||Focus: Human Rights||
Since coming to power in 1994, Lukashenka has assumed direct control of the institutional levers of Belarusian state universities. By law, university rectors, who had been elected by the democratic vote of university academic councils from 1991-1994, are now appointed and subject to dismissal by decision of Lukashenka. Lukashenka also has actively nurtured and supported the emergence of the Belarusian Patriotic Union of Youth (BPSM) as the single most powerful student organization on campuses throughout the country. Although ostensibly politically neutral, the centralization of appointments of rectors and the increasingly institutionalized position occupied by the BPSM in student life have created a campus environment conducive to propagation of political orthodoxy and the squelching of independent views rather than one conducive to the open-ended inquiry and expression essential to academic excellence.
Rectors Appointed by Presidential Decree
The Belarusian state university education system has systematically been made subordinate to the president through the direct presidential appointment of university rectors and deans. This practice goes beyond the appointment system in place during the Soviet Union era in which university rectors were appointed following nomination from communist party structures. Although Human Rights Watch does not take a position on the precise manner in which university administrators should be selected, it does believe that any appointment system that is respectful of academic freedom should, at a minimum, ensure that academic decision-making and campus governance be insulated from partisan political considerations. The evidence below suggests that the Belarusian system fails to live up to that minimum standard. Experience in other countries has shown, moreover, that the assertion of centralized control over university administration by political authorities, as has occurred in Belarus, is often followed by more direct assaults on academic freedom and the autonomy of students and faculty members.24 Regrettably, although a number of rectors of universities in Belarus have been fired for allegedly political reasons under the new system, none would agree to talk to a Human Rights Watch representative despite a guarantee of anonymity.
The current procedure for selection of rectors, instituted following Aleksandr Lukashenka's election as president in 1994, replaces a system put in place at the time of Belarus' independence in 1991 under which rectors were appointed by democratic vote of university academic councils.
In a meeting with Human Rights Watch, Sergei Vetokhin, Vice-rector of the National Institute for Higher Education, and Valery Dobryanskii, Ministry of Education representative and Head of the Chief Administration of Academic and Secondary Specialized Education, claimed that Lukashenka makes appointment decisions only after broad consultation with the academic community. When asked if that meant that Lukashenka's role was merely a formality, Vetokhin told Human Rights Watch:
I would not say that it is just a formality, inasmuch as both the personnel of the presidential administration and the president personally are highly concerned with and investigate the question in great detail. Therefore, you can not consider that the president simply rubber-stamps the decision but, nevertheless, he never takes the decision if up till that point there was no consultation and if the academic community does not support that nomination.25
Vethokhin justified the new system as follows:
In the Soviet Union, a rector was appointed also by order of a minister, but to all intents and purposes his confirmation went through the party apparatus. Party membership was compulsory. I am afraid that there was not a single rector at that time who was not a member of the KPSS [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]. They gathered various information from the police and the KGB on different candidates, all of which the party apparatus analyzed. The decision was also taken at an extremely high level. I know for sure that several rectors were personally considered by Masherovich, who was the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus. In around 1990, a new system was introduced, when rectors were selected by the academic council of the university. That period was short-lived and was altogether ineffective. The system we have today seems to me to be more correct. You can look at it as the [presidential] administration interfering in the affairs of the university, but in actual fact it seems to me that the authority of the rector is only increased by the fact that he goes through the confirmation process and personally converses with the president.26
Critics of the new system of appointments are concerned precisely with how rectors will use the increased authority that Vetokhin says accompanies appointment directly by Lukashenka. A number of university lecturers interviewed by Human Rights Watch emphasized that the very fact of presidential appointments makes rectors accountable to political authorities and chills free expression on campus. Maria Volkova (not her real name), who has long been employed as a lecturer at the Belarusian State University (BGU), described the change in the appointments system following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as follows:
In later years, when Belarus gained its independence, when the Soviet Union was destroyed, Belarus wanted to go along the path of democratic freedom. It wanted to get closer to the best, civilized countries of the world and to feel like it was a European country. And of course, we knew the experience of other countries, where the lecturers' collective elects the rector and therefore we had that experience at the BGU, that was probably in 1993. For the first time in my life I voted for a rector on a large academic council. There were several candidates, and we all very consciously elected a Doctor of Science, Chlen-Korrespondent27 and chemist, Fedor Nikolaevich Kaputsky. He was an efficient, literate person, but importantly, he was erudite. He had published books, monographs.28
Volkova contrasts this "window of democracy" with the coming to power of Aleksandr Lukashenka:
But when Lukashenka came along, fate had decided that our university would become the president's university . . . that by some unclear means, a new rector was appointed [in 1996], a very young rector. His biggest advantage was that he was young. Then he was about forty years of age. Now he's forty-three, Aleksandr Vladislavovich Kazulin . . . He is very energetic, very active, a very vigorous person and probably has great potential ability, but at that moment he was not even a doctor of science. He was just a senior lecturer. People who were not professors never became rectors, that's nonsense. [His appointment] was pushed very hard on the university.29
Volkova observed that while university funding and staff salary levels improved after Kazulin's appointment, active obstruction of political expression increased as well, with the new administration introducing measures to limitattendance at student demonstrations, including the initiation of classes on Saturday, a day commonly used by students for demonstrations.30
Mikola Antipovich, a senior lecturer at the Belarusian State Polytechnic Academy, described similar problems with academic appointments by presidential decree:
The appointment system? I believe that it is a very negative moment . . . [when] the rector is appointed . . . It is rumored that the deputy head of the department will be appointed. It will be a power structure of the president. It's for the stability of the personnel, so that the eyes and ears of the president are in these structures.31
The Belarusian Patriotic Union of Youth
Article 12 of the 1992 law on education forbids the formation of political parties on campus in Belarus.32 Authorities passed the law ostensibly in the name of democracy in an attempt to rid universities of communist party structures and the Komsomol, the party youth organization established under Soviet auspices. While not specifically proscribed by law, in both state and non-state institutes and universities, open political discussion and activity outside the classroom is not a feature of campus life. The vice rector of the independent European Humanities University (EHU), Vladimir Dounaev explained to Human Rights Watch:
We have a requirement at the university which bans political or missionary activities from campus. We do not want the university to be an arena for politics or missionary activity. [We say to students] take part in any party wherever, but do not form a political organization on campus. As it happens, [the university ban] is in accordance with our constitution [sic], which forbids the forming of political groups on campus.33
In practice, the law is not applied in state universities to exclude the Belarusian Patriotic Union of Youth (BPSM) - an ostensibly apolitical group that supports President Lukashenka's policies and enjoys substantial state funding - which today has representative offices in every state university and institute of higher education and maintains a less uniform, although increasing, presence in the independent sector.34
The period of Aleksandr Lukashenka's presidency has been marked by the appearance and growth of a variety of youth groups. In some cases these groups exist as affiliates of existing opposition parties, for example, the Youth Front and the Youth Council (described below), while others are creations of the state. President Lukashenka formed the BPSM as a national organization to unite young people into working for the common interest of the country. In effect, however, the BPSM's formation marked a bold attempt by the president to politically indoctrinate current and futuregenerations of young people into the ranks of his supporters and to actively counter opposition party youth groups. The BPSM's omnipresence on state university campuses has been an important element in government efforts to enforce political orthodoxy on campus.
The BPSM is a state-funded organization that vigorously supports the president and his policies. Officially formed in May 1997, the organization currently boasts some 140,000 members across the country and has official representatives in almost every state university and school. A BPSM member now sits alongside the entrance examination committee in each state university. Membership is optional, although students in state universities are strongly encouraged to join by university administrators.35 Members, who range in age from fourteen to thirty-five, are offered a variety of benefits, such as discounts at selected stores, free discotheque tickets, and, it is alleged, fast-track entry into government jobs.
Known in its first incarnation in 1997 as Pryamoe Destviye (Direct Action), the group distributed promotional literature advocating violence against its "opponents."36 This literature gave rise to speculation that the group was behind several targeted beatings of opposition figures and beatings of opposition demonstrators in 1997 and 1998, although there has not been any conclusive evidence that this is the case.37 The same people who organized Direct Action are behind its transformation into the BPSM. Although there have not been any credible reports of BPSM involvement in assaults against opposition party members or activists, the BPSM has yet to disavow itself from its predecessor's openly stated violent ambitions. Current BPSM leader Vsevolod Yanchevsky told Human Rights Watch:
[A] large part, the constituent part, shall we say, of Direct Action formed the structure of the BPSM and, to all intents and purposes, it dissolved into our new organization. Some part [of Direct Action] refused to switch, as far as I know they still exist, but frankly there has been nothing heard of them recently. To all intents and purposes that organization has ceased to exist, although probably their legal existence is still in effect. I think that they have only a few people. The majority of those whom I know went into the BPSM and are doing a lot so it prospers and develops.38
Local human rights activists and opposition figures have dubbed the BPSM the "Lukamol," a derisory reference to both Lukashenka's cult of personality and the Soviet-era youth organization, the Komsomol.39 Yanchevsky denies that there is any comparison between the BPSM and the Komsomol. He told Human Rights Watch:
Some are saying that President Lukashenka has recreated the Komsomol in Belarus. This is absolutely not true . . . President Lukashenka helped to create a powerful patriotic youth organization, our organization, which enjoys large state support, the support of the president.40
Yanchevsky's statement is undermined by the large-scale celebrations organized by the BPSM to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the Komsomol, held throughout Belarus in October 1998.
Clearly there are differences between the Soviet-era Komsomol and the BPSM: BPSM membership is not compulsory and the BPSM is less militaristic. However, the two organizations evidently share a similar and disturbing characteristic: suppression of dissent.
The BPSM is a structure designed to recruit future government employees, and appears geared to ensure a continuing bedrock of support for President Lukashenka. The scale of state financial support for the organization and the blatantly political way in which independent initiatives have been dismantled and replaced by structures of the BPSM underscore its political role as a pillar of the regime. For example, in 1998 the BPSM boasted an annual budget from state coffers of approximately U.S.$1 million, an enormous sum in Belarus where average monthly income is currently estimated to be from U.S.$20 to $40.41 In September 1996, the government shut down the independent Belarusian-language radio station, Radio 101.2, on the pretext that the station interfered with government communications. The frequency was subsequently given to the BPSM and another state-funded youth organization, the Belarusian Union of Youth (BUY). A Russian-language station, operated by the BPSM and the BUY, named Radio Stil' (Style Radio) opened in June 1998 and broadcasts daily pieces on the BPSM's activities. On April 4, 1998, a popular Minsk university youth club run by Youth Front members, Reservatsiya (The Reservation), was closed down by city authorities and later reopened as a BPSM club named Alternativa (The Alternative) (see below).42
Another point of comparison between the Komsomol and the BPSM is the organization's role as a recruitment ground for government positions. During the Soviet era, membership of the Komsomol was the only way to guarantee entry into the Communist Party structure. While President Lukashenka has stated publicly that membership in the BPSM would "never be" mandatory for appointment to government positions, it is clear that BPSM membership in this regard is advantageous. In November 1997, the Interfax news agency filed this report:
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said he supports preparing young people for rising to senior official positions. Lukashenka said he was confident that he would work as the president "for more years to come." It is therefore important to have "a personnel base," he added. The Belarusian Patriotic Union of Young People [sic] will play a significant role in the preparation of such a base, Lukashenka said . . . he implied that representatives of the organization might be appointed to senior official positions in the future.43
Admission to state university in Belarus is achieved by passing an oral entrance exam in front of an entrance exam committee. Although in the past these committees consisted only of staff members, a BPSM representative has now become a de facto part on these committees. The BPSM has its own Public Control Committee the purpose of which, as stated in its 1998 report, is "not so much to control, as to assist the university entrant with solving social problemsand to render them psychological help and support."44 A member of the control committee now sits alongside the entrance exam committee throughout Belarusian state universities and is able to exert considerable influence on the entrance exam committee's decision. Several students and university lecturers a Human Rights Watch researcher spoke to expressed the belief that BPSM members present during the entrance exam are used to filter out both those students whose preferred first language is Belarusian and opposition activists through the canvassing of these applicants' political opinion. One politically active lecturer from Grodno alleged that his daughter's grades in her entrance exam were lowered by the BPSM Public Control Committee member due to his reputation as an opposition political activist.
24 Similar control was asserted by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in his 1998 crackdown on Serbian academics, and made use of by Indonesian President Soeharto in his crackdowns on Indonesian campuses in the 1970s. See Human Rights Watch, "Deepening Authoritarianism in Serbia: The Purge of the Universities," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 11, no. 2(D), January 1999, pp. 9-13; Human Rights Watch, Academic Freedom in Indonesia: Dismantling Soeharto-Era Barriers (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998), pp. 16-21.
25 Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, June 11, 1999.
27 Chlen-Korrespondent, literally "corresponding member," an academic title given to a person before he or she becomes a member of the Academy.
28 Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld upon request, Minsk, February 9, 1999.
30 Ibid. The scheduling of additional classes to coincide with opposition demonstrations was a common practice, in particular during the large-scale, and violent, demonstrations in 1996. Student Dmitri Markushevsky told Human Rights Watch: "The lecturers themselves do not talk students out of attending demonstrations. . .that is done by the deputies of educational work, the deans. They sometimes set additional classes at a special time when there might be a mass demonstration, like, for example, the Chernobyl Path. In schools they without fail have additional classes, and missing classes at that time results in strict reprimands for the pupils." Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, October 29, 1998.
31 Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, February 9, 1999.
32 Law On Education in the Republic of Belarus, October 1991, includes changes and additions from May 3, 1996:
Article 12 Education and Political Activity. "The activities of political party structures or other public associations that have political goals, including children's, teenagers' or youth associations that act exclusively on the basis of the statute of such parties or associations, are banned from educational institutions in the Republic."
33 Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, February 12, 1999.
34 Ibid. In at least one case, however, the law banning political groups from campus, while restrictive, has helped to keep the BPSM at bay. Tatiana Galko, former deputy minister of education and current advisor to the EHU rector, told Human Rights Watch that the ban on political groups "helped us not to create a youth organization [BPSM], which they tried to foist on us from above. They passed the law to prevent the communist party and the Komsomol from being active in all organizations."
35 Mikola Antipovich, a senior lecturer at the Belarusian State Polytechnic Academy told Human Rights Watch: "The first year students upon enrollment are gathered together on September 1 with bodyguards and security in a stadium. . .the rector and deans speak and. . .they agitate for [the students] to enroll in the BPSM. The first year students have yet to get their bearings. . .and they come out of there signed up in the president's ranks. It's all pressed on them very strongly." Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, February 9, 1999.
36 See "Belarus: Crushing Civil Society," A Human Rights Watch Report, New York, August 1997.
37 Young, athletic men in plain clothes have arrested and assaulted demonstrators on innumerable occasions, likely acting as part of a state security structure. It can not be ruled out that Direct Action members were collaborators of such plainclothes agencies.
38 Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, October 30, 1998.
39 The Komsomol - Kommunisticheskiy Soyuz Molodezhy (The Union of Communist Youth) - was a state-funded, militaristic youth organization in the Soviet Union of young people, aged fourteen to twenty-eight. Membership of the organization was nominally voluntary but in fact compulsory. Founded in 1918, the Komsomol ostensibly stood for strict values such as honor, study, hard work, and discipline - the values espoused by its founder, Vladimir Lenin. However, in reality its primary function was to serve as an instrument of control and propaganda to ensure that young people did not dissent from the Communist Party doctrine. Expulsion from the organization automatically meant expulsion from university, along with social stigmatization and isolation. It served as the "senior" youth organization, following on from compulsory membership in the Oktyabristy (The Octobrists) and the Pionery (The Pioneers), groups directed at children aged from seven to fourteen years of age. A select few Komsomol members would go on to become members of the Communist Party. Unlike the Pioneers, which characteristically undertook work such as aiding the elderly, invalids, and war veterans, Komsomol members played an active role in Subbotniki (voluntary work days) which typically meant cleaning streets or undertaking other such community work.
40 Human Rights Watch interview, Minsk, October 30, 1998.
41 Human Rights Watch interview with Dmitri Shitko, head specialist on student matters, Central Committee, BPSM, Minsk, October 30, 1998. Shitko gave the figure for the budget as 100 billion Belarusian rubles in 1998. Given the Belarusian ruble's steady decline in value against the dollar throughout that year, a precise U.S. dollar equivalent is hard to ascertain. We estimate the average exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble against the U.S. dollar in 1998 to have been approximately 100,000, hence the U.S.$1m figure. Average wages in Belarus have plummeted, most notably following the August 17, 1998 financial crisis in neighboring Russia. Pre-crisis average monthly income was estimated to have been approximately U.S.$100.
42 Belarusian Helsinki Committee press release, June 16, 1998, and Human Rights Watch interview with Dmitri Markushevsky, Minsk, October 28, 1998.
43 Interfax news agency, Moscow, November 24, 1997, cited in World News Connection, an electronic news service.
44 The BPSM - One Year, BPSM, Minsk, 1998.