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 Read more
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 Read more
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 Read more
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 Read more
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.
Pro-Russian Maidan, IISEPS National Poll, Media Barometer – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
Is “pro-Russian Maidan” in Belarus possible? Grigory Ioffe agrees with an assumption about such a scenario in Minsk if Lukashenka spoils his relations with Moscow or reneges on some of his promises.
BISS Political Media Barometer suggests that the United Civic Party and Belarusian Popular Front appear more frequently thatn other parties in Belarusian media.
Daria Chumakova, vice-executive of Centre of Ecological Solutions, explains how to create a green office and why Belarusian private businesses are interested in ecological corporate social responsibility projects.
Politics and Governance
Elections, Identity and Economic Decline in Belarus – Grigory Ioffe shares a journalist Sviatlana Kalinkina's assumption about the possibility of a “pro-Russian Maidan” in Minsk if Lukashenka spoils his relations with Moscow or reneges on some of his promises. Indeed, Belarus is integral to the Russia-controlled information space, and on Ukrainian issues there seems to be a noticeable rift between many Belarusians and their president. Apparently Kalinkina sees this rift as a resource that some Moscow-based malefactors could leverage to foment a pro-Russian rally in Minsk on election day.
Government officials lay like a rock on the way of Belarus’ development – Ina Ramasheuskaya of BIPART discusses bureaucracy, its role in Belarusian society and its attitude towards and impact on possible reforms. She concludes that although many Belarusian officials understand the need for reforms in practice they constitute an obstacle to development of Belarus.
BISS Political Media Barometer №12 (January – March 2015): Elections Affect the Structure of Communication, but the Amount of Is not Growing – BISS presents basic findings of the BISS Political Media Barometer for January-March 2015. The research analyses quantitative and qualitative characteristics of the independent political forces’ communications field. In the first quarter of 2015 a leadership position in amount of political communications belongs to the United Civic Party and Belarusian Popular Front parties and individual politicians Anatol Liabedzka and Mikola Statkevich.
Eurasian Review №5 – BISS presents the fifth issue of the Eurasian Review, which analyses the processes of Eurasian integration. Since the launch of the Eurasian Economic Union six months passed. From an economic point of view, the period was not easy: indicators of the Russian economy worsened; economic situation in other EEU countries, linked to the Russian market of goods and services has also been considerably complicated.
Andrei Yeliseyeu: State Can’t Do Without Civil Society on the Way to the Visa-Free Regime with EU – Only if the Belarusian authorities want to see such regime feasible at some point. Signing of the Agreement on simplification of visa regime with the EU and Belarus was expected at the Eastern Partnership Summit this May. In other EaP countries civil society has been seriously involved in the preparation process. Belarusian state cannot avoid it either, Andrei Yeliseyeu, BISS analyst, assumes.
Civil Society: Away From Politics Towards Cooperation With the Authorities – Yuri Chavusau's article in Belarusian Yearbook 2014 describes the key trends of Belarus civil society of last year. Namely, the expert notes that the state keeps its tight legal framework for the registration and activity of non-profit organisations. In the process of adaptation to the existing conditions, an increasing number of organisations are trying to distance themselves from formal politics (elections, parties) and thus to take a stand convenient for a dialogue with the authorities.
IISEPS National Poll. June 2015 – Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) released the results of a June national survey. At the presidential elections 37.4% would vote for Lukashenka, 20.6% – for the candidate of the democratic opposition, 27% – for none of them (in March the numbers were 37%, 23.2% and 21% respectively). The idea of the "Russian world" of Russian president Vladimir Putin, is treated positively by almost 39% of Belarusians, indifferently – 39.4% and negatively – 15.2%.
Belarusian Yearbook 2014 – Published since 2003, Belarusian Yearbook is a complex analysis of the situation in the most important segments of the Belarusian state and society for the year. The book is presented under the aegis of the Agency for Social and Political Expert Appraisal and the expert community of Belarus Nashe Mnenie (‘Our opinion’). Namely, in 2014, there was an external push – the Ukrainian Maidan, followed by Russian annexation of the Crimea and the military operations in the eastern Ukraine, had a significant impact on many processes in Belarus, before flowing mostly in the inertial mode.
Being environmentally-friendly is a must of the modern market – Daria Chumakova, vice-executive of Centre of Ecological Solutions explains according to which criteria international companies choose Belarusian partners, what is 'green washing” and how one can define advertisement technologies from real projects of social corporative responsibility. Reading expert’s interview one will know how to create a green office and why Belarusian private businesses are interested in ecological corporate social responsibility projects.
Belarusian business 2025: experts name 10 trends that will change the country – Growth of taxes is one of factors that will change Belarus greatly during next 10 years. Efficiency of state-run companies will be lowering, as well as the quantity of working class, so the Belarusian business will face the increase in taxes. The event was held under celebration of the 10th anniversary of the business portal Bel.biz.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.