€3 Billion for Development of Civil Society in Belarus?
In April 2010 Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski promised Belarus authorities €3 billion in international aid. The condition was that the country would adhere to basic democratic standards. Now that Belarus authorities have started a full-scale war against the civil society and political opponents, they are unlikely to get any financial aid. If the Belarus regime is not going to get it, should the money then go to the Belarusians and the civil society of Belarus directly? That would be a logical thing to do. Even a fraction of this figure would help tremendously provided that the money reaches the recipient.
Belarusian civil society badly needs help from outside. They cannot get any support from within Belarus where everything is tightly controlled by the state. Nor it is easy for them to access resources abroad. It is important to make more funds available, but also to understand conditions in which Belarus NGOs and other civil society groups have to operate. These conditions are far from those in which NGOs operate in Belgium, Ukraine or even Russia. The government imposed restrictions similar to those which existed during the Cold War. The support strategy of international donors should be adjusted accordingly.
Increase funds and simplify procedures
Currently, Belarus civil society groups applying for use of EU funds have to undergo lengthy registration procedures in Belarus and which eventually end in arbitrary rejections. On the other hand, NGOs have to comply with strict bureaucratic criteria of the EU agencies in charge of resource allocations. The EU goals are clearly undermined when the projects approved for funding are vetoed by Minsk or when the EU assistance is given to government-controlled organizations, eligible for EU grants. The EU procedures need to be revised taking into account the constraints imposed by the official Minsk.
The main weapon of the Belarus regime is not beating by the police, harassment by the KGB or prison sentences. They have something more effective. First, it is propaganda and, second, the fear of people to lose their jobs. Both can and should be addressed by the international community.
Breaking through the information blockade
Despite the recent progress with the TV channel Belsat broadcasting from Poland and efforts by Deutsche Welle and European Radio for Belarus, independent media penetration remains low and does not reach the general population. The EU needs to step up its support for independent media and increase TV and FM broadcasting to Belarus from Poland and Lithuania. If the Belarus regime will lose the propaganda battle, it will lose the war. The Belarusian regime understands that and uses more repressions against journalists than against any other group. Like the Soviet society, the Belarus society is based on lie, which can be effectively exposed by independent and accessible media.
Helping activists inside Belarus
It is also important to help the repressed activists stay inside Belarus. The Belarus authorities tightly control virtually all employers in the country and many people are dismissed for their political activities. In the absence of any other opportunities in the country, those people have to leave Belarus. Most of them would be happy to stay if they could earn at least something to make ends meet in Belarus. The international community can and should help such people to stay in Belarus and remain active in their communities.
One way to do it is to create jobs for activists inside Belarus (e.g. research projects). Also, it is possible to create temporary job opportunities abroad so that people could leave, earn some money and go back to their families and communities. It is much more difficult to bring up a new generation of activists than to retain those who are already active. In addition, many European countries would benefit from cheap labour force from Belarus.
Helping Belarusians travel and work abroad
To that end, European countries should also radically simplify procedures for obtaining visas and work permits for Belarus citizens. Currently, to get a Schengen visa Belarusians need to collect many documents showing that they have stable income. But how can a Belarusian civil society activist struggling to find a job and make ends meet produce all those documents?
According to the 2009 monitoring report by Stephan Batory Foundation, with the adoption of the Schengen visa regime by new EU Member States in December 2007, the number of visas issued to Belarusians to travel to neighboring Poland and Lithuania has decreased by 73% and 52% respectively. This amounts to “a new ‘Iron Curtain’ on the eastern Schengen borders,” according to the Foundation’s assessment. As a result, many have to leave the country, often illegally, seek political asylum never to return to Belarus again. Traveling from Belarus and back to Belarus should be made as easy as possible.
New scholarship programs and incentives to return to Belarus
The EU also needs to establish new scholarship programs for Belarusian students. Ideally, these programs will not only teach the young people about democratic norms, but also encourage them to return in Belarus and share their knowledge with others. Special programs for those people, for instance research grants or funding for civil society initiatives, would help tremendously. Such help should be offered bypassing the official Minsk. This involves risks for those people but there are many courageous people willing to take those risks.
It is time to become realistic about the Belarus authorities. Following the unprecedented violence in December, Belarus authorities still keep most of presidential candidates in prison, make more arrests and searches of human rights and opposition activists every day. Activists are thrown out of jobs, opposition parties are kicked out of their offices. The international community should recall how it supported Polish dissidents and democratic organizations during the Cold War and apply those lessons to Belarus today.