How poverty spreads across Belarus

Perhaps one of Lukashenka’s greatest achievements in Belarusian society has been his fight against poverty. In the worst years of the 1990s, half of the population of Belarus was languishing below the poverty line. This figure is now 10 times smaller. 

However, poverty is once again on the rise. In some regions, the average worker earns just $100 per month, barely over the Belarusian poverty line (around $90).

The main reason people end up below the poverty line is loss of employment, as the state fails to provide any meaningful help for the unemployed. Belarusians on the dole are entitled to around $12 per month. Residents of neighbouring Poland, meanwhile, receive around $200.

It seems that poverty is doomed to continue spreading, as the authorities see no way out of the crisis other than shifting the country’s economic woes onto the backs of the poor. 

There and back again: Belarus’s road to poverty

Two decades ago, Belarus was an unambiguously poor country. In the 1990s, all over the region, wages dropped dramatically as a result of the collapse of the socialist economy. At that time, about half of the population of Belarus was below the poverty line.

Thus, it is no surprise that the campaign slogan of Aliaksandr Lukashenka in 1994 was ‘take people away from the abyss’. This message proved successful, and perhaps his fight against poverty is the reason Lukashenka has remained popular for so long. Belarusian economic growth most benefited the poorest segments of society, as director of the IPM Research Center Aliaksandr Chubrik told the author.

However, much has changed since the 1990s, and the current recession has drastically affected the poor. Despite claims of the authorities that the Belarusian economy is finally resuscitating, the crisis continues in the east of the country. According to official data, during the first half of 2017 the economies of Vitsiebsk Region shrunk by 3.2% and Mahiliou Region by 2.6%.

However, even if the economy grows, the poorest of the poor will not necessarily reap the benefits. In recent years, redistribution of resources is slowly tipping in favour of the wealthiest. If in 2010 20% of the richest Belarusians owned 36.7% of the total wealth, in 2016 this figure jumped to 38.8%, according to data from the Belarusian Statistical Committee.

This figure may in fact be misleading: inequality is probably rising even more sharply. Many rich people have bank accounts abroad and find legal ways to avoid paying taxes. For instance, while people working in the ‘old economy’ pay all taxes, IT companies are asking the Belarusian authorities to prolong already existing tax benefits for IT businesses and give them even more. Exacerbating the situation, anywhere from 10 to 25 per cent of the working population in Belarus operates in the shadow economy, according to the Solidarity with Belarus Information Office. The state is unable to redistribute wealth from this sector to those most in need.

In response to this crisis, foodsharing is gaining popularity in some parts of Belarusian society. People share posts on vk.com, the most popular social network in Belarus, offering food they want to give away. It usually only takes several minutes for someone to make a claim. Some people are even willing to go from one end of Minsk to another just for a meal. The largest foodsharing page on social media now has more than 8,000 followers.

Two causes of poverty

The World Bank sets out four important factors which contribute to poverty: younger age, living in the countryside, unemployment, and low education. In the case of Belarus, employment and region of residence seem to be the most important.

Unemployment certainly remains the deciding factor, as Belarus lacks a proper system of social protection for the unemployed and obscures the real unemployment rate. Welfare benefits for the unemployed range from $12 to $24, and ‘less than 10% of unemployed people actually receive them’, says economist Aliaksandr Chubrik. 

Thus, this winter’s social parasite protests should come as no surprise: people are simply not making enough money to live. Protestors in 12 Belarusian towns marched against a Belarusian tax on unemployment, gathering around 20,000 demonstrators. Many people linked the end of the protests to the fact that the weather improved and people went to their ‘dachas’ in the countryside. However, summer houses are not just a place to relax when it’s hot: an IPM Research Centre study shows that the share of income from part-time farming is growing everywhere in Belarus, even in Minsk.

Place of residence is another important factor influencing the poverty rate. Roughly speaking, the more one’s place of residence looks like Minsk, the less likely one is to be very poor. According to official data, in Minsk the poor comprise 1.4% of all households; in Homiel Region the figure is 5.9%.

In most countries, residents of the capital tend to be wealthier, but it seems that many Belarusian regions, especially villages, cannot free themselves of the cycle of poverty. Although the government aims to mitigate the standard of living discrepancy between the regions and the capital, in practice, the gap between Minsk and other parts of Belarus keeps widening

‘Let them find a second job’

Belarusian laws and the statements of officials suggest that the authorities have little empathy towards Belarusian poor people.

The Belarusian authorities’ response to the economic crisis is to shift the burden on ordinary people. For example, instead of supporting the unemployed, Belarusian authorities tax them. Recently, Aliaksandr Lukashenka stated said that a new version of the decree on social parasitism would be ready by 1 October.

Moreover, this year the authorities started incrementally raising the retirement age, and the payment of utility tariffs increased by one-third in 2016, according to the Ministry of Economy. Although these measures may be wise economically, they are not driven by a belief in liberalism. Instead, they simply reorganise the social functions of the state to hit the poorest. It is unlikely that the Belarusian authorities will introduce real free-market reforms.

More evidence of the authorities’ lack of interest in helping people is statements by government officials. For example, according to Lukashenka: ‘only the lazy in Belarus cannot earn enough money’. Mariana Shchotkina, a former Minister of Labour and Social Protection, advised Belarusians to find a second job, as ‘93% of Belarusians have only one job.’

Such statements, of course, do nothing for the government’s image. However, as voting in Belarus is merely a formality, officials are unlikely to suffer any consequences.




The Many Faces of Forced Labour in Belarus

On 12 July 2017, a Maladzečna District court tried two teachers for the death of 13-year old high school student Viktoryja Papčenia.

Viktoryja died tragically last September under the wheels of a truck while harvesting potatoes for a local agricultural enterprise. School No. 11 had sent Viktoryja and her classmates to work in the field without parental consent.

The practise of sending students to state agricultural enterprises to work for free during harvest time has its roots in Soviet times. This phenomenon still remains common in modern Belarus, and most Belarusians do not see it as a form of forced labour.

According to the International Labour Organisation, violations of workers’ rights in Belarus go beyond unpaid youth labour. The most notorious examples include forced labour of prisoners, soldiers, and inmates at labour therapy facilities, as well as occasional unpaid work on Saturdays and mandatory job placements for university graduates.

A deadly potato harvest

In the Papčenia case, the court found the truck driver and the two supervising teachers guilty of manslaughter. However, the officials directly responsible for sending the underage students to do heavy physical work instead of going to class still walk free and keep their jobs.

The chain of responsibility starts with the head of the Maladzečna District Executive Committee, Aliaksandr Jahnaviec, who organised assistance for the potato harvest. The Local Department of Education and the deputy head teacher of school No. 11, Dzianis Kurec, followed suit and ordered underage students to skip class to harvest potatoes.

Finally, the teachers, who taught physics and French and were not qualified for agricultural work, agreed to supervise the students. Thus, authorities had sanctioned illegal work for minors, without even bothering to ask parents’ permission or provide work contracts.

The father of the victim, Aleh Papčenia, was not able to prove that the incident constituted illegal work for the agricultural enterprise Ushod-Agra (formerly called a kolkhoz or collective farm). The court took the side of the school, which stated that harvesting potatoes was a part of the ‘educational process.’

‘Nothing to lose but your chains’

Since 1999, presidential decrees have significantly weakened workers’ rights in Belarus. For instance, Decree No. 29, signed in 1999, transformed permanent work contracts into fixed short-term contracts, endangering job security for over 90 per cent of employees. In 2014, Decree No. 5 further undermined workers’ rights, giving employers more powers to fire workers.

Discriminatory labour legislation and continuous suppression of independent trade unions leave workers at the mercy of their employers. According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index, Belarus ranks 5 (the lowest possible mark: ‘no guarantee of rights’) on a scale from 1 to 5, based on the degree of respect for workers’ rights.

The continued existence of subotniki – another Soviet legacy of unpaid quasi-voluntary work on selected Saturdays of the year – is another symptom of this problem. Some workers have the option of staying at their workplace and contributing some part of their daily earnings to fund various public projects. Those less lucky have to perform menial tasks such as cleaning streets.

By law, participation in subotniki is voluntary. In practise, however, workers have no choice, as the discriminatory fixed-term contract system severely restricts their rights and impacts job security.

Should an employee refuse, the employer could decline to extend his or her contract for the next year. The teachers in the Papčenia case did not deny their guilt, but to a certain degree they were also victimised by the existing system, in which contradicting the boss could mean getting fired.

A right or an obligation?

According to the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, forced labour practises affect various social groups, including soldiers, inmates of detention facilities, labour therapy centres, and even recent university graduates.

In 2011, former presidential candidate and then political prisoner Mikola Statkievič broke several ribs and his hand while working at a prison-run sawmill, due to lack of protective clothing. According to the human rights organisation Viasna, no charges were brought against those in charge of the correctional facility.

Along with Turkmenistan, Belarus remains the only post-Soviet state to preserve labour therapy centres, commonly known as LTPs. Originally designed to re-socialise alcoholics and drug addicts, this kind of occupational rehabilitation is voluntary. However, if a person has committed over three civil offences under the influence of alcohol or narcotics, the authorities can easily commit him or her to such centres.

Other groups at risk of forced labour are individuals who have lost their parental rights. According to Decree No. 18, they must reimburse the custody costs of their underage children to state childcare facilities. Should they neglect their duties due to intoxication, the authorities can place them in LTPs.

LTPs remain under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which limits access to the facilities of the public and journalists. Since 2003, the number of LTPs in Belarus has grown from two to nine. Human rights activists at Viasna estimate that the overall number of inmates exceeds 6,000.

Even recent university graduates can fall victim to a form of forced labour. Although the law guarantees free higher education, scholarship holders must submit to mandatory job placement after graduation. The Belarusian authorities are reluctant to abandon this programme, even though it has proven ineffective.

The Belarusian Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to work in safe and secure conditions. Nevertheless, it appears that for many in modern Belarus, the right to work is more of an obligation. As the recent ‘social parasite’ protests have demonstrated, continuous implementation of Soviet inspired labour practises can result in unpredictable consequences for the regime, mobilising the protest potential in society.




Military parades in Belarus: displaying military might and annoying locals

Belarus's tradition of military parades

In Belarus, military parades usually take place twice a year: on 9 May, or Victory Day, when post-Soviet countries celebrate victory in the Great Patriotic War with Nazi Germany, and on 3 July, the official Independence Day.

Thousands of members of the armed forces gather to exhibit the country's military equipment. Tanks, soldiers, and the military orchestra have become prominent symbols of the parade. Top-level officials, including president Alexander Lukashenka, also participate in the parades.

Every year, the parades involve helicopters, planes, missile systems, demonstration of tanks and military vehicles, and marches accompanied by the military orchestra. Additionally, in 2011-2016, Belarus invited Russian paratroopers to join.

Military parades usually involve mobilising a spectators. Organisations such as BRSM and other pro-governmental associations forcefully ensure that their members attend. Many ordinary citizens also come to the parades to look at the military equipment and large fireworks displays.

The Independence Day parade, which is accompanied by patriotic songs and slogans, highlights Belarus's Soviet past. This emphasis on the Great Patriotic War, which started when Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, to a large degree overshadows Belarus's independence.

The precision and scope of the parades, which is achieved at a very high cost and involves numerous rehearsals, make the phenomenon look like a scene from a movie. This year, on 3 July, more than 6,000 soldiers, hundreds of units of military equipment, and thousands of spectators took part.

Logistical hassles aside, which involve diverting traffic, changing public transport schedules, and damaging roads with tank tracks, many Belarusians disagree with the very nature of the parades.

The link between the official Independence Day and the parade on 3 July itself remains dubious. On 3 July, Minsk was indeed liberated from the Nazis, but the rest of Belarus remained under occupation.

Earlier, Independence Day was celebrated on July 27, when Belarus became a sovereign state.

Tanks and toilets: the 2017 Independence Day parade

Even before the military parade took place, many Belarusians were heatedly discussing it. On 24 June, during a rehearsal, a large tank bumped into a lamppost and a tree. Nobody suffered from the incident, but it garnered much attention. Belarusians then started a petition to move the parade outside Minsk.

The parade is intended to demonstrate not only Belarus's military might, but also the successes of the Belarusian economic model. Therefore, along with tanks, guns, and other military equipment, the parade exhibited some of the country's non-military products. The event's organisers decided to showcase Belarusian furniture brands (Pinskdrev and Maladzechna Mebel), tractors, and even Belarusian toilets.

This decision was supposed to prove that Belarus is able to produce everything it needs – from toilets to military equipment. In turn, this was intended to encourage Belarusians to buy Belarusian products. However, the presence of the toilets caused wide-spread ridicule among Belarusians on the Internet.

Thus, in May, Lukashenka stated: ‘There is no need to be stingy with this [parade], especially because they are not so expensive. It should be a real parade, an impressive one. This is why it is being done. This is a demonstration, we show people that we are eating the bread of war for a reason’.

According to Lukashenka's demands, the parade was indeed massive and expensive. The Ministry of Defence, however, refused to divulge its expenditures. In contrast, Russia reported the costs of its parades, despite the closed nature of its military entities.

Although ascertaining the real cost Belarus's military parades remains difficult, analysts have attempted to estimate the budget of this demonstration of power. Thus, Naviny.by reports that Belarusians probably paid around $2.37m in taxes for transportation of equipment and soldiers, decorations, and fuel for tanks.

Speaking with TUT.by, Belarus's most popular news portal, analyst Andrei Alesin concluded that the parade in 2009 cost $50m. However, in 2009 the parade featured 4,000 soldiers – 2,000 less than in 2017. Moreover, in 2009 there were only about 200 units of military equipment, while in 2017 there were over 500. However, given the differences between these two figures and the lack of access to concrete figures about the parades, it remains impossible to estimate the parades' true cost.

Why conduct military parades?

Historically, the aim of military parades has been to demonstrate the country's ability to protect itself during war. After the Ukrainian conflict, which led to worries of a possible Russian intervention in Belarus, military parades possibly even reassured citizens.

What's more, many believe that showing off military equipment is proof that the country has the resources to resist aggression from any side. Thus, the parade creates an illusion of military capability.

The military parade of 3 July is also proof that the Belarusian government continues to demonstrate its support for Soviet traditions and symbols and sees them as a key element to nation building.

These parades also involve different forms of entertainment, such as fireworks, concerts, and competitions. As Leanid Spatakaj, an analyst at Belarus Security Blog, told Belsat: ‘People need not only bread but also a spectacle: if there was no demand there would be no offer’.

The Ministry of Defence is unlikely to announce the true cost of these parades in the near future. However, given the amount of military equipment, city decorations, and entertainment, this sum is nothing to sneeze at. Instead of conducting expensive military parades, Belarus could focus on updating equipment and repairing army facilities.




Belarusian Nobel laureate Sviatlana Alieksijevič hit by a smear campaign

On 19 June, the Russian information agency Regnum published a widely discussed interview with Sviatlana Alieksijevič, the 2015 Nobel Prize Winner from Belarus. Despite the fact that Alieksijevič forbade Regnum to publish the interview, the news outlet went ahead and released the article.

In a conversation with journalist Sergei Gurkin, Alieksijevič touched upon the issues of Russification in Belarus, the war in Ukraine, and the status of the Belarusian and Ukrainian languages. The interview led to widespread discussion of Alieksijevič in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

The Russian media in particular was keen to discuss the interview, accusing Alieksievič of holding a 'Russophobic position'. Meanwhile, reactions in Belarus and Ukraine were more of a response to the scandal in Russia than to Alieksievič's own words.

Why did the interview go viral?

On 19 June, the Russian news service Regnum published a conversation between Belarusian Nobel Laureate Sviatlana Alieksijevič and Sergei Gurkin, a journalist for the media outlet Delovoy Peterburg. Although Alieksijevič explicitly stated during the conversation that it should remain off record, Gurkin insisted on seeking publication.

This decision would cost the journalist his job: Delovoy Peterburg refused to publish the interview for ethical reasons. Thus, Gurkin offered the interview to Regnum, which accepted the article. Delovoy Peterburg subsequently fired the journalist for violating journalistic ethics, but the published interview was already causing heated discussion in Russia.

Alieksijevič highlighted Russia's militant position and named Russia 'a country of wars and revolutions'. The war in Ukraine and Maidan were another focus of the interview. Opposing the opinion of Gurkin, Alieksijevič claimed that the regime change in Ukraine was the people's will and the country aims to move towards Europe.

Perhaps Alieksijevič's most notable statements related to the murder of pro-Russian writer Oles Buzina: the Nobel Laureate claimed that she understood the murderer's motives.

Alieksijevič also covered the issue of the status of the Belarusian and Ukrainian languages. Both Ukraine and Belarus endured a long period of Russification; the number of people who think in Russian is thus unsurprising. Alieksijevič then explained that restricting the usage of Russian language in Ukraine could help unite the nation.

A threat to Russian propaganda?

Alieksijevič’s interview immediately provoked a reaction in the Russian media and among politicians and political analysts. Russia's largest news portal, Lenta.ru, gave much attention to Alieksijevič's opinion on the murder of the pro-Russian writer Oles Buzina.

Lenta.ru interpreted Alieksijevič's statement that she understood the motive for the murder as a justification for it.

After the publication of the interview, Russian State Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov called on the Nobel Committee to consider retracting Alieksijevič's Nobel Prize for ‘the violation of moral principles’.

Immediately following the interview, two Russian bloggers contacted Alieksijevič and played a prank on her: one of them introduced himself as the Minister of Culture of Ukraine and spoke of his intention to award her the National prize ‘Order of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes’ and organise a meeting with President Poroshenko.

The other prankster introduced himself as a representative of the Russian Ministry of Culture. He offered her the national Russian award ‘Orden Druzhby’ and a meeting with Putin. After the prank publication, Alieksijevič told the Russian oppositional journal Novaya Gazeta that she would never accept such awards.

Dmitry Kiselev, a well-known Russian TV host, called Alieksijevič 'a wolf in sheep's clothing' on a Russian Channel 1 broadcast. Kiselev referred to Alieksijevič as Russophobic, racist, and intolerant of Russian culture, history, and language. Kiselev described Alieksijevič ’s opinion about Russians as ‘dull militarists incompatible with Europe’ who ‘do not have the right to compassion’, and who 'can and should be killed’.

Reactions in Belarus and Ukraine

This is not the first statement of Alieksijevič which has provoked debate in Belarus. Publicist and literature critic Aliaksandr Fiaduta believes that Alieksijevič's status allows her to ignore the pranksters and journalists attempting to abuse her, writes Radyjo Svaboda.

On Radyjo Svaboda, Belarusian journalists Jury Drakachrust and Zmicier Hurnievich discussed whether the pranks would influence the reputation of Alieksijevič. Drakachrust argued that Alieksijevič was just repeating statements she had made previously. However, she could have been less ambiguous when explaining her position.

On June 9, in an interview with the Russian TV channel Rain, Alieksijevič said: ‘the war that Russia started in Donbass is on Russia's conscience. Such a war could start in Belarus: let in tanks and guns and there will be Catholics killing Orthodox or anyone else’.

This statement provoked strong reactions from both the Catholic Church in Belarus (Archbishop Kandrusiewicz reacted to the statement in an open letter) and Belarusian politicians and public activists. This forced Alieksijevič to further explain that her metaphor had been misunderstood.

This time around, Alieksijevič's interview did not attracted much public attention in Ukraine. The Ukrainian media have largely focused Alieksijevič's opinions regarding language, identity, and the war in Eastern Ukraine.

Thus, two days after the interview's release, the newspaper Depo analysed Alieksijevič's position on why the Russian media reacted so heatedly to the interview. Hromadske TV also highlighted the development of discourse surrounding the interview in Russia. However, Alieksijevič's conversation with Gurkin was not so widely discussed in Ukraine.

Alieksijevič's puzzling personality

Sviatlana Alieksijevič has often received criticism for her ambiguous opinions related to her national identity, languages, and position on wars.

Her controversial interview with Regnum led to further discussions of her personality, especially in Russia, while the Ukrainian media focused mostly on Alieksijevič's previous statements on Ukrainian issues.

The Belarusian media and public figures also analysed the reaction to the interview in Russia. However, the harshest criticism came from the Russian media and activists, who upbraided Alieksijevič for her radical position towards the Russian language and the Ukrainian conflict.

The sharp reaction from Russian media outlets and politicians can be explained by the fact that many of her statements related to ‘sore points’ of Russian politics: the war in Ukraine and Russia's role in it, the promotion of the concept of the 'Russian World', and confrontation with the West.

Alieksijevič, who writes in Russian, has made statements that completely contradict official Russian propaganda. Many public figures in Russia perceive this as a threat or an attempt to change Russian public opinion on issues important to the Putin regime.

The Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner has not received much attention in Belarus for winning the Nobel Prize. Nevertheless, many of her subsequent interviews have caused heated debate.




The unexpected rise of Belarusian universities in international rankings

According to recent QS World University Rankings, two Belarusian universities appeared on the list of the best 959 universities in the world. The Belarusian State University received a higher rating than all universities in Poland and Lithuania.

Nevertheless, despite the high position of two Belarusian universities, higher education in the country still faces serious issues, including restriction of academic freedom, dependence on the state, and plagiarism. According to QS, Belarusian universities score highly in student teacher ratio. However, this criteria appears unimportant when deeper flaws in Belarusian higher education are taken into account.

What does the QS ranking measure?

The Belarusian State University has appeared among the best 959 universities in the world for several years now. In 2016, The Times Higher Education World University Ranking placed BSU among the 601-800 best universities. Quacquarelli Symonds rated BSU as 36th among almost 500 universities in Emerging Europe & Central Asia.

In ranking universities, QS assesses six main criteria. The agency first looks at the academic reputation of an educational institution. Gathering responses from 40,643 employers, QS measures the reputation of a university as a source of new employees. The agency then counts citations of research papers per faculty.

The final score also depends on the ability of a university to attract international employers and students. 20% of the final calculation is based on the faculty/student ratio, which analyses the capacity of a university to provide enough teachers for a quality study process.

Nevertheless, the QS university ranking has received criticism for how they measure citations. Another cornerstone of their methodology is the high importance of academic reputation, which comprises 40% of the final score. Despite these criticisms, however, many believe that QS is one of the most reliable university rankings. TheTelegraph, The Guardian and Times named the ranking as the most reliable.

The top three advantages of Belarusian universities

BSU's academic reputation remains lower than that of Polish and Lithuanian universities. At the same time, QS takes into account the number of teachers and students at a university. The Belarusian State University received 92.3 points out of 100 for its faculty/student ratio. In comparison, Vilnius University received 69.2 points and Warsaw University 29.1.

The Belarusian State University has around 55,000 students, much more than Warsaw University (44,000 students) or Vilnius University (20,200).

Despite restricted academic freedom and political pressure, Belarusian universities have several advantages. Higher education remains available for almost everyone able to pass a test after high school. Although Centralised Testing doesn't correspond very well to the school programme, many can pass it and enter university. Universities accept students even with 20 points out of 100.

An additional advantage of Belarusian Universities is the opportunity for students from low-income families to receive a scholarship. The scholarship money, roughly $30-$45 per month, barely covers living costs. However, almost every scholarship student can receive it providing he or she retains adequate grades every semester.

Belarusian Universities also provide students with cheap housing, which gives them the chance to live independently. Although the number of available places in student dorms and the quality of living accommodations remain low, international students and those coming from other cities or villages are guaranteed a place in the dormitories. The cost of rent for these dorms is extremely low, especially compared to renting an apartment. In 2017, students could rent a dorm for only $5-$20 per month, depending on the area and quality.

Improving Belarusian universities

Both the Belarusian State University and the Belarusian National Technical University received the lowest scores in the 'academic reputation' section of the QS rankings. They could both improve their scores by addressing issues of academic freedom, independence from the state, and plagiarism. These factors directly influence the reputation of universities.

Universities still remain dependent on the state. Teachers and students have no influence on the election of provosts – these are assigned by the authorities. University and school teachers are part of electoral commissions which participate in election falsification. The loyalty of the educational system to the current political regime has become a hallmark of Belarusian universities.

Another urgent problem is plagiarism. According to the independent online magazine Idea, 74% of Belarusian students have downloaded ready-made essays, 63% have rephrased existing texts, and 30% have ordered papers for money. The Ministry of Education and Universities could easily introduce a system to check for plagiarism. However, this does not seem to be a priority for Belarusian authorities.

Although international rankings rate Belarusian universities higher every year, there are still many obstacles to development. Belarusian universities would benefit from granting students and teachers more economy – this would ensure the development of the Belarusian labour market and improve the quality of higher education. Independence from the state and extension of student rights could also prevent brain-drain in Belarus.

Does the Rating Ignore Reality?

Despite the fact that BSU and BNTU appeared in the QS ranking, certain aspects of higher education in Belarus are problematic.

In May 2015, Belarus became a part of the Bologna process. Nevertheless, the Bologna Committee, an independent monitoring organisation, reported that the Belarusian system of higher education is failing to implement the norms of the Bologna process.

Uladzimir Dunajeŭ, the head of the Bologna Committee, noted in Bolognaby.org that besides the underdevelopment of higher education in Belarus, ‘Belarusian people fear reforms, thinking that they will only lead to deterioration. The history of educational reforms can explain this position.'

In 2010, many instances of political pressure on students occurred during post-election protests. Among the 700 people arrested after protests, many were students. In November 2015, the European Student Union called on the Belarusian authorities to put a stop to the increasing pressure placed on Belarusian students who participated in demonstrations, reports Belta.

In spring 2017, Belarusians protested against the social parasite tax, which obliges people to pay a tax for being unemployed. Students became active participants in the demonstrations, leading to yet more suppression from the authorities. For example, a student named Aliena Kisiel was kicked out of a university in Mahilyow for taking part in protests.

In assessing universities, research agencies often ignore issues related to political pressure. However, this factor remains important in non-democratic countries, where students become actors in political or social protests. The absence of this factor in the rankings may make the position of Belarusian Universities higher than they should be.

Regarding the citation rate of research papers, one of the six criteria of the QS ranking, BSU does well. However, the abundance of plagiarism might influence the quality of cited research papers. Additionally, the high citation rate might be explained by the rare use of foreign languages in Belarusian academia.

It seems that the official ranking of a university depends on many valuable formal indicators (such as the number of students and teachers, etc.). However, they fail to take into account factors such as the degree of academic freedom.




Belarus becomes safer, but political persecution continues

Numbeo, the world's largest database of user-confirmed data about cities and countries worldwide, ranked Belarus the safest country in the region in 2017. Other global metrics also indicate that Belarus is a relatively safe part of the world.

Domestic trends demonstrate that all kinds of crime have decreased over the past decade, with the exception of drug crime. However, political repression tarnishes the generally positive picture, as world media and local journalists report on these cases extensively.

The authorities should stop targeting the regime's opponents if they want to further develop relations with the civilised world and strengthen the rule of law at home.

Belarus: a safe country according to world rankings

In 2017, Belarus scored 10th in a ranking of crime and safety published by Numbeo, the world’s largest database of user-contributed data about cities and countries worldwide. The country went up by 15 positions since 2016. According to the ranking, Belarus's neighbours are far more dangerous: Poland took 30th place, Latvia – 40th, Lithuania – 50th, Russia – 67th, and Ukraine – 85th.

In a world ranking of intentional homicide, Belarus took 116th position, remaining between Albania and North Korea. In total, the rating included 219 countries. This rating was last compiled in 2013 according to the methodology of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Compilers of the rating recorded 5.1 murders per 100,000 people in Belarus, while in 2016 the figure decreased to around 4.5.

This is one of the most reputable indicators to assess the overall level of physical security in a particular state or region. Often, it is perceived as an index of the level of violence in society as a whole.

In the Global Terrorism Index 2016, prepared by the Institute of Economics and Peace in cooperation with the University of Maryland, Belarus scored 86th of 130 countries. According to the index, Belarus is a country with a low level of terrorism. Among the countries of the former USSR, Ukraine has the highest level of terrorism and ranked 11th. Russia (30), Tajikistan (56), Kyrgyzstan (84) also appeared below Belarus as more prone to terror. However, neighbouring EU members – Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania – ranked 130th as countries with no threat of terrorism at all.

The American nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative also published a study according to which Belarus ranks 12th in the world in terms of number of prisoners. According to their data, Belarus has 306 inmates per 100,000 people. A total of about 200 countries, along with every US state, is included in the ranking.

The United States was the world leader in this ranking, with 693 inmates per 100,000 people. Turkmenistan, a post-Soviet authoritarian regime, scored second with 583 prisoners, while Russia was third with 453. Belarus's other neighbours keep fewer people locked up: examples include Lithuania (254), Latvia (224), Poland (189), and Ukraine (173).

Domestic crime trends

Belarus has experienced a steady decline in most types of crime over the past decade. Theft, the most common crime, fell by almost three times – from 103,000 to 37,000 cases. Serious crimes, such as murder and attempted murder, rape, and assault all decreased about 2.5 times, while robbery fell by four times. Hooliganism also halved, although it had seen a certain upsurge since 2012.

The only crime that grew over this period appears to be drug-related crime. Following an upsurge in the popularity of synthetic drugs (also known as spice) in the 2010s which lead to many deaths, the government started paying more attention to drug issues and made anti-drug legislation much harsher. Thus, the rise in drug crime could simply be a result of tougher legislation and the growing attention of the police, rather than a decrease in drug trade or consumption.

Nevertheless, alcohol remains the number one trigger of crime in Belarus. Belarusians commit over 80% of murders while drunk. Moreover, it remains one of the main causes of suicide.

As for the regional distribution of crime, the western regions of the country are traditionally less crime-ridden than the eastern and central regions. This could be explained by their large Roman Catholic and Protestant communities, as well as their geographical and historical proximity to Europe. Although Homiel Region was traditionally considered the most criminal in Belarus, it has now ceded its place to Minsk Region: the economic, financial, and human resources centre of the country.

Safety only for loyal citizens

Although Belarus may indeed be safer than its post-Soviet peers and neighbours, and the crime rate is consistently decreasing, one detail spoils its 'safe' image. Politically motivated persecution of the opposition and activists continues to be widespread. When it comes to politics, the good guys and bad guys reverse roles.

False evidence presented by police officers during political trials has already become a legend within civil society circles. The same officers who detain activists after mass rallies or other demonstrations usually serve as the primary witnesses. Their usual formula at the witness stand is that activists were swearing, waving their hands, and shouting anti-governmental slogans. In many cases, the police testify against a particular person even though they did not personally detain him or her or the suspect was even abroad at the time.

Their false evidence usually serves as grounds for administrative arrest or a fine. In more serious criminal cases, such as the recent White Legion case (a supposed illegal armed group), the authorities often fabricate a more sophisticated set of evidence, bolstered by large-scale TV propaganda. For instance, in the White Legion case, the KGB brought in a false informant (‘Frau A’ from Germany), accused the detainees of links with ISIS, plans to bomb the Moscow metro, and other outrageous claims.

This machine of political repression mars the image of Belarus as a safe country, and the world media and local journalists report extensively on such cases. Thus, Belarus retains its reputation as a dictatorship despite the many positive trends. The authorities should stop such repressive practises targeting the regime's opponents if they want to further develop relations with the civilised world and strengthen rule of law at home.




Belarusian schools: modernisation or stagnation?

On 12 May, Alexander Lukašenka suddenly announced that starting in September, school children would start class at 9:00 am rather than 8:00. This reform would give children an extra hour of sleep. However, many maintain that the change would be just another formality, without actually improving the condition of school education.

Meanwhile, the increasing ideologisation of schools, the lack of funding, and low wages for teachers remain much more serious obstacles to Belarusian education.

The legacy of the Soviet Union is still obvious in Belarusian schools, and this factor hinders the development of general education. Instead of changing pupils' schedules, the authorities should focus on developing study programmes, guaranteeing more freedom for teachers, and opening schools up for civil society activism.

Preserving the Soviet Model

Belarusian schools still preserve many features of the Soviet education model. Textbooks on history focus on Belarus's Soviet past, devoting an inordinate amount of attention to the Great Patriotic War. Old-fashioned schoolbooks in other subjects need to be completely overhauled, as do testing and monitoring, believes Tamara Matskevich, Deputy Chairwoman of the Francišak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society.

What's more, the workload of pupils at Belarusians schools remains very high: This contrasts to many systems in other European countries.

Teacher status and salary is another post-communist remnant of the Belarusian school system. Since 2010, the wages of school teachers have declined from $341 per month in 2010 to $258 in 2017, reports Belstat, the Belarusian government's statistical agency. This number is much lower that in neighbouring Russia, where the average salary is $526 (Rosstat). What's more, the average salary of teachers in Belarus is still far from the $500 routinely promised by Lukašenka.

Another tradition the Belarusian school system has inherited from the USSR is the tradition of giving ‘gifts’ to teachers. As a member of a parents’ association of a Minsk school reported to Naviny.by:

We collect money for classroom needs twice a year for about 50 rubles (around $26 – BD) per year. I can name some of the expenses that we paid for: these are gifts for teachers for the holidays, matinees for children, and symbolic gifts for children's birthdays. Last year, we bought blinds.

As in Soviet times, when Russian was the main language of education, the status of the Belarusian language remains unequal. In the 2016-2017 academic year, only 13.3% of all pupils studied in Belarusian-medium programmes, compared to 86.6% who studied in Russian, according to a recent report by Belstat. Additionally, in some regions Polish schools regularly encounter obstacles created by the authorities.

This Soviet heritage, however, also has some advantages: nine years of schooling are universally obligatory. The literacy rate of adults in Belarus is 100% according to UNESCO.

Ideologisation of School Education

Ideologisation remains another problematic feature of Belarusian general education. To this day, pupils are required to join the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM): this is the successor of Soviet communist organisations such as the Young Pioneers or Komsomol . Members of BRSM receive academic and social benefits, including discounts at discos, certain stores, and hairdressing salons, reports the official web page of the organisation.

In December 2016, a representative of the communist party and former ideologist of the Minsk executive committee, Ihar Karpienka, was appointed head of the Ministry of Education. Sviatlana Matskevich, a pedagogy Ph.D., remarked to Belsat that this new leadership for the Ministry bodes ill for Belarusian education. However, according to Matskevich, the only silver lining might be that this could lead to such a complete stagnation of school education that modernisation would be inevitable.

Teachers also serve as tools for falsifying elections: school and university teachers often act as members of the election committees which count votes. The OSCE, PACE, and many independent international observers have refused to recognise Belarusian elections, pointing to the closed procedure of vote counting at polling stations.

A new reform and Mikalai Lukašenka

In a comment on the new reforms regarding changing the time school starts, Lukašenka mentioned that his son had expressed dissatisfaction with the idea. The name of Mikalai Lukašenka often appears in the Belarusian media, as he follows his father to many official meetings, including international ones.

However, due to the frequent absences of Mikalai at lessons, the media often doubt whether the younger Lukašenka visits school at all. Many believe that the president is preparing Mikalai as his future successor. During his last 'official' visit, which occurred during school time, Chinese journalists took a photo of Mikalai Lukašenka allegedly drinking champagne at the International Forum in Beijing.

According to Alexander Lukašenka, Mikalai studies in a small school with only 500 pupils. Observing his son's studies, the Belarusian president has many times expressed the need to simplify the school curriculum for children and shorten studying hours. In April, Lukašenka told Parliament: 'When we complicate the studying process' and introduce 'complicated textbooks at school, we discourage children from getting knowledge. Children start to fear'.

Modernisation of School Education

Low wages discourage people from becoming teachers. However, as they have been unable to improve working conditions, the authorities are suggesting two reforms. Starting next year future teachers will no longer sit a state examination (Centralised Testing), which is obligatory for all other disciplines. Moreover, on 31 May, the Ministry of Education announced the cancellation of mandatory reexamination of teachers which used to take place every five years.

Belarusian schools have already experienced certain reforms. In 2002, the Ministry of Education replaced the 5-point assessment scale with a 10-point one. In 2004, Belarusian schools changed the term of studies from 11 to 12 years. Later, after only four years, Lukašenka rescinded this reform, causing inconveniences for schools and pupils.

However, all these reforms, including the recent change of start time, seem to be little more than formalities. In order to enact real change, the state must seriously commit to tackling several problematic aspects of the system.

Rather than mobilising pupils to become members of official youth organisations, authorities could open more space for non-governmental and non-political initiatives. Cooperation with NGOs would develop international exchanges and local initiatives in which schoolchildren have the possibility to be proactive.

Belarusian schools would benefit significantly from improving working conditions for teachers. Paying them more and providing them more autonomy would help to modernise the Soviet-style education system in Belarus.

As Liavon Barscheuski, an activist and former chairman of the BNF party, told the publication Belarus Partisan: 'the educational sphere – , first and foremost, consists of human beings' and no reform can be effective as long as teachers struggle with paperwork and receive low wages.




Brain-drain in Belarus: do dreams come true abroad?

According to a report on May 22 by TUT.by, 31.3% of Belarusians would consider moving permanently to another country. The study, conducted by Belarusian Analytical Workroom, surveyed 1,063 people and demonstrates that more and more Belarusians are willing to leave the country.

According to official statistics, Belarus is among the few countries in the Post-Soviet region with more people coming to the country than leaving. Nevertheless, sociologists point to a discrepancy between official statistics and reality.

The economic crisis, political pressure, and stagnation of education are just several reasons Belarusians are leaving the country. Neighbouring countries, however, are trying to attract more Belarusians. For example, on 30 May the Lithuanian newspaper Delfi reported that the amount of IT specialists arriving from Belarus is increasing.

Although they spend large sums on security and defence, the authorities do little to influence Belarusians to stay in their country. The alternative to this is for Belarus to adapt to brain-drain by stimulating an exchange of capital and improving conditions for young specialists.

How Many Belarusians Emigrate?

Belarusians continue to emigrate in search of a better life. The state's official statistical agency, Belstat, reports that around 13,000 Belarusians left the country in 2016. This is 3,000 more people than the year before. Meanwhile, in 2017, emigration has increased even more. In the first two months of this year, 1,839 Belarusians have already moved to Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Turkmenistan.

Despite the fact that the majority of Belarusians emigrate to Russia, many would prefer to move to Europe. Anastasia Barysava, a member of the National Academy of Science, told Thinktanks.by that ‘the flows of economic migrants have been re-directed from Russia to the EU countries’.

At the same time, official statistical information provides a dubious picture of the true number of emigrants. According to Eurostat, Belarusian citizens were among the top-10 countries receiving EU citizenship. Moreover, Rosstat estimates that 83,000 Belarusians immigrated to Russia in 2016. Thus, the real number of Belarusian emigrants remains unclear, especially given the number of illegal residents.

The economic situation in the country is triggering more and more Belarusians to leave. GDP continues to fall and the average salary (currently $377,8) has failed to reach $500 per month, as promised by the Belarusian government. Additionally, authorities continue to think up new taxes, such as the social parasite tax which taxes unemployment.

Why do Belarusian Students Emigrate?

Belarusian students constitute a large portion of emigrants. Due to cultural similarities and the absence of a language barrier, Russia remains the most popular destination for workers, including constructing workers and service-industry employees. The EU, however, attracts more students from Belarus. Despite the fact that Belarus has now joined the Bologna Process, educational flow from the country continues to grow. From 2001 to 2015, the total number of those studying abroad increased fivefold.

It seems that until the principles of the Bologna process are truly implemented, rather than simply formally, brain-drain will continue to grow. However, such changes are unlikely happen given the insignificant achievements of the country as a part of the Bologna process and the position of officials.

On 17 November 2016, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka told the Russian media at a conference: ‘We followed…the Bologna process to some extent…But a time may come when we will sacrifice the quality of our education in order to please the West. They come here and envy us: we have a good education’.

Besides shallow educational achievements, which is reflected in insufficient academic freedom and ideologisation, Belarus discourages a significant amount of students for political reasons. In February-March, during the protests against the social parasites tax, many students fell victim to threats and expulsion.

European countries attract Belarusian students via programmes and scholarships. For instance, Poland offers the Kalinowsky Scholarship to Belarusians and has simplified the process for obtaining the Pole's Card.

UNESCO reports that 37 out of every 10,000 Belarusian students study abroad. In comparison, in Russia the number is 3.4; in Ukraine it is 9.3.

Currently, around 35,000 Belarusians are studying abroad. They also have opportunities to obtain a number of international scholarships, such as German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Swedish Institute's Visby Scholarship, and the Muskie Graduate Fellowship. Meanwhile, Belarus forces students to pay for missed classes and work for the state for at least two years after graduating; this often leads to protests.

Attracting Belarusians

Instead of economic reforms, the authorities are offering new taxes and full control over businesses. By wasting money on secret services and military parades, the regime is neglecting to invest in the development of the educational system.

Although Belarusians are less likely to take part in political protests than their neighbours in Ukraine or Russia, a significant amount of demonstrators appear to be young people. Suppression of activists leads to even more Belarusians leaving the country, as happened in 2006 and 2010 when oppositional activists and students protested the elections results.

Political analyst Aliaksandr Klaskoŭski believes that Belarusian youth mainly move to the West as they can't imagine ‘opportunities for self-realisation’ in Belarus, as well as for political reasons, reports gazetaby.com.

Since 1993, Belarus has maintained a system in which scholarship students must stay in Belarus for a certain amount of time to work off their 'debt'; this theoretically works to prevent brain drain. This compulsory work placement often means that students must work in small villages for low salaries. The unfavourable conditions of this two-year repayment scheme forces Belarusians to either pay for their education out of pocket or study abroad.

Belarus would benefit significantly from cooperation with the diaspora. The state, however, has failed to introduce a coherent and constructive policy regarding the diaspora. Successful academics, businessmen, and artists living abroad could promote the country and bring more money into Belarus. At the same time, Lukashenka seems to fear this strategy, as he perceives most representatives of the diaspora as belonging to the opposition.

Stopping the brain drain from Belarus is a challenging task, especially given that neighbouring Lithuania or Poland face many of the same problems, despite the higher quality of life there. Nevertheless, the state could adapt to brain drain. For instance, Belarus could promote the flow of capital from those who have left home by lowering taxes on the transfer of money from abroad, cooperating with the diaspora, and providing more educational opportunities for young Belarusians.




Religion in Belarus – from Orthodoxy to Protestantism?

On 26 May, Archbishop Tadevuš Kandrusievič, the head of the Belarusian Catholic Church, announced that the Episcopate is working on an alternative to concordat.

Concordat is a formal agreement regulating the relationship between the church and a secular state, with the Belarusian government. If he succeeds, this would probably be the first such agreement between the local Catholic Church (not Vatican) and the government.

Leaders of religious organisations based in Belarus understand that strengthening their position vis-à-vis the government bolsters their image, allowing them to exert greater influence on society. In light of a recent study on religiosity in Central and Eastern Europe by the Pew Research Centre, there is a lot to fight for in Belarus.

According to the study, the overwhelming majority of Belarusians believe in God and affiliate themselves with specific religious organisations. Nevertheless, the number of practising believers who regularly engage in religious activities is far smaller. Unexpectedly, Belarusian Protestants, not covered in the study, might be the de facto leaders on the ground.

The Belarusian religious landscape

The most recent Pew study presents key findings regarding various aspects of religiosity in the former communist countries and sheds light on religious dynamics in Belarus. It appears that the vast majority of Belarusians (84%) declare they believe in God.

This number contrasts to statistics in Belarus's immediate neighbours, such as Lithuania (76%) or Russia (75%). More people declare they believe in God only in Poland and Ukraine (both 86%). Therefore, it would seem that Belarus is fertile ground for religious organisations, despite decades of state-enforced secularisation.

Eastern Orthodoxy dominates throughout the region, and this holds true for Belarus as well. As the study shows, 73% per cent of Belarusians identify themselves as Orthodox, 12% as Catholics, 3% declare no affiliation, and 12% are affiliated with other confessions.

Despite the high number of believers, a closer look into the reasons behind personal religiosity shows that for many people, religion holds a more ceremonial significance.

For example, only 23% of Orthodox Christians relate their religious identity with personal faith, and slightly above half of them emphasise the importance of religion for their national identity or family background. This is less true for Belarusian Catholics, 40% of whom connect it with personal faith, and 42% explain their religious identity in terms of national/family culture.

Belarusian believers: in word only?

A more practical look at religiosity can better explain the dynamics of religion on the ground. In Belarus, it appears that a typical believer rarely attends service: 12% of respondents said they do so once a week. This is twice more than in Russia (6%).

In contrast to Orthodox believers, 25% of Belarusian Catholics attend service weekly, as do 43% of Ukrainian Catholics.

In fact, according to the Pew study, Belarusian Catholics tend to engage more often in religious activities, such as daily prayer and reading scriptures, at least monthly outside the church.

The Pew report presents Belarus as following larger trends in religious dynamics throughout the region as well as in Western Europe. People claim to have an interest in religious matters, but tend not to regularly practise their faith. With regard to Belarus, this is largely explainable by its post-Soviet legacy.

Mixing sacred and profane in Belarusian society

As the Pew report demonstrates, there is a correlation between religious affiliation and national identification. With regard to Belarus, less than a half (45%) connect religion with their national identity. Ukrainian (57%) and Russian (51%) respondents are more likely to connect these two issues.

Membership to religious groups, as with any other type of membership, contributes to the process of socialisation of specific values, norms and attitudes. Thus, religious affiliation often corresponds to political orientation.

For example, members of predominately Orthodox societies in the region tend to support the sentiment that Russia ought to act as a balance for the West. The vast majority of Belarusian respondents (76%) agree with this view.

In contrast, only 22% of Ukrainians agree with Russia's need for a natural geopolitical buffer zone, most likely due to the ongoing conflict between the two countries. In other neighbouring countries, such as Poland and Lithuania, significantly fewer people support this view (in both cases 34% of the population).

Notably, the Pew study also examines national attitudes towards democratic vs. other forms of government. Accordingly, in Belarus, as in Ukraine, slightly more people favour democracy (38%) to those who support other forms of government (25%). Russians, to the contrary, prefer other forms of government (41%) to democracy (31%). Lithuanians favour a democratic form of government the most (64%), whereas less than half of Poles do (47%).

Belarusians even have their own Christian-Democratic political party, co-chaired by Paviel Sieviaryniec and Vitali Rymašeŭski. In the end of May, the party leadership and its members celebrated the 100th anniversary of its establishment. Today, the party attracts mainly opposition-minded politicians who claim to respect Christian values. As the news portal Krynica.info informs, since 2007 the leaders of the party have attempted to register officially 20 times, with no success.

Is Belarus nominally Orthodox, but practically Catholic and Protestant?

One of the major features of religious life is its communal character. The majority of Belarusian respondents (62%) emphasise that the chief role of religion boils down to bringing people together.

Slightly more people (64%) think that the religious institutions should strengthen morality in society, while nearly a half (49%) consider support for the poor and people in need to be the key responsibility of religious institutions. Christian organisations in Belarus willingly engage in charitable activity. The Catholic Church, for example, does this mainly through the organisation Caritas. Certain Protestant congregations offer support for alcoholics.

When it comes to public initiatives, the churches are able to speak the same language. For example, they are all involved in the pro-life movement. The newspaper Naša Niva reports that in 2013, the Belarusian Orthodox Church, together with the Catholic Church, Belarusian Christian-Democracts, and other civic organisations, supported a rally against abortion.

Certain Christian churches feature activity related to national revival on their agenda. For example, in an interview in 2017 with Belapan, an independent news agency, the Apostolic Nuncio to Belarus rather proudly noted that the Catholic Church engages in strengthening the national identity of Belarusians.

The Pew report, although very comprehensive, gives an incomplete picture of the religious dynamics among Belarusian Christians. Unfortunately, the authors focused predominantly on the Orthodox-Catholic paradigm, excluding Protestant minorities. Although they constitute only a small part of the population in Belarus, their activism is a remarkable phenomenon, especially given the restrictions they face from the government.

In 2015, 31.9% of all registered religious communities in the country were Protestant, which is significantly more than Catholics (14.8%) but less than Orthodox (49.6%). With this in mind, along with peoples' real engagement in religious activity, it is no longer a given that Belarus is an Orthodox country.




The Polish minority in Belarus: resisting Russification

On 11 May, the Union of Poles in Belarus sent around 6,000 signatures to Alexander Lukashenka demanding an end to the Russification of Polish schools in Hrodna Region.

In July, The Belarusian Ministry of Education plans to decrease the number of subjects taught in Polish in Polish schools of Hrodna and Vaukavysk.

Over the past several years, Belarusian Poles have fallen victim to the state's attempts to restrict minority rights in education and religion. Hrodna Region, where most Belarusian Poles reside, has become the epicentre for the struggle for minority rights in Belarus.

The independent Union of Poles advocates for Polish language and traditions. However, it is often met with oppression of the authorities. Restricting the use of Polish language could strongly influence the further development of the Polish movement in Hrodna Region.

Who Represents the Poles in Belarus?

Historically, most Poles in Belarus have resided in Hrodna Region. According to a 2009 census, more than 20% of Hrodna Region’s population was Polish. The most Polish town in Belarus was Voranava, where around 80% of the population identified themselves as Poles. Cultural and historical circumstances brought more Poles to Hrodna Region than other Belarusian regions.

Two separate Polish associations represent the interests of the Polish minority in Belarus. Founded in 1988, the Union of Poles created a newspaper and opened two Polish schools in Hrodna and Vaukavysk. By 2005, the Union had opened 16 ‘Polish Homes’ and boasted more than 25,000 members. However, as early as 1997, the Belarusian authorities were accusing the union of political provocation.

In 2005, the Union was divided into two different organisations. The Ministry of Justice did not recognise the leadership of Anžalika Borys, who was elected Head of the Union of Poles over the pro-governmental representative Tadevush Kruchkowski.

The situation escalated, and the following conflict resulted in a schism. Today, there are two Unions of Poles in Belarus, one of which is loyal to the authorities and one of which is independent.

Currently, the activities of the two unions coordinate with two different governments. The Belarusian government recognises the official Union of Poles and points to 18 separate registration violations for the unofficial Union. Meanwhile, the Polish government largely communicates with the independent Union of Poles.

The Belarusian government has taken advantage of the split within the Union of Poles to maintain control over activism among the Polish minority in Belarus. For example, authorities openly supported the candidature of an especially loyal contender in 2005. However, according to activist Andrej Pačobut in a Belsat interview, the authorities have basically created their own union with pro-governmental representatives and decision-makers often working for the secret services.

Protection of Polish Language

The independent Union of Poles points to repeated violations of the Polish minority’s rights. In the 1990s, Head of the Union Tadevush Havin highlighted the need to protect the status of the Polish language, also calling to promote Belarusian, writes Spring96. However, the Russification of the education system did not affect use of the Polish language in the region until recent years.

Over the last several years, the authorities have been creating obstacles for the promotion of Polish language. In 2012, the Ministry of Education suggested diminishing the use of Polish language in education in Polish schools in Hrodna and Vaukavysk. In February 2017, the topic came up again, leading to an amendment to the Education Code.

The Ministry of Education now suggests decreasing the number of subjects taught in Polish at Polish schools in Hrodna and Vaukavysk. As a result, the independent Union of Poles gathered signatures protesting the amendment and sent a petition to the Ministry of Education.

On 17 April, the petition was shot down by the Ministry. The reply caused the local minority to put every effort into defending the Polish language at the only two exclusively Polish schools in the country. On 11 May, the independent Union gathered around 6,000 signatures against the amendments to the Education Code and sent them to Alexander Lukashenka.

On 18 May, a pro-governmental regional newspaper, Hrodzenskaya Prauda, published a letter from supposedly Roman Catholic Church members demanding that Polish language propaganda be stopped.

The letter called on Metropolitan Tadevuš Kandrusievič to ‘prevent the activism of Anžalika Borys from advocating for the Polish language in churches’. However, on 21 May, the Metropolitan told Krynica.info that he did not receive any such letter. Andzhei Pisalnik, the press-secretary of the independent Union of Poles, believes that the letter represents yet another attempt to 'discredit the Union' as it actively fights against the reformation of Polish schools in Hrodna Region.

The Polish Minority – a Threat to the Regime?

Education for the Polish minority in Belarus has already experienced pressure during recent years. In 2015, authorities shut down the last Polish-speaking kindergarten group in Hrodna.

The diminished role of Polish in education has become a crucial issue for the Polish minority in the region. Replacing it in schools with 'one of the official languages' would mean replacing it with Russian, due to the predominance of Russian language in education.

Besides restricting use of the Polish language in education, the state aims to influence the sphere of religion. Activist Andrej Pačobut points out that priests coming from Poland receive shorter visas (for 3-6 months) than they had before. Earlier, in 2009, three priests had to return to Poland because they conducted church services exclusively in Polish.

The current wave of Russification seems to have economic motives rather than ideological ones. The Polish minority in the region is on the rise due to the simplicity of acquiring a Pole's Card. This could have both positive and negative consequences, including brain-drain, labour migration, cultural exchange, and democratic learning.

The authorities are aiming to prevent brain-drain and labour migration to Poland through Russification of the education system and restrictions for certain groups of Belarusians. For instance, Belarusian officials and their children are forbidden from applying for Pole's Cards from Belarus and have to travel to Poland to file documents.

The Polish minority in Hrodna Region faces many challenges created by the authorities. Control over the independent Union of Poles and education have become additional obstacles for the Polish minority in the region. In the near future, the rights of the Polish minority in Hrodna Region are likely to be respected only to the extent which allows authorities to control Polish activism.