days, a group of Belarusian academics, including Pavel Tereshkovich and Volha Shparaha, launched an electoral platform under the slogan "For a New EHU".
They criticised the university's administration for its authoritarian and non-transparent decision-making practises and the absence of any meaningful involvement of EHU academics in decision-making. Lecturers proposed a stronger role for the Senate and a rotation in the EHU management, including the post of rector.
They also advocated making Belarus-related research and teaching a priority for the University. As a result of their campaign candidates from "For a New EHU" won a majority of the seats in the Senate. Pavel Tereshkovich became chairman of this democratically elected body.
When EHU dismissed Tereshkovich a few months later, it provoked outrage from both the Senate and the EHU trade union, which announced its plan to strike in protest.
Colleagues of Tereshkovich launched a campaign in support of him. Some of the EHU Senate members, including Ala Sokolova, Volha Shparaha and Maksim Zhbankou, initiated a petition on the web site change.org. The petition has already collected over 1,000 signatures.
Maksim Zhbankou, another EHU lecturer, told Radio Svaboda that the administration would also dismiss other Belarusian academics. In his opinion, the University presented those who remained critical of the administration as a small group of people, but in reality the majority of the teaching staff disagreed with the current policies of the administration.
Tereshkovich thinks that his dismissal was unlawful and an affront to the EHU Senate which elected him Read more
Tereshkovich thinks that his dismissal was unlawful and an affront to the EHU Senate which elected him. According to Tereshkovich he did not receive any official explanation for his dismissal. He tells Belarus Digest that the EHU trade union is planning to sue the EHU administration on his behalf.
He argues that his recent criticism of the changes in the system of governance, the newly created position of provost and other new governing structures cannot to be found anywhere in the Statute of EHU. He also believes that the university wants to put pressure on those who question the transparency and fairness of the recently announced international competition for EHU positions.
EHU's Response: We Are Ready to Talk
Darius Udrys, a vice-rector for Development and Communications, refrained from discussing the reasons behind Tereshkovich dismissal. However, in response to Belarus Digest's questions he did state that, "examples of faculty who are critical of the administration and continue to work at EHU are plentiful."
According to him, the administration is ready to meet and discuss any concerns of the teaching staff. He also commented that to resolve the conflict, the administration has made an effort to "restore dialogue with those who are critical to our plans."
Udrys is confident of the donors and stakeholders, "continued commitment to the university as well as support for our efforts to introduce standard academic practises like open competitions for full-time faculty positions."
All Agree – EHU Needs to Reform
In January an independent evaluation service of the European University Association, published a report which indicated areas for improvement of the strategic management of the University. With regards to the provost and executive council, the report recommended to define these positions in the EHU's Statute, which should be amended accordingly.
The report suggests that the management should ensure that all internal constituencies will be able to participate in the decision-making process: "The distribution of competencies in the decision-making processes is unclear and uncertain."
As concerns the mission of EHU, the European University Association report states that "given the composition of the staff and student bodies, the team found broad agreement amongst them that the Belarusian mission should not be abandoned." The report's authors recommend "to reaffirm the institutional mission and develop an appropriate strategy."
the university administration and its academics agree that the University needs to undergo serious structural changes Read more
Both the University administration and its academics agree that the institution needs to undergo serious structural changes, while remaining faithful to its original mission as a Belarusian university in exile.
For its part, the EHU wants to be competitive with other universities. Today when education institutions are becoming increasingly internationalised, the EHU is afraid of falling behind.
The introduction of open competitions for full-time positions, widely practised elsewhere, represents an effort to bring one of the basic international standards in higher education to the EHU. The administration also understands the need for increasing the quality of the university's teaching and research.
Still, the EHU has a complex identity issue. For one, it has an explicitly Belarus-related mission. EHU is supposed to be a safe haven for embattled Belarusian intellectuals – not a business arrangement. Yet it is based in Lithuania and wants to be internationally competitive and financially sustainable. Combining both of these issues into a cohesive plan has proven to be a difficult task.
Need for a Peaceful Solution
The EHU badly needs good press coverage to maintain its positive reputation both abroad and in Belarus. In Belarus, it is important to attract prospective students and academics. Abroad it needs to main its image for donors who support the institution. For this reason, these disputes should be resolved peacefully without resorting to extreme measures.
Most observers agree that EHU is no longer just a private university run by a single person but has an important mission to serve Belarusian society. EHU existence depends upon the financial support from the international donor community. But shifting the burden of conflict-resolution and micro-management to EHU alone is hardly realistic.
It may be advisable to engage a mediator come in who could facilitate a resolution to the dispute Read more
However, as tensions at the University are rising and both sides are unable to work out a solution, it may be advisable to engage a mediator to facilitate a resolution to the dispute.
Ideally, such a person could be respected internationally, but at the same time, intimately familiar with Belarusian society and situation inside the country. The mediator would be able to speak the same language both with the university administration and Belarusian academics.
Such an effort might help restore trust between both sides of this conflict and help strengthen EHU by finding a long-term workable solution. Someone like Stefan Eriksson, a former Swedish ambassador to Belarus, who speaks perfect Belarusian and lived in Belarus for years might be a good candidate.
CNN Offended Belarus and Russia
On 24 January, CNN published a rating of the world’s ugliest monuments, causing an outrage in many post-Soviet countries, both officially and among the general public.
The channel described the Courage monument from the Brest Fortress memorial in Belarus as looking constipated, a strange characterisation from a professional media company.
The story provoked a chain of official letters of protest in Belarus and Russia. In Russia the anti-American wave seemed to grow even stronger as a result. In return, Russian TV show depicted soldiers at Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, hinting that they were simulating a sexual act.
The case demonstrated just how Belarus and Russia still use World War II glory, developed by the USSR on a massive scale, as an important tool for ideological battles with the West. But while in Russia the anti-western mood remains strong both among the elite and general population, in Belarus people are not as hostile and the government does not dare engage in another informational war in a period of rapprochement.
The Controversial Ratings
On 24 January, CNN published a rating of the world’s ugliest monuments with photos, giving them some facetious descriptions. Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King Junior, a monument given to the United States by Russia to commemorate the 9/11 World Trade Centre bombing, Pope John Paul II and other monuments appeared on the list.
These pieces of art were accompanied by light-hearted humorous comments, and while some of these works of art are sacred for many people, they did not cause a big stir at first.
However, one of the monuments soon sparked a firestorm in several post-Soviet countries. The momument, known as Courage, is a monument of a Soviet soldier that commemorates the struggle with the Nazis in World War II and is located in Brest, Belarus. Although CNN published the material on 24 January, in the former USSR countries it exploded only two weeks later.
The description of the monument in the CNN story said the Soviet soldier “emerging from a mountainous block of concrete looks as if he's about to thump the West into submission before hurling North America at the sun.” It also noted that others think the soldier “simply looks constipated.” The editors could hardly expect a firestorm that this joke finally caused.
The Monument’s Story
The history of the monument dates back to the very beginning of World War II. The German troops supported by artillery and aviation attacked the fortress on the border early on 22 June 1941. German command planned to capture the fortress by 12 p.m. the very same day. However, the Soviet soldiers desperately resisted for about a month, with 2,000 Soviet soldiers killed and 7,000 taken prisoners.
This resistance became a symbol of struggle with the Nazis in the USSR. After the war, the story of fortress defence became a part of Soviet mythology, glorifying the victory and continues to play a similar role in Belarus until now. The authorities decided to build a memorial in 1965. Today, the Brest fortress is a place of countless visits and commemorative events held by officials.
Russians, who share the heritage of Soviet war ideology, also consider Brest Fortress as an important symbol of their own. It is not only official Russia's state ideology that makes use of the monument. Many average Russian tourists come to Belarus just to visit the memorial. It should be no surprise, then, that the outrage spread across Russia even to a larger extent than in Belarus.
Belarus and Russia’s Nervous Reaction
On 7 February, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus summoned the Chief of the US diplomatic mission to Belarus, Ethan Goldrich. Belarusian officials informed Mr. Goldrich that the CNN piece with the Courage monument is unacceptable.
“The insulting material caused an outrage among regular Belarusians and even civil organisations. Belarus lost one fourth of its citizens in World War II and memory of heroes who died for the country's liberty is sacred to the Belarusian people,” the note said. Belarus' Embassy in the US addressed the Department of State and CNN channel with a similar note.
Interestingly, the reaction of common Belarusians to the incident appeared quite moderate. TUT.by media portal polled Brest dwellers on the incident, and usual answers were “Well, it is not ugly I think…”, “I think Americans do not understand it…”, “I wish Americans came here and we would explain to them the meaning of the monument…”
Apart from official Foreign Ministry note, Belarusian officials refrained from publicly commenting on the issue. Meanwhile, Russians appeared much more active in this respect. A Russian foreign ministry told CNN Moscow Bureau chief Phil Black that the mockery of the memory of Soviet soldiers, who gave their lives for the victory over fascism, cannot be justified or forgiven. The Russian embassy in the US called the inclusion of the Courage monument in the rating unacceptable and insulting and beyond reason.
The vice-speaker of the Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament, and the secretary of General Council of United Russia party Sergei Neverov called the rating an affront and sacrilege to the 5 million dead, who saved the world from falling into the grips of fascism. He thinks that US public should consider this incident seriously.
A member of the Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senator Igor Morozov even proposed placing a temporary ban on CNN broadcasts inside Russia. According to him, this will show CNN and other media agencies “the boundaries of their publicity” and give them a better understanding of “which evaluations are appropriate and which are not.” Other Russian officials also used this opportunity to criticise the channel and the United States in general.
Russian Ideologists Strike Back Despite CNN Apologies
On 6 February, a CNN editor’s note appeared on the story. He apologised on behalf of the corporation for including the Courage monument in its rating. “We understand that inclusion of the Courage monument in the rating insulted Belarusian people. This was done unintentionally and we apologise for this. We expected that the material would be an overview of monuments worldwide. CNN realises that the monument has a sacred value for many people who honour the memory of the soldiers who gave their lives,” the note said.
On 7 February, CNN withdrew the story entirely, explaining that it was not to the standard they would expect of a CNN report.
However, the apologies seemed not to be enough for the Russians. On 9 February Rossiya TV channel showed weekly programme of Dmitry Kiselyov, an anchor well-known for his active pro-Kremlin propaganda.
He explained in the programme how CNN humiliated the memory of Russian people everywhere. Soon thereafter in the broadcast appeared a picture of the US Marine Corps War Memorial of Iwo Jima Battle.
Kiselyov hinted that the soldiers’ positions in the monument could be understood as homosexual intercourse. "It's easy to mock. A fevered subconscious could ascribe just about anything to it. Take a closer look: A very modern theme, is it not?" he said.
This is not the first time that Kiselyov also made homophobic comments, a trend which the Russian government supports and which the West has extensively criticised recently.
The reaction of Russian officials and propaganda show that the anti-Western mood among Russians remains high, higher than among Belarusians. Russia sees its Soviet war legacy as important tools for propaganda and continues its confrontational model of relations despite the Olympic Games taking place in Sochi. Meanwhile, Belarus, which again tries to reconcile with the West, dares not launch any kind of similar informational war – so far.