‘Information is our weapon of today’: Belarusian academia’s resistance against the state repressions
Just before Christmas, I received an email from a professor employed by a university in Belarus whom I have previously interviewed for my research projects asking to spread the information about the repressions directed towards Belarusian academics by the state. Although ensuring the validity of the information provided, the professor expressed their preference to stay anonymous given the fact that they are still based in Belarus and employed by a university there. It is a common truth in Belarus that being out of line in the eyes of the regime would mean the potentiality of losing employment or even being imprisoned – a chilling reality faced by many members of Belarusian academia as well as journalists and various activists who chose to remain in the country of their origin.
They shared upsetting news about three academics from Belarusian State University who have been dismissed due to taking part in the recording of a video, which took place 1,5 years ago and that spoke against police violence and in favour of freedom of speech. Nevertheless, this case is among the many examples of repressions directed towards those who do not support the dictatorial regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. It is crucial to point out that all universities in Belarus are ‘state’ universities, whilst the independent ones alongside the independent media channels have been abolished or exiled over the years of Lukashenka’s reign, as for instance the European Humanities University, currently based in Vilnius, or the biggest independent Belarusian news portal channel tut.by, which was closed down in May last year by the state[i]. The still on-going struggle against the authoritarian regime was also marked with a mass expulsion of students, who did not express their political allegiance to the president of questionable legitimacy, as well as of teachers and professors. As the professor put it, ‘[t]his new wave of repressions has begun with lists from the KGB to all universities - lists containing the "enemies", not loyal to the regime.’ To their knowledge, there were 25 academics dismissed in the Academy of Arts, including the Vice-Rector and about in the Belarusian State Medical University. Whilst it is hard to tell the exact numbers of those who have been unfairly dismissed from their positions at the Belarusian State University, which is the largest one in the country, the professor states that ‘at least 3 people were called to the Personnel Office and they were told to submit their resignation notice voluntarily, otherwise, the police will arrive at their homes, arrest them for "disobedience".’ The absence from work due to being held in custody would then result in dismissal for violations of the Labour Code, ‘[o]r, alternatively, [as the professor explained it] they would be fired for forged violations’. Indeed, absurd and ridiculous charges, such as for instance the case of Minsk resident Yuliya[ii], who was detained and fined for the possession of white curtains with red ornaments, is not a novelty to Belarusian society.
The academic also expressed their strong concerns about Artsyom Bayarski, a 20 year old talented student of chemistry, who was sentenced to 5 years in prison. As they phrased it ‘I am desperate and worried about an imprisoned student (a former one, of course, as they immediately expelled him) - the best and brightest in his course, Artem Boyarsky, who has been sentenced to 5 years!’ The professor also shared their worries about the student’s health as ‘he has been coughing for 4 months now, and is evidently having COVID, but they do not treat prisoners at all!!! They refuse any treatment point-blank!’ Boyarsky’s worsened health was also reported by the abroad – based independent Belarusian news portal Belsat. In addition to that, it is known that physical violence has also been used against him whilst in custody. On the 19th of April last year Bayarski reported to his lawyer that he had been repeatedly hit by police officers in order to extract the ‘conefession’ from him, which was later shared by infamous Belarusian propagandist Ryhor Azaronak. [iii] Bayarski’s trial took place ‘behind closed doors’ in Minsk City Court on the 9th of December 2021. He ’was charged under Article 342 (‘organisation and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order or active participation in them’) and Article 361-1 (‘establishment of an extremist formation’) of the Criminal Code of Belarus.’ He has found guilty of setting up an ‘extremist group’ - administering My Country Belarus channel and chat on Telegram, a platform widely used by Belarusians for secure communication. [iv]
Despite the grim realities, the persistence and strength of Belarusian society is truly inspiring as they fight for democracy, freedoms, and protection of their human rights – something that we indeed too often take for granted. I feel the duty to share the message as for information, in the words of the professor, ‘is our weapon of today’.
Ruta Skriptaite, PhD Researcher
School of Politics and International Relations
University of Nottingham