'Russification' recurring theme at Belarus symposium

Leaders of a movement to improve higher education in Belarus confer at Southwestern College Tuesday. From left are former head of state of the Republic of Belarus Stanislau Shushkevich, former rector of Belarus State University Aliaksander Kalbaska and translator Dzmitry Karenka, instructor at European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius, Lithuania. Karenka was formerly a visiting scholar at Southwestern College. (Special to the Courier)


Some distinguished visitors at Southwestern College are delving into the role of higher education in Belarus this week.

Belarus is the landlocked country of 10 million people between Russia and Poland in Eastern Europe.

The Center for Belarusian Studies at Southwestern was established in 2006 and is hosting the symposium.

The symposium's purpose is "to illuminate questions surrounding higher education in Belarus and its importance for civil society," according to David Swartz, a Southwestern graduate and former U.S. ambassador to Belarus during the Clinton administration.

The symposium was held Tuesday and today at the Deets Library on the Southwestern campus.

Higher education in Belarus has reverted to a Soviet style that emphasizes technology and the natural sciences at the expense of preparing students in the humanities, social sciences and languages, Swartz said.

The lack of attention to the Belarusian language was a recurring subject at the symposium. Official university classes in Belarus are taught in Russian, one speaker pointed out.

The "Russification" of Belarusian culture, including higher education, goes back to the time of the tsars, according to Stanislau Shushkevich, former head of state of the Republic of Belarus. That dominance from the east has been brought back by the regime of an authoritarian Belarusian leader, Alexandr Lukashenka, who has been the country's president for the past 15 years.

Shushkevich himself was elected head of state during Belarus's "springtime," a period of cultural and political opening as the Soviet Union was collapsing, akin to the "velvet revolution" in Czechoslovakia or the "Prague Spring" in Poland.

Shushkevich served as head of state from 1992 to 1995, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Several speakers at the symposium suggested ways to try to change higher education in Belarus. Suggestions ran from urging the government to join European efforts to promote uniform academic standards, to urging the government of Belarus to adopt legal limits on censorship.

The sense of the symposium seemed to be one of frustration that change was coming too slowly inside Belarus.

Kenneth Yalowitz, former U.S. ambassador to Belarus under President George H.W. Bush, said he had returned to Belarus frequently in recent years. "Internally," he said, "Belarus looks very much the same to me, unfortunately."

Yalowitz, who now teaches at Dartmouth College, called the governmental system in Belarus "not totalitarian, but authoritarian."

Still, several speakers saw glimmers of progress, especially in Belarus's relationships with western institutions of higher education. Maria Paula Survilla, executive director of the center at Southwestern, said student and scholar exchange abroad was one of the keys to "an empowered population" in Belarus.

Survilla is a specialist in the music of Belarus and teaches at Wartburg College in Iowa. Along with Andy Sheppard, Southwestern vice president for academic affairs and associate executive director of the center, she helped organize the symposium.

Her mother, Ivonka J. Survilla, is president of the Belarusian National Republic, the Belarusian government in exile. Mrs. Survilla, who lives in Ottawa, Canada, presides over a parliament of 80 members who come from Europe, North America and Australia. The parliament meets every two years, usually in New York or New Jersey.

The BNR has been in existence longer that any other government in exile, she said. It works "to make the world more aware of the problems of Belarus," and while much remains to be done, there is "a little bit of progress because of Europe and the United States trying to talk to Lukashenka," she said.

Ales Antsipenka, head of the Belarus Collegium, an unofficial university inside Belarus, said his efforts to provide a broader curriculum for students benefited from the slow but gradual relaxation of the regime's repressive approach to non-governmental activity.

The government wants to improve its image at home and abroad, he said, and stay ahead of dissent in the population. Asked to illustrate how things were changing in Belarus, he responded, "I'm no longer afraid of being arrested."

The Belarus Collegium has 110 students and is adding a new course in photography, Antsipenka said. A philosopher himself, he painted a bleak picture of a Belarusian population that accepts authoritarian rule out of a sense of safety, as well as some satisfaction with an improving economy.

He quoted figures showing the gross national product of Belarus increased 2.3 times from 1996 to 2008 and the real income of the population increased 4.7 times. He said President Lukashenka touts the fact that his country has been affected little by the recent global financial crisis.

There is some loosening up when it comes to the press, several speakers said. In response to a question, Shushkevich said people in general had access to the Internet and a new, independent television channel was available.

The government filters information on the Internet about protests and demonstrations, he added.

Even more than anything said at the symposium, the sheer presence of unofficial educators like Antsipenka showed the determination of pro-democratic Belarusians to revitalize their country's system of higher education.



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