Attempt To Register A LGBT Organisation in Belarus Provokes Police Raids
Last month, police raided three gay club events in Belarus. It appears that the authorities have become increasingly nervous about the growing social activity of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, especially following the largest Belarusian LGBT initiative to obtain the legal status of an NGO.
On the night of 11 January, about ten policemen, some plain-clothed, blocked the exits to Club 6A, the prime gay dance destination in Minsk, and took the personal details of over 100 persons present there. They said they were looking for a fugitive prisoner among the clubbers. The following day, the police spokesperson refused to provide journalists with any information about the reasons for and outcome of the raid.
More Raids of Gay Clubs
The following night, a Vitebsk club was raided by police special forces. They ordered all the guests to line up along the walls, the women separately from the men. They recorded everyone on video; asking for their name, home address and place of work.
According to witnesses who later spoke to journalists, the police behaviour was extremely harsh and threatening. Once again on this occasion, the local police spokesperson was unable to provide any information on the motives and results of the operation.
Two weeks later, the same Club 6A was raided by eight or nine policemen in plain clothes who requested the passport details of all present there; they detained about 40 people in order to "establish their identities".
Before the use of mobiles was banned, those detained managed to report that the police attitude was rough, both to men and women. The detainees were told by the police that the raid was provoked by the activities of Siarhiej Androsienka, the leader of GayBelarus.
LGBT Visibility Makes Authorities Nervous
It is common knowledge that registration of non-governmental organisations in Belarus is almost impossible if the NGO has not been blessed by the state authorities beforehand. At the same time, any political or social activism without such registration is banned and can be classified as criminal.
In 1999 and 2011, LGBT activists attempted to register organizations, but were unsuccessful. Last December, the largest Belarusian LGBT organisation, GayBelarus, made another attempt. It held a convention in Minsk, in Club 6A, in which 72 delegates from all of Belarus' regions took part.
The application for registration of the Human Rights Centre Lambda was submitted to the Ministry of Justice. Why Lambda, not GayBelarus? The registration procedure is not transparent, and using a word like "gay" could become just one more reason to provoke a negative outcome.
Siarhiej Androsienka of GayBelarus said that he did not have any illusions: "if they register us, good; if not, we will continue working without registration." According to Androsienka, the authorities were aware of the convention at Club 6A. The club owner was called to the city police headquarters to provide information about the event and its organisers. At no point was it suggested to him to ban GayBelarus from his premises.
A week after the application for registration was submitted, people who signed it started receiving phone calls from the Department for Drug Control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the KGB inviting them for informal interviews. At least 60 signatories have been interviewed so far. Interestingly, no one has been invited for a formal interrogation. It appears the informal interviews are intimidation tactics rather than part of any specific investigation.
The interviewees were asked about GayBelarus, its leader and his partner. In addition, police officers were interested in the personal life and political views of the signatories themselves; some were asked about criminal cases investigated at that time and related, for example, to distribution of pornography, rape and sexual exploitation of minors.
In addition, Siarhiej Androsienka was detained by the Belarusian border police when he was coming back from Warsaw in the middle of January. His passport was confiscated and he was given a paper certifying that "the passport is on a list of falsified passports". In the last two years, confiscation of passports has become a widespread practice of intimidation towards political activists and journalists from non-governmental mass-media.
The most visible LGBT initiative in Belarus is GayBelarus. It is best described as a very small group of people working on a number of highly effective projects realised with the support of legal entities like NGOs and mass media. For the last three years, GayBelarus has organised pride events in Minsk, every time with surprising creativity to avoid arrests and skinhead violence.
GayBelarus is a member of international LGBT associations and Belarusian pro-democracy and human rights networks. It describes itself as a human rights project. It works to realise the rights guaranteed by Belarusian law as applied to LGBT people, to tackle homophobia and provide support to LGBT people, their families and friends.
In the last few years the organisation has managed to build good relationships with club owners who would normally avoid any involvement with activism.
What Do Gay People Want?
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Belarus in 1994. However, it was hardly noticed by the wider society, which remains deeply homophobic.
Belarusian LGBTs face the same issues as anywhere: the majority are not interested in politics or any kind of activism. They appreciate being able to socialise in a few gay-friendly clubs and bars, hook-up online and get a couple of weeks a year in gay holiday heavens like Simeiz in the Crimea or Sitges near Barcelona.
They have to navigate narrowly the unwritten rules: the law does not provide any protection if homophobic prosecution or discrimination takes place. Gay people generally keep quiet about their lives at work, in their interactions with the authorities and doctors or in such situations as renting accommodation. Homosexuality can easily be used to blackmail individuals, which was demonstrated by the Department for Drug Control officials who threatened the Lambda convention participants with sending letters to their places of work or study.
What Will the Authorities Allow?
Strictly speaking, the state authorities are not more homophobic than broader society. For two decades now, Minsk has not been without at least one gay or gay-friendly night club. They masquerade themselves as "art clubs" and "limited-access parties", but all who are "in theme" (a Russian euphemism for LGBT), understand the meaning.
The authorities are happy to keep the LGBT community in night clubs – there is no danger of political or any other kind of activism; at the same time they are a source of taxes and bribes. However, it seems that GayBelarus has become vocal enough for their "Enough" to be heard outside those clubs. Such grass-root activism is perceived as subversive by the authorities.
This explains the tactics of intimidation: harassing not only Lambda signatories specifically, but also ordinary gay club guests most of whom have no interest in speaking out for their rights and safety. The police have already spelled out the reason for their raids: Siarhiej Androsienka “does things which would better be avoided”. The GayBelarus website reports that the number of visitors to gay clubs has dropped recently as people are afraid of further raids. This is an effective way of setting the club owners and visitors against LGBT activists.
If the authorities prevail now, the prospects for greater protection and equality for LGBT in Belarus will be pushed back in time.
Ihar Ivanou, editor of the Belarusians in Britain website
The Belarus Privatisation Model
Each time the Belarusian economy hits a bump experts start to predict a forthcoming full-scale privatisation in Belarus. The logic is simple: when the level of subsidies from Russia diminishes and foreign lenders refuse to extend new loans, then the only remaining option is to privatise state enterprises. But it is already 2013 and the properly remains largely in state hands.
A recent study of implementation of the 2011–2013 Belarus State Property Privatisation Plan shows that each time Belarusian authorities make noise around privatisation they never mean a full-scale privatisation. They usually put on sale low-profit enterprises with ageing workforce and expect that investors will remain in the same sector without reducing employment.
Belarusian researchers Tatyana Chyzhova, Dmitry Isayonak and Lidia Mikheeva analysed data, which Property Committee published in the wake of privatisation auctions, auction announcements and auction results and came to interesting conclusions.
Privatisation for the Media Rather than Investors
Implementation of the Privatisation Plan for 2011 – 2013 revels that it is actually “a pilot version”. Its main goal is to minimise possible social risks, arising out of the privatisation, and to alleviate them across a given region or industry. Its goal is far from the serious full-scale privatisation across the specific sector. The Privatisation Plan provided for the very broad, but shallow denationalisation across various sectors of the economy.
For instance, the government included a number enterprises where it wanted to retain a controlling stake or recently-privatised enterprises where it had a minority suggests that the Privatisation Plan was largely pursuing the purpose of publicising the privatisation process and the “Belarus privatisation model” through the media.
On Offer: Low-Profit Facilities with Ageing Workforce
The enterprises, forming the backbone of the Privatisation Plan for 2011, are largely low-profit companies with pre-retirement age personnel. The privatisation of them is often needed not to gain profit, but rather to ensure the employment and maintain the living conditions in a particular region. Even the loss-making enterprises maintain average wages similar to average wages across the country.
The government is aware of the social risks of privatisation, meaning significant restructuring and conversion for such enterprises. This is why it aims to qualify the sale with the certain obligations on the part of the buyer. First of all, it requires preservation of jobs at the plants with large teams, as well as of the plant’s profile over the several next years.
The “Ideal” Investor for Belarusian Authorities
The target investor, form the point of view of the Belarusian government should have the following characteristics: significant experience, proven reputation in the relevant economy sector, wants to expand production, but does not strive for refocusing of the enterprises in question. He should also be willing to invest seriously in the modernization of the existing production and is ready to take on the significant social obligations.
Such “ideal” investors do exist, but they are few. In 2011, the Belarusian companies were dominating among the buyers at the auctions, along with the companies from the neighbouring countries, working in the relevant industry for a long enough time and acquiring the property for expansion purposes.
However, the owners willing to work under such conditions work in a relatively narrow segment of the industry, primarily in the clothing and furniture manufacturing industries, equipment production, and communications.
No Change of Business Sector
The state Privatisation Plan did not suggest a possible change in the sectoral structure of the Belarusian economy. As a consequence, the privatisation was relatively successful in those sectors, in which the presence of the private business has already reached a detectable level.
The new industries turned to be less attractive for the investors, considering the risks associated with the restrictions on changing the profile and reducing the staff of the plant. Due to this approach, privatisation in the other sectors will be possible only after the private business appears there, grows stronger and feels a need to expand through the purchase of the enterprises, intended for privatisation.
Alternative Privatisation: Sales of “Vacant State Property”
At a lower level, in Belarus, an alternative denationalisation scheme is being implemented through the sale of the “vacant state property” with a minimum starting price of one “basic amount”. This form of privatisation has proved to be more attractive for the business community.
The sales were much higher in comparison with the privatisation of the enterprises, thanks not only to the low priced items, but also to the fact that, when buying the facility, the owner has no need to take on the responsibility for the personnel. One can predict scaling of the ultra small-scale privatisation due to the adoption of a set of measures to support the business activity in the regions.
The Effect of Privatisation on Businesses
In fact, the Privatisation Plan has contributed primarily to the enlargement of the existing actors in the Belarusian market rather than brought additional private capital to the Belarusian economy. It appears that the government’s tried (with little success) to share social responsibility for the personnel of the depressive enterprises with the business community.
The government also unsuccessfully tried to attract investors and cheap loans in exchange for minority stakes in state enterprises. This scheme worked well in the case of the profitable and promising enough Beloozersk Power Mechanic Plant, but shares of the freight sector companies, offered for sale under the same scheme, failed to have found a buyer.
Things to Improve
The authors of the policy paper on privatisation (can be downloaded below) came up with specific recommendations for the government, which could also be of interest for potential investors. They include a suggestion to target selected foreign investors, operating in the relevant sectors rather than widely publish privatisation lists in media.
Experts advise the government to analyse in advance possible changes in the sectoral structure of the Belarusian economy in the event of the large-scale market reforms. These trends also include the economic evolution trends emerging within the Eastern Europe region. They also question whether the requirement to preserve the sectoral profile makes much economic sense.
The experts are confident that the government should separate retention of workforce from the goal of privatisation. Instead of trying to impose a burden on the investors, the government should develop employment programmes for regions, where the arrival of a new property owner may create the social risks. It should not the task of investors to take care of the unemployment level.
The authorities should come up with measures to increase opportunities for the downsized personnel. They should have access to additional training or acquire new qualifications that would be in real demand on the market.
The Future Outlook
Although a number of foreign investors such as Coca Cola, MAN and Heineken have been successfully functioning in Belarus, the Belarusian state is not in a hurry to sale the state property. A large redistribution of property contradicts the ideology of the state.
Belarusian authorities are proud that they have avoided the “bandit privatisation which took place in Russia in 1990s. They prefer not to say that the main reason why they avoid privatisation is not that of economic efficiency. It is easier to keep political grip over the society under control where the state dominates the economy. As long as Russia will subsidise the Belarusian regime for its geopolitical loyalty, no serious privatisation will take place.
This review was prepared on the basis of policy brief Privatization in Belarus in 2011: Results of Auctions, Leading Actors and Social Impact (available in Russian or in English). The study was conducted by Belarus Public Policy Fund as a part of a program jointly carried out by Pontis Foundation (Slovakia) and Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.