Education in Belarus needs enhancing, leader says


In addition to Ales Antsipenka, head of the unofficial university, the Belarus Collegium, this week's symposium at Southwestern drew other advocates of restoring the humanities, the Belarusian language and culture and a broader view of the world to higher education in Belarus.

Aliaksander Kalbaska, vice rector of academic affairs of the European Humanities University, was one of them.

The EHU is the free university founded in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, in 1992 by Anatoly Mikhaelov, whose daughter, Natalia, attended Southwestern College. Mikhaelov himself has come to Southwestern.

The EHU was forced in 2005 to flee to the city of Vilnius in nearby Lithuania. The university is now thriving with 1,526 undergraduate students, 184 master's degree students and 132 non-degree students, according to Kalbaska.

* Ninety-five percent of students who leave the EHU return to Belarus, Kalbaska said.

Perhaps the strongest testimony to the determination of progressive leaders in Belarus to see change in higher education, and the political process, came from Alyaksandr Kazulin, former rector of Belarus State University.

He ran unsuccessfully for president of the country, was arrested for "hooliganism" and organizing protests against the government and was jailed in 2006 for two and a half years.

Kazulin's freedom became a cause of Amnesty International and the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which imposed sanctions on high level Belarusian officials and took the the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

The U.N.'s attention to Kazulin's case followed his 53-day hunger strike.

Kazulin's daughter, who ran unsuccessfully for the Belarusian parliament, met twice with President Bush, Kazulin said. He was released in August 2008, after which time the U.S. sanctions were eased but not lifted, he said.

Tall and looking healthy, with a broad smile, Kazulin spoke at the symposium through a translator. Afterward, he agreed his experience was an example of the price paid in the fight to liberalize Belarus and its system of higher education.

"We have to do it," he said quietly. He remains unemployed, he said.

Andy Sheppard, academic vice president at Southwestern and co-executive director o the the Center for Belarusian Studies, spoke of the need for an "equitable dialogue" in Belarus and among Belarusians abroad. He urged that U.S. policy prepare Belarusian students and scholars to engage in the political process in their country.

"This is the key to the search for identity and the broadening of higher education's mission," Sheppard said.

From beginning to end Tuesday, the symposium seemed to be seeking answers to the question of how Belarusians could recapture their cultural identity, which several speakers said had been diluted historically by their country's proximity to Russia, and, in earlier times, Poland.

The search continued over dinner Tuesday evening and was renewed this morning at Southwestern's library.

A long-term goal of the symposium is reaching consensus on recommendations for governments in Belarus, the European Union and the United States, according to Sheppard and David Swartz, a Southwestern graduate and former U.S. ambassador to Belarus during the Clinton administration.

The symposium is being funded with a grant from the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Zina Gimpelevich, author of an upcoming book on 20th century Belarusian Jewish writers, also participated in the symposium. Her book is scheduled to be the first publication of the newly created Southwestern College Press.

Translators for the symposium included Nadzeya Sychuhova, a visiting Belarusian scholar at Southwestern, and Dzmitry Karenka. Many of the guests from Belarus and elsewhere stayed at local bed and breakfasts, the Barns at Timber Creek and Bluestem Bed & Breakfast.



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