The country that never came in from the cold

Self-styled authoritarian rule is stifling press freedoms and education in Europe’s backyard

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. Photo by chavezcandanga via Flickr.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. Photo by chavezcandanga via Flickr.

“I have some joke for you. A newspaper called Freedom of Speech was opened in Belarus. Its editor’s A.G. Lukashenko.” Dzianis Kuchynski is a student at European Humanities University (EHU), which moved from Belarusian capital, Minsk, to Vilnus in neighbouring Lithuania in 2004. He is Belarusian, but has had to cross the border in pursuit of a liberal arts education. The laughter that comes with his joke isn’t jolly, but tinged with bitterness. Then again, there’s little reason for cheeriness. Come this summer, Belarus would have been presided over by Alexander Lukashenko for nineteen years. There is little cause for celebration at EHU.

Many of Belarus’ neighbors have run to the European Union in search of capitalism, democracy and liberalism, but Lukashenko’s government has never sought to align itself with Brussels. Instead, it has chosen to head in another direction, with Minsk signing a Union State treaty with Moscow in 1997, detailing mutual commitments to entrenched social and economic ties between Belarus and Russia.

While Lukashenko bolstered his power with three elections (consecutively condemned by the international community for electoral fraud), markers of thriving civil liberties – such as competition in the press market and an education syllabus that allows deviations from Government demands – were stifled, just as their emergence seemed hopeful. Journalists also felt the force of Lukashenko’s iron grip over public information and debate in Belarus.

EHU opened in Minsk in 1992 as a liberal arts, not-for-profit centre for higher education. Securing foreign investment, and incorporating into its name the continent that EHU felt itself to be newly aligned with, the university was seen by many as an opportunity for a centre of free speech to thrive in Belarus, modeled after the universities in countries such such as Norway and Germany.

Trouble for EHU began in 2000, claimed its provost and founder Anatoli Mikhailov in an interview with the BBC’s Crossing Continents. Although support for Lukashenko was significant in 1994, by the general election in 2000, the President received next to no votes in the Minsk district around EHU. Mikhailov said that he was subsequently “invited for a chat” with the Education Minister, and was told to “choose anyone else to run the university” but himself. His forced resignation preceded the university’s closure in 2004 – with Mikhailov recounting that the Government “needed the premises”. According to Mihailov, President Lukashenko claimed personal responsibility for the closure, apparently saying, “This university was going to educate an elite to bring Belarus to the West… we do not need this university.”

Nastassia Yaromenka is at EHU too, and like Dzianis, she has known nothing but Lukashenko’s Belarus. Unike Dzianis though, she makes no joke about her situation. “I remember returning home late at night after ballet performance, tired, sleepy, and I was approached by policemen because they “found me strange” – no other reason. I simply was slowly walking, maybe slower than I was supposed to.” Nastassia pointed this out to highlight the inherent suspicion with which the regime views students. According to Dzianis, a sarcastic protest held last year, organized on Russian Facebook-equivalent VK, where participants congregated in town squares and slow-clapped the Lukashenko regime, has exacerbated tensions between police and students.

Both Nastassia and Dzianis were keen to stress that they were not political activists. These student experiences are not extremes, but part of a wider problem.

A lack of freedom of speech, self-regulation and plurality put Belarus 157th out of 179 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2013 Press Freedoms Index, sandwiched between Azerbaijan and Egypt. Lukashenko, according to the RSF, stifles journalists to a larger extent than in Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, with independent press workers “remain(ing) at great risk whilst carrying out their duty of keeping the public informed.” Heather Blake is the chief of Reporters Without Borders UK, and also an Associate to the Changing Character of War Programme at Pembroke College, Oxford University. According to her, Belarus “is not North Korea, but you do have people trying to speak. (There is) a government stifling the voice of a population, and violating press freedoms is a sign of other violations.”

Lukashenko and his regime ignore or deny accusations that Belarus is run by a demagogue. The woman this writer spoke to at the Belarusian Telegraph Agency, a state media regulating company, suddenly lost her fluent English when press freedoms were mentioned – she suggested emailing instead to talk about the right to free speech. Consequently, this writer’s email never received a reply. The London embassy simply ignored any requests for comment.

Then again, this is a regime that is tired of justifying itself to the world. RSF’s Blake pointed out that “the UN… particularly Britain, are working as a collective voice along with NGOs to speak out against the problems” in Belarus, but noted also that individual states that take press freedoms seriously need to be joined by those that have more economic influence, like Russia. Moscow is notoriously difficult for other countries to pressure on anything related to authoritarian government – the Kremlin simply shrugged off accusations of its own electoral fraud in 2012 – and Russia’s deep political and economic ties with Belarus only serve to further stifle any opportunities for a relaxation of authoritarianism. Nonetheless, Blake hopes that “the attention currently on human rights violations can only mean more international pressure to respect civil liberties.”

Yet international pressure can have but a limited effect. The reality in Minsk is that opposition parties are disparate and have little support, partly because of the perceived conflicting policies which they advocate, a perception not least due to Lukashenko, who distorts opposition policies and attempts to arrest their proponents for ”hooliganism”. For example, Natalia Radzina, the editor of the Charter97 opposition website, had to flee the country to avoid a probable jail sentence.

Nastassia bemoans her education in Belarus. She tells how she “never heard a single positive word of support or understanding. We heard only complaints about our ignorance toward their rules and warnings about their power to influence the fact of our graduation.” She laments her nation’s future. “Most people don’t realise that they are oppressed, because they have never seen another way of life. I have a younger brother and sister, 8 and 9 years old, and I see how school kills their personalities. The government is raising slaves.”

The Belarusian state has made Minsk an inhospitable city for universities that do not tow the party line. Journalists flee abroad to avoid arrest. Children are not inspired in classrooms, and any attempt to break with convention is not seen as creative or innovative, but as deviant.

This year, Lukashenko’s smiling face appeared on Russia Today. Like Dzianis, Lukashenko had a “joke” to offer. “I say to journalists, alright, I have quite an autocratic style. Could you please try and see the good reasons for my system? I say to them, you’re very lucky to meet Europe’s last dictator.” Let us hope he’s right about the last three words.