Liudmila Hraznova of Human Rights Alliance on benefits of taking down Names of Some University Principals from EU’s “black list” by ODB

As the cold firmly holds the streets of our towns and villages in its grip and all activity that involves leaving the warm indoors is brought to a halt, the sensation-hungry public yearns for any news available on the TV or the Internet. The unspent energy of an average informed home bound layman focuses on two topics – when is it finally getting warmer, and why the visa sanctions against state bureaucrats should remain in permafrost. As for the first issue of low temperatures outside, the only possible useful outcome a prolonged conversation can have is to bring about consensus with alienated neighbors. A discussion on the second point of the agenda – the visa sanctions, on the other hand, can serve public good and warm up the relations with the European countries.

I’ll start with my own experience. In 1988 I, then a lecturer at the political economy department of the Belarusian State University, was sent for a ten-month academic training programme to Hungary. That trip changed my whole life. The predictable career path of a lecturer at an ideologically charged department of a state university based on Marxist views suddenly collapsed. By the time I arrived there, nobody in Budapest was quoting Marx anymore, instead relying on their fellow countryman Kornai. Hungarian politicians had cast away the dogma of central planning that inevitably led to massive shortages, and had bravely embarked on the road to creating a market environment.

The new academic and social setting came as a shock to a young teacher. It was difficult to adapt to the new and unheard-of theories. That didn’t discourage us though. There we were, the Soviet exchange academics, sitting in the library, translating Friedman’s articles, meeting experts on everything Soviet, absorbing new knowledge and becoming… opportunists, opponents of the old views we were taught and were teaching ourselves. At first even entering a simple grocery store in Budapest was a novel experience – not only did the shops lack queues, but the shelves were stocked with the scarce at home but freely available here butter, not to speak about the rest of diary products with names totally unfamiliar to us. Yet ten months were enough to adapt both to the new theories and to the new stores and markets.

Back home, while speaking in front of greying ranks of lecturers and professors, I argued without a shade of a doubt in my voice that life needed to be changed, that we needed to reform our country using the Hungarian experience. Incredibly, the newly emerged opportunist wasn’t castigated. On the contrary, the ideas were taken to heart; I was allowed to form a research group focusing on comparative analysis of economic systems that received ministry funding. I also received the most difficult advanced class in comparative analysis in the whole politics and economics department as a “reward”. The ideas we could only whisper on the stairways of the Lenin Library after reading them in the liberal papers and articles stopped being anti-Soviet blasphemy and became a foundation of the new student workbooks. Many teachers of ideologically charged university departments had to turn their worldview around. To some this U-turn came naturally due to young age or academic exchange trips abroad, some had trouble with accomplishing it, and some have downright failed to complete this career transformation.

It took our department’s staff only a couple of years to leave old textbooks behind and switch to “Economics”. The old and dusty theories left the stage and the students started facing ideas that not only sounded reasonably, but also had a direct connection to reality. Of course, such a revolution in the minds of hundreds of university teachers and tens of thousands of students had many factors as impulses, both objective and subjective. My experience makes clear that academic exchange with European countries had an important role to play among all the other circumstances.

I was lucky back then. I could throw away old textbooks and lecture papers and not thinking twice simply start studying new books, set out to master modern theories and approaches together with my students without unnecessary stress and hassle. I am not sure I could have done the same or even stayed a teacher if I did not have the experience of my Hungarian exchange and the benefit of discussions with professors from the Budapest University and Sovietologists from around the world.

Today I remember the head of my department Stepan Yanchenko with gratitude. It was him who recommended me for the foreign language courses for experts going abroad at the Foreign Language Institute. One could not dream about participating in academic exchange without knowing English. I passed the qualifying exam after the third course level. The members of the examination panel that consisted of deputy principals of different universities did not notice my five months old pregnancy and gave the candidate their approval for going abroad. Thanks to those university officials two years later I could travel to Hungary and became a visiting academic at the Budapest University. Many other trips to international conferences followed that first visit across the border. The university administration approved all my travelling without any problems. I did not get any funding – the receiving side carried all the expenses, but I did not encounter any obstacles either. Piotr Kuharchyk, the scientific deputy principal of the Belarusian State University at the time, had signed my papers many times.

Coming back to the question of the visa sanctions for state officials, I think that heads of universities should not be on this list for many reasons. Regardless of the difficulty of the political situation, universities have always been the birthplace of the elite of the future society. They serve as fertile ground for new ideas, as places where enquiring minds of the future national leaders are free to roam and experiment. Universities also bear responsibility for hundreds of thousands of the best families that managed to send their children into their classrooms and now bear the financial burden of their higher education. If our principals cannot visit the West, our universities will be pushed even further away from European thinking and are going to become even more isolated. And isolation won’t benefit anyone here. Furthermore, in the course of the last three to four years university principles have refrained from being particularly “vicious” towards students known to be involved with the opposition. The number of students dismissed for politically motivated reasons is small, not more than ten per year. I know of an example when despite the pressure from above the university administration swept under the rug the case of a teacher who was supposed to be fired after his mobile phone was located at the Independence Square on December 19th, 2010. One can assume that cases like this are common. Finally, the last reason I have for defending the university principles is my personal experience of working at the Belarusian State University and dealing with the heads of these important state institutions.

For the especially irreconcilable critics I will note, that I do not maintain relationships to the current university heads and pursue no personal interests.