UK Asked to Stand Up for Freedom in ex-Soviet Bloc

By John Gill

Britain must offer moral and financial support, says rector of exiled Belarus University.

Britain has been urged to take a greater interest in the plight of universities in former Soviet states that are facing threats to academic freedom and autonomy.

The plea for support, backed by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara), was made by Anatoli Mikhailov, rector of the European Humanities University, which operates in exile in Lithuania after being forced out of Belarus by the Belarussian Government.

Professor Mikhailov, speaking to Times Higher Education while in London for a Cara conference, said the experience of his institution, which was set up in Minsk in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, should serve as a warning to others.

The EHU was established as a private university, the only one in Belarus, to offer courses that had been ignored by the Soviet-era focus on science, technology and maths.

Professor Mikhailov said: "In the Soviet Union, the arts and humanities were under complete control of Communist ideology.

"We wanted to create an institution that was very different. The idea was to do everything from scratch, and we called our institution the European University in order to integrate ourselves into the intellectual landscape of European civilisation.

"Until that point, Communist ideology had isolated us from the Western world.

"We created rare programmes, in Belarus, in art, philosophy, religion and psychology. How could we understand the basic values of different cultures without those?"

Although only a small institution, the university quickly became a success, developing international links with countries such as the United States, France and Germany.

But by the turn of the millennium, its unusual independent model, in which the rector was appointed by peers rather than by the Government, was attracting unwanted attention.

"Slowly our country took against integration into European affairs," Professor Mikhailov said. "It had a policy of isolation, and inspections (of the university) became more and more common."

In February 2004, he was called by the Minister of Education and told to resign.

"He was very polite, but he told me that I had to resign as rector of the university," he said. "He did not explain why, but it was clear that the Government was not prepared to tolerate the independence of our university."

Although Professor Mikhailov refused to step down, he was advised by colleagues to leave the country. In April he flew to the US, and he has never returned to Belarus.

A few months later, in August, the university was in effect shut down when it was ordered to leave the buildings it occupied, which were owned by the state.

A Lithuanian lifeline

At his base in the US, Professor Mikhailov was thrown a lifeline by the Government of Lithuania. The country, which neighbours Belarus, agreed to host the EHU in its capital.

He said: "Lithuania is very close; Vilnius is 130km away (from Minsk) ... but Lithuania is in the European Union and Belarus is not."

In March 2006, after a monumental effort to move countries, the EHU was registered by the Lithuanian Government as a university.

Professor Mikhailov said: "It was terribly difficult. It's not possible to transplant everything in such a short time, particularly given our shortage of resources, but the Lithuanian Government gave us huge support, as did previous donors, including the European Commission, which was able to understand the importance of our mission.

"Our professors come for a week or two to teach, stay in rented apartments, and then go back home to their families. Much of our library is still in Minsk, and although we have about 1,000 students, they need visas to come to study, so clearly it is difficult."

While acknowledging the support his institution has received from some quarters in Europe and in the US, he said that Britain had done nothing to assist the EHU. He fears that such inaction could provoke state interference in other former Soviet countries by demonstrating that the West was "impotent" and reliant solely on rhetoric.

He said: "I know the British system in education is very different, but I think that particularly in Eastern Europe it should not simply believe that any kind of activity (in higher education) going on there will bring success."

A test of resolve

John Akker, executive secretary of Cara, agreed: "With the leadership in Russia seeking to regain lost powers, those who have had freedoms until now are going to become very careful; there are literally thousands of academics in Russian universities, and in countries surrounding Russia, who are watching very carefully what is happening here.

"This is a kind of test bed. The UK needs to do much more to assist the EHU. It is very much in our interest to do so, quite apart from supporting our fellow academics faced with such difficulties," he said.

For Professor Mikhailov, the episode has also been personally trying. "I didn't participate in any political life, but I was forced to leave the country and not return," he said.

"I live now in Vilnius, and it is not very comfortable to be out of my own apartment and my own country. In 2004, shortly after I left, my apartment was burgled, which was strange. I have a huge library there in Minsk, thousands of books that I have collected over my lifetime, so this has caused me a lot of complication."

Times Higher Education