Minsk Students Protest Against Re-Examination Charges
Students of the Belarusian State University (BSU) plan to hold a demonstration near the university administration building on 2 December to protest against re-examination charges.
The university recently introduced these to incentivize students not to fail exams. The decision to protest was taken after a series of other initiatives which the administration ignored.
While BSU students have not faced any repression so far, the administration of another university, the Belarusian State Pedagogical University (BSPU), managed to stifle the same initiative by threatening students with punishment.
However, Belarus' commitment to the Bologna road map since 2015 may push the authorities to step back from harassment of students which could provoke an increase in student activity. Earlier this year students succeeded in lifting restrictions on night time dormitory access rights.
History of Student Protests in Belarus
In the 1990s, students were one of the driving forces of anti-government opposition in Belarus. In the beginning of the 2000s, after a period of severe confrontation between the Lukashenka regime and the opposition, student activism virtually disappeared from Belarusian universities. All student organisations had until recently appeared to be under the control of the authorities which repressed any unsanctioned activity. However, 2015 has proved to be a turning point.
BSU students launched a media campaign against entrance restrictions into student dormitories between 11 pm and 6 am Read more
At the beginning of the year, BSU students launched a media campaign against entrance restrictions into student dormitories between 11 pm and 6 am. The restriction existed as a Soviet hangover which survived in Belarus due to the lack of students willing and able to struggle for their rights. The activists organised a media campaign, gathered a group via a social network and held talks with the university administration. As a result, the restriction was abolished in most universities.
The current campaign against exam retake charges went even further, as it touches a more controversial issue. Moreover, the students look very determined and appear not to fear confronting university officials and even calling for mass action.
The Chairman of the Belarusian National Youth Council NGO Alieś Krot told BelarusDigest that the 2015 student campaigns are indeed unique, because previously students did not dare to do more than put a 'like' on a social network page dedicated to the cause. He also thinks this is partly the result of work of youth NGOs which assist students in advocating their rights.
Protest against Re-Examination Charges
On 2 November news agency BelTA reported that the BSU plans to introduce charges for retaking exams. From 1 January 2016 students will have to pay $2 to re-take a failed exam, $18-34 for a course paper and $156 for a graduate thesis defence. The charges are in place in most Belarusian universities, and BSU remains one of the few which does not have it.
The university administration said that the measure would discipline students and motivate them to be more responsible in studying. “In any case, most students will not notice it as they do not fail exams”, the BSU press secretary said.
All university associations — which are supposed to protect the rights of students – trade unions, student self-government bodies and the Belarusian National Youth Union supported the measure. This is no surprise since in Belarus these organisations are usually created top-down and implement decisions dictated by university administrations.
The activists say the initiative violates Belarus' education norms and seeks to fill the university coffers rather than stimulate studies Read more
The next day a group under the name #studentsagainst emerged on Vkontakte, the most popular social network in the post-Soviet space. The group now has 2,200 members. Another group of activists started to gather signatures against the charge initiative and managed to collect 2,500 in just a week, which they passed to the university administration with a petition. Despite their efforts, on 12 November the rector's ordered that the charges be introduced.
The activists say the initiative violates Belarus' education norms and seeks to fill the university coffers rather than stimulate studies.
University Administration Pressure
Students of the BSPU, where re-examination charges exist already, decided to join the initiative and created their own group on Vkontakte. However, soon BSPU students faced serious pressure.
Only the day after the online activity started, on 12 November someone hacked into the group's account and deleted the information.
The ideology department officials, who operate in each university, invited students to discuss the matter and tried to persuade them to stop the activity. They said the students were engaging in political activity and had some political forces behind them who were paying for these protests. Most students had to stop their involvement. Male students have additional reasons to worry about expulsion – they fear conscription to the army after being kicked out of university.
On 17 November, international students day, the BSU activists led an action of solidarity with their colleagues from BSPU and hung a banner with the #studentsagainst hashtag in the main university building.
In a recent publication the activists announced that they plan a mass rally under the slogan Love and Solidarity March near the university administration building on 2 December. “The university keeps ignoring us, and by this action we will demonstrate how many of us are there”, the student leaders say.
Does Belarus Have Student Self-Government?
In May 2015 Belarus joined the Bologna process, which experts interpreted as a sign of good will from the western side. Belarus is now obliged to implement the road map of higher school reform and comply with western academic freedoms and values. However, the Bologna committee, the NGO which monitors the implementation of the Bologna norms, indicates that violations of student rights remain. University administrations continue to order students to vote early and to participate in official events and political campaigns.
Some reforms that the Ministry of Education is trying to pursue look like façade changes only, particularly those concerning student self-government. In January 2015, Minister of Education Michail Žuraŭkoŭ at a student forum initiated the establishment of the National Civil Student Council under the Ministry of Education.
The Council is supposed to function as an advisory body of student self-government. It includes one representative of each Belarusian higher education institution.
Officials do not hide the fact that the Council was established in order to join the Bologna process. As Minister Žuraŭkoŭ said, “we applied for Bologna membership, but our opponents claim that Belarusian universities lack student self-government. I am convinced this is wrong.” Alieś Krot opined to BelarusDigest that the Council will become another state-controlled student associations with activity driven from the top.
Although the state attempts to control the processes inside universities, students' struggle for their rights seems to be reviving after more than a decade of inactivity. The warming of Belarus-EU relation and Bologna commitments creates an opportunity for activists to restructure relations between the state and academia.
New Policies on Deposits, Waiting for Foreign Money – Digest of Belarus Economy
On 20 November 2015 Belstat, the official statistical body, released the updated macro-economic statistics. Disappointing figures on exports and manufacturing suggest that the economic downturn in Belarus continues.
However, on 11 November 2015 the National Bank of Belarus announced reforms on the deposit market. The bank tries to replenish the deposit’s term structure hoping that it can boost cheap investment in the economy.
Meanwhile, rising debt among individual companies raises the question of how much worse things can get. Loss-making state-owned enterprises dragged down by overdue debts are hoping that a good order can guarantee them potential further credit.
Economic Depression: Approaching the Bottom
According to Belstat by November 2015 GDP had dropped by 3.9 per cent year-on-year. The economy has lost its August "miracle" returning to the most negative forecast figures. After a half-point positive adjustment in August, GDP decreased twice by 0.2 percentage points in September and October. Exports have weakened further, falling to their lowest levels in the last decade (see figure 1). The Prime-Minister Andrej Kabiakoŭ, on 24 November 2015 admitted that the government's measures which were introduced in order to increase exports and find new markets were still not enough.
Nevertheless, the authorities hope to override the so-called "external-factors" in the economic crisis by significantly increasing the volume of loans granted to enterprises to boost their economic activity. They expect that these measures coupled wit old-fashioned Soviet style manual controls will bring economic salvation.
However, according to the National Bank of Belarus in the first nine months of the current year Belarusian banks decreased the volume of lending using the national currency by 6.5 per cent. The volume of new credits granted in foreign currency also declined by nearly $2.5bn.
Thus, to reverse such a negative tendency Belarus urgently needs new credit lines from the Eurasian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, on 20 November 2015 the National Bank of Belarus announced that the Belarusian authorities failed to conform with an IMF three-year programme of reforms supported by a new loan of $3bn.
Although that will spare the economy further short-term pain, the disease will remain. Loans that should have gone to vibrant companies with promising new ideas go instead to state "zombies". Hence, to sustain economic growth the economy needs increasing credits.
Deposit Market: Dreaming about Long-term Structure
Taking into account tough and long run negotiations about new loans with the Eurasian Development Bank and the IMF the only way to replenish the financial resources of the banking system is to attract additional deposits. However, by 1 November 2015 in comparison with May deposits in Belarusian rubles shrank by 22.7 per cent (see figure 2).
In this light on 11 November 2015 the National Bank of Belarus declared new rules for the deposit market in Belarus, which was adopted within the government’s program of macro-economic stabilisation.
The changes include the addition of an irrevocable type of deposits, not allowing early withdrawal of invested funds, and a 13% tax on income from interest on short-term deposits, less than 2 years for foreign currency deposits and less than 1 year for deposits in Belarusian rubles.
The National Bank of Belarus aims to build a long-term resource base for banks, and create a more efficient use of financing, including the availability of long-term loans for economic entities and the population. However, several pitfalls still exist before results will be achieved.
First of all, under the conditions of the current economic crisis, low competitiveness of Belarusian enterprises on external markets (primarily in Russia) decreases their investment attractiveness and leads free cash funds to continue to concentrate where they can bring the highest profit with the lowest risk and costs. This is on short-term deposits in Belarusian banks.
Secondly, repeated financial crises, the lack of tax stability and the protection of owners’ rights, have changed the preferences of Belarusians. For them it is better to have more cash in their hands today than make investments in long-term deposits.
Thirdly, the decrease in the level of the population's income will lead to a further reduction in savings and, hence, to an additional drop of deposits in Belarusian banks. According to Belstat, the real disposable cash income of the population in January – August of 2015 decreased by 5.3 per cent in comparison to the same period of the previous year. In dollar terms this decline amounted to about a third.
Companies’ Debts: Losing Ground
But dig deeper and the situation looks even less promising. The increase in accounts payable in recent months indicates that companies, including state-owned enterprises, repay loans slower than banks issue new ones (see figure 3).
Moreover, persistently harsh external macro-economic conditions suggest that state "giants" will compete harder for additional financial resources provided under another extensively used state policy that of direct preferential lending.
However, the use of the direct lending policy means that state-controlled banks lose the ability to perform the key function of financial mediation. They can no longer select effective credit projects.
Taking into account the tough prospects of obtaining new loans from the IMF and Eurasian Development Bank, coupled with the National Bank of Belarus's new policy of monetary targeting, government bonds remain as the key instrument for the implementation of such lending.
In July 2015 Belarusian large state enterprises like the Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ) and Gomselmash received such help. The timber industry hopes for the same after the authorities’ decided on 22 October 2015 to transfer their problem assets to the control of the Development Bank of Belarus.
Trying to avoid the acceleration of inflation, the government issues new bonds and turns and therefore turns into a formidable competitor for private companies. A distorted economic environment reduces the incentives for enterprises to increase their efficiency and leads to a decline in Belarus’s economic development.
Summing up, all this puts pressure on the National Bank's new economic policy. If the authorities decide to switch on the printing machines it could lead to a financial crisis once again.
Aleh Mazol, Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)
This article is a part of a joint project between Belarus Digest and Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)