Belarusian students at the forefront for democracy

On this international student day, 17th of November, academics all around the world are recognizing the struggle of students in Belarus.

In the democratic uprising that swept Belarus following last year’s manipulated election results that declared Alexandr Lukashenko president of Belarus for the 27th year in a row, the youth have been at the forefront. Unprecedented repressions have been aimed at students participating in and organizing peaceful demonstrations. According to the Belarusian Student Association, an independent student union, 51 Belarusian university students remain under criminal prosecution, 160 students have been expelled and at least 492 detained. While persecution and harassment of dissenting students by no means is a new phenomenon in Belarus, Amnesty International state in their report Crackdown on Students In Belarus that the scale and scope of the actions targeting students is unprecedented since the Belarusian independence 1991. In an event called ‘Black Thursday’, the headquarters of the Belarusian Student Association was raided, forcing their leadership into hiding or exile.

Referring to protesting students, Lukashenko has publicly ordered universities to “throw them out on the street”. As Belarusian universities are state universities, administrations have sided strongly with the regime, reporting those students that they suspect are organizing protests to the police.There have also been accounts of professors locking university doors when the OMON, Belarusian special forces arrive to arrest students protesting outside. Students tell of beatings during arrest and explain that police are not only targeting protesters but even relatives and friends of protesters. Some recall officers reading from their phone lists making threats about their personal contacts. Volodarskogo, Okrestina KGB pre-trial detention centers, where multiple students are being held awaiting trial, are said to have harsh treatments of the inmates.

The students most active in speaking out against injustice and defending democracy are often at the top of their class. Due to the government’s reaction to their political activity, many are forced to take life-altering decisions. Some become internationally displaced after fleeing to neighboring countries and many male students are forced into mandatory military service, becoming a tool for the regime they were previously fighting. Still, many chose to stay in the fight against the authoritarian regime, explaining that repressions will only get worse if they stay silent. 

 Outcry in the academic world 

The European University Association (EUA), the European Students’ Union (ESU) and Scholars at Risk (SAR), have responded by condemning the criminalization of students, stating that “All citizens, including students and university staff have the right to free expression, assembly, and protest.” Ole Petter Ottersen, president of Karolinska Institutet, stands behind the statement and concludes that “Belarusian authorities must protect – not attack – academic freedom” because “Attacking academic freedom is tantamount to undermining democracy and societal development”. In an unprecedented move, more than 30 participants in the Bologna Process have jointly stated that “While European governments must urgently pressure the Belarusian authorities to stop violations of human and democratic rights, there is an urgent need for concrete, timely support for scholars and students in Belarus.”

 The Center for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian human rights organization, have through their #BelarusWatch initiative launched an international solidarity campaign in partnership with Voices from Belarus Project and the Belarusian Student Association.

 “Global academia must make clear that freedom of expression and academic freedom are fundamental values, critical and inseparable from an education that generates thinkers and leaders; that promotes human understanding and intellectual curiosity required to solve global problems and to discover and promote the salvation of humanity” – #BelarusWatch

What is needed now is not only that Belarusian authorities stop their repressions, which seems unlikely, but that citizens and academic institutions in free and open societies act to support those affected. The Center for Civil Liberties suggests European universities should offer scholarships and special admittance to Belarusian students who urgently have been forced to stop their education and argues that student solidarity is paramount to make such change happen.

Louise Nilsson

Louise Nilsson is a guest writer for Utblick and Human Rights Officer at Center For Civil Liberties, Ukraine.