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.