On September 18, 2020, physics scholar Sviatlana Volchak was fired from her position at Belarusian State University in apparent retaliation for her participation in protest activities responding to President Lukashenko’s re-election.
The official results of the August 9, 2020 election had President Lukashenko, who first took office in 1994, winning reelection for a sixth term. International and domestic critics charged that the election was marked by widespread electoral fraud, triggering mass demonstrations. Police frequently responded to protests with arrests and violent force.
Volchak, who taught physics at BSU for six years, was the coordinator of the strike committee at BSU. The strike committee authored a petition demanding that the BSU administration take actions to end violence against protesters and civilians, secure the release of people who were detained or arrested for their protest activity, and to support fair elections, among other things. The strike committee reportedly collected signatures on August 19 during a campus protest and submitted the petition to the BSU administration on August 28. On the same day, police arrested Volchak and her husband for their alleged participation in the election protests (see report). They were both sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention in the city of Ivanovo.
In an interview with TUT.BY, Volchak indicated she was planning to return to classes on Tuesday, September 15. Volchak was released on September 12 and travelled to Minsk on Monday, September 14. Volchak made prior arrangements with another professor to teach her classes scheduled for September 14. Days later, on September 18, Volchak learned that the university fired her, citing her absence on September 14 as a violation of faculty guidelines. The university’s press office denied any political motivation and reiterated that Volchak’s absence on September 14 was the reason for her termination. Protests were held in support of Volchak.
In the weeks following Vochak’s firing, President Lukashenko ordered the replacement of rectors at three universities in Belarus, while threatening to expel students and faculty for their participation in the protests. Dozens of students would go on to face expulsion for their alleged participation in the protests.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by the dismissal of a scholar, in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Belarus is a party. University authorities should refrain from retaliating against such conduct, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, politically motivated dismissals aimed at restricting or retaliating against such activity undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.
Correction (December 2, 2021): An earlier version of this report referred to Sviatlana Volchak as “Svetlana Volchek,” an incorrect transliteration of her Belarusian name.