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‘Potential threats to the country’ How EU-recommended sanctions are affecting Russian students in the Czech Republic
Story by Alexey Slavin. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
After Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, the Czech Education Ministry announced that Russians and Belarusians who study in certain departments at Czech universities would be required to either leave the institutions or change their majors to ones considered “safe” by the Czech authorities. The agency cited EU sanctions against Russia and laws banning the provision of technical assistance to Russia, including by teaching students certain skills. Meduza looked at how this has affected Russian students — and what options are left for Russians who want to study in the Czech Republic.
The European Commission's first measures aimed at lowering the amount of "technological support" supplied by EU member states to Russia came in 2014 — in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea. The recommendations were just that; each country had the option to impose restrictions or not. Meanwhile, most of the binding sanctions passed then were against officials, defense companies, and government banks; the education sector was hardly affected at all.
But this year, things have begun to change. Soon after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Czech Republic imposed a ban on issuing non-humanitarian visas and residency permits to Russian and Belarusian citizens. In April, Czech Education Minister Petr Gazdík announced that the Czech authorities believe Russian students studying in “technical” fields pose a threat to the country’s security.
In mid-May, the Czech Education Ministry published a list of recommendations for how to deal with students from EU-sanctioned countries. One of the proposals was for Czech universities to impose a limit on the number of students they accepted from Russia and Belarus. Another suggestion was to limit the number of spots for those students in “unsafe” departments.
Exactly which fields of study qualify as “unsafe” was determined by the country’s Financial Analytical Office (the agency responsible for ensuring Prague observes international sanctions). A task force was created within the agency to issue recommendations for how each government ministry should respond to sanctions.
According to the European Commission, teaching students skills in these fields falls under the ban on providing “technological support to the Russian Federation.” The Czech Education Ministry sent universities a guide that suggests transferring Russian and Belarusian students to “safer” courses of study — ones that aren’t likely to give them access to information that could be used against the Czech Republic in the future.
The ministry gave each university the freedom to decide which subjects to ban for the students and what to replace them with. Some schools, however, categorized almost all of their majors as “unsafe.” According to Ksenia Lazarov, who works with foreign students at a support center in Prague, students who had passed the entrance exams for the Czech Technical University in Prague with perfect scores started receiving notifications that they had not been accepted, though they weren't told why.
“We found this ban extremely strange. The guides expressly say that the restrictions are intended for students in master’s and doctorate programs — and that there’s no need for them to be applied to bachelor’s programs, which don’t contain any secret information that couldn’t be found on the Internet or other open sources,” she said.
According to Lazarov, the university suggested that students write statements of purpose explaining why it's important for them to stay in the Czech Republic and how they feel about Russia’s war against Ukraine. “Having a document like that would allow [the university] to defend the students to the Education Ministry and the Interior Ministry," she said.
Some institutions offered to let students switch majors. One such school was the Brno University of Technology, which allowed all students who passed the entrance exams — regardless of citizenship — to enroll. University rector Ladislav Janíček explained the decision this way: “I understand that it’s vital to observe EU sanctions against Russia and Belarus. But it would be illogical to automatically transfer [the sanctions] to students who have already chosen the Czech Republic for their studies, and possibly for their future lives as well."
Radana Koudelova, the press secretary for the Brno University of Technology, told Meduza that in the university’s view, allowing Russian and Belarusian students to study “critical” topics such as “cybersecurity, aviation, telecommunications, and microelectronics” is tantamount to “the intangible transfer of technology at wartime.”
“Current students — with the exception of students in their final year — were given the option to transfer to 'non-critical' courses of study. The majority of them took advantage of the opportunity. Students who refused were forced to end their studies [at this school],” said Koudelova.
Meduza reached out to the Czech Technical University’s press service, but had not heard back at the time of this article’s publication.
'Stuck in limbo'
Earlier this year, a Russian citizen named Alexander applied to Czech Technical University and was rejected. The school’s transportation department, where he wanted to study, categorically refused to accept students from Russia. Alexander told Meduza that a number of Russian and Belarusian students currently studying at the university signed a document in which they promised not to use the knowledge they gain there outside of the EU. Alexander himself decided to write a letter explaining that he doesn’t support the war in Ukraine.
In the rejection letter, [university representatives] listed all of Russia’s sins, including the annexation of Crimea. I was 15 years old when that happened. I wrote in my letter that I started attending protests in 2017, and that I was even arrested a few times; I had to await my trials in a special detention facility. I also described in detail why I want to study at ČVUT specifically and told the story of how I prepared to apply. I also mentioned that I worked as a volunteer at a humanitarian aid center for Ukrainian refugees in Prague.
“In order to stay in Russia, I applied to the construction department at the Brno University of Technology, which hasn’t imposed sanctions against students,” said Alexander.
Later, though, his first choice school responded to his letter. “On August 23, I received a letter from the Czech Technical University that on the basis of a decision made by the rector, they would allow me to enroll,” he said.
Ksenia Lazarov told Meduza that the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague is another university that’s cracked down on Russian and Belarusian students. This year, she said, they rejected about 200 applicants from Russia and Belarus.
One of those applicants was Anna Smirnova, a 19-year-old from the town of Ukhta in Russia’s Komi Republic. Immediately after high school, unable to imagine a future for herself in Russia, she moved to Prague, where she took language classes and prepared to apply to universities. In June, Anna earned 86 points (16 more than necessary) on the entrance exam for the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague’s genetic engineering department.
According to Anna, when she took the test, nobody mentioned anything about the university refusing to accept Russian or Belarusian students. The new rule was announced on June 30. Several days after Anna’s exam results were posted on the university’s site, she learned that she wouldn’t be admitted “for other reasons.”
Anna received her official rejection letter several weeks later (Meduza has obtained a copy of the letter). The university’s administration cited three government decrees: one from 2006, one from 2014, and one from 2022. The documents mention Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and Belarus’s disregard for democratic principles, as well as demanding a restriction on trade relations and an end to “technological assistance.” One of Anna’s classmates, a girl from Kazakhstan, however, was accepted with no issues. The Czech University of Life Sciences Prague did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment.
“I’m currently located in the Czech Republic, where I’m applying to other universities so that I can stay here. I’m still waiting for an answer. We weren’t told that we wouldn’t be admitted [to the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague] until really late, and it’s already too late to get into a ‘normal’ university. I applied to the natural science department at UJEP [Jan Evangelista Purkyně University], but I won’t hear back until early September at the earliest. I’m currently stuck in limbo; I don’t know whether I’ll be able to stay here or not,” said Smirnova.
Stanislav Křeček, the Czech Republic’s human rights ombudsman, has been a strong advocate for Russian and Belarusian students, claiming the new rules contradict existing European legislation: according to a regulation from the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, foreigners have the right to receive residency permits or student visas if the characteristics and purpose of their stay in the EU meet the documents' requirements. The ombudsman has suggested adding students to a list of exceptions for repressed citizens and resuming the issuance of student visas. The Czech Interior Minister, however, has said he believes Prague needs to continue imposing severe restrictions against Russia.
'Tilting at windmills'
Belarusians and Russians who are trying to apply to Czech universities remotely are perhaps in the most difficult situation of all. Even when Czech universities accept their applicants’ documents, Czech consulates are not issuing the prospective students’ visas. The Czech Republic imposed limits of Russians and Belarusians immediately after the start of the war — on February 28.
“The Education Ministry believes that there’s no guarantee that people who enter under these visas won’t carry a ‘potential threat’ to the country. This rhetoric appeared in the Czech Republic at the very start of the war,” said Anton Vaykhel, who heads a support center for foreigners in the Czech Republic.
Applicants who passed the entrance exams between April and June and were supposed to be able to come to the Czech Republic by the start of the academic year will now be unable to. “They spent time and money on their preparations. So the ones who are located in Russia are suffering most of all,” said Vaykhel.
In his opinion, these kinds of restrictions are ineffective and, in some cases, even harmful: young people who have successfully gone through the procedures necessary to enroll in Czech universities but are not allowed to enter the country because of visa restrictions will automatically lose their army deferment.
“We’re trying to fight this; we’ve been writing to the [Czech] Interior Ministry and trying to get in touch with ministers and journalists on social media. But so far, the authorities are still saying that their top priority is to help Ukraine and protect their own citizens,” said Vaykhel. “To be honest, at the moment, it feels like tilting at windmills. It’s very difficult to influence the views that have taken root [about Russians in the Czech Republic].
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
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