Belarusian dissidents await the cash


LITHUANIA / BELARUS: A university banned in Minsk is vainly trying to open in Lithuania, reports Dan McLaughlin in Vilnius

In April, here in Lithuania's capital, Prof Anatoly Mikhailov sat around a table with Condoleezza Rice and Javier Solana, as they pledged their support for efforts to oust president Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of his native Belarus.

Prof Mikhailov left the meeting convinced he had the backing of the US Secretary of State and EU foreign policy chief to reopen his European Humanities University (EHU), which Mr Lukashenko shut down last year as a likely hive of dissent.

Now, the wiry academic is interviewing the first batch of would-be students for his university-in-exile, young Belarusians who have defied their president to travel to Vilnius, the new home of the EHU.

But even as he selects potential undergraduates, Prof Mikhailov fears that their defiance, and their desire for an education outside Mr Lukashenko's Soviet-style system, may be in vain.

Bold words rather than brass have flowed from Washington and Brussels, and the university is strapped for cash a month before a single lecture has been taught.

"There is a danger that we won't be able to start this year," an agitated Prof Mikhailov told The Irish Times. "It would be a scandal, a terrible situation!"

"We planned to open in 2007 but were told to do it now, that the time was right to begin this year. But now we are considering not taking students because it is simply too risky. There is lots of talk, but seemingly no mechanism for getting money."

To recall Dr Rice's comments on Belarus in this city five months ago is to be astounded at the predicament that now faces the EHU. Calling Mr Lukashenko's regime the "last true dictatorship in the centre of Europe", she urged the West to "shine a spotlight on places where people are still denied freedom".

After meeting Prof Mikhailov and other Belarusian critics of Mr Lukashenko, she praised their "courage" and "dedication", saying: "While it may seem difficult and long, and at times far away, there will be a road to democracy in Belarus." For his part, Mr Solana added: "There is no doubt that the time has come for change. I have said that many, many, many years ago."

In Ukraine and Georgia recently, less authoritarian regimes than Mr Lukashenko's were toppled when the US and EU governments helped local activists and politicians transform festering popular dissent into powerful opposition movements.

In Vilnius, Dr Rice targeted next year's planned Belarusian elections as a chance for change in a country where free media and political opposition have been crushed, and critics of Mr Lukashenko have been thrown in jail or have simply disappeared.

But as those elections approach, one potential platform for an anti-Lukashenko movement faces the prospect of locking its doors before they are even fully opened.

"We need perhaps €1 million for this academic year, and we don't have it, and we have not even managed to register as a university yet," complains Prof Mikhailov.

But this is, Prof Mikhailov admits, only the latest adventure in the history of the EHU.

It began in 1992, after he and a few fellow academics, appalled by the stagnant, Sovietised state teaching available in Belarus, collected donations to create an alternative.

Over the next decade, the EHU brought many western academics to Minsk, accepted donations from US and European institutions, and acquired a reputation as the most progressive academic institution in an increasingly closed country.

But after a breakdown of the 2001 election results showed that Belarus's students had voted overwhelmingly against Mr Lukashenko, his regime began to subject academia to the kind of stifling control it exerts over politics and the media.

Last year, Mr Lukashenko accused the EHU of training "a new Belarusian elite, aimed at leading Belarus to the West when the time is appropriate"; and in July, his administration evicted the university, with the help of the Minsk police.

Now, as the university-in-exile waits for diplomats' promises to be transmuted into cash, Prof Mikhailov fears the glacial slowness of EU bureaucracy is working in Mr Lukashenko's favour.

"He has become quite convinced that western governments are incapable of doing anything," Prof Mikhailov said.

At a recent conference in Poland, which attracted dissidents from around the world, part of Prof Mikhailov's problem became clear.

There, people sipped coffee, nibbled biscuits and chattered about how to halt Mr Lukashenko's 11-year rule, about who could unite the fractious Belarusian opposition, and whether the US, the EU and the activists could actually achieve anything together.

And then there was the question of cash, and how people like Prof Mikhailov and the EHU could get it.

"This is exactly the kind of programme we should be discussing," Dan Fried, a US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, told The Irish Times at the conference.

"Unfortunately," he added with a shrug, "some programmes simply work better than others."