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Belarus: Regime Increases Pressure On Private Universities, Other Institutions

  • Valentinas Mite --> Belarusian authorities are tightening their grip on independent institutions in the wake of popular upheavals that helped unseat governments in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. But the government of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is not just shutting some schools down and harassing others. It's also spearheading a new campaign to inculcate the nation's schools and students with a new "Ideology of the Republic of Belarus."

Prague, 21 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Private universities and institutions are having a hard time in Belarus these days.

Valery Karbalevich is an analyst with Strategy, a political analysis center in Minsk.

"Last year, the European Humanities University was closed down. Departments of the Institute of Contemporary Knowledge -- one more private university -- are being closed," Karbalevich said. "It is not a coincidence that special attention is being paid [by authorities] to the humanities. They [authorities] seek to impose an official state ideology in the country. A state ideology has been announced, and all state-owned and nonstate owned institutions have to endorse this ideology."

Ideology officers, in fact, have been introduced throughout the education system -- in state offices, factories, and cultural institutions. And all students must now take a new core course, "The Basics of the Ideology of the Republic of Belarus."

But private universities and other independent institutions are not eager to fall in line, even though Karbalevich says the pressure is enough to make life unbearable for those who seek to remain independent. He says that in the current atmosphere, anything might serve as an excuse for shutting down a private university.

"Currently, the state can shut down any nonstate university, take away a license offering various explanations. For instance, it might happen if students of a university are seen or arrested in some opposition rally or demonstration," Karbalevich said.

There are 43 state-owned universities and 10 private ones in Belarus. Some 300,000 people study in state universities, while some 60,000 are enrolled in private universities.

Karbalevich says officials often complain that private universities pay too much attention to history or Belarusian language and literature. The reason for such focus, the analyst says, has to do with universities trying to be independent and not falling in line.

Others say authorities are attacking not only humanities universities.

Yesterday, Belarus expelled U.S. business and law professor Terry Boesch. He had worked in the country since 2003, teaching in state-owned and private universities. He tells RFE/RL that he has no doubts the campaign against private education will continue.

"The government minister of education has announced this week privately in meetings that in September the government is going to close down more private law institutes and law colleges. It will also do the same with economic institutes or business institutes," Boesch says.

Belarusian officials justify their crackdown by stating that the country does not need more business, legal or economic specialists.

However, Boesch dismisses that assessment, saying the government campaign has nothing to do with an abundance of specialists or low standards of education.

"I have taught in the both the state university as well as a private institute and in neither are they functioning at a Western-level quality. This is why there is no university in Belarus that has European accreditation or certainly American accreditation," Boesch says.

Some private schools have sought to get around the official harassment in Belarus by registering abroad, such as in neighboring Lithuania. But Alyaksandr Sosnov, the deputy director of the Minsk-based Socio-Economic and Political Studies Institute, says this is not an ideal solution, as the authorities are doing everything they can to hamper the work of Belarusian entities registered abroad.

"It becomes difficult to function because after registration abroad, [a company) becomes a foreign legal entity. To start working here openly you need to pass a certain procedure at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called granting a license, accreditation or something like that. And of course no institution will be able to pass this test," Sosnov said.

Lukashenka faces presidential polls next year. Boesch, the expelled U.S. professor, calls the campaign against private universities an "anti-Western" cleanup aimed at ridding the country of Western influence ahead of the elections.