Democracy as a Challenge - The 2007 Ion Ratiu Democracy Lecture, with Anatoli Mikhailov | Wilson Center

Democracy as a Challenge - The 2007 Ion Ratiu Democracy Lecture, with Anatoli Mikhailov

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On November 15, 2007, the Woodrow Wilson Center co-hosted the third annual Ion Ratiu Democracy Lecture in collaboration with the Ratiu Family Foundation and the Ratiu Democracy Center. The recipient of this year's award, Dr. Anatoli Mikhailov, Rector of the European Humanities University, currently in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania delivered a speech on Democracy as a Challenge. An introduction by former ambassador to Belarus, David Swartz, preceded Professor Mikhailov's address.

Aung Din, Policy Director and Co-Founder of the U.S. Campaign for Burma commented on the shared reality that democracy activists face in their struggle against oppressive regimes. Mr. Din emphasized the importance of organized "grass-roots" action, and asserted the transformational power intrinsic to students' movements.

Dr. Swartz spoke of his long-standing acquaintance with Dr. Mikhailov. Swartz described the socio-political setting in Belarus in the early 1990's as characterized by unrest bordering upon chaos. That atmosphere permeated the transformational reality that Belarusian society experienced. "What constitutes Belarusian identity?" Swartz asked. While highly militarized and highly Russified, Belarus remained diverse. One cannot envision the country in monolithic terms, Swartz suggested. The former ambassador acknowledged the role that Dr. Mikhailov's "romantic endeavor" played in establishing the European Humanities University. The University's goal was to create a highly educated elite capable of leading Belarus through its democratic transformation based on the values of European civilization. That process was interrupted by the rise of Alexander Lukashenko's regime. The new president closed down the University, and prosecuted its founders and faculty. The circumstances compelled Professor Mikhailov to leave the country and re-establish the University in Vilnius, Lithuania. Ambassador Swartz praised Dr. Mikhailov for his attempt at creating a new educational process that challenged the Soviet system of higher learning. Swartz concluded by emphasizing that the Ratiu Foundation Award is a well deserved honor for Mikhailov in recognition of his commitment to the democratic process.

In his lecture, Professor Anatoli Mikhailov raised a major, yet often overlooked point in democracy building – theory and practice should go hand in hand. Mikhailov noted that in educating an intelligentsia fit to lead a new civil society, young democracies must learn from past lessons and aspire to raise society to a new level of consciousness. As challenging as it can be, Dr. Mikhailov asserted, democracy building depends upon the hard work of activists who commit to transforming undemocratic systems through social action. Professor Mikhailov emphasized the importance of creating a network of regional NGO's in countries of the former Soviet Bloc that would combine experience from Western democracies with practical action, in order to achieve the necessary change in the emerging civil societies.

In retrospect, Mikhailov spoke of the missed opportunity to democratize post-totalitarian Belarus. The country offered the promise to carry out the reforms necessary to remedy the distorted reality inherited from its totalitarian past. Lukashenko was elected against the nomenclature, Mikhailov reminded, but created a dictatorship. The society could not recognize that during the transition, the essence of the old regime reappeared in a new form. The crisis that ensued fostered disillusionment and despair among the Belarusian population. The social body lacked the internal energy needed to prevent the rise of Lukashenko's regime. The corrupt educational system continued to exist unchanged. Professors who previously taught scientific communism, now taught new disciplines and became responsible for "promoting new values." The emergence of the European University of Humanities (EUH) marked a radical change in the Belarusian educational system. It aimed at educating a critical mass of young people who would be able to lead the reform process in the spirit of the "new time." The curriculum was meant to create a world outlook compatible with the changing socio-political environment. Dr. Mikhailov's success is evidenced by the fact that the newly-elected president started losing votes in districts primarily inhabited by students.

In 2004, on orders from the Belarusian minister of education, EUH was forced to close its doors. Mikhailov himself was asked to resign, and subsequently forced to leave the country. The University re-opened in Lithuania thanks to financial assistance from the European Union. Mikhailov praised Lithuania's hospitality, and asserted the importance of international academic solidarity. The fact that the University survived, even in exile, Mikhailov pointed out, should indicate to Lukashenko that a project of this kind can be sustained.

In conclusion, Professor Mikhailov reiterated the role that regional cooperation among former Soviet Bloc countries could play in preventing the re-establishment of totalitarian regimes. Mikhailov described democracy as a process, not a state of being, which necessitates appropriate action. The international community should discern opportunities for change among emerging democracies and act accordingly. Otherwise, Dr. Mikhailov stated, we will pay a heavy price.