Sunday

24th Jul 2016

Opinion

Education is the key for the future of Belarus

  • The European Humanities University (EHU) in Minsk, Belarus, was forced to close down. The university had, according to the authorities, become too Western-oriented (Photo: James Almond)

Academic freedom is not a given thing, not even in Europe in 2010. In the heart of Europe there is something that should not be necessary at all: an entire university forced into exile from its home country simply because it insisted on the principle of academic freedom and critical thinking.

In 2004, the European Humanities University (EHU) in Minsk, Belarus, was forced to close down. The university had, according to the authorities, become too Western-oriented. The closure might have gone unnoticed for the rest of the world if the government of neighboring Lithuania had not interfered and invited the entire university to continue its work in Vilnius.

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Today, 2,000 Belarusian students are able to study at the EHU in Vilnius, thereby upholding the principle of academic freedom as well as democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and an open civil society.

Real democracy and a functioning civil society are possible only through a deep understanding of these values provided by education. That is why the free-thinking EHU became too dangerous for those in power in Belarus. It is the only university in the history of Belarus to retain real autonomy, despite various forms of pressure by the authorities. Higher education in Belarus today is characterised by strict administrative and ideological control by the state.

And that is also why the EHU is a university-in-exile: one of the few in the world, if not the only.

Once the EHU had reopened in Vilnius in 2005, international donors rallied to support the University. The European Union, the Nordic Council of Ministers, thirteen European governments, the United States government and private foundations provide the funds that keep the University going. The EHU Trust Fund, established in 2008 by initiative of the EU and managed by the Nordic Council of Ministers, coordinates these efforts.

The fact that as recently as last November [the then EU presidency-in-office representative] Carl Bildt and [former external relations commissioner] Benita Ferrero-Waldner wrote to the EU foreign ministers calling for continued support to the EHU underlines the significance of the work of the University.

The young Belarusians studying in Vilnius have courage and devotion to make a difference. This often brings along personal risks: students are subject to strict searches when crossing the border, sometimes laptops are confiscated. Security officials in Minsk have interrogated EHU students and staff, friends and family are pressured.

Despite the pressure, EHU has more applicants than the university can admit. After graduation, students overwhelmingly return to Belarus to work for the free media, non-governmental organisations, and private companies. They emerge as Belarusians of the future, with an understanding of their own society with tools provided by an education of international quality.

In the 12 years before its forced closure in Minsk, EHU became a leader in the modernisation and internationalisation of higher education in Belarus. Its ultimate aim is to return to Minsk and to continue this work. Until this becomes possible, EHU fulfils its mission from exile in Lithuania. For this, it deserves and needs broad international support.

The Nordic Council of Ministers strongly wishes to support efforts that keep the hope for democracy and a normal civil society alive in Belarus. Supporting the EHU is a long-term investment in the future of Belarus, and thereby in the future of a common Europe.

The authors are the Ministers for Nordic Co-operation: Bertel Haarder (Denmark), Cristina Husmark Pehrsson (Sweden), Rigmor Aasrud (Norway), Jan Vapaavuori (Finland), Katrín Jakobsdóttir (Iceland) and Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers, Halldor Asgrimsson

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