A May morning in Vilnius. An unexpected calm reigns over the central bus station. Where are the Belarusians who once came here to sell their wares to their Lithuanian neighbours? Since late December 2007, when Lithuania joined the EU’s Schengen zone (which allows passport-free travel in 24 member states), they have almost all disappeared. 60 euros for a visa makes for an expensive trip. For the citizens of this Baltic republic which joined the EU in 2004, the USSR must seem a distant memory; only a few kilometres away in Belarus, however, life still closely resembles that of a Soviet state.

Belarus has only ever known a brief period of democracy, between 1991 and 1994. Since then it has ruled with an iron fist by Alexander Lukashenko, the former director of sovkhoz (state-owned farms), who quickly imposed a dictatorship. Nevertheless, the Republic of Belarus’ EHU (European Humanities University) established in Minsk in 1992, was tolerated for twelve years. In July 2004, however, staff and students of this centre of excellence were forced to pack their bags when the powers that be accused the university of being too easily susceptible to the pernicious influence of “Western” teachers who could easily “slip in and out of the university”. Such a bizarre accusation doesn't ring nearly quite as strange in a country where the secret service still retains the former Soviet epithet KGB and plays an extremely active role in muffling the opposition.

The university elected to take the path of exile. ‘Vilnius stood out as the obvious choice,’ recalls Gregory Minenkov, a lecturer, the Lithuanian capital being only four hours from Minsk. The transition was made smooth with the Lithuanian government providing visas and premises, the European commission subsidising a large part of running costs and various foundations making up the difference.

Vilnius, just another Belarusian city

Most students receive a bursary which covers fees and living costs. Such is the case for Alena, a third year Belarusian student of political science. “For a lot of my classmates, Vilnius is just another Belarusian city,” she says. The two countries, after all were governed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for around five centuries. “Coming here is no problem,” continues Alena. “Lithuanians accept us and bus connections from Belarus are good. I often go back to Minsk to see my boyfriend and my family. The only difficulty is the Lithuanian language, but then almost everyone here speaks Russian.”

With 1,800 students, 800 of whom study via e-learning, the EHU has a strong European dimension, destined as it is to educate the future elite of a hypothetically democratic Belarusian state. For Professor Minenkov, in charge of first students, the EHU may have the status of a Lithuanian establishment, with diplomas recognised in the west, but its vocation "is to become the centre of learning for students in the CEI, (the community of former Soviet states.”

A breeding ground for terrorists?

For most students, the EHU is above all a gateway to the west. Yet such dreams have limits, as Siarhei, a third year student, remarks – “I know that once I’ve finished my studies it will be difficult to work legally in the heart of the European Union.” So what kind of future can this well-educated elite expect? Masters degrees awarded here are not recognised back home. In a country where 80% of jobs are in the public sector, it won't be easy for EHU graduates to find their place.

There is also the matter of the malicious reports on state television. Last year, on the primetime news, EHU students learnt that they were attending an “education centre for terrorists”, with the KGB explaining that they had “certain criminals” there under surveillance, referring to a handful of young people involved in Belorussian oppostion movements. Tatiana Elavaya is one of them. The ex-leader of Zubr, a western-backed civic youth organisation, she is now head of Bunt, and has not returned home since the presidential elections of 2006. In her little studio apartment in Vilnius, she offers temporary shelters to exiled dissidents. “Vilnius plays a big role for those opposed to the Belarusian government,” she says. “But the eastern partnership which is being played out on the European stage is starting to isolate us. Renewing dialogue with Lukaschenko sidelines those youth in opposition. If we are moderated, then nothing will change in Belarus.” Her radical position is one that the majority of EHU students, preferring to wait and see rather than becoming activists, are far from sharing.

Rosinska (Translation : Sarah Truesdale)