When in September Andrei Kalavur found out from his Czech friends from an Erasmus exchange that Masaryk University had opened a special stipend programme to support students from Belarus, he wasted no time before applying. It was an offer that was impossible to turn down – he had always planned on getting a doctorate, but because he wanted to write his dissertation about authoritarian regimes, it was very unlikely that he would be able to work on this subject in Belarus. Since the presidential elections in 2020, the country has been rocked by protests against President Alexander Lukashenko and the fraudulent elections.
In his native country 27-year-old Andrei completed two years of doctoral study but didn’t finish his third year. “Last February a new department head was appointed. One of the first things she did was call me into her office to tell me that I have a lot of problems. And that I have one week to submit my entire dissertation, which should normally be handed in at the end of the third year, not ten months before I was supposed to complete my studies. She also had four people, including herself, review a draft paper I had written, which is a highly unusual process. Then one evening she called me to say I had another problem with an exam. I understood that as a sign that it was time for me to leave the department. I think I was likely being pressured due to my political activities, which probably didn’t sit well with the regime. Belarussian universities are controlled by the president,” says Andrei.
But because he always wanted to teach at university, he decided to take advantage of MU’s programme and finish his PhD in Brno. The Czech Republic was not a strange new place for him though, as he had spent a semester as an Erasmus student in Plzeň, where he fell in love with the country. Still, leaving Belarus was not easy. “When I moved from Pinsk to Brno in mid-December, I cried. I felt like a traitor who was abandoning everyone who was still fighting against the regime. But I realized that I was going to Masaryk University to conduct research that could help civil society in Belarus and that I would otherwise be unable to conduct at home,” explains the doctoral student.
At MU’s Faculty of Social Studies, Andrei studies the communication strategies of the heads of two authoritarian Eastern European regimes: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. In the next few years he will analyse hundreds of speeches made by both politicians during their election campaigns to determine what communication models they use to legitimize their authoritarian regimes and whether in their speeches they also employ manipulation techniques, such as stigmatizing opponents and creating the illusion of a crisis. Andrei will also use critical discourse analysis, questionnaires, and other quantitative methods to study how people perceive the messages conveyed in the speeches of both politicians.
He sees his research as a way to help the Belarussian people and plans to publish his findings not only in academic journals but also in the popular press. “What’s happening in Belarus is indescribable. Due to the protests, seven people have died and more than 33,000 were sent to jail. Most have been released, but we still have 251 political prisoners. One of them is my 22-year-old friend Eugene Kalinouski, who I met three years ago at a summer school in Vilnius. He is a young, talented student of urban studies who has been sentenced to four years in prison for nothing. A month ago, a Belarussian organization for human rights recognized him as a political prisoner. This has to stop.”
Andrei gave a paper about Lukashenko’s presidential campaign and his communication strategies at the Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century online conference, co-organized by University College London. “It was a major honour for me to speak at the conference and at the same time a great experience. I am glad that I could hear what experts from across Europe, the USA, and Canada had to say and could get to know new people who care about Belarus,” says Andrei, praising the conference.
Touched by Czech solidarity with the Belarussian people
Andrei speaks highly of his classes at MU. Even though his courses have all been online due to the pandemic, he has already gotten to know most Czech and foreign doctoral students at his department at Faculty of Social Studies. Besides attending academic conferences, regularly meeting with his adviser, and conducting research, he must also do a great deal of reading for the seminars and lectures he attends. In the spring, he will also be teaching the course Politics in Russia and will help grade assignments in the course Democratization and De-democratization.
Andrei has been studying at Masaryk University since late October thanks to online classes. He was only able to come to Brno in December because he had to wait to get his visa. “When I arrived in the city, I was surprised to see a photography exhibition and flags in support of Belarus. I am touched and happy to see the Czechs’ solidarity and their interest. And I am glad that there is a relatively large Belarussian community in the city. I’m looking forward to meeting with them once the pandemic restrictions are lifted,” says Andrei.
He is grateful to MU for providing him with a stipend, and he is proud to study at a university that bears the name of the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who in the 1920s and 1930s put great efforts into creating programmes that enabled hundreds of Belarussian students to study at universities in Brno, Prague, Olomouc, and elsewhere in Czechoslovakia. Andrei is glad that the Czech government and Czech universities are keeping this tradition alive and offering stipends to Belarussians. He believes that gestures such as this create stronger ties between the two countries and their peoples and contribute to building democracy in Belarus.