Belarus: Uprooted University Finds New Home In Lithuania

By Valentinas Mite

For more than a decade, young Belarusians looking for a Western-standard education had been able to turn to the European Humanities University (EHU). The privately funded university, which opened in Minsk in 1992, offered graduate and undergraduate studies in philosophy, law, politics, and languages. It was closed in 2004 after Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka voiced displeasure with what he said was the institution's pro-Western bias. But EHU is once again in session, with a new home in Vilnius, the capital of neighboring Lithuania.

PRAGUE, March 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Lithuanian government announced in February it was granting official status to the EHU, giving it the right to legally operate in Vilnius until conditions provide for its return to Belarus.

Uladzimer Dunayeu is vice chancellor of EHU, and well-acquainted with the university's struggle with the Belarusian authorities. He says the university, now situated in Vilnius's picturesque old town, is enjoying a healthy enrollment of mainly Belarusian students.

"Currently we have some 1,000 students. Of those, 170 are undergraduates who live [and study] in Vilnius, 100 more are graduate students, and the rest are studying by correspondence [from Belarus]," Dunayeu says.

In its Belarusian heyday, EHU had a mix of Belarusian professors and visiting instructors from the West. Now, most of the instructors are Belarusian and Lithuanian. But it is hoped that western professors will once again join the ranks in years to come.

Dunayeu says EHU, as before, is offering a wide spectrum of humanities majors: "Currently we teach philosophy, art, media studies, European law, and political sciences -- namely, European studies. It is very important that we have started to train historians."

Lithuanian authorities are happy with the new institution, which reopened with support not only from the government in Vilnius, but also the French Foreign Ministry and U.S. and German foundations.

Petras Austrevicius, a member of the Lithuanian parliament's foreign affairs committee, says his country, as an EU member, seeks to support democracy in Belarus in accordance with official Brussels policy.

"By giving permission for this university to function in Vilnius, we have acknowledged that it cannot function freely in Belarus. By this act we demonstrate the continuity of our position. It is also an investment in the future of independent and free minds of Belarusians," Austrevicius says.

Media Projects

The EHU is not the only project in Vilnius aimed at democracy-building in Belarus. At the end of February, "Baltic Waves," an EU-funded radio station, began daily broadcasts into Belarus from the Lithuanian capital.

The station broadcasts were specially launched ahead of Belarus's March 19 elections to help give voters a nonstate alternative to turn to for news and information.

In the end of February an EU- funded radio station has begun broadcasting into Belarus from Vilnius. "Baltic Waves" will broadcast a daily hour-long bulletin of news, music and information on Europe.

Austrevicius says Vilnius's offer to act as a temporary host to the institution was not just an act of political solidarity between the two neighbors. Lithuania's Education Ministry also requested that the university adapt its curriculum and teaching programs in line with EU standards.

It was a move that delayed the reopening of the EHU, he says, but which ultimately raised the quality of the university's studies.

Students also seem to be happy with their studies in Vilnius. Valerya is from Minsk. She studies cultural anthropology, history, and the Belarusian language, and was able to receive a grant that covers the cost of school and housing.

Valerya says she likes her studies, but wishes the Belarusian language -- which often takes a back seat to Russian in her native country -- would be used more at the university: "The language of instruction for our major is Belarusian. However, that is only because our major is the Belarusian language. The language of instruction for the rest of the majors, as far as I know, is Russian."

Valerya says after graduating she would like to continue her studies abroad. But ultimately she says she would like to return to Belarus, and says she has no plans to stay in Lithuania longer than necessary.

"It is not my country, and let's put it this way -- nobody needs me here. And [Belarus] is my motherland; my parents live there. It's natural that I want to be closer to my parents, and to my native land," Valerya says.

Valery Ruselnik studies mass media and communications at EHU. He says he came to Vilnius when he was expelled from Belarus State University because of his political activities. In Lithuania, he says, he has found a different atmosphere.

"Living conditions are normal here. When I compare the hostel here with the Belarusian ones, I should say that the conditions here are better. As concerns the university itself, there are also substantial differences. To begin with, here we have what we lack in Belarus -- respect for students," she says.

Vilnius is a drive of several hours from Belarus, a reasonable distance for the students who travel to EHU. But Ruselnik says the Belarusian authorities keep close watch on EHU students. He says the general attitude toward the pro-Western institution is hostile, and can even be felt while crossing the Belarusian border.

"Many of people I study with have been detained numerous times and checked more thoroughly at the border. It is definitely true that EHU students are given greater scrutiny at the border-crossing points," Ruselnik says.

Even so, Ruselnik, like Valerya, says he can only imagine his future in Belarus -- a country he hopes will someday soon see democratic reforms take hold.