Sexism vs. Feminism Through the Mirror of Media and Advertising

In September 2017, the oldest independent Belarusian newspaper, Naša Niva launched Naša Nina – a new spin-off project designed exclusively for women. With topics ranging from women’s rights in childbirth to celebrity news, it aspires to offer a unique and modern product on the market of gender-oriented media in Belarus.

Yet critics point out that the new project supports a conservative vision of women in society. Its narrow focus on love life, family, entertainment, and beauty trends indicates a possible fear of being labeled as feminist media.

The majority of Belarusians still see feminism as a radical and marginalised movement, not least because gender stereotypes, patriarchal mentality, and sexism still dominate Belarusian media and advertising.

Our Nina – a modern product for women?

Source: hrodna.life

Naša Niva launched its daughter project, Naša Nina (“Our Nina”), in 2017. The project is an attempt to attract more female Belarusians, as its own statistics showed that majority of its readers (nearly 65 per cent) were male. It advertised the offspring project as a media outlet for Belarusian women available exclusively in the Belarusian language. Yet Nina—a popular name that rhymes with the newspaper’s title—took her first steps on shaky grounds.

Positioning itself as a modern website for women, Naša Nina announced it would cover all topics that interest female readers. How the newspaper interprets female interests becomes evident from the major sections on its new website: love, family, home, lifestyle, self-development, and celebrity news. At the same time, the editors consciously omitted covering politics and economics, explaining that these sections were already available in the main website of the newspaper.

The editor-in-chief of Naša Niva, Yahor Marcinovich, has recently shared some of his views on content priorities. Marcinovich stated the major aim of the newspaper was to popularise Belarusian language for the masses. As Marcinovich admitted, articles from the section Love and Sex were in highest demand. For this reason, the oldest Belarusian newspaper started drifting in the direction of popular consumption.

Critics of Naša Nina’s launch immediately branded it as a product spreading gender stereotypes. Lifestyle, entertainment, love, and family do not belong exclusively to the female domain and generally interest all readers, male and female likewise. As Tacciana Siacko noted on budzma.by, a website that promotes Belarusian cultural initiatives, the differing range of sections and topics create a context of gender-oriented media with discriminative practices and a conservative mainstream vision of women.

Sex still sells Belarusian business

Currently, global PR trends indicate the increased usage of feminist themes in advertising. It appears the trend has yet to arrive in Belarus. Belarusian businesses are still using women’s bodies to extract profits. In Belarus, gender stereotypes still go hand-in-hand with aggressive marketing campaigns, from lingerie and clothing to drinking water and finding cheap flights. 

In July 2017, vandrouki.by, a travel deals website, published an ad on Facebook with following wording: “[prices] as small as your ex-girlfriend’s breasts, but honest deals: $8.5 to book any flight or $25.5 for hotel bookings.” Social network users reacted with outrage and the post was deleted. Later, the editor of vandrouki.by Andrei Miranchuk explained that the post was a “social experiment” that his friends were conducting, yet he did not provide any further details and did not express any regrets in conducting his “experiment.”

Feminists protesting against Mark Formelle sexist advertising, spring 2017

Clothing company Mark Formelle has produced some of the most scandalous examples of sexism, designing lingerie ads with erotic contexts. Belarusian feminists from the Center for the Protection of Women’s Rights—Her Rights interpreted the ads as offensive and submitted a formal complaint to the company.

Yet instead of apologising, Mark Formelle accused the NGO of self-promotion at the company’s expense and in February 2017 responded with a video, where half-naked, athletic men were sewing bras and panties. Apparently, the company failed to see any irony in multiplying sexist contexts.

“Without signs of feminism on the face”

At the same time, a negative image of feminism is omnipresent in public discourse. In July 2016, an HR company from Minsk was seeking to hire a real estate company representative to deal with luxury properties. The job description included detailed requirements as to the appearance and age of the potential employee, who had to be a young girl “with a nice, Slavic smile” and “without any signs of feminism on the face.”

This rejection of feminism has historical roots. In the 1960s, Belarusian Soviet society ignored the second wave of feminism, with its focus on social and cultural inequalities, reproductive rights and exploitation of sexuality. In the 1990s, the fall of the USSR and the ensuing economic crisis disadvantaged Belarusian women, forcing them into more traditional roles. Contemporary Belarusian feminism took shape in reaction to women’s diminished position in post-Soviet society. At present, feminism is still struggling to establish itself as a social movement and a value system.

The majority of Belarusians equate feminism to a swearword or a kind of stigma, even though Belarusian laws guarantee gender equality, with women represented in government, state bureaucracy, and business. Very few Belarusian women openly identify as feminists: about 4 per cent according to a 2012 NewsEffect survey on feminism in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine—the lowest percentage among the three countries.

Even professionally successful Belarusian women do not openly support feminism. The news website TUT.BY organises the annual Lady Boss contest, which popularises stories of women pursuing careers in business and management. In 2017, contest participants did not speak favourably of feminism. Volha Grynkevich, co-founder of a custom framing business, said, “No, I am not a feminist and I consider being a feminist wrong. It weakens men.” Alla Kashkan, founder of a furnace repair and installation company, said, “No, I am not a feminist. I do not relate to it. You have to let others take care of you.”

These examples show a lack of familiarity with the feminist movement and its contributions to the protection of women’s rights, despite the fact that 20 years ago Belarus pioneered gender studies in the post-Soviet region. The first academic Center for Gender Studies opened at the European Humanities University (EHU) in 1997, launching its unique MA program in Gender Theory in 2000. Yet since 2005, the Center works in Lithuanian exile, where the university was forced to move after the authorities closed its Minsk location.

Currently, the number of initiatives supporting feminist causes in Belarus remains extremely low. Only 1 per cent of all NGOs are feminist organisations. Online platforms such as gender-route.org or makeout.by contribute to gender education, yet do not have enough potential to reach out to the wider public and fight the demonisation of feminism, which is rampant in media and advertising. Belarusian society still has a long way to bring forward discussions on global issues that relate to women, such as inequality, the distribution of power, and women’s rights.

 




Homeownership in Belarus: an unaffordable dream

On 3 October, at a meeting to discuss the drafting of a new housing code, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka said that helping citizens to improve their housing conditions will remain a key priority.

However, while the state has achieved some success in helping the most vulnerable groups, the majority of the population cannot afford an apartment or have to queue for social housing for decades.

High interest rates for loans, the absence of mortgage schemes and low salaries make homeownership an unattainable dream for many young Belarusians.

Meanwhile, receiving public housing in rural areas may be easy (and even free), but few people agree to do so, because there is a trade-off. It requires working for a state-dominated agricultural industry that many Belarusians consider backward.

The decay of Lukashenka’s social housing era

State aid to acquire private homes has long been a major electoral slogan for president Lukashenka.  The state, indeed, built a large amount of housing and kept prices below market levels for low income earners for the past decade. Jungles of social apartment blocks, in areas like Kamiennaja Horka, have become a cultural meme among the Minsk population.

However, after the financial crisis of 2011, the construction boom and accompanying social housing programmes are beginning to trail off. Since 2007, the annual output of new housing space averaged about 5 million square metres. In 2017, the total area of new housing will be only half that.

Exchange rates are also having an effect. The value of the Belarusian rouble to the dollar has fallen seven times since 2011. This has undermined Belarusians’ ability to buy housing. The rate of the average Minsk salary to a square metre of housing in the city centre is now 1:4. For comparison, in Warsaw, Prague and Berlin, the difference averages about 1:2 or 1:3.

International financial institutions also demand that the state reduces its subsidisation of the housing sector as a pre-condition for loan talks. The government has chosen to relent to these demands.

Help for vulnerable groups, but not others

The state indeed achieved a certain amount of success in providing housing to Belarus’s most vulnerable citizens. Large families (defined as having three or more children) and orphans can get a home loan at the lowest possible interest rate of 1 per cent. Inhabitants of rural areas and towns with populations below 20,000 enjoy a 3 per cent loan interest rate. A 5 per cent rate is applied to a wide range of groups, including military servicemen,  young families with two children, victims of the Chernobyl disaster, families with disabled children, war veterans, and others.

In July 2017, the government introduced a new financial instrument to support vulnerable social groups—targeted subsidies for home purchasing. The subsidy covers either part or the majority of a loan that a family takes from a bank. Taking into account the rate of annual inflation of 10 per cent, the policies for vulnerable groups offer real and generous help from the state.

For the rest of population, however, banks offer only commercial interest rates of 14-15 per cent and for a maximum 12 years. Mortgage mechanisms are still unavailable in Belarus, and an average citizen cannot take a loan for 20-40 years. Meanwhile, mortgage interest rates in EU countries do not usually exceed 2-3 per cent and a buyer can take a loan lasting 40 years.

Картинки по запросу квартира для молодой семьи минск

Winning an apartment in a lottery – a dream of many Belarusians. Photo: loto.by

Citizens that can be classified as “needing an improvement of their home conditions” can also enjoy a discount, which can as much as halve the market price. However, the queue for getting this discount has become legendary. In Minsk, the people who joined the queue in 1989 are only now receiving discounts on apartments. In regional centres, the situation is better, but people still have to wait many years.

Thus, the government has so far failed to provide affordable housing to the majority of the population, focusing only on those most in need. Owning a flat remains an unattainable dream for most young people, especially those living in the capital.

Overcrowded Minsk

Due to the rapid growth of construction in the recent decade, almost no free land for housing remains in Minsk. The queue for social housing stands at 208,000 families. President Lukashenka has repeatedly demanded the slowdown residential construction in Minsk. The president instead advocates the development of satellite towns nearby the city.

However, developers see this option as unprofitable. Satellite towns require large investments to build utilities, while the demand for apartments in these areas is not guaranteed. No wonder—few people would agree to move 20 km away to the towns, which often feature poor facilities.

Фото: Александр Васюкович, TUT.BY

Transportation of kids to the less overcrowded kindergartens in Minsk. Photo: tut.by

Therefore, construction in Minsk continues mainly through the demolition of old individual houses and industrial plants. This policy has repeatedly sparked social tensions and protests. Citizens leave their inherited private houses and old areas very unwillingly. Sometimes the protests can turn into vast social campaigns, as was in the case of Asmaloŭka area.

The lack of kindergartens also remains a crucial problem for Minsk. The capital remains a hub for the migration of young people from all over the republic. Minsk has the largest population of children in the counrty. In some districts, the kindergartens are overloaded by 60 per cent.

The authorities created special daily bus tours for transporting children and their parents from the overloaded districts, but parents complain that this takes a lot of their time. Encouraging private kindergartens or other forms of childcare, as well as raising fees for parents and salaries of the staff could definitely improve the situation. But the authorities do not dare to give in to one of the last features of the decaying “socially oriented state.”

Rural Belarus – chance for a Renaissance?

In the early 2000s the government invented a new approach to resurrecting Belarus’s deserted rural regions. Planners launched the 2005-2010 State Programme for Rural Revival and Development. The programme set out the concept of agro-towns. These are rural settlements with a high level of industrial and social infrastructure and amenities. Areas tagged for agro-town developments were to feature communal utilities, roads, housing, communication and transport, education and medical care facilities.

Картинки по запросу агрогородок

A typical agro-town in Belarus. Photo: reb.by

The programme was aimed at attracting young specialists with families. It granted free housing to those who agreed to be employed at unpopular agricultural collective farms. As a result, 1500 agro-towns sprouted up in Belarus.

Nevertheless, the rural population continues to fall. Rural communities now account for 22.1 per cent of Belarus’s population. While the idea of agro-towns appeared attractive at first, it did not resolve the main problem for rural areas—economic unattractiveness, stemming from the state’s monopoly over farming and Soviet-style management techniques.

The government is now trying to create additional incentives for moving to the rural areas. A new, “revolutionary” law on business liberalisation may come into effect in the coming months. However, as long as the state remains the dominant owner of the agricultural industry, the people are unlikely to return to the land. No infrastructure or housing projects will bear fruit unless people can feel themselves owners of their farms and freely sell their production.




Belarusian teachers in search of the lost dignity of their craft

On 5 October, Belarus will celebrate World Teachers’ Day, established by UNESCO in 1994 to show appreciation for the teaching profession and to draw attention to the rights of educators worldwide.

Yet in today’s Belarus, teachers have no space for creativity and initiative, falling victim to the whims of the school administration, local educational departments, Ministry of Education, and even the Belarusian president’s son.

While Belarusian schools struggle to modernise, teachers’ rights and the prestige of the profession continue to deteriorate. As a result, Belarusian youth avoid choosing careers in education, and enrolment in teaching programmes at universities remains low. In addition to their ever-increasing paperwork, teachers in Belarus must act as social workers, renovation specialists, regime supporters, and even seasonal agricultural workers.

Racing for higher grades

Discipline at a Belarusian school. Source: belta.by

A recent large-scale opinion survey among teachers and high-school students, conducted by the Research Center of the Institute for Privatization and Management (IPM), showed that Belarusian schools prefer to adhere to familiar, Soviet-inherited dogmas in education. They fail to equip their students with skills and competences, essential for today’s knowledge-based societies.

School administrations instruct teachers to uphold grades as a principal measure of students’ success, while local departments of education demand their constant growth. The focus dwells on quantitative aspects in education, rather than ensuring the individual progress of every single student. Learning by heart and reproducing textbook materials often come before developing creativity and critical thinking skills.

Each year, teachers have to deal with an increasing flow of paperwork, including lesson plans and reports on grades, activities, classes, and students. One recent novelty is electronic class registers, which teachers must update along with their paper-bound equivalents. As a rule, teachers have to use their own personal computers to fill the new registers out. Access to school computers remains limited and waiting wastes precious time.

Teachers are also responsible to ensure that all students buy lunches provided by school canteens. National sanitary norms stipulate that children must eat every 3.5–4 hours. If parents do not wish for their child to eat school-made lunches, the family has to offer an alternative solution for their child’s hot meal. Starting 2017, teachers were given the additional duty of administering electronic payments for school lunches on a daily basis.

Teacher or Jack-of-all-trades?

In addition to paperwork, teachers assume the job duties of a social worker. Schools often send them to inspect students’ living conditions, including the collection of information on parents’ income, the number of children in a family, and any religious affiliations. In spring 2017, teachers from several districts received orders to visit the addresses of all potential “social parasites” with a questionnaire to determine their status and to keep track of the unemployed.

Until late 2016, schools were sending underage students to help agricultural enterprises harvest potatoes. This tradition was technically forced child labour. The practice only stopped after last year’s potato harvest, which ended with the accidental and tragic death of a 13-year-old student. However, last week, Belarusian media outlets reported that authorities in the Pastavy district of Belarus’s Viciebsk region decided to use teachers as unqualified, cheap, potato-harvest labourers instead of students. 

Moreover, deputy minister of education Raisa Sidarenka did not see any issue with this situation. She noted the teachers may have simply wanted to “aid [Belarusian] agriculture,” and were free to harvest potatoes alongside their professional duties.

The list of extracurricular headaches for teachers is long. It is their duty to ensure the timely renovation of the classrooms and to convince parents to pitch-in financially. Teachers are also obliged to subscribe to a number of state newspapers, ranging from the leading pro-regime newspaper Belarus Segodnia, to Zorka and Znamia Junosti for the students. Thus schools force teachers to create a market for media, which otherwise might not be in high demand. 

Last but not least, when educational institutions serve as ballot stations during elections, the state intimidates school employees to become the instruments of stage-managed votes. Teachers thus become either passive onlookers or active perpetrators of election falsifications in Belarus. Opposition parties have been warning teachers of the immoral character of certain types of election practices, yet the majority of teachers are more concerned about keeping their jobs.

Reality check

Source: change.org

On 11 September 2017, Belarusian writer Jauheniia Pasternak wrote an open letter to the Ministry of Education and all local district administrations. Her aim was to draw attention to the falling standards of the school education and the lack of respect for teachers.

Over 9,000 people have already signed a petition endorsing better protection of school teachers’ rights, launched by Pasternak and her colleague Andrej Žvaleuski on change.org, an online petitioning platform. It identifies poor working conditions for teachers as the main problem for Belarusian education. Recent university graduates who start a teaching career can hope for $150 a month in the best case scenario, while an experienced teacher who takes on additional duties and extra classes can earn up to $350 a month.

The main improvements suggested by the petition involve reducing all existing paperwork loads down to class registers, establishing a five-day working week for teachers, and ensuring a coordinated curriculum without the frequent change of textbooks. The petition’s authors also suggest to unite school graduation exams with university entry examinations, in order to introduce clearer learning criteria for students. Hopefully, this will enable teachers to design more effective courses and lessons.

Finally, the petition demands that teachers should not be placed in conditions where they must lie or manipulate. For instance, school administrations often force teachers and their students to visit local unpopular sports events or concerts. The teachers cooperate as they are afraid to lose their jobs, while students visit these events in the hope of bargaining for higher grades.

The Ministry of Education reacted to Pasternak’s letter by dismissing all its critical points as irrelevant. Its press secretary, Liudmila Vysockaja, called the letter ridiculous, stating that “none of the issues required the attention of the ministry or [the Belarusian] president.”

As long as the Belarusian state maintains conservative command methods in education, teachers will have neither say over the question of their working rights, nor voice in the design of the education reforms. Pasternak’s letter did not reach its intended addressees, who chose to ignore it. Yet her letter does appear to have stirred up the stewing discontent among fellow teachers. Public debate of the schooling system could become a first step for teachers in their quest to return the lost dignity of their profession.




Is Belavezha Forest under threat from Poland?

Poland continues the mass logging of Belovezhskaya Pushcha (Belavezha Forest), one of the last reserves of primeval forest in Europe and a UNESCO heritage site. Despite a call from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to protect the forest, on 1 August Polish authorities stated they would continue to allow the cutting down of trees.

Belavezha Forest, the majority of which is situated in Belarus, has become a popular tourist destination in recent years. Despite this, in March 2016 Polish authorities granted logging firms the right to clear trees supposedly damaged by a bark beetle infestation.

In response, environmentalists initiated a protection campaign that continues to gain momentum on the Polish side of Belavezha Forest. Meanwhile, the Belarusian side remains ostensibly untouched. However, activists claim that Belarusian authorities have also allowed logging of the forest.

The Belarusian forest protection campaign has gone largely unnoticed—both at home and abroad. By contrast, the Polish Belavezha Forest campaign receives media attention, involves international stakeholders and pushes Polish authorities to take responsibility for logging projects.

What is going on in Belavezhskaya Pushcha?

At 140 hectares, Belavezhskaya Pushcha remains one of the largest ancient forests in Europe. The forest is famous for both its flora and fauna. In 1979 UNESCO included it on its World Heritage List. While the forest is situated on the territories of Poland and Belarus, the bulk of it sits within Belarus.

Belavezha forest map. Source: greenbelarus.info

In March 2016, Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko approved a three stage logging programme in Poland’s forest territory. Later, Polish authorities also allowed the removal of trees damaged by bark beetles, insects that infest and destroy tree trunks. However, suspicions emerged that the Polish authorities might be allowing the cutting down of the forest for commercial rather than environmental reasons.

In May 2016, Polish environmental activists together with Greenpeace sent an open letter to the EU with a request to intervene and prevent further deforestation. A month after the activists’ appeal, the EU initiated an investigation into Poland’s deforestation of Belavezha Forest. UNESCO has also been following the situation closely on the Polish side of the forest.

In January 2017, both Poland and Belarus presented reports to UNESCO on Belavezha Forest. Polish authorities indicated an increasing number of bark beetle infested trees. At the same time, environmental activists argued that bark beetles are a natural part of the forest’s ecosystem and have minimal impact on the overall health of the forest.

Protests in Belavezha Forest. Source: ulizaekologiczna.pl

Pending its final ruling, the ECJ has issued an interim decision in July 2017 ordering Polish authorities to halt all logging activities in the forest. The ECJ decision is in response to allegations that Poland is violating bloc wildlife protection laws and is endangering rare species of animals, birds, and plants.

Authorities in Poland have ignored the ECJ order. On 1 August 2017, minister Szyszko stated the logging would continue. If Poland loses the case in the ECJ final ruling, the country will have to pay a €4m fine and an additional €300,000 for each day of logging following the date of interim decision.

The case of Belavezhskaya Pushcha appears to be first time where Poland has so overtly violated EU law. “So far there is no case in which an interim measure of the court was not respected. If Polish authorities do not follow that decision, it will be a serious conflict with the EU law,” said a lawyer from ClientEarth, a non-profit environmental law agency, in an interview with the BBC.

The Fight for Belavezha Forest and Belarus’s Role

Immediately following the announcement of the logging programme, Polish civil society reacted with protests. Environmental activists formed human-chains and obstructed logging activities with their bodies. The largest demonstration was held on 24 May. Demonstration participants noted the logging must be commercial, rather than conservational, because scientists had been prevented from visiting Belavezha Forest to conduct tests, reports Green Belarus web site.

Despite the pressure, Polish activists continue to attract attention to the problem. US-based National Public Radio reports that activists had built a camp in the forest to keep up protest efforts and to track the progress of the logging. The activists claim that many of the trees logged have been healthy and untouched by bark beetles.

Greenpeace Poland Director Robert Cyglicki believes, “Claims by the Ministry of the Environment that only necessary logging is happening in compliance with the EU Court of Justice decision, is a lie. Our inspections clearly show that European law is being laughed at in one of Europe’s last remaining ancient forests. That’s why we’re asking the world to join our peaceful protesters who have come from all over Europe and stand against the destruction of our common heritage and demand its protection.”

Bison in Belavezha Forest. Source: bahna.land

All the media attention focused on the Polish side of Belavezha Forest might suggest the Belarusian side remains untouched and protected. However, the reality seems to be otherwise. In 2010, Belarusian environmentalists protested against violations of the preservation of Belavezha Forest by Belarusian authorities.

Activists have sent an open letter to the Council of Europe stating that Belarusian authorities have allowed the killing of bison in Belavezha Forest, reports Belavezhskaya Pushcha XXI vek, a webpage created to aid forest conservation efforts. Additionally, activists highlighted large-scale logging of the forest. A year earlier, environmentalists sent a letter to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka demanding the revision of logging policies in the forest. However, the letters have elicited no change in policy; Belarusian authorities have ignored the domestic campaign to protect Belavezha Forest.

By contrast, the scale of the campaign in Poland has forced the Polish government’s highest representatives to comment on logging in the forest. “We need to ensure that there is a healthy logging of trees, something that is planned. We only want to fell an area of 188,000 cubic metres. We want to protect priority habitats for the EU. We are trying to improve and correct the situation,” the Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko is cited saying in The Guardian.

Will Belavezha survive?

Belavezha Forest, which is included in Belarus’s visa-free territory, remains one of the reasons why tourists visit Belarus. In 2017 The Telegraph ranked Belavezha Forest 18th in the ranking of the best places to visit in Eastern Europe. However, Polish commercial interests, under the pretence of a bark beetle infestation, appear to be threatening one of Europe’s last ancient forests.

The camp of the environmental activists in Poland. Source: npr.org

Environmentalists insist the Polish government is allowing the logging of Belavezha Forest for commercial reasons. Activists from inside and outside Poland continue to work together to protect the primeval forest. Although the Polish government states they will continue to allow logging, the combined influence of the EU and civil society makes it likely that Poland’s Belavezha Forest will continue to survive.

A government’s commercial ambitions often conflict with ideals of conservation and environmental protection. Such a conflict arose in Belarus when citizens raised their concerns about the construction of a new nuclear power plant. The construction of the plant in Belarus caused heated debates and safety concerns for Lithuania and the EU.

Belarusian citizens failed to instil much change in either the construction of the nuclear power plant or Belarusian official Belavezha Forest policies. Polish activists may have better chances of success influencing their government by having international stakeholders and the EU involved.




Is Belarus Willing to Help People with Disabilities?

On 15 June, Belarus ratified a National Plan for the protection of people with disabilities. The document is a big step for Belarus towards achieving a more compassionate society. Nevertheless, the conditions under which most people with disabilities in Belarus live remain difficult.

NGOs and initiatives created by disabled people themselves are having greater success in changing infrastructure. For instance, the first beach for people with disabilities in Belarus appeared thanks to the initiative of a single person, Alexandr Audzevich.

In contrast, the state’s approach is somewhat more ‘formal’: although it signals its intention to improve disability policy by signing international documents, it generally fails to actually implement the programmes, as it proved in 2011-2015.

The status of people with disabilities in Belarus

In 2015, Belarus became the last country in Europe to sign the Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons, ratifying it in November 2016. The ratification guaranteed the creation of an additional monitoring body to oversee reforms associated with the rights of the disabled.

Officially, 556,000 people in Belarus receive a disability pension. This is about 6% of the total population. At the moment, the pension ranges from $12 to $112 per month, depending on the degree of disability. This amount is several times less than the average salary of Belarus as of May 2017.

The first fashion show featuring models with disabilities. Source: nn.by

On top of small pensions, the situation is complicated by the lack of appropriate infrastructure for people with limited mobility capabilities. 

According to unofficial data, about 70% of wheelchair users never leave the house. Therefore, a barrier-free environment is becoming one of the central focuses of campaigns involved in protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

The first step towards improving the conditions for disabled people in Belarus, announced in June of this year, has been the introduction of free assistance to those with severe disabilities and disabled children. The state will now provide persons with disabilities with necessary medicines and equipment.

However, despite certain positive changes, Belarus is already proving that it cannot follow through on its promises. For example, in 2011-2015, the Belarusian authorities pledged to make local environments more barrier-free. However, in reality, structures meant to make life easier for people with disabilities are not functioning as they should. It is not clear whether the signing of the National Plan will lead towards measurable improvement of the situation of disabled people in Belarus, or if it’s just another formality.

Civil society as an engine of change

Siarhei Drazdouski. Source: Spring96.org

Today, those most actively promoting implementation of the provisions of the Convention are not the state, but NGOs and individual activists. Thus, the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities, which is actively engaged in advocacy of the rights of persons with disabilities, presented a detailed plan at the end of 2016 for reform of disability policy. The reforms have yet to take effect.

The state seems to have few intentions of protecting people with disabilities. Even the Head of the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities, Siarhei Drazdouski, has encountered problems with the authorities. He and his wife were threatened with eviction from the dorm where they live. Thus, instead of providing social support, the authorities are putting Drazdouski at risk of ending up on the street, writes radio Svaboda

In 2014 in Hrodna, a small group of people, both with and without disabilities, tested access to various city facilities for wheelchair users. During their investigation, they revealed many violations and were able to pressure certain public institutions into improving their accessibility. However, it is often up to activists to fix accessibility problems themselves.

Some Belarusian organisations receive international support because they lack the protection of the state. For example, USAID has financed the activities of BelAPDIiMI, an organisation advocating for the right of young people with disabilities.

One campaign in particular, which aimed to draw attention to the plight of people with disabilities, attracted a significant amount of attention both at home and abroad. Alexander Audzevich, a wheelchair user from Lida who initiated the campaign, began his activism in 2013, after a motorcycle accident in 2011 left him partially paralysed. This prompted Audzevich to begin advocating for disabled rights.

Alexander Audzevich. Photo: TUT.by

In 2016, he cycled around Europe in a handbike; his aim was to raise funds for the construction of a multi-purpose centre for wheelchair users in Lida. During his journey, Audzevich was able to raise awareness not only among the Belarusian media but also in the foreign press.

This year, Audzevich won the television show The City, which broadcasts interesting projects aimed at improving infrastructure. Due to his activism, the authorities built the first inclusive beach in Belarus, located in Lida.

Activists of the Republican Wheelchair Association have been independently arranging integration camps for people in wheelchairs for many years now. The state is not doing enough to rehabilitate these people or ensure they can participate in society. At the camps, people learn to serve themselves, to swim, to engage in other types of physical activity, and even the basics of sex life.

Is there any real improvement?

Many projects for the rehabilitation, integration, and socialisation of people with disabilities are carried out in Belarus using money from international donor organisations. This support amounts to several million dollars a year. However, an 18% tax is levied on the cost of office rent, utilities, and staff salaries.  

On 31 August 2015, the authorities further complicated the rules for obtaining foreign sponsor money. Many donors are finding it difficult to fund projects in Belarus. For instance, the foundation Errinnerung, Verantwortung and Zukunft has frozen the finances for the large project ‘The venue is dialogue’. The donors explained that there were too many obstacles to transferring money to Belarus, according to the organisation Vzaimoponimanije. 

Belarus has signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but people with disabilities still have to rely on themselves to fight for their rights. The issue of accessibility is just one step on the way to a tolerant and convenient society.




Lukashenka wants to double Belarus population: will that work?

On 3 August 2017, Belarusian president Lukashenka announced that Belarus could easily sustain a population of 20 million people, noting that human capital was the key to the economic security of the country.

Yet the numbers tell a different story – since 1994, when Lukashenka became president, Belarus has lost over 700.000 people. In the recent years, the population stabilised at 9.5 million, while working age population continued to decrease.

The state offers a number of financial benefits and incentives to families raising children, yet overall it fails to guarantee adequate quality of life for all Belarusians. A recent witchhunt against so-called social parasites revealed that Belarusian economy faces major challenges of providing social protection, ensuring sustainable development, and overcoming poverty.

The big picture

Population of Belarus 1951 – 2015. Source: countrymeters.com

Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, Belarusian population has been growing, peaking in 1993 with 10.2 million people. The trend reversed in 1994, as the economic situation deteriorated and Belarus faced the problems of depopulation and rapid ageing, similarly to other European countries. Only by 2010, the population stabilised at 9.5 million people.

However, the birth rates in Belarus still lie below the death rates, with 13 deaths and 9 births for every 1000 persons. In the past year, the highest birth rates, according to Belstat, were registered only among younger women from rural areas: 256 children per 1000 women.

According to BEROC experts, childcare benefits often inhibit the economic activity of the rural population. Allowance for one child exceeds the living wage, discouraging people from seeking employment. Younger women prefer giving more births for the sake of benefit payments, neglecting their own education and professional development.

What remains in the background, is the quality of life of children from the low-income families, who have limited opportunities to receive education and compete for better jobs. These children are more likely to fall in the same poverty trap as their parents. Thus, rural regions remain marginalised and less developed.

Belstat data also shows that 75 per cent of the Belarusian population live in cities. In 2016, birth rates for the urban areas were considerably lower than those in the countryside, making up only 68 children per 1000 women.

Which numbers are really important?

The issue of falling population numbers has been bothering Belarusian president for a number of years now. In his recent statement on demography, he repeated a thesis of 20 million Belarusians, demanding from the officials on all levels to prioritise raising birth rates and create more employment opportunities. However, population numbers alone do not guarantee economic prosperity of the country.

The UN Human Development Index (HDI), based on the quality of life, education, and decent standards of living criteria, ranks Belarus at 52nd place. Countries with comparable population numbers, such as Switzerland, Sweden or Austria rank as 2nd, 14th and 24th respectively.

To predict possible demographic developments and their economic effect, one has to look at the number of the working age population. According to Belstat, even though the total population remained stable at around 9.5 million since 2010, the number of working age persons has been steadily decreasing: from 5.8 million to 5.4 million. At the start of 2017, for every 1000 persons, 443 were older than the working age limits.

Source: Belstat.gov.by

The ageing of the population concerns the government as it has to keep social system afloat. So far, Belarus has initiated the pension reform and launched a demographic safety program, supporting families with children. In the long term, the plan to double the population numbers aims to sustain current social model.

However, the recent controversy over the “social parasites” law showed that for this end the government is also willing to establish stricter control over the activities of all working age Belarusians. The new version of the suspended “social parasites” law is due by October 2017. Recently, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection has also announced replacement of the current social security number by a new ID card.

This ID card would be connected to the centralised information system, able to track the work activities of every citizen. Thus, the government hopes to force all working Belarusians to pay for the social services, especially if they work unofficially and evade paying taxes.

However, from another point of view, as political analyst Valer Karbalevich noted, these straightforward measures seem as the attempt of the state to “enserf” all working age population. They are not likely to have a positive impact on the desire of people to have more children and are useless against the out-migration trends.

Younger educated groups of Belarusians go abroad in search of education and work opportunities. Others prepare possible options for the future: recently Belarusian media reported that about 50 per cent of all issued Pole’s Cards  – over 100.000 – belong to Belarusian citizens.

Sustainability concerns

Should Lukashenka’s scenario of 20 million Belarusians come true, Belarus might face different challenges. Independent economic expert Mihail Zaleski advises against rapid increase of population numbers, warning that current social system capacities would allow to provide for 6 million at best.

Moreover, population growth would place Belarusian ecology and agriculture under more strain. Experts point out the dangers of existing consumerist approaches to the nature. According to Lana Semenas, who coordinates the organic farming initiative Ahrakultura, Belarus would have enough potential to produce enough food for 20 million people only if it switches to sustainable farming methods. In particular, this applies to the large-scale enterprises in the livestock farming sector.

Belarusian demographic problems have a lot in common with other European states, which struggle with the aging of the population and low birth rates. However, Belarusian approach to these issues appears superficial, as the government tends to evaluate the human capital in a quantitative way, luring countryside dwellers into the poverty trap and neglecting brain drain and migration trends.

In order to stabilise the demographic situation, Belarusian government needs to abandon repressive methods, liberalise business activities, aim to breach the rift between the cities and the countryside, and invest in education initiatives to ensure the quality of the human capital.




Belarus tries to raise restive Orsha from the ashes

On 19 August, Aliaksandr Lukashenka visited Orsha District, a new Mecca for Belarusian officials. Over the past six months, almost all the country’s top bureaucrats have visited the town.

Orsha is getting a great deal of attention from the authorities due not only to its economic depression, but also its outsized protests against the government’s policies. This March, a thousand people protested against the social parasite tax, an impressive figure given the town’s size. To minimise dissent, the authorities are looking to boost the region’s economy with their signature mix of socialist and capitalist ideas.

In practice, however, their efforts amount to patching holes in a sinking ship. The government’s new policies might help in the short term, but are unlikely to have much effect further down the road.

Orsha in ashes

To many Belarusians, Orsha is known as ‘the city with three prisons and no university’. In reality, there are only two prisons now, but the town retains its criminal reputation. Orsha is also famous as a designated transport hub and as the place where the Grand Duchy of Lithuania defeated the Muscovite army in an epic battle near the Dnieper river in 1514.

The modern history of Orsha, however, is less glorious. On 21 April, Lukashenka stated that Orsha ‘must be raised from the ruins and ashes.’

Protests in Orsha (photo: Tut.by)

Orsha remains one of the most economically troubled towns in the east of Belarus. Moreover, residents of Orsha do not seem to fear articulating their problems: this spring, Orsha saw the largest per capita protest in Belarus. A thousand people protested against the social parasite tax in a town of only 115,000 inhabitants. 

Orsha’s problems are long term. Over the past 20 years, the region has lost 30,000 inhabitants, or more than 15% of the population. Over a quarter of the region’s enterprises remain unprofitable, according to the Belarusian Statistical Committee, and many businesses have overstuffed warehouses.

According to local media reports, a salary of just $250 a month in Orsha is considered high, and in some companies people work part-time, earning as little as $70. Nevertheless, people are reluctant to quit their jobs, as the unemployment rate may be as high as 15%, according to unofficial data. 

The high level of unemployment leads many people leave for Russia or search for temporary work. Every morning, several dozen people gather near the local employment centre, where ’employers’ arrive to order a one-off service, such as unloading goods. In Orsha, these groups of unemployed men even have a nickname: ‘the mafia’.

A Belarusian mix of ideas

Over the last six months, Orsha Region has become a Mecca for Belarusian officials. It has hosted visits from the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, head of the Presidential Administration, and the Minister of Economy. To demonstrate the seriousness of his intentions, Lukashenka has appointed his assistant, Alexander Pazniak, as head of the Orsha District Executive Committee. Despite the impressive number of bureaucrats involved, however, their ideas on how to fix the region remain uninspiring.

Andrej Kabiakou in Orsha (photo: Belta.by)

Lukashenka has proposed modernising local enterprises, providing them with financial support, and purchasing new equipment. In July, Prime Minister Andrej Kabiakou stated that the authorities had started the process of cleaning the financial accounts of the Orsha Tool Plant, the most moribund company in the region, and repairing its roof. Later, the enterprise would start buying new equipment.

Unfortunately, this modernisation effort is most likely doomed, just like previous efforts to massively modernise wood and cement plants. For example, in 2016, the profitability of the wood-processing industry was as low as 1% and boasted a $2.7bn debt. It remains unclear whether these plants will ever be able to pay off their debts. To put it more bluntly, Belarus is just wasting money on the modernisation of Belarusian state-owned enterprises.

The government would also like to create the best conditions for doing business. This is undoubtedly a noble pursuit. However, the extent to which this will benefit the region remains dubious, given that the local population lives in poverty, providing businesspeople little incentive to invest there.

In addition, the Minister of Economy is proposing to lease unused parts of state enterprises to new businesses. However, these premises are often so old that last year one company discovered nearly 2,000 unexploded ordnances left from World War II.

The authorities also intend to develop specialisation plans for the regions. In Orsha, the authorities want to expand business in two areas. Firstly, they aim to increase the importance of Orsha as a logistics hub. Secondly, the authorities are fantasising about IT sector development in the region. They do not seem to heed the fact that there is nothing close to an existing IT sector and the quality of life is far from what Belarusian IT employees have come to expect in Minsk.

Closing the gap

It is unlikely that the Belarusian authorities can really help Orsha’s economy through this sort of wishful thinking. One can, of course, expect short-term improvements: for example, investments in fixed assets in 2017 rose almost twofold, according to official figures. But the authorities have simply pushed money into a hole in a sinking ship.

What’s more, the number of such holes keeps growing. In June, Prime Minister Andrej Kabiakou announced that the Belarusian authorities will help the Barysau, Baranavichy, and Babruisk Regions the same way they are assisting the Orsha Region now: the town is a pilot project for Belarusian regional development.

At the end of the day, it remains difficult to understand how this new approach is different from previous policies. It still boils down to investment in state enterprises with some elements of liberalisation caused by lack of money. However, this time around the scale is completely different. If previously the authorities sought to spread out public investments across all regions evenly, now only a few will obtain priority status.

A better method could be for the authorities to give more power to local councils and democratise them, thus helping them to create new development strategies and increase the efficacy of budget management. However, this will fail to have much impact until the authorities answer one key question: what is to be done with failing Soviet enterprises which demand more and more money just to stay afloat?




When do the Belarusian authorities compromise with civil society?

On 21 July, residents of the Minsk district of Asmalouka finally succeeded in halting the planned demolition of their neighbourhood. Since 2014, the authorities have been planning to tear down a historic district of Minsk. However, local residents and activists started a campaign to prevent the demolition and were able to temporarily freeze the process.

Every now and then, by making concessions to protest-minded citizens, the state gives the impression that it is willing to compromise, creating an illusion that the government listens to the people. Local initiatives addressing economic or cultural problems especially are more likely to receive a green light from the authorities.

The story of Asmalouka

Many consider the Minsk district of Asmalouka to be unique and historic. The area was built from 1940-50 for the Belarusian military elite. Asmalouka is a place with unique architecture, replete with stately two-storey houses.

Asmalouka. Photo: TUT.by

As art critic Sergey Hareuski told Nasha Niva: ‘Asmalouka is the only place where this kind of building comprises a whole neighbourhood. The fact that this quarter has survived in its entirety, the only example in the whole former Soviet Union, is in itself important.’

Discussion of demolishing Asmalouka began in 2014. The authorities proposed tearing down the houses to construct new buildings in their place. However, the process was postponed due to lack of funds from investors. In 2017, the question was mooted again and the local authorities raised the issue of Asmalouka for public discussion.

The Asmalouka campaign

The authorities’ position triggered residents to protest the reconstruction plan. In addition to talks with the authorities, citizens created a petition and sent it to the Administration of the Central district of Minsk. To date, more than 7,000 people have signed the petition. Interestingly enough, there is also a rival petition to reconstruct Asmalouka.

Matolka at public hearings. Photo: nn.by

In mid-July, residents of Asmalouka and other districts of Minsk gathered to discuss their next steps in the struggle against the reconstruction project. In addition to petitions, residents managed to collect more than 8,000 signatures during meetings. The purpose of the latest meeting was to nominate representatives of the Asmalouka district to participate in discussions about  reconstruction.

Belarusian blogger Anatoly Matolka became one of the participants of the Asmalouka protection campaign, even managing to secure a meeting with representatives of the government. As a result, the authorities stated that the demolition Asmalouka was still only under consideration. The campaign still seeks to secure historical-cultural status for the neighbourhood.

Local victories and blacklists

For now, the reconstruction of Asmalouka has been suspended. However, local residents and activists consider the results of their campaigns a success. A similar story took place in 2014, when the government presented a plan to build a road through Sevastopol Park. Residents of the area appealed to various authorities to reverse the government’s decision and save the park. As a result, the authorities revised the decision and left the park untouched.

On 14 August, residents of Minsk started a petition to create a ‘park named after the first president of the Republic of Belarus’. This unusual idea emerged when the authorities proposed constructing high-rise buildings in a green space.

Citizens at public hearings on 16 August. Source: realt.onliner.by

Today, locals are struggling with another large-scale construction project, involving more than 50 buildings in the area of Partyzanski Avenue. A public hearing on 16 August, organized by local authorities, broke down due to lack of space for all the participants.

Such incidents remain relatively common. However, the authorities and investors still have the final word, especially when it comes to economically important large-scale projects.

For example, the public hearing on the construction of the nuclear power plant did not get very far. The scale of the project made listening to the public unfeasible for the authorities. As a result, they covered up accidents, including the death of several workers.

Public hearings were also unable to stop the construction of the Belarusian-Chinese industrial park. According to activists, the park has a strongly negative environmental impact. Despite the active participation of the environmental NGOs Ecadom and Green Network, the Council of Ministers approved the construction project.

When do the authorities compromise?

Belarusian protestors enjoy only limited success when it comes to pressing socio-economic problems. Protests against the social-parasite decree have shown that the Belarusian authorities still do not hesitate to employ repressive measures against vocal citizens. Anarchist groups, journalists,  and students all fell victim to suppression when protests against the so-called decree number three were dispersed.

It seems that the authorities are willing to compromise when campaigns pose little threat to the regime. Thus, protesting construction projects has recently become a form of civic participation. Here, the authorities seem to be willing to meet protestors halfway. However, this is certainly not the case for large-scale and economically important projects such as the Belarusian NPP. 

Asmalouka is an encouraging example of a local advocacy campaign. However, it still remains rare for the authorities make concessions to public initiatives in Belarus. Large-scale public campaigns often involve the participation of political and social activists: the regime perceives such campaigns as a threat to stability and their power.




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.