Belarus is Watching

Magnus Amo Holte

- Coming to Norway is really a lot diffirent then we thought, says the Belarusian students Maxim Bratsun and Katsiaryna Murashka. In Belarus, the people are told frequently through the state-media that Europe and Norway is a horrible place to live.

- It's not as bad as we are expected, they say with a laugh.

The two students came to Tromso on Friday to take a closer look on the Norwegian election this Monday as a part of a school project. For the moment, they are studying at the European Humanities University, a Belarusian exile-University in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. The University formerly lay in the Belarusian capital Minsk, but was closed down in 2003, allegedly from what the authorities said was "sanitarion reasons".

- The real cause for the closing was because there where so many American and European students who came to Minsk and started spreading Western ideas of democracy and political freedom among the Belarusian students, Maxim says.

As a consequence many of the Belarusian students at the University moved abroad to get an education, and since the re-location to Vilnius, the University has been hosting about 500 students from Belarus. About ten percent of these are politically involved in the opposition in their home country, forced to an existence as political refugees.

- Dictatorship

Belarus is often reffered to as the last dictatorship in Europe, a label neither Max nor Kathia disagrees with. Although they are not politically active, they each have their own views about politics and the way their country is governed.

- That is the way it is in Belarus, Katsiaryna says.

- Everyone goes around carrying their own views and opinions, but few have the courage to express them openly. In Belarus, you can\\\'t talk politics with your friends or colleagues, she continues.

Recently the government in Belarus ordered all satellite receiver dishes removed all over the country, after a new satellite TV-channel meant for the Belarusian people came on air.

- The channel expressed criticism against the government, Maxim tells us and continues: - The official reason was the the satellite dishes "ruined the architecture" in Belarus.

Election Observation

Max' and Katsiaryna's mission in Tromso is to observe the communal and county elections, to see if it follows the standards from both Norwegian and international law.

- Earlier this year we had the Norwegian election-scientist Frank Aarebrot from the University of Bergen, who stayed with us for a week.

- We really learned a lot about the Norwegian election process, and now we?re here to see how and if it works in reality, Katsiaryna explains. They are also here to get inspiration. Maxim and Katsiaryna ended up to observe the election in Tromso, while the rest of the class is spread out throughout the major cities of Norway.

- What we are trying to take back to Lithuania and later to Belarus is that Europe and Norway is a very beautiful and nice place, with nice people, says Maxim and continues: - We will also try to make people at home to see this, and also make them try to question the government?s policies and authoritarian rule. He explains that the official governmental policy and ideas regarding politics, and also their message to the people in Belarus is to have no personal opinions at all. The motto is: "The best thing for you is not to think".

Want better relations to Norway

Their scholarship at the University in Vilnius is sponsored by the Nordic Council, and especially the Swedish and Norwegian governments. Both Maxim and Katsiaryna seeks to improve the relations between Belarus/Lithuania and Norway. While Swedish culture is very popular in Lithuania, Norwegian culture is not. - We actually celebrate Swedish culture one week per year, with Swedish food and music, Maxim tells us.

- Now we want to improve the relations with Norway. We like Norway and the Norwegian people very much, especially Tromso, Katsiaryna says.

Yesterday they visited the cable car in Tromso, a trip that must have been very successful, considering the reactions of the two Belarusian students.

- Your city is so beautiful, it is the most beautiful place we have ever been to, they both proclaim enthusiastically