Free expression in Belarus: university forced into exile

Reporter: Emma Griffiths

ELIZABETH JACKSON: This weekend, a presidential election will be held in what the United States has labelled an "outpost of tyranny".

Observers predict the poll in the former Soviet state of Belarus will be rigged in favour of the President Alexander Lukashenko.

He's been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" for his iron rule of the country. He's clamped down on free expression to the point where an entire university has been shut down and forced to teach in exile.

With the story here is our ABC correspondent Emma Griffiths.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: First term is about to begin at Belarus' university in exile. Twenty-four-year-old Alexander Filatov is a masters student.

ALEXANDER FILATOV: It's quite hard to live not at home and to know that you are studying in university in exile, as we call it, because it's not very funny.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: Alexander Filatov lives in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. But every week he has to drive several hours to the north. His university, teachers, libraries and lecture halls, have been forced to move to neighbouring Lithuania.

ALEXANDER FILATOV: We were that told our programs are too experimental. They were quite different from the programs that were taught in state universities.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: He studies at the European Humanitarian University. It opened in Belarus 13 years ago ? the only Western standard tertiary institution in the country.

It gave young Belarusians the chance to study foreign languages, politics, law and philosophy.

But 18 months ago, the Government of Belarus decided it should be shut down. The official reason was given as a lack of student housing, but it was also made clear that the university's approach did not fit in with the state's ideology.

President Alexander Lukashenko wanted it closed for political reasons, according to university professor Alimera Usmanova.

ALIMERA USMANOVA: He considered that EHU (European Humanitarian University) was preparing a new political elite for the future.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: And was the university doing that?

ALIMERA USMANOVA: Well of course we were very much keen on the idea preparing a new generation of specialists, but we didn't think in political terms, that's the point. For us it was just a matter of preparing a new generation and giving the standards, new standards of higher education.

EMMA GRIFFITHS: Students and staff were shocked by what they've described as an injustice. Some students completed their studies abroad. Others were forced into state universities in Belarus.

Observers say Lukashenko's regime has launched an assault on higher education. It's restricted students from participating in study abroad programs. Students are given Soviet-style lessons in ideology and they're certainly not encouraged to speak up.

This is Emma Griffiths reporting for Saturday AM.