Inside and outside their country, students are struggling

This February the Belarusian Students’ Association (BSA), an independent union of Belarusian students, published a report on the state of Belarusian academia in 2022.

The report describes the current situation for both students and academics inside the country and those who live in exile and take part in European scholarship programmes to continue their studies. It also contains a set of recommendations for political and academic actors on how to develop policies about Belarus. What can be learned from the report?

Mass political repressions continue

First and foremost, political repression in Belarus not only continues but has intensified in terms of violence and the number of people persecuted. Even two years after the rigged presidential election and mass protests, the authorities continue to repress anyone who has in any way expressed disagreement with them. This applies to students, teachers and scholars.

One example is the case of Marfa Rabkova and Akihiro Haeuski-Hanada, students and activists from the Viasna Human Rights Centre, who were sentenced respectively to 14 years and nine months and 15 years and nine months of imprisonment in a strict regime colony.

Secondly, new types of repression have appeared against anti-war demonstrations and people supporting Ukraine after Russia started its full-scale invasion of the country. Many students and scholars have been persecuted after publicly criticising the aggression and support of Russia by the Belarusian authorities.

For example, on 27 February 2022, Danuta Perednya, an honours student at Mogilev State University, reposted a text that harshly criticised Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin for unleashing the war.

The next day Perednya was arrested. She was expelled from the university and accused of actions aimed at harming the national interests of Belarus and insulting Lukashenko. Later, the Belarusian security services labelled her a person involved with terrorist activities. On 1 July, Perednya was sentenced to six and a half years in a penal colony.

Problems of Belarusian students abroad

However, repression inside the country is not the only problem facing Belarusian academia. Some European Union member states have implemented potentially discriminatory restrictions as a reaction to Belarusian authorities’ support for Russian military aggression.

One of the most telling examples is the Czech Republic. According to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, since 2022 only Belarusians with humanitarian visas or who have family members in the Czech Republic can enter the country. Issuing other types of visas, including study visas, is banned.

The BSA raised this issue in an article published a year ago. Although the Czech Republic is ready to accept Belarusian students with European scholarships, the problem of the visa ban and the admission issues have not been resolved. Moreover, the Czech Republic’s Ministry of the Interior has suggested permanently restricting the entry and stay of foreigners from Russia and Belarus by law.

Another issue is problems with existing scholarship programmes. Many students have left Belarus and now live in exile, relying on scholarship programmes to continue their studies.

According to the BSA, some of them face delays in scholarship payments. For example, those who applied for the EU4Belarus scholarship in 2021 received scholarships after several months of delay. Such delays in payments are unacceptable as for many students these scholarships are their only source of income.

Belarusians are not the government

At this point, I would like to remind readers that any restrictions against Belarusians that are put in place by European states should take into account that the Belarusian authorities, which provided assistance to Russian troops when the full-scale invasion of Ukraine started, are not the same as its citizens.

According to a poll by Chatham House conducted among Belarusian internet users in August 2022, 45% of respondents do not support Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, while 24% are ‘not sure’ (a ‘fear factor’ could influence some answers).

Another survey shows that 56% of Belarus’s urban population claims that the country should be neutral. Moreover, Belarusian partisans have been sabotaging the infrastructure used by the Russian army and there is a Belarusian battalion in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. This shows that many disagree with Minsk’s official support for the Kremlin.

To sum up, instead of further restrictions on all Belarusian citizens (which, for example, were extended recently in the Czech Republic), European actors should separate their actions towards the Belarusian authorities and citizens and support the latter in general and students in particular.

How can you help?

What should be done to help students? The BSA report gives some recommendations. Firstly, the BSA calls upon the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic to resume issuing visas for Belarusians. Secondly, the association calls upon the European Commission to increase funding of support systems for students fleeing persecution, including funding of existing national support programmes.

These programmes, as well as a Students at Risk programme at the EU level, are essential for many Belarusians, those already living abroad, former political prisoners and those still fleeing repression.

What can be done to support persecuted students and scholars inside Belarus? There is no easy answer, but one thing is certain: you can spread information and raise awareness on what is happening at Belarusian universities on a daily basis, for example, by sharing this article and information on the report mentioned with your friends and colleagues.

The world should know about what is happening at the heart of Europe.

Aliaksei Piatrenka is a member of the Belarusian Students’ Association.