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The Warsaw Voice » Society » November 19, 2008
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Battling for Freedom in Belarus
November 19, 2008   
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Hundreds of Belarusian students who have run into trouble for pro-democracy activities have been given a chance to pursue their education in Poland-and to continue to campaign for more freedom in their home country.

On March 14, 2006, Ludmila Asipienka learned that she was being expelled from the Belarusian State Pedagogical University in Minsk. The news came as a surprise. Asipienka, 21 at the time, had been earning high marks and had received no warning. Her involvement in a student newspaper, however, had apparently been enough to unnerve university authorities, who charged her with "the systematic disturbance of the rule of the university's internal order."

Isolation tactics
"All activity in Belarus is politicized," Asipienka said. "The university was afraid that our newspaper would influence students, and so its policy was to isolate the most active from everyone else." Asipienka was indeed left isolated. Branded a dissident, she had no prospect of finding a place in another university.

Within only a few months, however, Asipienka was brought to Warsaw by the Polish government's Konstanty Kalinowski Scholarship Program. Started in 2006-soon after Asipienka was expelled-when then-Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz signed a letter of intent with representatives of the Belarusian opposition, the program allows students like Asipienka a chance to continue their education in Poland should they run into trouble with the Belarusian government for pro-democracy activities. More than 300 Belarusian students are currently studying in Poland thanks to the program, and in June a further 70 students were accepted into the program for its third year.

Those accepted into the Kalinowski program are offered scholarships, exemption from tuition fees, financial assistance, accommodation in student dormitories, and Polish and English language courses. This year the Polish foreign ministry allocated zl.4.8 million to the program.

The Kalinowski Scholarship Program fits into a broader array of policies that Poland, which shook off its communist regime in 1989, maintains in support of democracy and civil society in its eastern neighbor. Since 1994, Belarus, a country of almost 10 million and once a part of the Soviet Union, has been under the repressive control of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, dubbed by his many critics as Europe's last dictator. He won a third term in a landslide after presidential elections in 2006, which international observers said were neither free nor fair.

Many Kalinowski students continue their political activities from the safety of Poland. Siarhei Marchyk, 22, came to this country after he was arrested in 2006. He was a student at a university in Baranovichi in western Belarus and was active in the radical opposition group Young Front. He has since become the "foreign minister" of Young Front and has been active with the Polish-based Freedom and Democracy Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that has a number of projects in Belarus.

"Poland is the best country from which to work on behalf of Belarus," Marchyk said. "There are many organizations involved in Belarusian matters, such as the Freedom and Democracy Foundation, which is a partner of the organization in which I was involved in Belarus."

Objective information
Some of the Kalinowski students, like Marchyk, have become involved in NGOs; others have lent their language skills to radio and television stations such as Polish government-sponsored TV Belsat, which since December has been broadcasting from Poland into Belarus, aiming to provide objective information in the Belarusian language about events in that country and around the world.

Ales Lukashevich, 22, originally from Minsk and now studying at the Warsaw School of Economics, often works as a journalist and DJ for one such station, the independent European Radio for Belarus, which was established by Belarusian journalists with European Union funding.

Such activities, for Lukashevich, only strengthen his home country and oppose the terror of the Belarusian secret police. "In general, mass media and opposition groups such as Free Belarus assist democracy," Lukashevich said. "They spread information, they spread knowledge of what is actually going on in Belarus."

Still, as Marek Bućko, 40, vice-president of the Freedom and Democracy Foundation-for which many Kalinowski students volunteer-told the Voice, not all Kalinowski students take advantage of the opportunities for activism in Poland. "The goal of the program is not to politicize these students, but to allow them to continue their studies," Bućko said. "Of course, if they want to be active, then they are, but it's not required in any way." In fact, according to Marchyk, while many students work for political organizations, "not nearly as many as [he] would like actually do."

Campaigning for freedom
Asipienka, now 23 and a student of cultural studies at Warsaw University, co-authored a book about the experiences of the Kalinowski students. For Asipienka, it is natural that many of the students campaign for freedom in their home country, but that is not why the Kalinowski students are in Poland. "The people who came here didn't do so because they'd always dreamed of studying abroad, but because they were forced to," she said.

Whether they actively oppose the Belarusian regime or focus on building a new life, the students of the Kalinowski program are fighting for freedom by pursuing something the Lukashenko regime has tried to deny them: an education.

Sean Jackowitz
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