Are restrictions on Belarusian academics discriminatory?

When Russia started the war in Ukraine, the Belarusian government also played its role in the aggression. It allowed Russian troops to enter Ukraine from Belarusian territory and provided them with military infrastructure, such as air bases.

As a result, Belarus can be considered a country that has committed an act of aggression, according to international law. Taking all this into account, I understand why many European countries imposed restrictions on Belarus and why Western companies stopped doing business in the country.

But I would like to write about some of the measures which are related to the Belarusian academy; for example, the suspension of visas for Belarusian citizens by the Czech Republic and Estonia (with some exceptions, such as humanitarian reasons or for visiting family members).

Another case is the decision of the University of Tartu in Estonia that citizens of Belarus “can submit applications for first and second level programmes offered in the academic year 2022-23 only if they hold a residence permit or long-term visa of the European Union or are currently studying in Estonia”. Don’t these measures look discriminatory?

I think one of the reasons for such decisions is the idea of collective responsibility. Many people are blaming Belarusians and Russians as a whole, legitimately saying that there was no Vladimir Putin in Bucha, the city where hundreds of Ukrainian civilians were killed during its occupation by Russia. But still, how justified is this approach?

I understand that the number of people who are responsible for the start of the war, the deaths of civilians and any forms of violation of international law, as well as those who support the war against Ukraine, is quite large. Putin is just one of the faces of the war.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, making the whole population guilty because they are cogs in the system in one way or another is not right. So, I would like to explain why we should proceed from the idea of personal responsibility.

Personal responsibility

In one of her articles, the German philosopher Hanna Arendt argued that “Where all are guilty, no one is”. In a world where the whole of society is responsible, it is not clear who in particular is guilty of specific crimes.

It is very important to know this. Using the concept of legal responsibility, knowing exactly what are crimes and what are not, the court of justice can clarify whether a specific person is responsible for them. In this particular moment the accused cannot be a cog, a part of the system or representative of the nation.

As Arendt wrote about the trials of Nazi Germany criminals: “Even this transformation of a cog into a man does not imply that something like cogness, the fact that systems transform men into cogs, and totalitarian systems more totally than others, was on trial”. Those responsible are specific people, not the whole of a society.

What is also important is that most Belarusians do not support the war. For example, this survey made by Chatham House at the beginning of February 2022 shows that only 13% of the Belarus urban population think that the country should support Russia and send troops to Ukraine and 56% agree that Belarus should be neutral. The majority agreed that Belarusian involvement would have catastrophic consequences.

So why have we not told our government yet that we do not support the war? Good question. Especially taking into account that one of the reasons given for all the restrictions is to make the impact felt by as many citizens of Belarus as possible in order to push them to influence the government and stop the war.

The answer is that it is not that simple when we are talking about an authoritarian regime, which the Belarusian government is. Following the fraudulent elections in August 2020 and police violence during the first days of the protests, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to show their desire for change. That was not successful.

Right now more than 1,100 people are officially considered political prisoners, having been arrested for participation in anti-government protests. More than 50 of them are students. So the protests were suppressed. But that does not mean that people support the current regime and its action during the conflict in Ukraine.

Support for Ukraine

Despite this, many Belarusians are doing their best to support Ukraine. People have joined a Belarusian battalion to fight for Ukraine’s army, become volunteers in Ukraine and neighbouring countries and some Belarusian artists are selling their works to support those who are suffering in the war.

About 1,000 people were arrested for protesting against the war (which means that the number of protesters was much higher). Others have been sabotaging infrastructure used by the Russian army.

Justice everywhere

To sum up, it is important to distinguish Belarusian people from its authoritarian government. We are not the same just because we were born in a specific country. It is not just black and white.

I mentioned my fellow citizens who have been struggling for democracy in Belarus for more than a year and are trying to support Ukraine. There are also current and potential students of European universities among them. Is it fair to deprive them of such an opportunity?

I agree that some additional verification of potential students may be necessary. But just banning them is not a solution.

Even during the war we should uphold the principles of justice. The fight for democratic values and human dignity is happening right now near the European Union’s borders. These are values that the countries of the EU agreed to support all over the world. More importantly, Belarusians need support and educational opportunities must be part of that.

Aliaksei, Belarusian Student Association. (Full name withheld at the writer’s request for their protection)