Lecturers Exiled from the Belarusian University in Exile?
A number of Belarusian lecturers who were particularly vocal in criticising the administration of the European Humanities University – a Belarusian university in exile – will no longer teach there after this summer.
Their departure is the result of a previously announced round of faculty hiring that wrapped up at the end of July.
Commenting on the administration's decisions, representatives of the EHU Senate and its union argued that they were not offered employment because of their vocal disagreements with the university's management.
EHU's administration has stressed that agreement or disagreement with its policies was not a criterion. The administration explained that the criteria considered during its hiring process included the quality of applicant's teaching and research, but also the workload requirements of departments.
Financial considerations also figured into the hiring process. The university needed to lower the overall number of academics the university could afford to hire.
Belarus Digest interviewed David Pollick, EHU Provost, and Andrei Lavruhin, a former EHU lecturer and Secretary of the Senate.
Senate vs Administration
EHU administration and faculty relations were strained a few years ago when a group of Belarusian lecturers left the university after a disagreement with its administration. While things had been relatively calm in the interceding years, the conflict flared up once again in February 2014.
At that time, the administration had recently dismissed Paval Tereshkovich, the head of the democratically elected Senate – the university's self-governing body. He was one of the authors of a pro-reform platform championed by EHU academics called “For a New EHU”.
Tereshkovich and his colleagues rallied for a series of specific changes such as improved employment conditions for the faculty and a shift towards having research and teaching focus more on Belarus.
Following his firing, Tereshkovich told Belarus Digest in an interview that his dismissal was unlawful and an act of revenge for his criticism of the university’s administration. His colleagues supported him and another lecturer, Maksim Zhbankou, even predicted at the time that there would be further dismissals of other academics that made the administration uncomfortable.
At the end of July, EHU officially announced that it was offering one-year employment contracts to 61 lecturers. The leaders of the "For a New EHU” platform were not among those offered employment.
The list of faculty offered contracts after the hiring process did not also include the management of "EHUnion" Aliaksei Kryvalap, his deputy Kanstancin Tkachou or Andrei Ralionak, a member of the "Council" union and the Senate.
Other EHU Senate representatives, including Volha Shparaha, deputy head of the Senate, Andrei Lavruhin, the Secretary of the Senate and member of the "Council" union and Maksim Zhbankau, a Senator, also lost their jobs.
Lavruhin: Political Dismissals
Andrei Lavruhin told Belarus Digest that the administration's decisions were politically motivated and they proved academic repression against the lecturers.
In his view, the decision not to hire back members of the faculty was due to their criticisms of the EHU administration. “All of the dismissed lecturers enjoyed a high level of admiration among the student body (as seen in their annual student evaluations) and had significant academic potential”, he explained.
The former lecturer does not yet know what he will do personally. “It is hard to say at the moment, because we found ourselves in this position only a week ago”, he told Belarus Digest. The fact that he taught at EHU will also probably make it very difficult, if not impossible, to find a job at any other state-run Belarusian university.
He and other lecturers are planning to sue EHU in Lithuanian court, and also seek the help of human rights organisations and other European agencies.
EHU Administration: Quality of Teaching and Research Above All
David Pollick, EHU’s Provost, explained to Belarus Digest that the "Hiring Commission's recommendations to the Rector were based on criteria such as the quality of a faculty member's teaching and research, and the workload requirements of departments (…) Whether someone called for changes or disagreed with the Administration’s policies was not a deciding factor”, he said.
Pollick explained the decision-making process: "Following on internal departmental consultation, the heads of academic departments provided recommendations as members of the Commission".
According to the Provost, members of the Senate were aware that there would be additional costs associated with moving core teaching staff from service contracts to employment contracts. “Because of the additional costs, a reduction in the overall number of faculty was inevitable”, he stated.
Towards a More Transparent EHU?
The prior dismissal of Paval Tereshkovich and recent decisions made by the administration may raise a few questions regarding the transparency and fairness of the university's hiring process.
According to an EHU media release, the Internal Faculty Hiring Commission consisted of the heads of EHU’s four academic departments, the Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs and the newly-appointed Provost.
However, it is unclear – from either the press release or EHU's web site – who the heads of the departments are and how they were appointed.
At the same time, it seems quite logical that if EHU were to improve the employment conditions (i.e. raise the salaries) of its academics, it would have to cut the number of those employed.
The administration began switching members of its staff from service contracts to employment contracts earlier this year and, as part of this process, had already appointed the university's core faculty by the end of the July.
These new improved working conditions will definitely give the university's faculty more financial security and stability than they had with service contracts, which had been the standard form of employment for years.
Who is Concerned About EHU's Image?
The university's donors would appear to still be its most important constituency. As donors that help fund it, they help ensure that EHU is functioning in accordance with its stated mission of being a truly democratic university working for the future of Belarus.
The administration, for its part, believes that it is fulfilling its obligations to its donors. "We have kept donors informed of our plans and actions and we are confident that they understand and support us", David Pollick told Belarus Digest.
Pollick also believes that the changes "will improve the quality of education and research at EHU, and, thereby improve our image in a very real way”, he added.
Belarusian media, on the other hand, have been very critical of the conflict.
Nearly all of the headlines surrounding the recent events at the university have carried a bitter tone: "What is EHU Mutating Into?" (EuroBelarus), "Rebel Professors Driven Out of EHU" (RFE/RL). Other headlines include "The Students of EHU Collect Signatures in Support of Lecturer-Rebels" (Charter'97) and "Everyone Who Thinks Critically at EHU – at Risk" (EuroBelarus).
The state-run Belarus newspaper Belarus' Segodnya published an article entitled "Study in the Shadow of Scandals", a piece that commented upon the conflict at the university with particular satisfaction.
The administration argues that its decisions were not dictated by the lecturers’ critical attitudes. However, the fact remains that all of the leaders of the Senate and EHU's union will no longer be employed at EHU come this fall.
Naturally this raises questions about whether the hiring decisions made by the university's administration were based solely on their academic credentials.
Because EHU exists to serve Belarusian students, it needs to do more to build a positive image in Belarusian society, including being tolerant of internal dissent.
A tolerant, pluralistic environment would demonstrate that EHU is a place that encourages genuine and open discussion, without the threat of reprisals – something which is sorely missing in Belarus.
Lukashenka the Peacemaker
Late in the evening on 29 July Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko phoned his Belarusian counterpart and proposed him to host a meeting of a tripartite contact group on Ukraine.
The negotiations' format included OSCE, Russia and Ukraine. Alexander Lukashenka agreed and the talks were scheduled on 31 July. The contact group talks took place in Lukashenka's residence Zaslaūje near Minsk behind the closed doors.
Minsk got the opportunity to host these negotiations because of Belarus' neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Lukashenka showed his best manoeuvring skills, navigating between each party because he needs stable trade relations with Ukraine, but he cannot afford being too disloyal to Kremlin.
Yet, the possible outcomes and implications of Minsk talks may have been overestimated: the Belarusian role in conflict's resolution remains insufficient to affect a serious change or to improve the authorities' image in the West.
An Ideal Place for Talks
The contact group planned to discuss two issues: the release of hostages and securing access for international investigators to the MH17 crash site. For that matter parties decided to invite the representatives of pro-Russian separatists who also agreed to come.
The talks brought together Ukraine's ex-president Leonid Kuchma, Russian ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov, OSCE special envoy Adelheid Tagliavini and the separatists' delegation, headed most probably by Andrey Purgin, "the vice-premier" of self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.
It was no accident that Minsk became the suitable place to host these talks, rather technical, but still important from the humanitarian perspective.
With an open clash between the EU and Russia the Ukrainian conflict rapidly developing, and Eastern Ukraine itself being divided into areas controlled either by the Ukrainian military or by separatists, Belarus appeared to be the only neutral place in all of Europe that could guarantee the security of all the participants.
Credit here is due to Alexander Lukashenka and his rather effective balancing between Ukraine and Russia throughout the entire conflict. From the very first days of Russia's annexation of Crimea, the Belarusian ruler did his best to preserve good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow.
Lukashenka achieved his purpose by making numerous statements that were pleasing both parties. He de facto recognised Crimea as a part of Russia. At the same time, he called for the elimination of the terrorists in Eastern Ukraine, recognised and actively communicated with new Ukrainian interim authorities and even visited Petro Poroshenko's inauguration, but on every possible occasion he swore Russians to be loyal.
Interestingly, Belarusian state officials visibly panicked on 30-31 July: they often did not pick up the phone, could not give a precise answer to anything journalists asked about the upcoming talks and always redirected calls to one another – it was hard to find the responsible entity.
Kyiv and the separatists agreed to maintain a cease-fire near the MH-17 crash site and to release 20 detainees from each side – not a sensational success, but one could hardly expect more from second rate technical talks.
Lukashenka Needs the War to be Over
Although geopolitical balancing remains one of Lukashenka's most notable talents, the agreement to host Ukrainian talks reflects his genuine desire to foster a resolution to the conflict.
As the war in the East of Ukraine escalates, the Belarusian ruler's manoeuvring space continues to shrink Read more
As the war in the East of Ukraine escalates, the Belarusian ruler's manoeuvring space continues to shrink. He cannot openly contradict Russia, his political, military ally and economic donor. While Moscow faces increasing international ostracism, Lukashenka has little interest to follow Kremlin down its path to isolation, especially when Belarusian-Western relations are showing first signs of slow improvement.
Economic ties with Ukraine play a crucial role for Belarus' overall economic health. Trade with Ukraine provides Belarus with $2bn in annual surplus, mostly derived from oil product exports. Given the huge external trade deficit Belarus has faced in recent years, having such a beneficial trade partner like Ukraine means a lot.
The importance of these economic relations was publicly demonstrated on 23 June when Belarus strongly rejected a Russian proposal to introduce protective trade measures against Ukrainian goods.
Russia claimed the need to protect the Eurasian Union market from the inflow of cheap imports from the West after Ukraine signed its free trade agreement with the EU. But Belarus and Kazakhstan insisted it was too early to panic.
As a result Russia had to start a trade war against Ukraine unilaterally with no backing from its Eurasian Union allies.
Recently, the Belarusian authorities announced a number of their own protectionist measures, some of which (such as the licencing of beer, cement and glass imports, and barriers for confectionery goods) hurt the Ukrainian economy. Kyiv replied strongly – it imposed high duties on Belarusian-imported dairy products, confectionery goods, beer, fertilisers, refrigerators and tires.
In a few days time the Belarusian government conceded and issued a new regulation that exempted Ukraine and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) states from originally introduced anti-import measures. Such a prompt climbdown, very atypical for Minsk, became the latest indication of how much Belarus values good relations with Ukraine.
Lukashenka speaks honestly when he promises to do everything he can to achieve a lasting truce between Russia and Ukraine Read more
That is why Lukashenka speaks honestly when he promises to do everything he can to achieve a lasting truce between Russia and Ukraine. They say big money loves silence. So does Belarus' fragile economy and entangled relations with neighbours.
Talks' Implications Seem Overestimated
After the negotiations in Minsk, the Russian ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikau said that future rounds of these talks might also take place in Belarus. In fact, there are very few other benefits Belarus can expect to receive from its status as a neutral party.
Lukashenka can neither contribute much to the conflict's resolution, nor hope for notable improvements in his relations with the West as a result of his good offices.
As for a possible truce between Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists, only united international efforts, together with the political will of the Russian and Ukrainian leadership will be able end the war. Given the Ukrainian military's success over the past weeks, Kyiv will unlikely agree to curb its relatively successful anti-terrorist operation.
Talking about humanitarian and other secondary (in terms of military situation) issues in Minsk has little effect on the armed conflict itself. Some say that Belarus could do more and serve as a mediator, but Alexander Lukashenka himself has publicly refused ever to become one, saying he "hates mediation".
Many Belarusian political analysts during the first hours following the Minsk talks' announcement concluded that the West would want to reward Minsk for facilitating the negotiations and improve its attitude to Belarusian authorities. However, this all seems a little too optimistic.
British Ambassador to Belarus Bruce Bucknell disagreed with such a forecast in his latest interview with the BelaPAN news agency: "If we act hastily trying to speed up improving our relations… Russia may not like it. And we don’t want to destabilise the situation in Belarus and the region in this way".
He also said that for Belarus merely providing a neutral venue for talks cannot abolish the existing obstacles (political prisoners, lack of rule of law, death penalty etc.) for improving its relations with the EU.
Thus, the contact group talks in Belarus, of course, have drawn the country into the the conflict's resolution, but Minsk's role seems marginal and will most likely remain so. Alexander Lukushenka has a strong desire, but almost no leverage to end the Russian-Ukrainian clash.