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

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

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.

The Belarusian National University – the Path Forward

Two months ago dozens of prominent Belarusian intellectuals and civil society leaders called for the establishment of a Belarusian national university. This push followed realisation by leaders of Belarusian civil society that they were powerless to influence the election of the rector of the European Humanities University – the largest donor-sponsored independent educational project associated with Belarus.

Supporters of the Belarusian national university say that an independent university run by Belarusians and with Belarus at the core of its focus is not just a dream. It may well become a reality if they succeed in bringing together existing informal education providers in Belarus with centres of Belarusian studies at reputable Western institutions.

The Long Road to a National University

Although an independent Belarus has existed for nearly 25 years, Soviet-style pedagogical practises still heavily influence Belarusian higher education. The system remains largely unreformed – state ideology is taught as part of the higher education curriculum in Belarus.

Belarusian educational system focuses on preserving the status quo rather than preparing reformers

Although this year Belarus officially joined the Bologna process, few believe that this will bring significant change. History, political science, and human rights related coursework focus primarily on preserving the status quo rather than preparing successive generations to implement reforms and push along the country's development.

Ten years ago, many hoped that the European Humanities University in Vilnius would become the true intellectual centre of Belarusian academic life. In its early years in exile the university managed to attract a group of respectable scholars, particularly in the fields of history and political science. However, within a few years most of them left either disillusioned or dismissed by the administration.

Deprived of its strongest academics in areas such as history and political science, the research output and visibility of EHU among the general public in Belarus has remained very low. The university developed a reputation as a trampoline for Russian-speakers to emigrate from Belarus rather than an incubator of new ideas and initiatives related to the place whence they came.

In May 2015, nearly 60 prominent civil society figures of Belarus signed an appeal calling for the creation of a national university. Although the vast majority of students and lecturers at the European Humanities University still come from Belarus, the signatories of the May appeal believe that EHU "has finally departed the field of [Belaurisan] interests and influence on Belarusian democratic society" and is no longer a Belarusian project.

This address honed in its criticism at the EHU administration for its “non-transparent election process and unpredictable changes to the rules of the game” which left the university in the hands of the new rector David Pollick, "who has not only never dealt with Belarus-related issues, but also is not even familiar with the situation in the country or the region".

The Limited Promise of Informal Education

With Belarusian state universities captive to the state's control and the donor-funded European Humanities University shedding its Belarusian identity in nearly every aspect save the citizenship of its students and teaching staff several informal education projects emerged in Belarus. Many of those who had to leave the European Humanities University or various Belarusian state universities have wound up teaching for informal education initiatives.

despite the benefits and flexibility of an informal education, these projects lack crucial components offered by proper institutions of higher education

Some of these projects, such as the Flying University, the Belarusian Collegium or the European College of Liberal Arts, run long-term programmes, public lectures, workshops and summer schools with hundreds of Belarusians "graduating" from them or attending their courses. These initiatives provide a unique environment for free-thinking inside Belarus, a limited but important movement that has so far been tolerated by the authorities.

But despite the benefits and flexibility of an informal education, these projects lack crucial components offered by proper institutions of higher education. For one, students do not receive an internationally recognised degree for completing coursework lack international and interdisciplinary learning environment. Moreover, conducting serious academic research and bidding for research funding is very difficult without official affiliation with a recognised university. This led to the idea of Belarusian National University.

Belarusian National University – a Network University

One of those pushing to establish the Belarusian National University​ is Aliaksandr Milinkievič, leader of the opposition movement For Freedom and a former candidate for the EHU rector position. Milinkievič told Belarus Digest that an important function of the National University should be to counterbalance the spread of the aggressive ideals of the "Russian World" doctrine in Belarus.

two-thirds of Belarusian students who study abroad go to Russia

According to Milinkievič, two-thirds of Belarusian students who study abroad go to Russia where they have the same rights as Russian citizens, while in the European Union Belarusians often have to pay much more than EU nationals to attend a university, to say nothing of the additional expenses they face with visas and other bureaucratic obstacles.

Milinkievič is calling for the new university to strike a balance between heavily focusing on Belarus and remaining an open international institution. The Belarusian National University should, he argues, come up with its own ideas about reforming the political system, economy and society in Belarus, and help the strengthen national and civic identity of its students.

The director of the Political Sphere Insitute Andrej Kazakievič, who is also affiliated with the Belarusian Collegium, believes that building partnerships between informal education institutions in Belarus with foreign universities is currently the best means by which the Belarusian National University could be established.

Courses taken in an informal education setting could help students to proceed with formal master and doctoral level studies abroad

Kazakievič proposes establishing Master's and Doctoral programmes at reputable European universities that would be designed for Belarusians, though still remain open to anyone interested in order to make them more international in nature. The teaching staff should also comprise of a mix of Belarusian and foreign scholars. The programmes should focus not only on Belarus but on the region in general in order to make them more attractive.

According to Kazakievič's vision, informal education initiatives would also become an integral part of this network. Courses taken in an informal education setting could help students to proceed with formal master and doctoral level studies abroad. An international PhD programme for Belarusians, coordinated by the Political Sphere Institute is just one potential option for establishing the necessary infrastructure, as it based in Belarus, but also cooperates with universities in Lithuania and Poland.

A Western Standard for Belarusian Studies

The experience of Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta and other centres focused on Urkaine all demonstrate how regional expertise within established universities can be utilised.

The success of informal education initiatives in Belarus shows that, in terms of research and teaching, a great deal can be done inside Belarus itself. Combining the strengths and reach of informal education in Belarus with quality control and formal qualifications afforded by EU institutions of higher learning seems like a promising way forward.

This combination would also allow for greater engagement with Belarusian academics from the diaspora. Several initiatives, such as the Belarusian Francis Skaryna Library in London or the Ostrogorski Centre, which, among other projects, runs Belarus Digest and the Journal of Belarusian Studies, could also find ways to cooperate with the National University. And these are just some of the organisations working in the West and in Belarus that are interested in supporting a truly independent Belarusian university.

The university could also act as an incubator for academics and higher education managers working on Belarus-related topics. Being based both in Belarus and abroad would help it strengthen working ties between students and faculty members and Belarusian civil society organisations, think tanks and independent media.

Whatever format this education project takes, the main indicator of success of this new initiative should be the volume and quality of its Belarus-related research and teaching as well as its real impact on developments in Belarus.

Yarik Kryvoi and Vadzim Smok

Yarik Kryvoi is the editor-in-chef of Belarus Digest and director of the Ostrogorski Centre.

Vadzim Smok is a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius and an alumnus of the European Humanities University.

Belarusian Science: Gerontocratic, Isolated, and Unproductive

At the end of March, Aleksander Lukashenka gathered the management of Belarus' scientific institutions and top government officials to discuss the problems of Belarusian science.

The meeting revealed that much of what the National Academy of Sciences brands as its cutting-edge achievements are simply revamped successful projects from Soviet times and have no breakthrough value today.

Two major factors that explain the low productivity of Belarusian science have to do with ageing researchers and their international isolation. These problems stem, among other things, from poor financing and restrictive bureaucratic rules.

Whereas the government cannot overcome its budget constraints quickly and increase expenditures on research-and-development dramatically, it could, at least, change the rules that hinder the internationalisation of Belarusian science.

Outdated Science

In Aleksander Lukashenka’s opinion, Belarusian scientists fail to deliver world-class results. At the meeting in March, he named only a few noticeable achievements from recent years: the creation of a supercomputer, a Belarusian satellite, a medicine that fights cancer, transgenic goats, and the establishment of a centre for cellular technology.

Independent experts, however, criticise even these achievements. According to the former President of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Alexander Vaitovich, the satellite that the authorities take pride in has only one Belarusian component and its creation dates back to the 1970s. And the widely advertised Belarusian supercomputer hardly breaks into a Top-30 list of similar technologies in a ranking of Commonwealth of Independent States, not to mention world rankings.

The statistics of the State Committee of Science and Technologies that demonstrate a 75% growth in the number of registered intellectual property patents in recent years were not very impressive for Lukashenka. He demanded real global-level breakthroughs that would expedite the economic development of the country.

two factors account for the current state of things: a growing gerontocracy and international isolation of Belarusian scientists

But the situation has failed to improve recently. And at least two factors account for the current state of things: a growing gerontocracy and international isolation of Belarusian scientists.

Growing Gerontocracy

Compared to 1985, the number of scientists in Belarus has decreased by 30% and their average age has risen considerably. According to a study by Andrei Laurukhin of the European Humanities University, today pensioners make up more than 60% of all the professors and more than 40% of the kandidatskaya degree (a PhD analogue) holders. In 1988 these numbers stood at 35.8% and 5.9% respectively.

Humanities, social and natural sciences have experienced the biggest damage. For example, the share of humanities representatives in the overall number of Belarusian scientists has faced a sevenfold decline since 1988.

Financial shortages appear to be the main culprit behind why many young Belarusians refuse to choose careers in research or look for academic opportunities abroad. In 2013, all scientific organisations combined in Belarus received about $250 million in government funding, which equalled 0.46% of the GDP. Companies’ investments in R&D, according to the State Committee of Science and Technologies, were even smaller.

Compared with developed countries, these figures look modest. The average level in the EU stays at 2-2.5% of the GDP. And the world’s average is about 1.7% of a country's GDP.

In a regional context, Belarus also lags behind most of its neighbours. According to the Research and Development Expenditure study by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, in 2012 Belarus outperformed only Lithuania.

Such low numbers result, among other things, in poor salaries for Belarusian scientists. The average salary of a NAS associate is around $450-550 a month. To put it into a regional perspective, the average salary at the Russian Academy of Sciences hovers around $1,100. One can hardly expect the best Belarusian scientists to stay in research institutions at home considering such a striking imbalance.

Not surprisingly, therefore, an estimated 4,000-5,000 researchers have left Belarus since the mid-1990s. And fewer and fewer young Belarusians aspire to become scientists in their native country.

Scientific Isolation

Another reason for the low productivity of Belarusian science – its international isolation – results from specific government policies in this field. Thus, one can even call it self-isolation.

In 2004, a presidential decree established a list of journals regarded as scientific in Belarus. The list contains no original English-language periodicals. In other words, the leading international academic journals with the highest impact factor indicators have no proper legal status in Belarus. Whether Belarusian researchers can refer to such “illegal” journals in their dissertations depends on the goodwill of the Highest Attestation Commission (VAK), a governmental body that oversees the awarding of advanced academic degrees.

Obviously, this does not stimulate Belarusian researchers to monitor world-leading journals and submit their papers to them. Instead, they have an incentive to keep track of Russian language journals, the majority of which do not enjoy real recognition by the international scientific community.

As a result, Belarusian scientists and research institutes remain chronic outsiders in the Hirsch index (h-index), which measures the productivity and impact of scientific publications in the world. Belarusian researchers’ impact is absolutely marginal in a global context, which also points to the isolation issue.

Last year, only three Belarusian academic institutes had a reasonably good h-index:

  • The Scientific and Research Institute of Physics and Chemistry Problems at the Belarusian State University;
  • The Physics Institute at the National Academy of Sciences;
  • The Belarusian State University.

Others had a low or zero h-index, which means that the majority of Belarusian researchers make no contribution to global science at all. Their publications go unnoticed by colleagues across the globe and stay within the attention of very limited audience.

One may argue that the Belarusian authorities cannot resolve the issue of low budget allocations on sciences very quickly as the economic situation in the country grows more precarious by the quarter.

Within the existing economic model, they even have difficulty stimulating R&D expenditures by companies. Still, they could at least amend the restrictive rules that literally keep Belarusian science isolated from the rest of the world.

This would be a more effective measure than increasing the productivity of Belarusian science by means of multiple meetings in the presidential office.

Why Belarusian Diplomats Leave Foreign Service

In the last month the issue of diplomacy was the focus of the Belarusian authorities several times.

On 20 August Alexander Lukashenka appointed a new foreign minister, Uladzimir Makey, and on 1 September he inaugurated the brand new building of the Faculty of International Relations of the Belarusian State University. Although the building looks glamorous, the president spoke with great concern about the human resources situation in the Belarusian diplomatic service.

What worries Lukashenka is that today, unlike in the previous decades, fewer and fewer talented young people want to pursue diplomatic careers in Belarus. Moreover, more and more qualified and experienced diplomats eagerly leave their posts in the foreign ministry for more rewarding jobs elsewhere.

This situation is a natural result of Minsk’s self-isolating foreign policy and the tiny salaries that Belarusian diplomats receive. And there is hardly anything that can be done to seriously improve the situation.

UN Founding Member without a Real MFA

The present-day Belarusian diplomatic service traces its origins back to 1945. The leadership of the Soviet Union wanted to have as many votes as possible during discussions at the United Nations. Therefore, the USSR insisted on including both the Belarusian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics as independent founding Member States of the UN.

since the very inception of the UN in 1940s, Belarus has had its own diplomatic representation there

Thus, since the very inception of the UN in 1940s, Belarus has had its own diplomatic representation there. Of course, it only performed decorative functions and all the decisions were really made in Moscow. But at least the Soviet rulers had to raise the perception of independent foreign policy making in the BSSR and established a separate foreign ministry in Minsk. They appointed Kuzma Kiselev (a doctor by education) as the first Belarusian minister of foreign affairs.

As the task of the Belarusian diplomatic mission during the Soviet era was just to vote the way the Kremlin decided, the ministry in Minsk was very small. Its staff did not exceed 20 people. Nonetheless, some diplomatic traditions began to take root even under those conditions.

The Newly Sovereign State in Search for its Foreign Policy Elite

When Belarus gained independence it already had a small foreign ministry and some diplomats with experience in international affairs. But, of course, the new situation required a fully-functional ministry. And the government started to look everywhere for people who could handle the difficult task of promoting Belarusian interests in the international arena. They even placed job adverts on national radio.

The main requirement for new diplomats was a knowledge of foreign languages. Belarus did not have an undergraduate or graduate school that taught international relations. So the majority of newcomers were graduates of Minsk State Linguistic University (then known as Minsk Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages).

Diplomacy started to attract the most talented and ambitious young people who wanted to pursue beautiful lucrative careers. Like in the Soviet Union, male candidates had far greater employment opportunities than female. As a result, today there is huge gender imbalance in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Gradually the MFA became a sanctuary for the children of top officials. Walking along the corridors of the ministry, one would see innumerable door signs with easily recognisable surnames. At some point it became almost impossible for a young man without proper connections (blat) to get a job in the ministry no matter how qualified he was.

Poor Relations with Academia

Apart from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the newly sovereign Belarus needed its own diplomatic school. In 1995 the leading university – Belarusian State University – established the Faculty of International Relations. Its primary purpose was to prepare cadres for the MFA.

In the beginning almost all the graduates of the Faculty automatically got into the ministry. It is likely due to this fact that it became one of the most popular and prestigious schools in the country. Enrolment competition skyrocketed. For example, in 2004 about 400 applicants competed for twenty tuition-free places in the field of International Relations.

But as acceptance to the MFA began to depend not only on merit but on proper connections, the role of the Faculty of International Relations started to diminish. It turned into a school that prepares specialists that the Belarusian labour market has no demand for.

Moreover, the Faculty of International Relations and MFA did not manage to establish good cooperation. Scholars from the faculty are never invited to contribute to strategic thinking in the ministry. And MFA representatives rarely participate in academic discussions at the university. As a result, all sides lose. The scholarly work has become detached from the realities on the ground, and the ministerial foreign policy strategies less carefully thought through.

From Elitism to Defection

The past couple of years have seen a serious decline in the prestige of diplomatic careers in Belarus. Several devaluations of the Belarusian rouble have made the salaries in the MFA unbelievably low. For example, an attaché who is just starting his career gets roughly $300 per month. The head of a department with the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary earns around $1000. Of course, during foreign placements diplomats get considerably more. But given the huge workload that they have this is almost peanuts.

an attaché who is just starting his career gets roughly $300 per month

Jobs in the private sector can offer many times over this salary. And there one does not have to feel embarrassed because of the self-isolating and freakish behaviour of the Belarusian government. Many diplomats disagree with the regime's policies but have to defend them as a part of their work. It is no wonder then why so many young professionals often prefer careers in business to the diplomatic service. Good evidence of this is the fact that fewer and fewer top officials try to ensure a place for their children in the MFA.

Thus, Lukashenka's worries are not in vain. The current state of the economy will not enable the state to raise diplomats' salaries to a competitive level. Like those working for other government institutions, the same old officials migrate from one position into another or abandon government jobs altogether. The foreign ministry is losing talent who defect from the prospects of humiliating pay for an extremely difficult job where they are representing the most repressive government in Europe. 

Prominent Belarusian journalist found dead in his summer cottage

Aleh Byabenin was one of the founders and leaders of charter97.org website.

According to the Belarusian independent news portal charter97.org *, the body of Aleh Byabenin was found on September 3, at 5.30 p.m. in his summer cottage not far from Minsk. The reason of death is not clear.

Aleh Byabenin was born in 1974. He graduated from the Belarusian State University, department of journalism. In 90s he occupied the position of the deputy chief editor of Imya, an independent Belarusian newspaper. Since 1998 he was the founder and head of charter97.org website. Aleh Byabenin had a wife and two sons.

In just few hours after publication of sad news about two hundred visitors of the website have expressed their deep condolences and concerns that the Belarusian government could be involved in this tragic incident.



The Idea of Belarus at the Crossroads of Philosophy and History

summer school participants

In the world dominated by the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric and memories of bloody nationalist wars, nationalism is considered dangerous. However, the sentiment has become a highly positive phenomenon, and even, to an extent, a requirement at the international summer school “Belarus in the European Context: Current Discussions on Nation-Building,” organized by the Institute for Historical Research on Belarus and Philosophy Department of the European Humanities University (EHU) last week. Opening the school on August 2, Zahar Sybeka of Belarusian State Economic University said, tongue-in check, that all school participants were “nationalists.” The following six days proved him right as they showed their passion for the Belarusian culture and history and their concern about the country’s future.

Fittingly, the school was held in “Kernavės Bajorynė”, next to the highly symbolic UNESCO World Heritage Site that has become a treasure trove for archeologists. The event brought together intellectuals from Belarus, Poland, Latvia, Russia, and Lithuania to debate the development of Belarusian identity and the Belarusian national idea. The researchers also discussed the role of social groups in cities and villages, the role of history and memory in Belarus’ national identity, as well as the issues of nationalism, Europeization, and democratization.

Although the school guests were divided into experts/tutors and participants, their roles have merged in heated discussions. Everybody had an opportunity to present and defend his/her work and comment on the others’ research.

While historians and philosophers were the majority, the gathering also included political scientists, a journalist, and a jurist. The schools represented at summer school included Belarusian State University (BSU), Harvard University, Metropolitan University Prague, Polish Academy of Sciences, European Humanities University, the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, University of Bremen, Samara State University, Hrodna State University, Polotsk State University, and University of Latvia.

Many interesting views were expressed during the school sessions. Olga Shparaga, EHU professor of philosophy, argued that for Belarusians “the question about the idea of Europe” is, first and foremost, a question about themselves. In contrast, University of Białystok professor Aleh Latyshonak said Belarusians lack “Europeanness.” While Latyshonak said he views Belarusians as a Eurasian civilization, he believes Belarus could pass a Byzantine civilization in a best-case scenario.

In his turn, Belarusian philosopher and writer Ihar Babkou presented identity as a “battlefield” of power and knowledge. Interestingly, Valentin Akudovich, who teaches at the Belarusian Collegium, argued that Belarusian ethno nationalism has no future and will be very soon superceded by civic nationalism. In her presentation, Elena Temper of the University of Leipzig discussed the meaning of memory for the national self-identification and argued that the two most vivid examples of collective memory for Belarusians are the Great Patriotic War and Kurapaty.

Other prominent participants included editor-in-chief of Belarusian magazine ARCHE Valer Bulgakau; Poland-based Belarusian historian Yauhen Miranovich; EHU lecturer Piotr Rudkouski; Hrodna State University professor Siarhei Tokts; Alvydas Nikzentaitis of Vilnius Pedagogical University; and EHU professor Ales Smalianchuk.

At the final banquet, the school guests were united by signing Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian songs. The school materials will be published by the EHU in the fall, and the organizers hope to make the summer school an annual tradition.

Listening to each other has allowed the researchers to share their views and learn from each other. As philosopher Alyaksei Dzermant summed up, the event has left the participants with an impression “that a lot more unites rather than divides” them.


Election 2011 Persona: Ales Mikhalevich

Opposition leaders were unable to adopt a procedure for selecting a single presidential contender at their meeting in Minsk at the beginning of July, BelaPAN reported*. According to Uladzimir Kolas, chairman of the Rada (Council) of the Belarusian Intelligentsia (RBI), the process of selecting a single presidential contender had taken too long and might soon be of no use, as there would not be enough time for preparations to ensure an efficient and successful campaign. If the selection of a single candidate continues to be delayed, the RBI may withdraw from this process, Mr. Kolas noted.

Two presidential candidates Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Ales Mikhalevich have refused to be involved in the process.

Ales Mikhalevich was the first opposition candidate to launch his presidential campaign bid at a presentation on January 27, 2010 in Minsk*. The politician said he would rely only on Belarusian resources in his campaign. According to Mikhalevich, his team will comprise representatives of a new generation of the Belarusian society. He regards urban youth as his main support base. Mikhalevich is also the youngest candidate. He just turned 35 this May.


Ales Mikhalevich was born in Minsk in 1975 to a family of research associates of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. He attended the Belarusian State University, graduating in 1997 with a degree in Political Science and Law. While at university, Ales headed the Belarusian Students’ Association, a non-governmental organization dedicated to protecting the rights of Belarusian students. He also undertook periods of study at the University of Warsaw, Poland and University of Oxford, UK.

After graduation Mikhalevich worked in tourist business as well as a crisis manager accredited at the Ministry of Economy, a legal consultant at the Association of Disabled Veterans of the War in Afghanistan, and a lawyer at the Belarusian Independent Trade Union.

In 2004-2008, Mikhalevich served as a deputy chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF). Following his nomination to the position of the party chairman in 2008 and proposed program of party reforms, he was expelled from the party for publicly criticizing BPF leaders.

In 2003-2007, Mikhalevich was a member of the Pukhavichy district council, Minsk region and coordinator of the Assembly of Members of the Local Councils.

Ales is married and has two daughters.


On May 27, Ales Mikhalevich presented his electoral program*. Its name is “Belarus: a strategy for evolution” and it consists of three pillars: economic growth, effective state, and active society. “For me and my team the most important thing is make people vote for us,” said the politician.

The aspirant to participate in the presidential elections is in favor to support the private business, local government, constitutional reform, return to the separation of powers, and privatization of state-run mass media.

Another point of the politician’s election program is a territorial-administrative reform, which stipulates the abolition of regions and the republic’s division at 17 povets (districts) with centers in Brest, Pinsk, Mozyr, Gomel, Grodno, Baranovichy, Slutsk, Bobrujsk, Molodechno, Borisov, Mogilev, Krichev , Glubokoe, Polotsk, Vitebsk, Orsha. Moreover, in his opinion, it’s necessary to create a separate administrative and territorial unit of Minsk and Minsk region.

“Belarus needs an active self-management, which provides the decentralization of political, economic and financial power in favor of regions and local authorities,” stressed Ales Mikhalevich.
Opposition politicians stated that after the election’s victory he was going to expand the use of Belarusian language in the country, however, the presentation of his electoral program was made in Russian.

“My campaign will be mostly carried out in Russian. Russian is the language used by most part of our country citizens,” said the politician.

In addition, among his priorities Ales Mikhalevich named the private ownership of land, moratorium on the death penalty, neutrality of Belarus on the international scene, withdrawal from the Union State with Russia, cancellation of nuclear power plant construction, ban on the production of fruit wines.

Being an advocate of Belarus’ neutrality, Mikhalevich does not have plans to bring the country closer to NATO. As for the European Union, the country’s admission might become a priority. But it is not included into the current program*.

The politician’s team consists of philosopher Ihar Drako, economists Ales Lukashevich and Viktar Yawmenenka, scholar Kanstantsin Lukashow, and pharmacist Danuta Chyhyr.



Political Sphere in Belarus: from Marxism-Leninism to Political Science

Like its native country, the discipline of political science in Belarus will take decades to outgrow its Soviet past. After all, most of the country’s contemporary social science luminaries were brought up on the volumes of scientific communism, memorizing the blessings of the socialist revolution and the proletarian dictatorship, and today force-feed their own students with courses like the “Ideology of the Belarusian State.” As a result, the spectre of communist past still haunts the Belarusian academia.

Overcoming that “spectre” is what inspired five young researchers at the Belarusian State University to found Palitychnaja Sfera (Political Sphere), the only professional journal of political studies in Belarus. Since its inception in 2001, the journal has evolved into a dynamic and professional research institute geared toward acquiring new knowledge and presenting it at the academic and political levels, as well as to the public at large. Today, Political Sphere is, first and foremost, a community of political and social scientists.

“Our main focus is the gradual formation of a Belarusian school of political studies,” explained Andrei Kazakevich, director of the Institute, in a Feb. 15 interview. Political Sphere aims to represent achievements of Belarusian political science without political and ideological limitations, overcome negative consequences of authoritarian rule for the Belarusian academic community and society, and maintain a dialogue between political scientists, the public, and the private institutions. Political Sphere also hopes to encourage the study of Belarusian politics, stimulate research and analytical activities in Belarus, and integrate Belarusian scientists in the international academic community, according to the “Concept note” on the Institute’s web site.

This spring, Political Sphere is completing a research project on the evolution of Belarusan national identity in 1990-2008. Nation, national project, concept of nation, and ethnic conflicts are the focus for the upcoming issue of the journal. “The topic is very important for Belarus, which is undergoing the process of nation-building, and where the national identity is fragmented,” said Kazakevich.

The journal Political Sphere receives submissions from the researchers in Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania, and the United States, but most of its contents comes from Belarusan authors, according to Kazakevich. All articles pass an anonymous review. Sometimes the institute publishes the so-called “English issues,” compiled from the most interesting articles translated into English, said the Institute’s researcher and board member Siarhei Kuzniatsou in a Feb. 16 e-mail. The publication’s primary audience is political scientists, students, analysts, and observers. While Political Sphere may also be of interest for politicians and government officials, “they feel themselves smart enough without such readings,” noted Dzianis Melyantsou, a researcher and board member of the Institute, in a Feb. 15 e-mail.

Having experienced the “idiosyncrasies” of Belarusan academia firsthand, members of the Institute identify the absence of empirical research and the isolation from international academia as the main obstacles to the growth of political science in Belarus. These obstacles have been both the main reason for the journal’s existence and the primary concern of the founders of Political Sphere, who in 2005 moved the journal to the European Humanities University in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, due to the increasing suppression at home. According to Kazakevich, the move is partial, and Minsk remains the center for the scientific community associated with the journal. In 2009, Political Sphere became indepenent from EHU, but remains registered in Lithuania.

The Political Sphere team consists of 12-15 permanent authors and researchers, all of whom are political scientists and sociologists between the ages of 25 and 35. Some of them are associated with Belarusan State University and National Academy of Sciences, while others received their MA and PhD degrees abroad, according to Melyantsou. Andrei Yahorau, a researcher and a board member at the Institute, said in a Feb. 16 e-mail the team’s age corresponds to the age of the Belarusan political science, which started developing only in the recent 15-20 years. According to Yahorau, the team’s interest in political science emerged as a result of the necessity to understand the political contradictions of the 90s. With contemporary Belarus being a “barely known state from the scientific view point,” we are excited about discovering and describing every piece of Belarus’ political reality,” he said.

The difficult conditions of Belarus’ social sciences have affected the career trajectories of all members of Institute. “It is very difficult (and often impossible) to defend a dissertation, get a job at the university that will correspond to one’s qualification and career plans, undertake independent research, or officially publish one’s work,” said Yahorau.

“For the authoritarian regime in Belarus, research on politics is a taboo,” Kazakevich said. “Political science is squeezed out by ideology, and ‘politics’ is considered as an undesirable and risky research subject. Belarus’ conservative and patronizing academic community is isolated from its western equivalents, and there is no dynamic or incentives for creative work.” Kazakevich said the discipline of political science has never become quite legitimate in Belarus. “Its main difference with the West is the orientation on translating current knowledge and speculative musings. Empirical research and attention to details is lacking,” he added.

Despite the difficulties the team faces, Political Sphere aspires to take the place it deserves in the Belarusan academic community as well as integrate into the international academic field. Yahorau also said, “To be accepted as researchers and professors, to prepare the next generations of Belarusan political scientists, to form a vibrant scholarly community, and to discover the political reality in Belarus for ourselves, our country and the world, is our greatest ambition.”


The article originally appeared in Spring 2010 Belarusian Review (Vol. 22, No. 1).

Travel Safe, Belarusian Student

Despite having one of the highest student ratios in Europe, a virtually free higher education, and laws making study abroad difficult, the best and brightest young Belarusians continue flocking to or at least dreaming of expensive Western universities. The situation is exacerbated by Minsk’s practice of closing down independent-minded educational institutions and expelling Belarusian students and Western lecturers for refusing to toe the official line.

On February 18, representatives of the Nordic Council of Ministers visited the European Humanities University (EHU) in exile. EHU was founded in Minsk in 1992 “in order to open our minds to those values constituting the basic principles of democracy,” according to Professor Anatoli Mikhailov, EHU’s rector and one of its founders.

EHU was closed for political reasons in Belarus in 2004. It was then reorganized in Vilnius at the invitation of the Lithuanian government. Since 2006, EHU has enjoyed the status of a private Lithuanian university. Currently, EHU is the only Belarusian university offering western-standard education. EHU is also the only Belarusian university that still retains a degree of autonomy from the authorities.

In 2008, the European Commission established the EHU Trust Fund, inviting support from the EU member states and international donors, and Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has supported the maintenance of the EHU premises since 2007.

Students who study in their native Belarus are discriminated against all the same. Some are expelled for active participation in activities disapproved of by the Belarusian authorities. In 2005, the Belarus State Economic University expelled Tatsiana Khoma, a fourth year student, for attending the National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB) meeting without the university’s permission.

In November 2009, Tatsiana Shaputska, press-secretary of the Young Front, was expelled from the Belarusian State University’s law department for participating in the Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership in Brussels without asking the dean for a required permission to leave the country.

Shaputska’s case caused quite a stir. Even Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Bildt came to the rescue, saying it would be “absolutely unacceptable” if the expulsion was related to the student’s participation in the Forum. Foreign Minister of Belarus Siarhej Martynau said that the main reason for expulsion is “the absence rate.” He stressed that “not the government, but the university expels students.”

When offered to attend EHU, Shaputska decided not to leave Belarus but continue education as a distance-learning student in the department of political science. At the same time, she is preparing a complaint to the court with the help of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

The EHU provides education to over one and a half thousand Belarusians and collaborates with some European and US universities. This collaboration is very important for young Belarusians. However, it is quite a challenge for the university’s graduates to find a job in Belarus, especially given the fact that the EHU education certificates are not oficially recognized in Belarus. So most continue their careers abroad. Thus, in effect EHU is preparing “Belarusians for export,” and the financial support it receives to a large extent supports emigration from Belarus.

Perhaps the University’s European supporters could come up with scholarships and grants encouraging students to work in Belarus for at least a short period of time. For instance, Belarusian citizens are not eligible for the Junior Faculty Development Program that program provides university instructors with a semester-long opportunity to study and work with faculty at the US universities and is open to citizens of Moldova, Ukraine, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and many other states. A similar program could be established to encourage EHU graduates to conduct research and publish in Belarus.

You can read more about the EHU at its web site

Journal ‘Political Sphere’ Inviting Submissions

The Editorial Board of the peer-reviewed journal of political studies Political sphere (Palitychnaja Sfera) is currently inviting submissions for Issue 14 (spring 2010).

The main focus of the issue is nation, national project, idea of nation, ethnic conflicts.

Deadline: March 22, 2010.

Text may be submitted in Belarusian, Russian or English.

Articles on other topics are welcome as well.

Only the texts not published before neither as a part of monograph nor as a separate article can be submitted.

Articles received by the editorial board are put to mandatory anonymous scientific review (peer-review).

You can find more details of general and format requirements here.

Political Sphere was founded in 2001 by a young generation of Belarusian political scientists. In 2001-2005, the Journal was published on the base of the Political Science Department of the Belarusian State University in Minsk. In 2005, as a result of increasing suppression in the Belarusian academia, the Journal moved to the European Humanities University in exile in Vilnius.

At present, Political Sphere is the only professional journal of political studies in Belarus. It has evolved into a vibrant community of Belarusian social scientists with its own seminars and research projects.

The Journal aims to encourage the study of Belarusian politics, stimulate research and analytical activities in Belarus, and integrate Belarusian social scientists into the international academic community.

E-mail for contacts: i n f o @ p a l i t y k a . o r g

Web: palityka.org

  • Idea of nation as a political community (historic and theoretical perspective)
  • Idea of nation in Eastern and Central Europe
  • National projects as cultural and political phenomena
  • History of Belarusian nationalism
  • History of nationalism in Eastern Europe
  • Nationalism and cosmopolitanism as social phenomena
  • Nation, ethnicity, tradition
  • Ethnic conflicts, migration

A Belarusian Music Producer About Doing Show Business in Belarus

A little insight on how show business is done in Belarus. For rock and indie music the conditions are quite hard in Belarus, where there is no developed market and infrastructure and where the radio stations are under state-pressure and self-censorship. Despite that, modern bands keep existing and appearing in Belarus just as in any neighbouring country and often become recognized abroad. Sadly, sometimes they get better recognition overseas than in Belarus.

Papa Bo: "We can develop in Belarus only by earning abroad" By Taciana Šachnovič for Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi — Papa Bo, also known as Aliaksandr Bahdanaŭ, 23 years old. Twelve of them he studied at two music schools in the class of domra, cello, violin and piano. His father – a Russian poet – lives in the Rostov region of Russia. His mother is a school teacher of chemistry and biology. According to his passport, Papa Bo was born in Mačuliščy. After graduating from music schools he entered the Philology Faculty of the Belarusian State University. But he only studied there for a short time: informal musical subculture took more and more his time. At first, as there were no stages available, he organized so-called House concerts. Now under his patronage are the bands Serebryanaja svad’ba, Cassiopeia, Petlia Pristrastija, PortMone, Addis Abeba, RockerJocker, Botanik Project, Sergei Pukst and Pukst Band, Nagual, CherryVata, Vom, Mokh, Sibarity. — Once upon a time, two young progressive-minded boys took themselves just for fun the nicknames Papa Bo and Don Ochen and in their dreams divided the city of Minsk in two parts. And though childhood is long gone, the nickname for Aliaksandr Bahdanaŭ remained the same – Papa Bo. And he now controls 13 Belarusian groups performing alternative music. Last summer Artemiy Troitskiy (a famous Russian music producer – transl.) appreciated his efforts by granting him the Steppenwolf Music Awards, ignoring several experienced and well-known Russian producers. The hero himself does not consider himself a producer. "I just earn money, as it is well known that any sh…t can be made popular", confessed Aliaksandr. "But the main criterion here is my own musical taste. If I like it, I'll put in the original music time, money and knowledge. This group, which for many years cooked in its own juice, they are at no similarity and produce a product that reflects their vision of good music, not a vision of the masses." "In the club there sits the club owner who knows nothing about music" Five years ago, Papa Bo got engaged in administration of the band Nagual, with which he visited many places of the Post-soviet area and Europe. "A club in Belarus is a discotheque premises, where there sits the club owner who knows nothing about the cultural life and the latest music trends. I suggest to him: 'We want to organize a concert of a certain well-known group. We guarantee that 500 people will come.' 'Why should I? – the owner answers. – I would rather pay $30 to a local DJ and get a thousand students drinking vodka at the bar. Why do I need your hairy hippies?..' Once we came to the art director of one of the famous Minsk clubs and offered to organize a concert of TequilaJazz (a famous Russian rock-band – transl.). He didn't know anything about them. When I explained that it was a famous rock group, he perked up: 'Oh, let's give on their arrival a party in Latino style, with salsa, cactus everywhere and sombreros!..' At the same time, I only need one phone call to organize a concert of the Belarusian band Serebryanaja svad’ba in Moscow: 'Hi, we'd like to come to you in March…' We come to Moscow and see our posters all around the city, the club is well equipped and has an experienced sound engineer. We give the concert and take 90% of ticket sales. At the same time we know that the remaining ten per cent were spent on advertising and the sound engineer. Everything is transparent and clear. In Minsk we get the same club without a scene, without lights and sound. For just getting the empty space we have to pay $1000. There is zero payback. It is almost impossible to earn money on concerts. Perhaps in 5 to 10 years something will change. But today we can develop here only because we earn abroad.

"Belarusians do not need anything?" – You used to talk about having a mission: to bring real music to the Belarusian masses. – I've had enough of that. The last club concert I organized in Minsk was Students Day. Only twenty people have then bought tickets for the concert of Serebryanaja svad’ba and two bands from St. Petersburg at the Minsk Concert Hall. I ended up with a loss of five thousand dollars. – Who are the most successful of the bands you manage? – As long as the situation with concerts is the way I described – people just don't come to these concerts! – I plan to do only Serebryanaja svad’ba, which is profitable. Today, out of 13 teams only Serebryanaja svad’ba, Nagual, Cassiopeia and Addis Abeba break even. At the moment Serebryanaja svad’ba is the only band, besides Liapis Trubeckoj (the well-known Belarusian band – bielar.us.), that lives off of concerts. Mostly concerts outside Belarus. This project, which is not really in demand in Belarus, but is adored around the world. For New Year we are going to Slava Polunin (a Russian clown – bielar.us), who lives in Paris. That's because Polunin is a fan of Serebryanaja svad’ba. In spring of last year Serebryanaja svad’ba gathered a full Minsk Concert Hall. The hall was packed with about one and a half thousand people. The band played the concert and earned for that… one hundred dollars in total. While in Moscow it can earn more than ten times more. In Belarus the legal framework and possibilities do not allow to do normal business on that. Therefore you do not want to work here. "Success through conformism" – So what are you doing here, drowning in the Belarusian swamp? – Yes, I am really drowning. But I can not, roughly speaking, just drop 50 musicians who are counting on me. I can not tell them: 'Guys, so long, I'm leaving for Switzerland!' Because about half of them do not know how to use a the computer. The other half I just recently bought cell phones so that they were in touch. Musicians do not have the expertise to promote their music to the masses. They are people who live in their own worlds. So now I'm trying to introduce such a working scheme that would enable the machine to work independently under my distanced control. After that I plan to leave the country, because I'm bored and depressed here. – But there are prospects here. – I do not want to wait for them. Why waste your nerves and resources to beat my head against the wall? I'm, of course, still nervous, but less than earlier. – It turns out that in Belarus there is practically no demand for alternative music. Why then pull the cargo, which no one needs? – Alternative music is needed here, just yet by fewer people. For example, I am sure that a 80% of the female population of Belarus are potential listeners of Serebryanaja svad’ba. But to succeed here you need to adapt. – The rock band Petlia Pristrastija is today very popular in Moscow but virtually unknown in Belarus… – Yes, unknown. Here rock music must be played in Belarusian language. Even the [Russian speaking] band J:Mors started singing in Belarusian. There are rock bands who want to succeed, and there are rock bands who want to bring their own music to the people. I want to bring out the music of my friends, and the band J:Mors wants to succeed. But this does not mean that we are better and they are worse. It's just that everyone has his own goals. – Rock in Belarusian language is more in demand? – To some extent, yes. This musical wave has formed an own specific target group. And if you want to succeed, you need to adapt. But conformism is alien to us (smiles). I do not have this sickness of being a patriot, in the conventional sense of the word. I don't get pathetic about it and I don't understand people who believe that a Belarusian band should sing only in Belarusian language. After the festival Mozhno, which I organized in Moscow and where ten Russian-speaking Belarusian music groups performed, I was overrun by critics: "What a shame, how can a non-Belarusian-speaking band represent Belarus abroad?" This position is so typically Belarusian: better to criticize someone instead of doing it yourself. "To change the country one place could be enough" – Why, instead of Moscow, don't you make a festival in Minsk? – Paradoxically, but in Moscow it is easier for Belarusians to hold a festival. Having paid for a giant bus, for food, a lot of advertising and fees. If I did it here without sponsorship, as I did in Moscow, the festival would fail. Therefore, there surely will be a festival here, but only after I find sponsors for it. Because I'm not a billionaire. – What does have to change so that you'd change your mind and stay in Belarus? – There must be a concert site, a club. One place could be enough to change the country. In every European country there is one most famous club, where the main cultural events take place. If it were possible to completely run such a place in Belarus, then I have an idea how this place could be brought up to an international level. And if there would be such a place, then life would go on.

// Translated by Bielar.us. See Original article (in Russian)