Belarusian civil society has a great potential, education is the best tool to wake it up, and Europe should invest into that. These are insights shared by diplomats during (Un)Democratic Belarus: Political Trends & Education as a Tool for Transformation forum on September 24. The role of education Belarusian students receive in atmosphere of academic freedom towards changing current political and geopolitical situation, was among major topics for discussion.
First time Vilnius hosted a round-table discussion between European Humanities University, Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, European diplomats, and representatives of Belarusian civil society.
"EHU is trying to reestablish a dialog with representatives of Belarusian civil society. We've been preparing a new strategic development plan, reviewing the management structure and the study process, expanding ties with universities in Lithuania and other countries, and working more closely with donors. We want to introduce Belarusian civil society representatives to the activities of our university and its updated mission and vision, as well as come to an agreement about possible forms of cooperation, hear out suggestions by Belarusian activists, and create new opportunities for a democratic Belarus with no fear of critics," says EHU Rector, Prof. David Pollick.
Belarusian civil activists acknowledged, "If EHU becomes a permanent platform to carry out these discussions for the cultivation of Belarusian civil society, that's already going to be a huge merit of this university.”
"Either you change radically and join the European community, or you die. That is the only choice for Belarus. If you stand up against evil, you win. If you adapt and put it off, you definitely lose. The most important thing is not to be afraid. Over the past few years, results throughout the world demonstrate that when people put up with it democracy crumbles, and autocratic mechanisms win. Let's recall that rapid Lithuanian growth has led to deep structural changes and the path to resisting evil. The West is ready to give Belarus a nudge; the question is, whether Belarus is ready?” says Lithuanian Ambassador at Large for Europe's East, Dr. Žygimantas Pavilionis.
All agreed that the main concerns of Belarus are media oppression, weakness of civil society, fragmentation of political opposition, existing electoral model, cumbersome NGO registration, and the difficulty of bringing the illegality of various democratic initiatives out into the open; there is a tangible overall fatigue of resistance on the current government in the country.
Ex-President of the European Parliament, Chairman of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Prof. Dr. Hans-Gert Pöttering, raised questions for Belarusian civil society leaders in a video report: "What are your goals, what changes are needed in Belarus, and how can European Humanities University contribute to these objectives and thus further strengthen civil society in Belarus? The university is unique in Europe, and we need to support this project. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation will continue to actively support EHU".
Even the deepest pessimists from Belarus expressed their hope identifying EHU graduates as significant potential force that can break the ice in civil society.
EHU President Prof. Dr. Anatoli Mikhailov reminded international community that it was a personal decision by President Lukashenko to close EHU.
Prof. Dr. Mikhailov said, "EHU is alive as a university in exile only because of the unique initiative of the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we are really thankful for that. We have a great responsibility to those young people who come from Belarus to Vilnius to study full of high hopes. We always bear this in mind!"
“The real civil society in Belarus has been pushed to the side, and instead government-run pseudo-civil organizations are set up,” expressed his opinion Vytis Jurkonis, head of the Freedom House office in Vilnius.
Mother of a recently pardoned political prisoner Ihar Alinevich, thanked everyone, especially Lithuania, for the efforts that helped get political prisoners released. The woman said, "My son agrees that education may not be the quickest way to transform Belarus, but it's certainly the best way". EHU recently welcomed the release of all political prisoners, including EHU student Mikalai Dziadok.
In the eyes of European diplomats, despite all the challenges European Humanities University faced moving to Vilnius, University remains the most successful project of assistance for Belarus.