Time for Belarus to Implement Real Student Self-Governance?
Belarusian authorities are discreetly preparing a new Education Code, partly to demonstrate to the West that they are making changes. In 2015, Belarus joined the Bologna process and is now required to reform the education system accordingly.
So far, the Belarusian education law has completely ignored the issue of student self-governance. Authorities restrict activities of student unions by depriving them of autonomy, placing university staff into student unions, and limiting activities of independent youth organisations in universities.
As Belarus is adapting its education system to the Bologna process, its partners should make it clear that the law should become more student-friendly.
Politicised perception of students
As in many other countries, Belarusian students historically played a major role in the democratic movement. In 1830-1831 and 1863-1864, students were among the initiators of uprisings against the Russian Empire.
Even during the Soviet era, Belarusian students created organisations and wrote appeals to increase the use of the Belarusian language and to expand academic freedoms. This usually resulted in expulsion for the instigators by Soviet authorities. In 1985, one of the expelled students even jumped from the sixth floor of the Belarusian State University in protest.
Since Belarus's independence, student organisations have become particularly close to the pro-democracy movement, comprising a significant part of opposition protests: in 2006, students organised a tent city to protest election fraud during the presidential campaign.
During this time, October Square, where the protests took place, received the unofficial name "Kastus Kalinouski," after the leader of the uprising of 1863-1864 in the Belarusian lands.
Although one can hardly call Belarusian students politicised, they still remain the most active part of society. They are also a huge group, consisting of about 460 thousand people, or 4.7 per cent of the population.
What's more, researches at the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, an authoritative Belarusian pollster, shows that the youth remain the group most exposed to the ideas of democratisation and Europeanisation in Belarusian society.
Fake student government
Many student unions actually do operate at Belarusian universities. In practise, however, they have very little influence over the university establishment and cannot defend student rights when they are broken. The current Education Code, adopted in 2011, lacks even a single mention of student government. Therefore, internal university regulations subordinate activities of student unions and only one, the Student Union of the Belarusian State University, has an appropriate legal status.
Without legal status, student unions fail to attract money from outside sources, but depend on funding from universities. Belarusian authorities give financial support to only one youth organisation working at Belarusian universities and schools – the Belarusian Republican Youth Union.
This organisation is the successor of the Komsomol (the Communist Youth League) and has half a million members. However, the large number of members does not mean that all of them support the current regime. The majority of people are signed up for BRSM forcibly or because it helps them get a place in university accommodation during studies.
Most student unions are openly run by university authorities. At the Baranavichy State University, some members of the university administrative staff belong to the student union. Provisions of the Belarusian National Technical University or International Economic Institute state simply that the activities of student unions are under the leadership of universities’ vice-chancellors.
Moreover, university authorities demand that student unions be wary of any cooperation with independent youth organisations. In February 2016, the administration of the Belarusian State Medical University sent a letter to class-leaders that they should conduct preventive conversations with fellow students explaining why they should not cooperate with independent youth organisations.
In the letter, three independent organisations, the Centre for Development of Students’ Initiatives, the Brotherhood of Organisers of Student Self-government and the Students’ Council were called illegal. However, all of them are actually registered in Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities also create fake structures to replace independent youth organisations. As an example, in 2015 the authorities set up a Student Council under the Ministry of Education, which may seem solid, but in practise has no influence. The Council includes representatives of all universities in Belarus, but its purpose remains unclear.
Making student government more genuine
Now is the best time for Belarus's international partners to encourage reform in Belarusian higher education, not only because of a thaw in relations between Belarus and the West but also because the authorities are working on a new code and want to show the European Union that they can introduce at least gradual changes. So far, the Belarusian government has tried to hide certain problems while continuing to restrict youth organisations and even expelling some students.
The new code should state directly that student government will be autonomous and free from guidance by university administration. Also, unions should obtain legal status, as this will allow them to obtain funding from outside the university.
However, even if the law changes, Belarusian authorities also need to change their behaviour towards student groups. Now that Belarus has become part of the Bologna Process, it should stop the persecution of independent youth organisations and student unions with whom they collaborate.
In 2015, the European Union invited Belarus to be part of the Bologna system, trusting that it would eventually implement reforms. Now it's time for Belarusian authorities to live up to their promises.
Opinion: Is the EU Resistant to Belarus’s Europeanisation?
Since the start of the Ukrainian crisis, Belarus has experienced a decisive shift in policy. On the domestic front, there has been a strengthening of territorial defence forces, while internationally Minsk has shown willingness to reach out to a larger number of states as potential partners.
The potash deal allegedly signed with China in June 2016 is evidence of this, as well as military cooperation projects already in place. An increased interest in relations with countries other than Russia in the post-Soviet space as well as the Middle East is also indicative of such a trend.
Belarus's relationship with the so-called western world is a slightly different story. Relations between Belarus and the West, and the EU in particular, have always been fraught. They have traditionally developed in an irregular way, characterised by continued criticism of the current Belarusian political system and the enlargement of Brussels' structures of governance.
Recent trends in Belarusian relations with the EU: a hesitant reset and the importance of Russia
Since 2013, bilateral relations have seen some positive developments. It seems that Belarus wants to be seen as a sort of eastern Switzerland, posturing itself as a quasi-neutral actor during the Minsk peace talks. At the same time, the dropping in February 2016 of EU sanctions in connection with the release of certain Belarusian political prisoners has given some breath to economic exchange and political dialogue.
This seems to be indicative of a more general reset when it comes to relations with the West. As the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies has recently assessed, contacts with the EU and its member States have strengthened in both quality and intensity since the end of 2015 (see, for example, Lukashenka's visit to Rome last May).
However, such trends should not be overestimated. The domestic political situation, as well as Belarus's strong ties with Russia, would be difficult to adjust. Although relations with Moscow, in particular, are undergoing a period of reassessment, the status quo is unlikely to change too quickly.
Brussels, in fact, has shown neither willingness nor the means to decisively lead Belarus’ Europeanisation Read more
Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia both in import (about 60 percent of the total) and export (around 35 percent), and regular military structures are strictly coordinated. On the other hand, Russia cannot lose Belarus, if for no other reason than its relevance to Russian security and as a transit country for energy resources.
A further element impeding a substantial shift towards the West, often ignored in analyses of Belarus's international position, is the behaviour of the EU towards Minsk. Brussels, in fact, has shown neither willingness nor the means to decisively lead Belarus’ Europeanisation.
The EU's drawbacks: liberal-democratic prejudice and institutional frustration
The EU's paternalistic approach towards Belarus has been a primary factor in hindering positive bilateral developments. A cursory look at official documents issued by the Council of the EU or the European External Action Service's Fact Sheet on Belarus from February 2016 makes it clear that the EU's attitude towards Minsk is based on the assumption of the latter's lower moral status – a condition which Brussels intends to correct by means of pushing democratic standards and rule of law.
a further obstacle to Europeanisation seems to come from what may be called the EU's “cold interest” towards Belarus Read more
This assumption is based on a political prejudice against Belarus which – even if it may be well founded – clashes with the principle of equality and non-discrimination voiced by Belarusian authorities. They insist on it as a necessary pre-condition for any meaningful relations.
In addition to this cognitive relational dissonance, a further obstacle to Europeanisation seems to come from what may be called the EU's “cold interest” towards Belarus. Belarus's insignificant economic strength, its supposedly second-class political relevance, and an institutional frustration caused by a repeated failure to change the autocratic political composition of the country have all distanced Brussels and Minsk, chilling the liberal enthusiasm typical of the EU's foreign policy.
The diffusion of Brussels’ concerns and the wrong choice of interlocutors
These bilateral problems are compounded by other issues of a global nature negatively affecting the EU’s effectiveness. Internal security problems related to terrorism, nationalistic conflict between member states, and the renewal of turbulence in both the Eastern and Southern neighbourhoods have contributed to decidedly stagnant relations. This context means that there is neither much room for improvement, nor political willingness for relations to improve.
This especially holds true if one recognises the understandable reluctance of the EU to further antagonise Moscow by making risky intimations toward Belarus. An overt rapprochement between the two sides could lead to an over-reaction from Russia.
This is in fact not an unfounded fear, as certain events, such as the recent visit of highly placed US Defence officials to Minsk have been perceived by the Russian establishment as an outrage, further contributing to Russia's accumulating suspicions of Lukashenka’s regime.
As Áleś Čajčyc has written for Belarus Digest, ever since the Ukrainian crisis, nationalist elements in Russia (both among elites and the general population) have, in fact, “accused Lukashenka’s regime of being tolerant of ‘Nazis’ and ‘Russophobes’”.
even the dropping of sanctions fails to promote mutual trust and dialogue if something does not change in the quality of EU-Belarus discussions Read more
In this context, even the dropping of sanctions fails to promote mutual trust and dialogue if something does not change in the quality of EU-Belarus discussions. In fact, the EU has often shown a preference towards members of the opposition and civil society who have little impact on the situation in Belarus as legitimate interlocutors. Meanwhile the government is pushed to the background.
Even if this fits with EU political paradigms, it is ineffective. As emblematically represented by the case of the Dialogue on Modernization launched in 2012, this directly undermines the legitimacy of Belarusian authorities and the feasibility of the path they have chosen for their country. As it threatens the existing political structure, collaboration is rejected or obstructed by elites in Minsk.
All in all, it seems that the EU's approach to Minsk is inappropriate. EU offers a model of cooperation founded on a teacher-student basis. It clearly states its willingness to de-legitimise the political status quo of Belarus. Acting without clear interest, Brussels fails to offer a valid alternative to Russia and does not suit Belarus’s renewed interest to diversify international partners.
On the domestic front, this stubbornly persistent call for democratisation may be counter-productive to the state of human rights in the country. Unfortunately, such a process in Belarus could happen only as part of a top-down process.
As a consequence, putting pressure on Minsk and engaging with civil society actors may generate hostility within the Belarusian establishment towards Europeanisation. Meanwhile, high-level dialogue and peer-level discussions may make the regime feel legitimised, less threatened and thus more secure, hence opening up possibilities for political change.
Nicolò is a Contributor on Russia and the post-Soviet space for the Italian think tank Osservatorio di Politica Internazionale (OPI). He is an M.A. candidate in Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe at the University of Bologna.