On July 28, Alyaksandr Radzkou, Minister of Education of Belarus, annulled the license of the European Humanities University (EHU). The university is located on Skaryna Avenue, close to the center of Minsk, in a building leased from the presidential administration. Its 300 faculty and 1,000 students were told to vacate the premises by August 5. The official reason for the closure is that EHU no longer has a building in which to hold lectures and seminars, yet the license had been renewed only in May 2004.
The move sparked a demonstration of about 300 students and widespread international protests from the OSCE, foreign governments, and media, particularly of those countries most closely involved with the financing and running of EHU: the United States, France, Germany, Poland, and Lithuania.
The reasons behind the closure of the major private university in Belarus are complex. The university’s inception dates from a 1991 meeting between the eventual Rector, Anatol Mikhailau, First Pro-Rector U.A. Dunayeu, and Metropolitan Filaret, who became Dean of the Theological Faculty. Classes began in 1993. Reportedly about 85 of the 1,000 students receive financial aid (Belorusskaya gazeta, February 2), and 40% of the funding for the university comes from abroad. Aside from leasing the disputed building (which was refurbished through an Open Society Institute grant), EHU has been completely independent of the state and state aid.
Mikhailau, a renowned academic, and the guiding force of EHU, has been the target of the authorities for some time. On January 21, as he was on his way to the airport for a vacation in Austria, he was summoned by the Minister of Education and asked to resign. No reason was given for such a request, nor did the minister call a meeting of the EHU board of advisors (which included Radzkou). Mikhailau refused to step down.
At that time, the Rector received strong backing from both faculty and students, as well as from First Pro-Rector Dunayeu. Two days later, ambassadors from 11 countries (EU and the United States) protested to the Ministry of Education about the unwarranted attack on Mikhailau, his intended replacement by a government appointee, and the rumored liquidation of EHU (Belapan, Belorusskie Novosti, January 26).
The university’s mission is to form of a new generation of specialists in areas such as economics, culture, education, as well as a dialogue between the cultures of West and East (Belapan, February 3). One goal is to raise the image of Belarus in the West, and to inculcate Western values in Belarus. Recent EHU programs have also included courses on ideology. Many of the instructors are from the West, and many prominent Belarusian academics from EHU have spent time at Western institutions. Mikhailau is currently a visiting fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC.
The Lukashenka government is trying to assert control over education and ensure that it is in the hands of the state. In recent years, for example, the government has dissolved the National Humanitarian Lyceum “Yakub Kolas,” the International Institute of Political Research, and the Belarusian Center of Constitutional and Comparative Legal Research (Belapan, August 2).
On July 19, Radkau again demanded that Mikhailau resign as Rector. The following day the Academic Council of EHU declared that staff and students supported the Rector, who cannot be dismissed by a government ministry (see, e.g., Palityka, July 23).
The EHU Advisory Board has recently been expanded to around 20 members, including representatives of the government, higher education, as well as foreign members. The dismissal of the Rector would require a two-thirds majority. Thus far, the Lukashenka administration has been unable to control the board’s membership.
However, the government has used the KGB and other organizations to stymie efforts by the Open Society Institute and other sponsors to find a new building for EHU. The University’s future likely lies outside the borders of Belarus. The government’s attitude is uncompromising. In a withering article, the presidential mouthpiece, Sovetskaya Belorussiya mocked the achievements of EHU, while claiming that both its faculty (including Metropolitan Filaret) and students would be well looked after and could be transferred to state universities (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, July 31).
The issue of Mikhailau’s tenure is a diversion. The only criticism directed toward him from his peers is his lengthy sojourn abroad at a time of internal crisis. But it is also evident that his leadership is critical to EHU and that he is revered among peers and students. Rather, the government, through the Ministry of Education, is waging a battle to control the minds of the student community, the group least supportive of the Lukashenka regime in the country. Western ideas and Western contacts are alien to the government’s perspective. The government is applying administrative methods (i.e. licensing) for political purposes. EHU is merely the latest target in a protracted campaign by the regime to eliminate international institutions and influence in Belarus.