It's been a couple of years since Ales Krot outgrew his student status but he still can’t tear himself away from student’s rights protection. We had a talk with this activist and discussed a number of issues: whether young people can really change the situation in the universities if “something is wrong”, what for one goes on a march and how the organization “Studentskaya Rada” can help if you are going to be sent for 2 years for mandatory post-graduation work to an agricultural settlement.
Field of activity: student rights protection
Foundation date: 2008
Structure: 8 people on “coordination centre” staff and 10-15 activists
Talked to: Ales Krot, 26, from Minsk. He pursued a degree in Construction in Belarusian State Technical University but was expelled from it for participating in social activities but later was allowed to resume his studies. Now he is the director of the youth union group Studentskaya Rada, the chairman of the Belarusian State Youth Council “Rada” and a member of the Youth Advisory Board of the United Nations Organization.
Story of Ales
– In 2007 I was a student of the Architecture and Construction College and at that time I started to integrate myself gradually into different socio-political movements. I was 17 years old. At that moment student benefits were cancelled, but that was going unnoticed so that I and my friends decided to draw attention to the issue organizing a few demonstrations. For example, on the “Coward” Day we covered our ears and were travelling on public transport. We even organized a funeral of student benefits– a real one with a coffin, mourners and a Death with a Scythe. I played the funeral march on the accordion. We were merrily going from the McDonald’s outlet on Niamiha Street to the Trinity Suburb but under the bridge we (there were six of us) were stopped and taken to the police station.
Right then we realized that there were no organizations involved in student rights protection and related issues in Belarus. For this reason in March of 2008 we founded Studentskaya Rada and registered this union group within the Belarusian Trade Union of Radio-electronic Industry in order not to fall under the article 193(1).
We even organized a funeral of student benefits – a real one with a coffin, mourners and a Death with a Scythe
We had a lot of work to do and even didn’t know where to start: in the beginning we were organizing educational workshops for students, then we started intensive research – yes, before us nobody has ever touched issues related to student rights. In 2008 we did research based at my college. We explored student self-government bodies with the aim to understand whether students can really exercise any influence on the place where they study. We distributed questionnaires at the end of the classes, got 200 of them filled in and after analyzed the received data. But very soon I was invited to the office of one of the college managers and reprimanded for that. I said I was preparing a revolution and already had initiated intensive subversive activities. But that time I didn’t get expelled. Before the elections of 2010 when the majority of so-called “armchair warriors” were monitoring their News Feed in a social network Vkontakte, Studentskaya Rada was monitoring early voting and explaining to students how to avoid getting made to vote early. We even had our “hot line”, and all the violations were registered. In 2010 the civil society experimented tremendous pressure; members of the organization frequently got frisked within the frame of the criminal case on mass riots so many of them moved away for fear of persecution. This time I did get expelled from Belarusian State Technical University where I was pursuing my Degree with major in Construction. During the next 6 months I and my colleagues and rights activists were lodging complaints with different authorities; eventually, after the trial we were allowed to resume our studies. And now almost 5 years have passed since 2011, but I still can’t stay aside from the issue of student rights.
What is Studentskaya Rada involved in now?
– We focus on three things: education, awareness-raising and legal advice. We organize workshops on student and human rights. Showing movies and publishing informative materials are also within our field of work. Quite recently for the second year in a row we have held a “Student week”. Under such a brand many non-governmental organizations hold events whose idea is that of solidarity and self-actualization. Workshops, cinema nights, discussions, a sort of a city game, “Shopki” (popular city quest – 34mag), a campaign aimed at getting a student ID issued in the Belarusian language. The last concert of “Student Week” was attended by 200 students, and that’s a lot taking into consideration that we can’t just invite university students to the events of this kind. Even to hang a most harmless poster on the university wall we need the permission of deans who upon seeing us say “Whaaat? Studentskaya Rada? Then no!” But on the other hand, those belonging to the university administration are not only afraid of us, but they know us. That is good.
It’s amazing that through what we do and through these Student Weeks more and more students become aware of the fact that their professional holiday is not January 25, when Moscow State University was founded, but November 17. This day is really significant historically, but its history is a bloody one. On October 28, 1939 in occupied by the Nazis Prague the students went on a march to honor the anniversary of Czech statehood. The occupiers, of course, broke up the march and a student of the medical university was badly wounded and died. His funeral grew into a protest and in the morning of November 17 the riot police units surrounded the student dormitories where the activists lived. 1200 students were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Two years later it was unanimously decided to celebrate this day internationally, and this solidarity really changed Europe.
The "Human Library" with a woman who used to give phone sex enjoyed the greatest demand. And that is how we fight stereotypes
Among the important services that we provide for students is legal advice on rights. If you are going to be sent for 2 years of mandatory post-graduation work to an agricultural settlement or be expelled from the university when you are in your final year our legal advisors will help you avoid that.
Studentskaya Rada is the official representative of Human Libraries in Belarus. Human Libraries as a type of organization were invented by the Danes about 15 years ago: you go to a “library” where people who tell their stories are like books on loan to readers. We invite different people to tell their stories – for example, a lesbian, a child-free, a bicyclist, rights activists. The "Human Library" with a woman who used to give phone sex enjoyed the greatest demand. And that is how we fight stereotypes.
Cooperation with the State
– Can organizations of the similar to Studentskaya Rada cooperate with the state? No way. Only a number of approved organizations have an opportunity to apply for state financial support. It’s evident that we do not belong to these ones. But we do not ask for that. Actually, it isn’t necessary for the state to develop complex support programs or to invest. The main thing we need is that the state do not hinder us to do what we are doing. Ministries and non-governmental organizations in Belarus are incompatible things. We maintain the independent position and express criticism so that for the state we are rather a pain in the ass, but not partners. So the state chooses the simplest way of communication – to ignore.
For the state the simplest way of communication is to ignore
Still, there’re small improvements. For example, within the UNO a Youth Advisory Board was created so that the vote of young people can to be taken into consideration on taking a decision which is going to have an impact on them. We have a good coalition there, no Belarusian Republican Youth Union. For most part democratic organizations are represented. But when we were being admitted to this “club” (we were given a fashionable at that moment Advisory panel certificate, USB flash drives, cups…), arrived the guys from the Belarusian TV and filmed only those from the Belarusian Association of UNESCO Clubs. Maybe they thought that the latter wouldn’t screw up and say something inappropriate in public.
The idea of the advisory board is good but putting it into practice provokes questions: just as always in our country, something is created but nobody knows what for and what it is doing. For example, they have elaborated Youth strategy for the years 2015-2020 and now they say: "Dear youngsters! Please, voice your opinions and change what you don’t like!". We livened up and compiled a list of suggestions such as, for instance, to allure non-registered organizations, which are quite active, into participating in official activities. In response we hear: a nice try, guys, but this strategy is already being put into practice. So what for on Earth were we asked to propose something? So we just published a number of recommendations and included there the results of the research on the current state of the youth and the organizations for all these to be taken into consideration while elaborating a new strategy for years 2020-2025.
– Generations do not pass for such complex phenomena like rights protection. Nowadays youngsters are more practically-oriented, they need a kind of competence that will help them find a good job and make money. Nobody wants to volunteer. In addition, few people understand what is a non-governmental organization and what they are intended for. And it is not necessary to have critical thinking. “Be like the others” – that’s the motto of this generation. Even my mother often says to me: "Alex, what are you trying to do? Do you want me to die of the anxiety?".
A silent march when the demonstrators just go and nobody cries or chants anything is already extreme radicalization
But still there is hope. For instance, the members of the group “Students Against” have recently protested against paying for making up for missed classes in Belarusian State University. Earlier they had collected 2.5 thousand signatures in favor of the abolition of this practice, made an appointment with the head of the University who even refused to listen to them. And the guys decided to go on a so-called “Love and Solidarity March” without any criminality or political slogans. But the most interesting thing about this all is that a generation of students who have never seen any kind of social activity has grown up; and for them even a silent march when the demonstrators just go and nobody cries or chants anything is already a kind of extreme radicalization. We as the members of Studentskaya Rada do not guide them. Now the activists who study at the Philological Department are being exerted pressure on so we observe all that and intervene. But we do this only if we’ve been asked to; normally we don’t take the initiative.
– We are planning to expand activities in the field of legal advice. I even want to finish a book on the recent history of student self-government, to compile a map of the places where students can spend time in Minsk. There’s a possibility to create the on-line map in the form of an app for the mobile phone; this map shows places that in some way or another are related to student activities. As it’s hard to be always involved in something serious, I want to play a bit, make a couple of funny things for myself, but, unfortunately, I can do it very rarely.
I want to be like Yanka Kupala (classic of Belarussian literature – 34mag). I mean, I’d prefer that the following generations could say that I did play a role in the formation of the Belarusian democratic society. Well, that would be an ideal scenario. But at least, I’d like to do something valuable and profound, and that’s what doesn’t let me leave all this alone. And one must study law just to have a possibility to live in a state based on the rule of law.
Text by Nasta Eroha
Photo by Kate Ignashevich
Translation by Alexandra