||Focus: Human Rights||
Under President Lukashenka a pervasive state campaign of political control of the universities has severely limited academic freedom and given rise to a climate of fear and suspicion on Belarusian campuses. This campaign has curtailed freedom of expression, association, and assembly on and off campus, in consonance with state policies that have circumscribed civil society in every sector. Government constraints on academic freedom intersect with those imposed on nongovernmental organizations, the independent media, independent lawyers, and opposition political parties and organizations of all kinds. Students and faculty alike who peacefully exercise their legitimate right to freedom of assembly at opposition demonstrations, who join opposition political parties, or who express their views freely on campus or off, are punished with warnings, reprimands, expulsion, demotion, or dismissal. Ironically, in 1998 the government introduced human rights, along with Belarusian history, culture, philosophy, and ethics as part of a compulsory block of subjects for students. The government's purposeful restriction of academic freedom makes a mockery of this initiative, and has grave implications for the creative and intellectual development of Belarus, plunging the country back into the stifling mire of Soviet-era restrictions.
History has become an extremely politicized topic in post-Soviet, post-1994 Belarus. President Lukashenka has made his own historical interpretation the central theme of his administration: integration with Russia. In so doing, he has pushed the teaching of Belarusian history in high schools and universities to the forefront of an increasingly sharp battle for the presentation of the "true" history of Belarus. The free rein given historians to research and publish on issues, formerly taboo, such as Stalinist atrocities during the perestroika period (1985-1991) and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has gradually been restricted. Historians who have researched Belarus' national past or Stalinist atrocities are viewed as having directly challenged the government's policy of integration and now face restrictions in their work. Historians and researchers who publish or organize conferences on such themes are attacked in polemics in the state press and refused access to the media to publish their responses. High school and university history textbooks written and published in the post-Soviet period have gradually been removed from the classroom and replaced with standard Soviet-era editions by order of the government. Independent historians are today viewed in the same light as oppositionist politicians and, in contrast to those historians who support the current policies of the president, find themselves in an increasingly precarious situation.
Institutionally, the Belarusian state system of university education has increasingly been subordinated to President Lukashenka himself through new provisions for the direct presidential appointment of university rectors and deans. Rectors of state universities are now appointed and allegedly dismissed by the president, opening the door to replacement of academic criteria by political criteria in such decisions. Critics allege that presidential selection of rectors has made political loyalty a consideration in selection of academic leaders, undermining the independence of state universities. Without exception, all the rectors a Human Rights Watch researcher contacted who had allegedly been dismissed for political reasons declined to give interviews, even under strict guarantee of anonymity out of fear of reprisal. Although the state bars independent political organizations from campus, it funds and provides campus facilities for the vigorously pro-presidential and blatantly political Belarusian Patriotic Union of Youth (commonly known by the acronym BPSM), actively promoting membership in the organization as necessary for those who want to get ahead. Formed on the initiative of the president, and with representative offices in every state university and institution of higher education in Belarus, the BPSM represents a heavy-handed attempt to politically indoctrinate current and future generations of young people into the ranks of the president's supporters, to actively counter newly formed independent and opposition party youth groups, and to provide a presidential check on academic life at every level. BPSM representatives now sit alongside the committees that administer oral examinations to all applicants for admission to state universities. Whereas BPSM members receive privileges and discounts on campus and in stores, students who occupy prominent positions in the youth wings of opposition political organizations face warnings, fines, imprisonment, and expulsion from their place of study because of their political activity.
Since coming to office, President Lukashenka has sought systematically to control every sector of civil society. As part of this state-sponsored campaign, authorities have turned to universities to suppress dissent. In its efforts to control student life, the state curtails and restricts students' political activity. Politically active university students facea variety of measures from state university authorities and the state itself to achieve this end. State university authorities threaten politically active students with reprimands, warnings, lower grades, and expulsion, while governmental authorities target such students, especially those who attend opposition demonstrations, for administrative and criminal sanctions. Similarly, politically active lecturers, independent historians, and university employees who challenge the status quo are subject to a wide variety of repressive measures from university authorities. These measures, typically in the form of reprimands or warnings, serve to ensure that university staff know that political nonconformity, let alone active participation in the political opposition, will threaten their livelihood. Research into politically sensitive issues, such as the Belarusian independence movement during the Soviet era, is seen to challenge the state's policy of integration with Russia and is actively dissuaded by senior faculty, even where it has not yet drawn attention from the government. Significantly, a large number of lecturers have moved from state institutions to non-state institutions.
The government perceives private education to be a threat to its control and influence over the education of students, particularly on politically sensitive subjects such as history and law, and has posed significant obstacles to the development and operation of the private universities and other private educational initiatives that have emerged in Belarus since the break-up of the Soviet Union. The new institutions have taken the form of private, commercially run universities, along with smaller establishments providing night or weekend classes for adults and young people. Regrettably, these private universities and schools are the object of a range of actions which, while in some cases represented as measures to ensure the quality of education offered, have been misused to induce conformity. Local authorities, in turn, persistently harass smaller, extra-university programs by denying them access to premises, doing so on an entirely arbitrary basis, or by applying continuing restrictions on the holding of unauthorized meetings to ban or close premises to seminars and other private teaching initiatives. Following a seminar on legal education in Smargon held in the editorial offices of an independent newspaper by a regional council of youth organizations named Rada 23, KGB officers interviewed all the organizers asking them who held it, what was said, and with what funds. On one occasion in Pruzhany, members of a legal rights education group from Brest - the Belarusian Association of Women Lawyers - were told by local authorities at the last minute that they were forbidden from holding their seminar on February 16, 1998 due to an "epidemic" in the town. For the private universities, in the present politically charged atmosphere in Belarus, the standard process of periodic licence renewal by the Ministry of Education becomes a moment of apprehension as these universities' record of political activity on campus comes under scrutiny. As a result, private universities mostly steer well clear of politically sensitive subjects. In a telling example of the reach and influence of the state in the non-state university sector, lecturers with whom a Human Rights Watch researcher spoke who had made the switch from state sector to private, expressed fear of retribution by the state should they be known to have discussed the academic freedom issue. Some declined to meet, while others asked that their names be withheld. One senior lecturer anxiously sought guarantees that a casual conversation with a Human Rights Watch researcher on the general condition of academic freedom in Belarus would go no further.