Vilnius, Europe resurrect banished university

  • 2005-06-15
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - The European Humanities University, a private institution banished from Belarus by President Aleksander Lukashenko's authoritarian regime last year, is set to be re-established 's this time in Vilnius.

On June 9, EHU International, successor of the ostracized institution, hosted an inaugural conference during which speakers greeted the initiative to reopen the university in Vilnius. With the help of EU assistance, the revitalized school will be able to operate as an independent entity.

"I hope we will be ready to re-establish the institution by autumn. However, we need more financial support from Europe, and European structures are not that flexible. We are a humanitarian university, but now we need humanitarian support ourselves," EHU rector Anatoly Mikhailov told The Baltic Times.

President Valdas Adamkus, who also attended the conference, pledged his support for the initiative.

"Freedom is on the march, to quote U.S. President George W. Bush," Adamkus said, "So is the EHU project, which is a real alternative to the regime that desperately wants to suppress the teaching of democratic values to the people of Belarus."

Adamkus noted that it was hard to understand how a university, once a beacon of intellectual thought and progress, could be forced into exile at the start of the 21st century.

"On the other hand, it is no accident that Vilnius is the place where the European Humanities University will continue its mission. It has a crucial role in revitalizing the spirit of intellectual life for Belarusians," the president said.

The university, which was launched in 1992 in Belarus, at one point had approximately 1,000 students and was funded largely by European educational foundations, national budgets and even the United Nations.

The head of EHU said that the school would be settling on the premises of Mykolas Romeris University. The Vilnius-based university plans to receive students from Belarus, as well as arranging foreign studies.

Mikhailov expects that some 160 young people from Belarus will enroll this autumn. He said that some 600 former EHU students would likely rejoin the newly relocated university in the near future.

The institute will offer political science, philosophy, psychology, art history, and other degrees.

"It was quite logical to re-establish the university in Vilnius, as Belarus and Lithuania have a common history that runs back centuries, beyond the Soviet period. Also, the mentality is similar," said Mikhailov. "But more importantly, it's a two-hour drive for students from Belarus to come study in Vilnius."

Meanwhile, the Belarusian Embassy in Vilnius issued a press release asking that the re-opening of EHU be kept low-key. The embassy argued that it was Lithuania's domestic matter but that media attention demonstrated that the event has been over-politicized.

Belarus also expressed concern that the school's re-establishment did not promote pragmatic and mutually beneficial relations between the two countries.

Mikhailov found the embassy's comments strange. Why, he asked, would they be concerned about the opening of a university in a foreign country, and what politicizing was there to see in the matter?

Indeed, the reasons behind EHU's closure in Belarus are complex. Many of the school's instructors were from the West, while a number of prominent Belarusian academics spent time at Western institutions. While the university was operating, it contributed generously to the formation of a civil society in Belarus, gaining immense international recognition.

In particular, Lukashenko's government objected, in particular, to EHU's extensive academic exchange and visiting lecturer program that, in the words of one official, were turning it into a "pedestrian courtyard."

But Mikhailov, a renowned academic and the guiding force of EHU, has been the target of Belarusian authorities for some time.

After 2003, the school was under ever-increasing pressure from Belarusian authorities. On July 28, 2004, Alyaksandr Radzkou, Belarus' minister of education, annulled EHU's license on grounds that the school lacked the necessary premises to hold classes.

"The key issues on the closure were technical, because the premises were taken from us. However, later Lukashenko admitted it was his idea to shut down the university. He said, 'We don't need them. We should educate our elite ourselves,'" Mihkailov explained.

The head of the university expressed hopes that EHU would someday be operating freely again in Belarus. "I think the times will change and this will be inevitable," he said.

Since the fall of 2004, the public institution EHU International has been operating as a university in exile, serving as a basis for a permanent institution to be established in the future. The university is expected to be as large as the European Humanitarian University in Minsk, and to accept a capacity of some 1,000 students.

On Jan. 9, the European Parliament passed a resolution voicing satisfaction with plans to re-open EHU in Vilnius and urged EU member states to support the initiative.