BўRoom, Vendors Against Certification, Alternative Service – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Perspektyva gathered over 400 vendors for a forum to address new regulations. Apart from the vendors, the official representatives from the authorities also attended the event.
All about Belarus during the Vilnius Summit: BўROOM expands its creative space and will bring together the most interesting civil society activities in Belarus. Minsk will host an international conference on transformation processes unfolding in countries such as Germany, Poland and Ukraine.
The Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility brought together over 70 participants. Among them were representatives of Belarusian business, non-governmental organisations and international experts on social responsibility.
Register for BўROOM now. BўROOM is a creative open space, designed to present some of the most interesting civil society activities implemented inside Belarus. BўROOM will host photo exhibitions, presentations from different sectors, informal roundtables and a press room. It will be open to anyone interested in visiting it or using it on 28-29 November at the Novotel Hotel in Vilnius. To register for ByROOM send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Conference on transformation processes. On 22 November Minsk will host an international conference "Belarusization: Whether it is Possible to Complete the Process of Institution Building of an Independent State?" The conference is organised by the Centre for European Transformation with the support of the Consortium "EuroBelarus" and the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Germany). The event will bring together experts on transformation processes from Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
Inclusion can become mainstream. On 11-12 November the UNDP office in Minsk hosted a workshop "An inclusive development agenda after 2015: the practical prospects for people with disabilities in Belarus" that was attended by representatives of national and international organisations, people with disabilities and foreign experts. On 14 November the Association for Life Long Education (ALLE) together with the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities conducted a roundtable "Inclusion in non-formal education" aimed to develop practical recommendations for CSOs to adopt an inclusion principle in their educational programmes.
How to get a foreign assistance. On 5 November in Homel, the Office of European Expertise and Communications (OEEC) conducted a training "How to write and implement a successful international project." The training apparently caught the attention of local governmental and non-governmental organisations – with 30 out of 60 applicants having a chance for participation.
Civil society activities
Vendors address GOB through forum in Minsk: On 4 November Perspektyva held a large Forum in Minsk as a reaction to statements made by Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Prokopovich that beginning on 1 December small vendors would not be able to sell light manufacturing products without a certification of quality. More than 400 entrepreneurs attended the forum, as well as a representative of the Trade Ministry. Forum participants signed a finalised document at the forum, in which they resolved to invite Lukashenka for an exchange of ideas at one of Belarus' many markets, and also to file a lawsuit against the proposed measures with the Eurasian Court. Vendors argue that the proposed measures would effectively put out them out of their jobs.
Meetings on public participation in government programmes are held in the regions. The Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities is conducting a series of regional meetings to discuss how people with disabilities can influence the content and format of government programmes. Meetings have already taken place in Minsk, Brest, Vitebsk and Mohiliou.
Forum on rural development. On 28 November the Forum "Rural Areas – Opportunities for Business Development and Youth Creativity" is to take place in Smorgon, Hrodna oblast. The organiser is a local CSO "Selchanka" together with the Smorgon local authorities. The Forum aims to discuss the development of business and the creative potential of young people in the Smorgon region as well as the public's role in the implementation of local strategies for the sustainable development of the region. Source: BD contact
Corporate Social Responsibility Forum gathers 70 participants. On 15 November an annual Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility took place in Minsk. The agenda included 15 presentations made by representatives of business, non-profit organisations and international experts in the field of social responsibility. The Forum was conducted within the framework of a long-term project, implemented by the Foundation of Ideas in partnership with the Pontis Foundation (Slovakia) and supported by the European Commission.
Platform Conference: On 4 November the Belarusian National Platform of EaP Civil Society Forum held a conference in Minsk, focusing on the future of the civil society forum. Conference participants drew on conclusions from the EaP Civil Society Forum meeting in Chisinau, expressing dissatisfaction with the dynamism of the Forum’s development. Additionally, conference participants also made comments to the 2014-2016 Strategy of the EaP Civil Society Forum, noting concerns about “expertisation” of the Forum and a decreasing role of civil society on the policy-making level. Finally, the conference adopted a resolution with a message to the EU to not decrease the attention afforded to Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia after the Vilnius Summit.
SYMPA announces the fifth round. The School of Young Managers in Public Administration (SYMPA) aims to create a community of young people in Belarus that are competent in the field of public administration and carrying it out at different levels. The Organisers invite participants who are motivated Belarusians of ages 25-40 years old, with higher education, who speak English, work in the fields of public administration, as well as in business, civil and political organisations. The program consists of four full-time training sessions held in Belarus, Lithuania, Georgia and Sweden, and inter-sessional work with the fellows.
Interaction between state and civil society
Citizens of Mahiliou to get construction of additional parking places. To do this, the residents from one of Mahiliou streets collected 177 signatures. The residents’ initiative was facilitated by activists of the local CSO "Impulse", which is addressing the issues for improving conditions surrouding backyards and public spaces.
Wheelchair user is suing the National Airport "Minsk". On 31 October the Minsk court held a hearing regarding a lawsuit of Eugenij Sheuko, the chairman of the Association of Wheelchair Users against the National Airport "Minsk". Sheuko states that he suffered terrible treatment when boarding a plane during his working visit to Estonia in May 2013.
Bill on Alternative Civil Service is ready: Minister of Labour says the Council of Ministers is ready to submit the Bill on Alternative Civil Service to the parliament. The Alternative Civil Service campaign (AGS) reposted this news without comments. This should not come as a surprise as the bill was originally included in the legislative drafting plan for 2013. It is not clear whether the AGS can attribute this news to their success, but can surely claim their own contribution.
Is there a role for CSOs in Belarusian healthcare? Oleg Eremin, Chairman of the Belarusian Anti-Aids Network Association, suggests that civil society organizations could help ease the workload on Belarusian medical professionals by implementing preventative and other, more complex, programmes. Such programmes could include pre- and post-HIV/AIDS testing consultations, as well as the testing itself. Eremin contends that the Belarusian government could partner more with CSOs in dealing with healthcare services to vulnerable groups and announces that at the end of November two pilot HIV-prevention offices will be opened in Minsk and Gomel under a UNESCO project.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.
Why Belarus Authorities Keep a Catholic Priest in Jail
On 15 November, several Belarusian organisations appealed to Amnesty International and local human rights structures to recognise priest Lazar as a prisoner of conscience.
Uladzislau Lazar has already spent four months in a KGB jail on charges of 'treason of the state' despite the fact that the public does not know any details surrounding the criminal case.
The Catholic Church in Belarus remains weak and does not openly oppose the government. The Apostolic Nuncio holds secret talks, but this tactic causes resentment among some believers and priests. Many in the Church would like to see their leadership be more assertive.
The authorities still appear to be rather timid and have yet to work out a solution. On the one hand, the activities of the Catholic Church irritate the authorities, while on the other, the Holy See can be an important ally. A priest turned political prisoner can certainly spoil future relations.
From Priest to Political Prisoner
Pavel Seviarynets from the Belarusian Christian Democrats and Zmicier Dashkievich from the Youth Front, both recently released to freedom, keep trying to spread the word about the case of Catholic priest Lazar. Until now, the Church has not officially demanded the release of the priest and holds only secret talks with the government. Mr Dashkevich said that, "it is not clear for [him] why the stance of the Catholic church is so uncertain."
The criminal case against the priest looks very strange, and information on it remains completely secret. The Belarusian authorities placed the priest in KGB jail four months ago accusing him of "betraying the state". It remains unknown at what stage the criminal proceedings are and when the court will hold a trial.
Uladzislau Lazar himself denies any wrongdoing. He said this to Claudio Gugerotti, apostolic nuncio to Belarus, whom he met in prison on 25 October. After the meeting, the nuncio called Lazar 'sober and resolute.'
The Belarusian Christian Democrats, the Young Front and the "For Freedom" movement have signed an appeal to show how tired they are of the Church`s tactics. The Christian Democrats want to see the Catholic Church and all other Christian churches in Belarus become more active in politics and in public in general. Also, the Belarusian Christian Democrats and the Young Front are using the chance to show to the electorate that they can protect Christians, even if the church maintains its silence.
Before this appeal, the opposition groups gathered signatures for the release of Lazar and money for his family. There are quite a few Catholics that support doing more to secure the release of the priest, more than the Catholic Church is carrying out today.
Catholic Church Tactics
The Church only received confirmation of the priest's arrest from the authorities in September. However, Lukashenka was the first to state in July that the authorities have “detained one of the traitors who have served in the special services and who, through the representatives of the Catholic Church, is related to foreign states”.
Since then, Archbishop Tadeush Kandrusievich called on Catholics to pray for Father Lazar and Pope Francis has shown interest in the case and passed a rosary to the priest through the nuncio. The Roman Catholic Church, however, has not taken any more public actions.
During this time the Catholic Church is holding talks with the government. Unofficial sources indicate that Archbishop Kandrusievich is not part of these negotiations. Apostolic nuncio Claudio Gugerotti, who already has gotten some results in dealing with Lukashenka's regime in the past, remains in charge.
Compared to EU diplomats, the content of conversations between the Catholic Church and the authorities have never been leaked to the public. This helps to build trust between the parties, even while the Orthodox Church looks upon these developing relations quite jealously.
The Catholic Church has a long history of relations with authoritarian countries and, through its dealings with them, has learned a few lessons. The Church will not throw down the gauntlet before the regime. It has big plans to strengthen its position in Belarus: to build new churches, to open new educational institutes, to conduct great pilgrimages. Therefore, bishops remain reluctant to spoil their hard won relations with the regime.
The Church did not directly confront the authorities of Poland during the Soviet era and is not challenging the government in Cuba. It should be noted that both of those countries are a majority Catholic, while Belarus is not. In 2010 the church leadership publicly sought from the authorities the return of a monastery in the centre of Minsk and was dealt a blow. Instead of the monastery, the place was given to a hotel. It will open next year.
The Church knows that it cannot win the battle with the authorities, but believes in its diplomacy. Several priests told the author that they remain convinced that the nuncio will find a mutual understanding with the regime, and Lazar will not be on the receiving end of a jail sentence.
At the same time, many priests in Belarus remain concerned about the silence of the upper echelons of the clergy, as they themselves could find themselves in the place that Lazar is in right now.
What Irritates the Authorities?
It seems that the criminal case against the priest Lazar has fallen apart. The authorities of Belarus are not giving any information about the status of the case, though the detention was reported first by Lukashenka himself. Lazar's sister and the nuncio continue to publicly convey the words of Lazar about his innocence.
Although it is impossible to prove the innocence of the priest, no evidence of his “treason” has surfaced either.
Off the record Catholic priests say that the authorities want to make Lazar an exemplary case for all other clergy. Although the Belarusian Church hierarchs remain loyal, the activities of such a large organisation has turned out to be an issue of concern for the authorities.
The Church clings to the Belarusian language, holds great pilgrimages, opens educational institutions, and among its active believers are a fare share of members of opposition organisations.
Lazar's case put not only the Church in an uncomfortable state, but also Lukashenka`s regime. A criminal term for the priest on a charge of 'treason' looks too brutal even to the Belarusian authorities themselves. It seems that the regime does not know how to resolve the situation.
An unconditional release may show the vulnerability of the authorities, and a criminal term will certainly damage relations with an important potential ally. The crossing of this Rubicon will have an important effect on the regime's relations with the Holy See.