Break from Belarus

Instructor from former Soviet republic to spend four months at Southwestern normal guy ALIAKSANDR LAHVINETS -- Aliaksandr Lahvinets sits with a poster used during his run for parliament in Belarus. He lost the election and is in Winfield after the Belarus president shut down his school because it would not actively promote the regime's ideology. Southwestern answered the call when the Belarussian school asked Western institutions to find a spot for displaced students and teachers. (Shane T. Farley/Courier)





They're all words that might be used to describe 33-year-old Aliaksandr Lahvinets. He describes himself, at least politically, in simple words that evoke basic principles.

"Pro-democracy, anti-regime," he said as he spoke with a reporter Thursday afternoon.

Last fall, Lahvinets was a candidate for parliament in his hometown of Minsk, the capital of Belarus, a republic that was part of the former Soviet bloc. Earlier this year, the regime that oversees his home country shut down the school at which Lahvinets had been a political science instructor for five years.

But now he's in Winfield, where he arrived last week after a lengthy process undertaken by school officials to get him here. For four months he will be a visiting scholar at the school.

"It is a huge opportunity for me," Lahvinets said in an accent that seemed a blend of Russian and French, two languages in which he is fluent.

Lahvinets will team teach and lecture during his time here, according to Andrew Sheppard, academic dean at SC. The college has arranged for Lahvinets, his wife and son to live in an apartment on the edge of campus.

While he will teach and work with students, Lahvinets is also intent on doing some learning of his own. Of particular interest to him is the breakthroughs the college has made in wireless learning.

Using the Internet and video cameras, Southwestern has made it possible for teachers and students to come face to face despite being in separate parts of the country or world. Last spring, a Spanish instructor in Texas taught students in Winfield and traveled here only once.

Lahvinets is - or was - an instructor at European Humanities University in Minsk. He was displaced when the government closed the school earlier this year as part of President Aleksandr Lukashenko's efforts to reform the ideology taught at institutions of higher learning.

The school was shuttered because it was financed by Western organizations and had other Western influences, Lahvinets said. It was also private and more difficult for the ruling party to control, he said.

The school is in exile in Lithuania. Lahvinets said he believes Belarussian students can still be taught through wireless learning by a school set up outside of Belarus.

Sheppard agreed.

"It's pretty difficult to shutdown the Internet," he said.

Dreams for Belarus

The young Belarussian plans to enjoy his time in Winfield but will return home in January with plenty of work ahead of him. He dreams of a free Belarus with a democratic form of government.

"Sometimes I feel like I can't spend the time away," he said. "But I do stay in touch."

Even from Winfield he works to distribute mailings in Belarus and keeps up with colleagues via the Internet. Lahvinets also is executive director of the Belarussian Robert Schuman Society. Others are filling in for him while he is away. Members of the organization want Belarus to embrace the European Union and work toward democracy.

Robert Schuman is considered one of the founding fathers of the EU.

Democracy is coming slow to the former Soviet republic of Belarus. President Lukashenko allows some freedoms but is a dictator, although many of his policies are only subtly oppressive, Lahvinets said.

Lahvinets described the political process in Belarus as he sat with his family in their modestly decorated second-floor apartment. He has a wife, Sviatlana, and a 10-year-old son, Anton.

It is difficult for Lahvinets to speak of the fall elections without chuckling frequently.

"There was only an appearance of free elections," he said.

In Belarus there are basically two parties at the moment - regime and anti-regime. Lukashenko employs many tactics to ensure that regime candidates stay in control of the government. Lahvinets had to hire attorneys just to argue that he should be allowed to register as a candidate.

His opponent, a pro-regime candidate, had an entire film made of her candidacy. It played over and over again on state-sponsored television. Lahvinets and other anti-regime candidates got just five-minutes for a television spot that did not get nearly the same air time, he said.

When the contest was over it was hard for any anti-regime candidate to have much faith in the results. Anti-regime candidates and their observers were made to stand at a distance to watch as votes were counted.

"From where we were you could not see how the person had voted," he said.

When the final counts were announced by state-sponsored media, they were considerably different than numbers Lahvinets saw as the votes were counted. His supporters made a request for a printout of election results from each polling place.

In response, the government provided a printout of some results but would not hand over numbers from individual polling places.

The consensus was that the election was fixed, Lahvinets said.

"Lukashenko announced that regime candidates had won overwhelmingly," Lahvinets said and shook his head.

It might seem like someone might want to get away from all that and move to a democratic society. But Lahvinets said it has never occurred to him to move away. He wants to go back and work for a pro-democracy presidential candidate.

Family concerns

Sviatlana Lahvinets worries about her husband's entry into the political arena. As her husband translates for the woman, who speaks very little English, she explained that she agreed with her husband's political views but fears his outspoken nature. The couple had an argument when Aliaksandr decided to run for parliament.

"She knows it can be dangerous," Lahvinets said. "But she knows me, she knows my determination - and she's afraid of that, too."

In Belarus, anti-regime candidates can be bullied and some people who opposed Lukashenko have disappeared, Mr. Lahvinets said. No one is sure if those disappearances are directly linked to the government but suspicions are high, he said. Lahvinets' own family has warned him of the dangers of being pro democracy. The older generation in Belarus is more likely to tolerate the traditional communist-leaning style of governing that Lukashenko and his supporters embody.

But Aliaksandr Lahvinets is sure Lukashenko's ideas are dangerous for the country. Lukashenko is no different as a dictator than Iraq's Saddam Hussein, he said.

"He is just much less of a threat to the outside world," Lahvinets said.

But inside Belarus the dictator and his government lash out at those who oppose the regime's policies. The government requires that a pro-Lukashenko ideology be taught at public universities. Lahvinets' school was shutdown due to a technicality over property that just happened to crop up when instructors at the school gave a less than warm welcome to Lukashenko's plan to have his ideology taught at the school, he said.

Despite all that is working against democracy in Belarus, Lahvinets knows that a democratic society is better for its people. In America, he and his wife have noticed people walking the streets make eye contact and smile.

It is not that way in Belarus where the government controls 80 percent of the economy and the average worker makes $200 a month.

"People walk with their heads down," Lahvinets said. "Because the weight of their troubles is so heavy."

Enriching our community

Andrew Sheppard said the work to bring the Belarussian family was worth it, even though "I know more now about types of visas than I ever wanted to."

It took a partnership between Southwestern and Wichita State University - SC was too small a school to get Lahvinets on its own - to make the deal happen. It didn't hurt that an SC graduate is the former ambassador to Russia and that the daughter of the European Humanities University president was a student at SC.

"We had some connections," Sheppard said emphasizing the political red tape it took to get someone of Lahvinets' reputation out of Belarus.

The main thing is that the family is here and will share their experiences, Sheppard said. They seem to be adjusting well to American food and freedoms. For Sheppard, the most exciting part is that Lahvinets comes to Winfield in the prime of his career.

"He could very easily become a future political leader of Belarus," he said. "He is here on a time out. He'll go back. Having someone like that here enriches our own community."

Lahvinets can be reached at