Why Belarus Needs the Bologna Process
Belarus remains the only European country excluded from the Bologna Process to date. This situation may finally change on 14-15 May 2015 when the ministerial meeting of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) will consider Belarus’s second attempt to join the 47-nation club.
Even though the Belarusian system of higher education has not seen any fundamental improvements in recent years, this time around it has a good chance of being brought into the fold. If it happens everyone, and especially Belarusian students and universities, will win. However, it will only be a single step in the right direction – as the real work will start afterwards.
Will Belarus Be Accepted This Time?
The EHEA ministerial meeting set to take place on 14-15 May in Yerevan will consider Belarus’s application to the Bologna group. The Belarusian Minister of Education Mikhail Zhuraukou has received an official invitation to attend the event. The Belarusian media have already read this as a sign that the country’s bid for membership has been successful.
Minister Zhuraukou also sounds optimistic. In his words, “Belarus observes almost every principle of the Bologna Declaration, there remain only some formalities [to be worked out]”.
Unofficial sources point to a potential positive decision as well. According to Uladzimer Dunayeu, member of the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee, the Bologna Working Group, which reviewed the application, prepared a ‘yes’ recommendation for the ministerial meeting in May.
At the beginning of March, the Working Group visited Minsk and held a seminar at the Belarusian State University. The Head of the Education Department of the Council of Europe Sjur Bergan, who took part in the seminar, made quite an unequivocal statement: “The fact that we have come to Belarus proves that we are seriously considering your application. Otherwise we would not be here”.
Second Attempt in Four Years
The general mood appears to be quite different from the situation at the end of 2011, when Belarus applied to the Bologna Process for the first time. Even though the Belarusian application at that time caused similar discussions inside and outside the country, some things have changed this time around.
As with the current situation, the government then stressed the gradual progress of the educational system and its technical compatibility with the European Higher Education Area, the country's readiness to organise international exchange programmes and apply a unified educational credit system. Also similar to the present-day situation, the Independent Bologna Committee then argued that higher education in Belarus fell short of the Bologna standards and core values.
Yet, the 2011 review of Belarus’s application took place against a very different political background. Only one year had passed since the Belarusian authorities cracked down on mass demonstrations during the presidential election night at the end of December 2010. Belarus-EU relations saw one of the worst periods ever: sanctions lists were growing, both sides exchanged harsh statements and mutual accusations, and EU ambassadors left Minsk several times to display their diplomatic protest.
As a result, in December 2011 the Bologna Working Group recommended a ministerial meeting (held in April 2012) to not accept Belarus – and at that time, the ministers agreed. According to their assessment, the Belarusian system of higher education did not respect the principles and values of the Bologna Process, such as academic freedom, institutional autonomy and student participation in the governance of universities.
Now that the relations with the EU have entered a phase of rapprochement, the overall political context for Belarus’s Bologna application has considerably improved. The growing bilateral agenda and Minsk’s efforts in mediating a de-escalation of the Ukraine crisis have played their own role.
Has Anything Changed in Higher Education in Belarus?
In December 2014 the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee prepared a new report on the country’s readiness to join the EHEA. According to this report, the system of higher education in Belarus has made significant progress but still failed to meet the necessary criteria with the issues that prevented its acceptance three years before. Representatives of some independent student organisations agree with this assessment.
Officials from the Ministry of Education and rectors of Belarusian universities have offered up different points of view on the degree to which things have changed over the past four years. Minister Zhuraukou argues that:
now we can say with confidence that Belarus has a two-stage system of education with bachelor programmes (from three to five years depending on one's specialisation) and master programmes. … We have introduced the possibility of getting PhD through defending a thesis. Moreover, now a PhD defence can be conducted in English. All Belarusian universities have started to have courses in English. … Of course, Belarus has its own issues, as does any other country, but in general we are in compliance with the guidelines of the Bologna convention.
The First Deputy Minister of Education Vadzim Bohush claims that in all Belarusian university students now have a direct vote on all issues facing their institutions. Students’ representatives sit on university councils and have the right of a binding, not advisory, vote.
However, according to the monitoring carried out by the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee and the youth trade union group Students Rada, the student quota (25%) in university councils is hardly respected.
Why Is Bologna Good for Belarus?
Thus, the state of play in the field of higher education in Belarus has not progressed a lot since 2011. Neither have the discussions about Belarus's potential Bologna membership: both supporters and opponents of the idea firmly adhere to the same arguments.
And this is no surprise.
The fundamental mistake of traditional Western policies towards Belarus is expecting too much too soon, even though the reality on the ground simply precludes a possibility of a quick change.
A realist needs to accept that the full implementation of the Bologna principles contradicts the very nature of the present-day political reality in the country and that there is no external or internal power capable of changing it at present. And the real question of the day has to do with the prospects of long-term improvements.
Isolation, as Belarus has already demonstrated, hardly serves anyone: whether it be the country in general, the government, opposition, civil society, educational system or individual citizens. Moreover, the prolonged isolation of higher education institutions primarily harms those whom it claims to protect – the young generation of Belarusians, who are deprived of basic opportunities as a result of these policies.
Even a minor opening up of the Belarusian education system, which the Bologna process can facilitate, will be a meaningful step in the right direction. It will also help equip more progressively minded individuals in government circles with additional arguments against the Soviet-style retrogrades that still dominate many academic and policy-making institutions in Belarus.
In the light of this, the ministers of the Bologna group should accept Belarus to the European Higher Education Area. And it is important to use the membership not for political sloganeering but for promoting the fundamental principles of the Bologna process in practise, in a manner that is patient but also consistent.
Belarusian Opposition: From Politics to Advocacy
In the coming days Taciana Karatkevich, a political activist who was little-known until recently, is likely to officially become the main opposition coalition’s candidate in the 2015 presidential election.
Her nomination coincided with the departure of Uladzimir Niakliajeu, one of the most popular pro-democracy politicians and a former presidential candidate from the ranks of the opposition. Niakliajeu explained his decision to leave as a result of the opposition's inability to decide on a single candidate.
Niakliajeu’s departure alongside Karatkevich’s lack of political skills and ambitions reflect the transformation of the opposition in Belarus into little more than an advocacy group. Karatkevich’s nomination sends a signal to Lukashenka’s regime and Belarusian society that the opposition has rejected a revolutionary path forward.
The Most Popular Pro-democratic Politician Leaves the Opposition
On 7 April, the Tell the Truth campaign, by most estimates the main oppositional structure in Belarus, voted for Taciana Karatkevich’s nomination and on 8 April its leader Uladzimir Niakliajeu left the organisation and all the opposition altogether. He explained his departure as being a result of the opposition's inability to agree on holding the Congress of Democratic Forces to choose a single candidate to run.
Usually, no one would notice the withdrawal of an opposition politician, but Niakliajeu is another story. He has the highest supporting rating among all opposition politicians (7.6%), according to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies. Thanks to his poetry, he has gained recognition even among Lukashenka’s supporters, if only for his literary talents.
Niakliajeu announced his disappointment with the opposition, which was in talks for over two years in an effort to choose single candidate.That Niakliajeu lost control over his own Tell the Truth campaign is also telling. Anatol Liabedzka, Chairman of the United Civic Party, stated that during a meeting of opposition leaders on 7 April, Niakliajeu’s proposal to hold the Congress of Democratic Forces failed — after Niakliajeu’s own organisation blocked it.
Taciana Karatkevich: the New Face of the Opposition
Taciana Karatkevich, age 37, rises as a new star of the Belarusian opposition. Her nomination as the candidate from the “People’s Referendum”, a mainstream opposition coalition that brings together the Tell the Truth campaign, the Movement for Freedom, the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front and several smaller organisations, will be made in the near future. Many in the opposition believe that their candidate's gender will persuade the Belarusian authorities to perceive her as a lesser threat from opposition.
Like other ex-Soviet republics, Belarus is a rather sexist country, and Lukashenka will have serious problems trying to repress Karatkevich. Should he beat a woman, he himself would be deprived of his masculinity, or so the thinking goes. Moreover, femininity is accorded a different role in society and is less associated with bloody revolutions like Maidan.
In any event, Karatkevich is the first woman candidate in the history of Belarus to ballot for presidential office, not despite her gender, but because of it. Karatkevich has some other advantages as well. She has worked as a psychologist and lecturer at the state institutions for eleven years. She is perceived as a team player.
However, Karatkevich’s candidacy also has some marked weaknesses. First, she seems to lacks any real leadership experience. Karatkevich is viewed by some as overly dependent on Andrei Dzmitryjeu, the new leader of the Tell the Truth campaign, as she had previously worked under him. Dzmitryjeu pushed hard for her nomination, as many have said in private, precisely because of this relationship.
Secondly, she lacks charisma and has not demonstrated any real presence in front of crowds or cameras. When Belarusian journalist Sviatlana Kalinkina asked Karatkevich a year ago what she would do if she was offered to become the opposition's main presidential candidate, she said that she hoped not to receive such an offer.
Third, the percieved Karatkevich’s dependence on Dzmitryjeu is unlikely to create the necessary grounds for the opposition to unify around her candidacy. Even the Movement for Freedom, a member of the People's Referendum coalition, announced on 2 April that it would not get involved in the election campaign this year, and would instead focus on election observations and civic activities.
From Opposition to Advocacy Group
Changes in the opposition reflect a paradigm shift. If in the past the opposition fought and struggled for power, and despite the fact that some felt it was an act, now Belarus's pro-democratic forces have been transformed into an advocacy group. This can be a reason (or a consequence) of the fact that Belarusians currently have no appetite for revolution. The opposition simply wants to promote its interests and articulate its agenda, without provoking political repression from the authorities.
In this context, charismatic, ambitious and, in many ways, unpredictable leaders like Niakliajeu will more likely hurt the opposition rather than help. Or at least this is what some in the opposition think.
opposition activists see themselves as being closer to civil society than to opposition politics Read more
But there are some who do not share this vision. The former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkevich, who remains in jail since the last presidential election, is trying to start his presidential campaign directly from his cell (although it is clear that the authorities will not allow him to register.) In fact, Statkevich is about to have another trial in the near future. By all appearances, it looks as if the authorities are trying to force him to ask Lukashenka for a pardon.
The majority of opposition activists who are currently in exile view the upcoming election with contempt and call for a boycott. Their calls, however, do not affect the political dynamic in Belarus. More and more opposition activists see themselves as being closer to civil society than to opposition politics. The Movement for Freedom, which was Milinkevich’s political project, has failed to participate in any presidential campaign, but remains very active in the public domain.
Opposition groups have few people who are willing or able to campaign and fear that the remaining pro-democratic forces would not survive a repeat of the 2010 post-election crackdown. One opposition leader told Belarus Digest that the opposition's offices have never been as empty as they are now. People are simply not joining the opposition anymore.
The same individual said that "the purpose of this presidential campaign is just not to go to prison, to keep the teams together and develop our political skills." It is for this reason that the opposition is hedging its bets on a technical candidate, not an ambitious one who would make a ruckus.