On October 20, 2020, President Alexander Lukashenko replaced rectors at Minsk State Linguistic University (MSLU), Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts (BSUKI), and Brest State Technical University (BrSTU), apparently in response to large numbers of students from those same universities participating in protests demanding the president’s resignation.
The protests began after the August 9 presidential election, the results of which showed President Lukashenko, who first took office in 1994, winning reelection for a sixth term with more than 80% of the vote. The opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced to flee to Lithuania after receiving threats. Critics from inside Belarus, as well as international observers, immediately condemned the result, charging that the election was marked by widespread electoral fraud. Concerns about a fraudulent election triggered mass demonstrations across the country involving hundreds of thousands of protesters. Police responded to nationwide protests by arresting and using violent force against thousands of people, many of whom were university students.
President Lukashenko condemned the protests and criticized the leadership of universities, where much of the protest activities originated. In a meeting on October 9, Lukashenko stated, “the behavior of some of the students shows their, to put it mildly, careless attitude towards higher education. This can lead to the loss of its value as a significant social stage.” He went on to say, “university rectors are not doing enough. In the near future, within a week, we must solve the staff problem of such universities.”
Eleven days later, on October 20, President Lukashenko appointed new rectors at MSLU, BSUKI, and BrSTU. Students from the three universities had been frequently participating in the post-election protests.
The newly appointed rectors include Natalya Karchevskaya, the former First Deputy Culture Minister, who was appointed to BSUKI; Natalya Lapteva, the head of MSLU’s German department, who was appointed to the position of rector at that same university; and Aleksandr Bakhanovich, the former Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs of Belarusian National Technical University, who was appointed to BrSTU. Students at MSLU and BrSTU held protests in response to news of the rector appointments.
Roughly one week after the rector replacements, a number of students from Belarussian universities, including 18 from BSUKU and 9 from BrSTU, were expelled in connection with their participation in the protests, according to the news outlet Belsat.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by the replacement of university leaders in an apparent effort to restrict nonviolent student expression — conduct that is expressly protected by 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. State authorities should refrain from such interventions and respect institutional autonomy. State-led efforts to intervene in university leadership and/or restrict student expression undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.