Vitali Silitski Fellowship: You Do What You Like Doing and You Enjoy It

There could be no better way to honour the life and academic career of prominent Belarusian Vitali Silitski (1972-2011) than a fellowship for his fellow political analysts, researchers and countrymen.

Silitski was a ground-breaking representative of a new, post-Soviet generation of Belarusians: a talented political scientist, sociologist and publicist; ironic, and metaphoric, not always ready to meet the opponent halfway, direct, thoughtful and fair, a weighty figure in many ways.

Silitski studied in Minsk, Budapest, Washington D.C. and Stanford, authored and co-authored books and hundreds of publications on democratisation processes in the post-Soviet space, as well as electoral revolutions and the politics of economic reform. He headed the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, shaping it into the foremost think tank in the country. And he passed
away too early.

After his unfortunate death in June 2011, BISS, in conjunction with several of its partners, came up with the idea of financial support for Belarusians students and researchers. Alumni of the Central European University in Hungary where Vitali completed his Masters’ degree raised money to support a Belarusian student who was studying there at that time. The Institute of
European Studies and International Relations of the Comenius University in Bratislava, with the help of the Slovak government (SlovakAid), offered a fellowship for six Belarusians to come over for a semester. With these initiatives running, BISS and its partners plan to come up with research fellowships for month-long internships in think-tanks around Europe.
Belarus Headlines talked to the Vitali Silitski fellows of the Comenius University about their motivation to apply for it and their knowledge of the programme’s namesake.

MAKSIM KARLIUK: Vitali Silitski is a known Belarusian scholar and expert who has contributed a lot to elaborate the ways for the efficient future development of Belarus. It is important that there are more people who could share the same ideals and cooperate in this regard. The aim of the programme is to improve the skills, knowledge and qualifications of Belarusian students in the field of European integration, institutions and good governance. That’s why it’s particularly helpful.
My motivation to apply for the fellowship was multifaceted. First of all, I wanted to sharpen my knowledge of legal and administrative transitions of Central and Eastern European countries with a focus on approximation to EU law. Secondly, I wished to gain new skills to be able to apply this knowledge in Belarus. There is much to learn about the Slovak way, both in
theory and practice, which could be adapted in Belarus, and this would be enhanced by exploring these elements in Slovakia.

You can see how things work in practice, talk to people, from ordinary citizens to experts in relevant fields.
I myself got involved in a number of projects, doing my own research, consulting local experts, meeting representatives of think tanks and academia. I am also invited to speak at conferences and roundtables.

Together with other fellows we met a number of people who are interested in Belarus; it’s also on the agenda of the government, where we had a couple of meetings. The faculty at the Institute of European Studies at Comenius University has been very helpful in aiding my exploration of the opportunities mentioned. And there are so many possibilities, and the five months of the fellowship are never enough.

Belarus Headlines: What does your semester in Slovakia look like?

ANNA TALIARONAK: Our studying process here differs a little from the one in Belarus. First of all, we were given the opportunity to choose the subjects based on the scope of our interests and preferences, which was quite new for us. We could choose subjects we didn’t study before or those which are not connected with our major, even something new in order to try, for example, Game theory or Global Challenges. Then, the lectures themselves are structured in a way that involve all the students in the group, sometimes provoking hot discussions, so you have no choice but to participate. Thirdly, as
the classes were chosen, we could dedicate all the rest periods (for e.g. 3 from 7) to exploring Bratislava and networking with local and international students. I believe this has made an even stronger educational impact on us!

Another benefit of the programme is that our institute has a Slovak language course for international students, which helped us to adapt to Slovak life more quickly and feel at home here.

MARYIA HUSHCHA: Yeah, it’s really great that we could choose any number of subjects from any faculty of the university. We had two weeks at the beginning of the semester to test-drive: basically, to attend as many lectures as possible to decide on the courses. As the scope of our interests concentrated mostly on political and social sciences, we ended up at the Faculty of Social
and Economic Sciences. And that was the right choice. During the semester it offered meetings with several well-known public persons from Slovakia and abroad, like the former Slovak Foreign Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, Distinguished Research Fellow of the Institute for National Strategic Studies, NDU Leo Michel. Some professors are not only high-qualified scholars but also
officials from the public sector.

Another thing which I like about this programme is that it takes place in Bratislava. The city itself is wonderful and has an advantageous location. It takes few hours to get to Vienna, Budapest, or Prague from Bratislava. So during one semester we have visited three other European countries, and not just one.

Belarus Headlines: How international is the university? Do you think it is important that there are Belarusians in the course on European studies?

ALENA KUDZKO: If you compare the international environment of Slovak universities to the most Western universities of the same size, Slovaks for sure have some space for improvement. However, the Erasmus programme and programmes of the Slovak Ministry of Education bring quite a lot of foreign students to Slovakia. And we shouldn’t forget that it’s an amazing country in the centre of Europe, which also makes it attractive for students from the European countries and many others, like Brazil, Somalia, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia.

But it’s important to remember most students here have different goals. I wouldn’t say that we are typical Belarusians. And we also know very well what we are doing in Slovakia: research, studies, social activities, meetings, etc., which makes us quite obviously different from the majority of foreign students who love parties and forget about classes a lot more often than we do! And I’ve got used to the fact that we are seen as representatives of our country and now the impression of the education system in Belarus is that it’s very good and that young people are smart, active, and sociable. And we are happy with such a stereotype and have no intention to discredit it.

And yes, I think it is extremely important to have Belarusians in the European studies and international relations courses. Belarusians themselves learn a lot: we learn the things that we can barely get access to in Belarus, we study in a way, which is quite uncommon in Belarus, either. But at the same time, other students can learn from us much more than from books, media, or ‘conventional’ Europeans. Most of the students have never seen a Belarusian themselves, or they’ve never talked to one closely.
Surprisingly, Belarus is quite a popular issue in Slovakia. I’ve travelled a lot, and my experience shows that Slovaks know much more about the situation in Belarus than people in most other countries. They show genuine interest.

Of course, much of the information they receive is distorted by one extreme or the other: sometimes, all they know is some horror stories about life in Belarus. And we can depict the situation in more details as we know more than just the mass media stories about political repressions. Questions like “Do you have the Internet in Belarus?” are not infrequent, either.
Next, we, Belarusians, often publicly feel as if we were not heard, or Europe’s decisions are not what we would expect. Studying in Europe, interacting with our peers is one of the best ways to ensure that people from other countries understand better what’s going on in Belarus, are aware of our needs and can discuss with us mutually beneficial solutions.

And we shouldn’t forget that Belarusians also have much to offer Europe. We are usually looked down on as people in need of help or guidance, but in fact, Belarusians are a wonderful intellectual asset to Europe, and Europe can benefit a lot from cooperating with us.

Belarus Headlines: Would you advise Belarusian students to apply for the fellowship? For what reason?

ALENA AND MARYIA: Absolutely! First, living and studying abroad, in a new and challenging environment, does have a huge impact on the person, intellectually and otherwise.

Henсe, there are so many interesting and unexpectedly amazing things in the places where we forget to look for them. When everyone tries to go to the USA, England, Germany, France, or Poland, we don’t notice that the most interesting things happen in under-explored places. And Slovakia is one of them. Also, the Institute of European Studies and International Relations at Comenius University is a very respectable, high-quality school.

And you get all the attention possible from the professors. In addition, the experience is not limited to classes and academic activities. There are meetings and possibilities to work with think tanks, NGOs, governmental officials; networks of professionals and peers. And Slovakia has had too much in common with the Belarusian situation to neglect its experience.
And finally, this fellowship is one where fun and professional success are intertwined. You do what you like doing and you enjoy it.