Students and faculty recently took advantage of the current virtual learning environment to host a transatlantic meeting of minds on the history being made at this very moment and how to move forward.
The Wintersession event, on January 28, featured a panel-style discussion between students from Belarus and Princeton University moderated by John Borneman, professor of Anthropology at Princeton, director of the Program in Contemporary European Politics and Society, and acting director of the Program in Ethnographic Studies. Each student was introduced before giving a short presentation on their own experiences as they relate to their individual social and cultural contexts with the idea of “uprising,” before taking questions from the audience.
Most of the students from Belarus are currently living in other countries, as they have been exiled from their home for speaking out against the actions of a dictatorial government and advocating for more free and fair elections.
“I’ve participated in demonstrations and run from riot police as well as working as a lawyer,” said Yuliya Melshyna, a master’s degree student in law and public policy who is currently living in exile in Lithuania. “It wasn’t safe for me to stay in my country.”
Both the Belarusian and Princeton students expressed that 2020 changed how they approached protest and speaking up against injustice, in both positive and negative ways.
Princeton School of Public and International Affairs senior, Shafaq Khan, mentioned that while social media has played an important role in many movements happening today and allowed people to “transcend borders,” it also played a key role in the recent U.S. capitol insurrection and it can be seen through the selective suspension and deletion of accounts that in many ways it is the large corporations which own these properties that determine who gets to have a platform.
“I’ve often asked why protests in Belarus of this extent have only happened in 2020… people were able to see finally that election data is falsified and have the technology to spread information,” said Melshyna on how the technological resources of the modern day influenced the uprisings she has seen.
It appeared that the panel tended to agree on the uniting force of technology, but more importantly on the inclusionary principles behind the positive use of those tools, principles which both the Princeton and Belarusian students thought to be vital.
“The key to global human rights is solidarity across borders,” said Ashley Morales, a junior in the Princeton School of International and Public Affairs. “I think we have a duty… to allyship across borders to combat racism and systems of oppression.”
A similar sentiment was echoed by a student from Belarus, Serge Eryomenko, who spoke on issues like forced conscription and the universal right to “be treated as a human, not as a piece of meat.”
Some comparisons between the movements in Belarus against the government and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States were drawn as well, with both Princeton students and Belarusian students on the panel expressing a desire to learn from one another and place their individual understandings of what it is to fight for equality into a more global context. In response to a question about how to go about creating change when people may be resistant or even malevolently biased against progress, their answers were more divided.
While some of the Balrusian students advocated for using the system to change the system or employing civil disobedience where possible, some of the Princeton students highlighted in contrast that rights are characterized by their inability to be taken away and should not be characterized as a prize to be won through meritorious action.
“I didn’t like the way my country was developing and decided to get involved in politics…After the election I took part in protests and helped my friends hide from the police,” shared Belarusian master’s student Jauhien Karaulau.
“Complying or being this perfect citizen doesn’t mean you’re ever going to be exempt from racism or oppression,” pointed out Aishah Balogun in response to the question, a sophomore in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton.
The conversation was a mixture of researched facts and figures as well as personal stories from each of the panelists, with whoever felt called to answer a particular question from students or staff stepping up and then leaving time for the other panelists to respond. The event was enlightening and reflective, and conditions permitting with the global COVID-19 pandemic, in-person connections may be made in the future.
In addition to this Cross-Atlantic Dialogue conversation, an earlier discussion on the future of global education was held on January 26. Both Cross-Atlantic Dialogues were sponsored by the Program in Contemporary European Politics & Society, Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, European Humanities University, Princeton Institute for International Research Studies (PIIRS), the Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship (ProCES), the Pace Center, and Sciences Po.