The uprooted Belarusian university EHU has found a new home in the Lithuanian capital. Banished by Belarus' authoritarian regime, the European Union has ensured EHU can continue its work in Vilnius.
Lithuania's historic capital now hosts Belarus' European Humanities University
In 1992, a small group of academics created Belarus' European Humanities University (EHU) in Minsk to challenge the conservative traditions inherited from Soviet higher education.
"We created this university in order to open our minds to those values constituting the basic principles of democracy," said Professor Anatoli Mikhailov, EHU's rector and one of its founders. "The biggest problem, which isn't always understood in the West, is that we should be intellectually prepared for democratization."
After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Belarus was confronted with difficult issues of social transformation and post-totalitarian reality, he said. But the country wasn't adequately prepared to deal with it.
"I think it was strategically important to create something that was different in the social sciences and humanities. Particularly here, we need competence and professionalism," Mikhailov said. "But it was a difficult process."
EHU was a thorn in Lukashenko's side
The difficulties began when Belarus' president Alexander Lukashenko took office in 1994. Western nations and human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the leader for his authoritarian regime. A university intent on laying the intellectual foundation for democratization was a thorn in his side.
President Lukashenko says Belarus can educate its own elite
For several years, EHU offered young Belarusians a western-standard education. Belarusian authorities tolerated the institution. But with its increasing popularity among students and growing international recognition, the government shut the university down on a technical formality in 2004.
"Belarus is pursuing its policy of isolation," Mikhailov said. "They thought that our activity was dangerous for them."
Although EHU was closed on purely technical reasons, Lukaschenko later said Belarus did not need such a university.
"Lukaschenko said we should educate our own elite. I'm afraid it would be very dangerous if he educated the elite in accordance with his own education and understanding," Mikhailov said.
EU support ensures access to freedom of expression and thought
But the university refused to surrender. Thanks to the Lithuanian government, the European Commission, as well as US and several European governments and organizations, EHU reopened its doors in Vilnius, Lithuania -- some two hundred kilometers northwest of the Belarusian capital Minsk. It was inaugurated there in 2005.
A total of 270 undergraduates and graduate students studied in Vilnius last year. The same number has been admitted for this academic year. In addition, several hundred students follow the curriculum as distant learners. There are degree programs in ten departments covering the social sciences, humanities and law.
Students take risks to study in Vilnius
Funding by the European Commission and the Nordic Council of Ministers totaling 2.78 million Euros ($3.5 million) gives the students the financial support they need to study in Vilnius. It covers their fees and accommodation costs.
Teppo Heiskanen, director of the Nordic Council of Ministers Office in Lithuania, said the support wants to ensure that these young Belarusians have access to higher education with full freedom of expression and thought.
"The aim is the day when something happens in Belarus and they could return and be of use to their country," Heiskanen said. "We don't know when that's going to happen, but everybody's looking at the future here: the students, the teachers, the Nordic Council of Ministers and the European Union in order to keep the ideas of democracy and human rights alive, although we have to do it in the neighboring country right now."
EHU students experience unofficial discrimination
Anastasiya Matchenko, as all EHU students, was transferred to a state university in Minsk when her school was closed there. But she jumped at the chance to come to Vilnius when EHU moved. She said, though, that studying in exile is sometimes difficult, as the teaching staff irregularly come to Vilnius from Belarus.
EHU in Minsk was shut down in 2004
"Sometimes it's very bad because you can't be properly taught when a teacher only comes once a month," Matchenko said. "There are lectures for one or two weeks, and then for two weeks nothing."
Although the Belarusian authorities do not explicitly forbid EHU students or staff from traveling between the two countries, there is unofficial discrimination. Matchenko and her fellow student Anastasiya Paperno said this will especially be the case after their studies are completed.
"Even if I wanted to go, I wouldn't be able to," Matchenko said. "They will not accept me for any kind of job because I was studying here, in the university in exile. They know that and would not count me as a worker."
"It's very hard for students of our university to find a job in Belarus because we are seen in an absolutely different way and not accepted there," Paperno said.
Educational infrastructure is crucial for Belarus' future
Matchenko and Paperno said Belarus is their home and that they wish to return one day to help their country. They are skeptical, though, that Lukashenko will relinquish power anytime soon.
For university rector Mikhailov, it is crucial that EHU continues its work so that the country can deal with transformation when that day comes.
"I hope that the terrible mistakes committed by the authorities have demonstrated that such a policy of isolation will not last for many years," Mikhailov said. "We have to create an infrastructure in education, which is tremendously important for the future of the country. Now it is more than previously clear that such activity is extremely important and we are ready to continue this activity for the sake of Belarus, also being here in Lithuania."
But Lukashenko continues to deride the West and is further strengthening Belarus' close ties to Moscow. EHU could be in for a long wait.