BELARUS: Europeans press for academic freedom

Higher education ministers from eight European countries have written to their counterpart in Minsk demanding academic freedom for students and lecturers. There have been beatings, detentions and expulsions from universities of students and academics in response to protests over the presidential election result of 19 December 2010.

The European Union and other international donors agreed to intensify support for the Belarusian university in exile, the European Humanitarian University in Vilnius, Lithuania, at a meeting in Warsaw on 2 February.

"We are distressed to find out that Belarusian students from the European humanities academy in Vilnius are among the detainees and are unable to return," Tora Aasland, Norway's Minister for Higher Education and Research, wrote to Sergey Aleksandrovich Maskevich, her Belarusian counterpart.

"Any action that restricts freedom of thought and expression reduces the vitality of the Belarusian academic community and seriously undermines the participation of your country in shaping the European future of knowledge."

Jan Björklund, Sweden's higher education minister, told Maskevich: "It is not acceptable that academics are obstructed in the search for knowledge because their political views do not fit the regime."

Ministers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, The Netherlands, France and Austria have expressed similar concerns.

But the European Students' Union argued that European leaders are not putting enough pressure on Minsk.

"We welcome the initiative from the Norwegian Minister of Higher Education, but are disappointed that there is not a louder, unanimous message that 'this should not happen' from the ministries in the European Higher Education Area," said Bert Vandenkendelaere, chair of the European Student's Union.

The union has called for a tougher response to the actions of the dictatorial Belarusian regime of Alexander Lukashenko following his landslide election victory, which students, academics and thousands of others claim was rigged. The United States also rejected the election result.

Lukashenko won nearly 80% of the votes, according to the Belarus Central Election Commission, outpolling eight other presidential candidates and securing his fourth term in office since 1994.

When the demonstrators took to the streets, police reacted by beating, detaining and expelling students from universities.

Around 50 Polish universities have opened their doors to Belarusian students at the request of Barbara Kudrycka, the Minister for Science and Education. Poland also is allocating grants to Belarusian students in exile.

Henrik Dam Kristensen, the Danish president of the Nordic Council, informed the speaker of the parliament in Minsk that he had postponed a planned study visit for politicians from Belarus.

At the donors' conference this month, the European Commission announced that it will give EUR1 million (US$1.3 million) a year to the European Humanitarian University trust fund up to 2013.

Espen Barth Eide, state secretary from the Norwegian Foreign Office, announced that Norway would donate EUR750,000 to the university trust fund, and a further EUR75,000 to its emergency fund. Denmark has also donated EUR75,000.