If you’re like most students, you probably didn’t know about The Center For Belarusian Studies. In fact, you probably don’t know much about Belarus. Stephen Woodburn, assistant professor of history, said, “Typically college students are unaware of international affairs, but they do affect the world they will have to join.”
Maria Paula Survilla, executive director of the Center for Belarusian Studies, added that international unrest actually can affect students directly through the cancellation of travel abroad courses, the interruption of research initiatives, access to some products, and the potential for military involvement.
It is difficult to care about something so far away, especially when, so far, you have not been directly impacted. “I often ask my students to consider what it would be like to be afraid of expressing opinions in public or to be beaten and imprisoned for having an alternative viewpoint,” said Survilla.
The last elections in Belarus were far from democratic. On Dec. 19, of last year, what started out as a peaceful march of protest ended with the Belarusian government attacking and arresting more than 600 unarmed citizens.
Dec. 23, the U.S. Department of State, in conjunction with the European Union, issued a statement of disapproval stating, “The United States and the European Union reiterate their call for the immediate release of the presidential candidates and the over 600 demonstrators who have been taken into custody in the wake of the presidential elections in Belarus. We strongly condemn all violence, especially the disproportionate use of force against presidential candidates, political activists, representatives of civil society and journalists.”
Two days later, the Center for Belarusian Studies issued its own statement. “The inherent right of public demonstrations for redress of wrongs by citizens against their government is one of the most fundamental of democratic institutions. In trampling the elementary human rights of hundreds of its citizens, the Belarusian leadership revealed its true nature and intentions even more dramatically and viciously than in the past.”
Unfortunately, this oppression of ideas and opinions is the norm in Belarus. Aliaksandr Paharely, a visiting scholar from Belarus, said, “Many people are arrested and interrogated, even in the light of the day. Some people are arrested at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning.” He also said that students are reprimanded for expressing opposition to the government.
This situation seems to have little to no effect on Southwestern students. Belarus, situated just southwest of Russia, is on the other side of the world. The Department of State, situated in Washington, D.C., is hours away. What you might not know is that the Center for Belarusian Studies is house right here on campus, bringing Belarus a whole lot closer to home.
The Center’s official mandate is “promoting the revival of the Belarus nation through higher education.” Paharely said the center’s main objectives include identifying partner organizations in the U.S. who are interested in providing help and finding educational materials.
“If SC students understand issues another country has, it gives them an appreciation between our system and other possibilities,” said Woodburn.
Erin Morris is a freshman majoring in communication. You may e-mail her at email@example.com.
Edited by Samantha Gillis.