Soon, ignoring tyranny in Belarus won’t be an option

The diplomatic row between Belarus and Sweden means the UK won't be able to remain detached for long.

Over the last few weeks, you could be forgiven for having failed to register a diplomatic row within Europe that has left two embassies emptied and led to an emergency meeting at the EU.

It is worth examining the chain of events that has led to this swift rise in tensions between Sweden and Belarus: Alexander Lukashenko became President of Belarus in 1994; he maintained power for 18 years by allegedly rigging elections and using his Soviet-legacy KGB to imprison and often torture members of the opposition, journalists and human rights activists; on 4 July this year a Swedish PR firm flew into Belarusian airspace and dropped 800 teddy bears with parachutes carrying pro-democracy slogans. President Lukashenko’s reaction was to arrest two Belarusians – one a student who had posted photos of the bears online, another an estate agent who had considered renting an apartment to the Swedes involved but in the end, well, didn’t.

This provoked outrage from human rights and freedom of speech campaigners across Europe who have since been holding a range of protests and solidarity actions to draw attention to the absurdity of the situation. Turning it into a national security issue, Lukashenko sacked two of his top generals - those in charge of air defence and border control. Since this only drew more attention to the event, he went on to effectively expel all Swedish embassy staff from Minsk and withdraw his own embassy from Stockholm, destroying diplomatic relations between the two countries and creating an international news story out of what was, essentially, a publicity stunt.

Lukashenko then gave nearly two weeks for the story to fade away before dismissing his Foreign Minister on Monday. This was presumably intended as a face-saving move before he inevitably invites the Swedish embassy back to Minsk but has essentially brought the whole saga back into the spotlight by his sheer obstinance.

(It should be noted that Lukashenko claims that the closing of the embassies is unrelated to the teddy bear drop, but he also claimed the bear drop had not taken place, even weeks after Anton Suryapin and Syarhei Basharymau were arrested.)

Meanwhile Russian state media has made a lot of noise blaming Sweden for its provocations while the EU has condemned Lukashenko’s actions and agreed to consider extending existing sanctions in October.

The attitude of the UK Government towards President Lukashenko’s regime tends to be tacit condemnation. In the past the Foreign Office has taken a side against the Belarusian government only when pressed; the most noteworthy reaction they have so far given to the closing of the Swedish embassy has been a tweet from William Hague to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt:

Essentially, the UK Government’s position has always been "leave it to the EU". Soon however that attitude will not be enough. 

Apart from Lukashenko’s blunders, the long drawn out saga created over this has partly been due to chance timing, and there is no indication that this will change over the next few weeks.

The dust will still be settling from the diplomatic row, the PR company Studio Total will be continuing to maximise its hard-earned publicity and human rights groups will be trying to use the rise in tensions to gain support for the release of political prisoners when election time comes to Belarus in September.

Belarus’s 2010 elections saw mass protests, widespread accusations of tampering and the arrests of hundreds of activists – there is little reason to expect these will go any differently. Even with a boycott planned by many opposition groups, there will almost inevitably be violence and a brutal crackdown as seen two years ago. After the recent row with Sweden, Belarus is more isolated than ever. Next month Lukashenko will most likely consolidate his place as a pariah of European politics and there is little knowing what the diplomatic outcome could be.

While remaining comparatively aloof from the situation in Belarus in general, Britain has earned Lukashenko’s displeasure recently by upholding the EU travel ban and barring the notoriously competitive dictator from watching his team’s success at the London Olympics. The President has proven himself to be incredibly temperamental, skewed in political judgement and therefore unpredictable. Events are likely to come to a head next month and once again put Belarus at the forefront of European politics, and it seems unlikely that the British government can remain detached for much longer. This may be wishful thinking on the part of an activist, but it seems almost inevitable that we could soon see our government take some small but genuine stand in support of democracy and human rights, whether they want to or not.

Jack Barton works in a voluntary capacity for the Free Belarus Now campaign

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko waves as he walks with his young son Nikolay, 'Kolya' Lukashenko during recent independence day celebrations. Photograph: Getty Images
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".