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2021.01.11 08:00

Expelled and persecuted Belarusian students find refuge in Lithuanian universities

Ieva Žvinakytė, LRT.lt2021.01.11 08:00

Belarusian university students have been forced to flee after attending protests and being expelled, persecuted, and imprisoned. Some have found their way to Lithuania. 

Yevgeniy Ignatsiyev might seem like an ordinary student who decided to pursue higher education in a foreign country. The 19-year-old from Minsk is now a student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius. But Ignatsiyev is not a student on exchange – he is a student in exile.

Ignatsiyev is one of hundreds of students who have been expelled from higher education institutions in Belarus for opposing the country’s regime. Reacting to the mass repressions, major Lithuanian universities invited persecuted students to start or continue their education for free. Some 200 Belarusians took the offer.

In September 2020, Ignatsiyev returned to Minsk State Linguistic University for the third year of his undergraduate studies in English language translation and interpreting. But much had changed over the summer.

In August, Belarus’ long-serving dictator Alexander Lukashenko was declared president in an election that was widely thought to be rigged. Belarusian youth were among those who took to the streets and actively participated in the pro-democracy movement.

Read more: Can Lithuania put Belarusian regime officers behind bars?

Ignatsiyev has been politically active even before the August election. Over the summer, he participated in peaceful demonstrations against the regime’s refusal to register independent presidential candidates. When even larger protests erupted after the election, he took to the streets. In September, the academic year started, and student protests moved to universities.

“We held minutes of silence in honour of those killed or affected by the government's actions. In some gatherings, we sang songs,” Ignatsiyev said.

Reacting to the situation, however, Minsk State Linguistic University’s rector banned all unauthorised events on campus. But on October 26–27, students organised demonstrations as part of a nationwide strike. On October 29, the university rector expelled 15 students for participating in the strike.

“I wasn’t at the university either on the 26th or on the 27th of October,” Ignatsiyev explained.

But when he arrived at his faculty on October 30, he found out that he was expelled for “an alleged gross violation of the rector’s orders”. He said he was not presented with any evidence and his appeals against the decision were unsuccessful.

Five days after his expulsion, Ignatsiyev found himself in Lithuania – he made use of the fast-track visa offered by Vilnius to those fleeing repressions. Staying in Belarus was impossible because upon expulsions from universities, the Belarusian government summons males under 27 to the army – a move the country’s activists say is another tool to suppress dissent.

Now, Ignatsiyev is a second-year Media and Communications student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius.

Widespread problem

EHU is often called the Belarusian university in exile. The private higher education institution first opened in Minsk in 1992. However, a non-state liberal arts university was shut by a centralised regime in 2004. The next year, EHU resumed its operation in Vilnius. Currently, around 95 percent of EHU’s 685 students are Belarusian.

Since the start of repressions in Belarus in 2020, EHU has accepted over 50 students who could not continue education in their native country.

“This is not the first, second, or third time when EHU accepts students who face persecution in Belarus. We did the same after the presidential elections in 2006 and 2010,” said Maksimas Milta, EHU’s head of Communication and Development Unit.

But the scale of current protests, repression, and student expulsions is unprecedented. Belarusians have been demonstrating against Lukashenko’s regime for more than five months. During this time, more than 30,000 people have been detained for taking part in unauthorised mass events. There is no reliable data on the number of students who have suffered from the regime’s repression.

Grassroots support

Honest University (Честный Университет) is an initiative founded in September by Belarusian activists to support students and university faculty members in organising political actions against the regime. Later, it became a contact point for students that needed judicial, financial, or academic help.

“Through our Google Form, we collect information about repressed students,” said Tsimafei Malakhouski, coordinator of Honest University. “We provide them with legal consultation regarding fines and charges against them. We also tell them about possibilities to get financial help […] in case they lost scholarships or places in student accommodation.”

Read more: Lithuanian government to fund studies for 100 Belarusians

“Finally, we connect students to universities abroad that are ready to accept our students and offer them an opportunity to continue their studies,” he added.

According to Malakhouski, over 350 Belarusian students that have “suffered from pressure and repression” have already filled in Honest University’s form. But not everyone who got repressed or expelled sought help through Honest University, so the overall number of persecuted students in Belarus could be much higher, Malakhouski said.

Most of the students forced to flee Belarus went to neighbouring countries, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania, according to Honest University’s data. On top of EHU, three other Lithuanian universities – Vilnius University (VU), Vytautas Magnus University (VMU), and Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU) – have decided to launch initiatives to help Belarusian students.

In September, VU accepted around 60 undergraduate and 40 graduate repressed students from Belarus. But it started receiving even more requests at the end of October. At the beginning of the month, the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya presented Lukashenko with an ultimatum to leave his post by midnight on October 25 or face nationwide strikes.

Read more: Vilnius University offers scholarships for Belarusian students

“Universities were the most active group during this strike,” said Malakhouski of Honest University. “And this big week of academic protests, of course, led to a huge wave of repression and persecution of students and faculty members.”

This initiated the second step of university’s support programme, whereby “the university fund collects money for persecuted Belarussian students and researchers”, according to VU Rector Rimvydas Petrauskas.

Reacting to October events, VMU in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, has also offered places for 50 Belarusians. Students from a wide range of courses, study years, and universities from across Belarus apply to continue their education in the university, which demonstrates the scale of repressions, according to Vilma Bijeikienė, vice-rector for communication at VMU.

Support network

Aliaksandr Shalyhin, 20, is now a first-year Civil Engineering student at VGTU. But just a few months ago, he was still a second-year student at Belarusian National Technical University (BNTU) in Minsk.

In the aftermath of the August presidential election in Belarus, Shalyhin actively participated in anti-government protests and rallies in Minsk.

“At the end of August, I was arrested at one of the protests and spent two days in a detention centre. […] The government then sent a note to the university saying that I participated in protests and was arrested,” Shalyhin said.

When the university’s authorities were notified about Shalyhin’s political activities, they started threatening him with expulsion for light misdemeanours like being late to class. Because he feared being summoned to the army or arrested again, Shalyhin took an opportunity to continue his education safely in Lithuania.

Lithuanian universities use different platforms to spread messages about their support to Belarusian students. But all of them admit that working with civil initiatives like Honest University is crucial.

“We verify every person who applies to make sure that these are not students who were just lazy and got expelled from university for not attending classes, but they were really active and suffering from repression,” Honest University’s coordinator said.

After the verification process, Honest University passes the information on to its major academic partner – Belarusian Student Support Association (BeSSa) – that unites Belarusian students from around the world. BeSSa then mentors every case individually and helps students find the best academic match in terms of course and language proficiency.

Shalyhin now works as a coordinator for the Lithuanian branch of BeSSa. He has helped at least two students expelled from his university in Minsk transfer to Lithuania. According to him, political activism does not end after leaving Belarus.

“Almost everyone who leaves is still trying to help Belarusians in all ways possible,” Aliaksandr said.

“Morally, it’s very challenging to be away from Belarus because I love my country and I feel like right now it’s the most difficult moment [for the pro-democracy movement]. […] So, I do what I can and put effort into fighting for our victory against the regime from afar,” he added.

Read more: Can Lithuania become regional leader amid Belarus crisis?

Neighbours’ solidarity

Lithuanian universities are preparing for accepting even more Belarusian students at the beginning of 2021.

“We think that mass expulsions in Belarus haven’t even started yet. Our experience has shown that Belarusian universities most actively expel students after the [winter] exam session for their alleged academic failure, although we know the real motive,” said EHU’s representative Milta.

Representatives of Lithuanian academic community say that not responding to such a deep crisis in the neighbouring country would be unacceptable, especially remembering the similar fight for freedom in Lithuania 30 years ago.

“Seeing such determined and relentless pro-democracy struggle of our neighbours, the most important thing is not to leave them alone. Not feeling support from abroad while fighting, actively resisting, and enduring violence for months would be horrible,” said VMU’s representative Bijeikienė.

Ignatsiyev, who is getting used to his life in the famous Lithuanian student village Saulėtekis, is also glad that he ended up in a country where solidarity with the Belarusian struggle is ubiquitous.

“While walking in Vilnius, I saw many white-red-white flags and posters dedicated to the Belarusian situation,” Yevgeniy said. “It really raises the motivation to see that it’s something that not only Belarusians but also our neighbours care about.”

Read more: People in Belarus notice solidarity in Lithuania, says diplomat