Belarus Introduces Alternative Civilian Service
On 1 July 2016 a new law on alternative civilian service comes into effect in Belarus. This coming fall,10, 000 young Belarusian conscripts will start their compulsory military service. According to tut.by 20 of these would like to exercise their option for alternative civilian service.
Finally, after more than a decade of debates in parliament and discussions by various commissions, the new law will stipulate the conditions for such an alternative service. Known as “alternativschiki”, these young men will fall under the mandate of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection. In Belarus they will have to serve for three years, twice the time required of regular military conscripts.
Conscripts, dodgers, and ‘alternativschiki’
Twice a year the Belarusian Ministry of Defence drafts young men between the ages of 18 and 27 for conscription. During Soviet times men were eager to sign up. The received wisdom was that for men ‘the army was the school of life’. They had to serve for two years and could end up virtually anywhere in the huge territory of the Soviet Union, usually outside of Soviet Byelorussia.
Since then much has changed. For each conscription round – one in the spring and one in the autumn – the Ministry of Defence aims to draft around 10,000 young conscripts. Many young men successfully dodge the draft. The army has lost its allure since Soviet times and families pay big money and pull many strings to get their sons out of it. Daughters are immune, as the Belarusian army conscripts only men.
Methods for dodging, postponing, or cutting the length of compulsory military service have become common knowledge. Education for one offers immediate payoffs. Men without higher education have to serve 18 months in the army. Having a university degree decreases this term to 12 months. If the individual's university itself offers military training, a conscript's time in the army is further reduced to six months.
Now, starting from 1 July, those with religious pacifist beliefs could qualify for a different kind of deal. The new Belarusian law on alternative civilian services offers conscientious objectors a paid option instead of conscription. It stipulates 36 months – instead of 18 in the army – of paid labour in the healthcare sector or social system institutions, agriculture or railroad maintenance, or other areas as delegated by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection.
The new Belarusian law covers only religious pacifist beliefs as possible grounds for conscientious objection. In order to be eligible for alternative civilian service one needs to submit a written petition no later than ten days before the end of the conscription term. The committee will then consider the application, and hand down its ruling. This is how the process should work if properly applied. Victor’s story shows how the law does not work in practice.
Victor works at a factory in Brest. He comes from a middle class working family with an alcoholic father. He identifies as a Jehovah’s Witness, and has refused to serve in the army. Victor would eagerly commit to 36 months of alternative civilian service, double the time of a regular conscript. Except he faces criminal charges and a BYR 21m (roughly $1,000) fine instead.
Victor’s story started when the law on alternative civilian service did not exist. And yet even then two consecutive court hearings ruled in his favour. The court found his desire to serve in a ‘non-military’ way was justified by his religious beliefs. The Prosecutor General, dissatisfied with the decision of the local courts, appealed to the Supreme Court, and won.
Victor filed an appeal on 24 June, and is awaiting the decision. In his interview to people.onliner.by Victor speaks of the possible resolution:
Two courts have ruled in my favour, and on a third attempt under the same article they charged me with a criminal offence. Certainly the law (on alternative civilian services) will soon come into effect, as it is only a matter of time. But why should I depend on it? How can I account for the lack of alternative civilian services up til now? I have never dodged conscription; I wanted to serve my country. And not just for a year and a half, but for all three! I see it as my responsibility to my country, but wish to do so in an alternative way.
Formally Article 57 of the Belarusian Constitution grants eligible Belarusian men a right to alternative civilian service if their religious beliefs did not allow them to serve. However, in reality, no mechanism for enforcing this has existed until now. In the eyes of the Ministry of Defence, men who could not serve because of their religious beliefs were no different from other army dodgers.
Current and previous Ministers of Defence have openly denounced an alternative civilian service, called it outright harmful, and spoke about it in other negative terms. The Ministry has typically seen its biggest challenge as being to make alternative civilian service so unattractive that men would not choose to pursue it. It seems they have succeeded.
The new law takes into account only religious grounds. It stipulates double the term of service as compared to regular conscripts – three years instead of one and a half for those without higher education, and two years instead of one for college graduates. And most importantly, ‘alternativschiki’ will get paid around BYR 2m monthly, which roughly comes to $115.
These conditions certainly make it highly unappealing. Moreover, the Ministry of Defence reserves the right to deny applicants this option without explanation or recourse to appeal. It seems at least for now that the service exists only formally. And the Ministry of Defence has no intention of turning it into a viable alternative to military service.
Ostrogorski Forum, Limits of Belarus-EU Relations, Nuclear Plant – Ostrogorski Centre Digest
Over the last few weeks analysts at the Ostrogorski Centre have focused on the Belarusian-Lithuanian dispute over the Astraviec nuclear power plant, the limits of Belarus-EU rapprochement, and why some regions in Belarus lag behind others.
Igar Gubarevich analyses Belarusian-Lithuanian tensions surrounding the nuclear power plant that Belarus is building near its border with Lithuania. Vilnius is worried about environmental and safety issues. However, Minsk sees economic and political motives behind Lithuania's claims. Although domestic policy considerations in Lithuania also play a role, the Lithuanian authorities are hardly willing to jeopardise the numerous benefits of a wide web of trade ties between the two countries.
Ryhor Astapenia explains why Viciebsk region lags behind other Belarusian regions in economic development. Currently, a quarter of enterprises are loss-making and some are even bankrupt. The region is experiencing depopulation, and property prices there have dropped further than elsewhere. Given the outflow of human capital and the lack of effort to improve public administration and the economic system, the region has no future but further degradation, the expert concludes.
Artyom Shraibman argues that the intensity of Belarus-EU cooperation seems to have reached its limits. The lack of progress in the human rights arena and Belarusians officials' dubious plans for electoral reform have harmed the relationship. Some visible progress – such as more inclusive composition of electoral commissions, transparent ballot counting or letting the opposition into parliament – might give the rapprochement with the West a second wind.
On 29 June in Drazdy Club the Ostrogorski Centre will hold the first Ostrogorski Forum – a conference on Belarusian foreign policy and security. The theme of this year's conference is 'Inertia, increased neutrality or foreign policy re-orientation? Foreign policy in Belarus at the present stage'.
The conference will feature five studies conducted in spring 2016 with grant support from the Mott Foundation and Pontis Foundation and implemented jointly with Ostrogorski Centre. The researchers will represent the Ostrogorski Centre, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, the "Political Sphere" institute, the Centre for European Studies and the Belarusian analytical workroom.
Speakers will discuss issues including Belarusian soft power in the region, Belarusian-Russian relations after the conflict in Ukraine, foreign policy of Belarus in the context of the CIS, the potential of Belarusian neutrality and the geopolitical orientation of Belarusians.
The conference is expected to become an annual event and promote the development of professional and respectful dialogue between experts with different political views (pro-government, opposition, pro-Russian, pro-Western, etc.), including government officials, journalists, academics, representatives of think tanks and state universities. See more details and programme of the conference here.
Seminar ‘Directions of development of higher and complementary education in Belarus’
On 30 June the Ostrogorski Centre in cooperation with the Institute of Business and Technology Management of Belarusian State University will hold a seminar on the development prospects of higher and complementary education in Belarus.
The seminar will present the results of three studies conducted by the Ostrogorski Centre, the Centre for European Studies and the the Institute of Business and Technology Management at BSU in spring 2016. The programme of the event is available here.
Address – Maskoŭskaja str. 5, room 213. The event is open to the public. Please register in the form to take part.
Comments in the media
Artyom Shraibman claimed on Radio Racyja that despite the lifting of EU sanctions, numerous visits of officials from Brussels to Minsk and vice versa, the relations of Belarus and the EU have reached a certain limit.
Ryhor Astapenia on Radio Racyja explains why Viciebsk region is experiencing the largest decline. Ryhor sees a sharp decline of revenues at Naftan, the core enterprise of the region, as one of the key factors of its economic problems. However, the expert points out that these problems are common to all regions of Belarus.
Artyom Shraibman speaks at ‘Belarus: Quo Vadis?’ discussion, organised by the Chatham House Russia and Eurasia Programme in London. Artyom discusses the Belarusian government's approach towards managing relations with the EU, US and Russia, and shares his views of the political scene in Belarus.
Igar Gubarevich discusses on Radio Racyja why Belarusian NPP is getting higher on the Lithuanian political agenda. Vilnius is concerned about environmental issues and safety, but Minsk sees economic and political motives behind these concerns.
Siarhei Bohdan comments for Radio Racyja on the increasing weight of Belarus in the international arena caused by growing tension in Eastern Europe. However, major geopolitical players are not interested in the neutrality of Belarus. The placement of new Russian troops on the border with Belarus does not mean preparation of another “Crimean scenario”, but a sign of Russia’s mistrust of the defence capacity of the Belarusian army.
Vadzim Smok on Belsat TV discusses the reasons for the economic crisis in Belarus, ongoing reform of social policies, and the potential implications of the authorities’ neglecting their social contract with the population.
Ryhor Astapenia on Polish Radio discusses the history of the Belarusian People's Assembly, and how the authorities use it to their advantage. According to Ryhor, at this year’s assembly Lukashenka will seek to obscure the economic difficulties with a discourse of independence and peace, and will as usual call upon the people to mobilise under his rule.
Artyom Shraibman explains to Polish Radio why Freedom of Press ratings published by Freedom House are unfair for Belarus. There are countries where the situation with media freedom remains much worse, yet they scored higher in the ranking. According to Artyom, engaging two local experts with varying viewpoints rather than the current one and clarifying methodology could improve the assessment.
In the Polish radio programme "Political mirror" Ostrogorsky Centre analyst Ryhor Astapenia discusses whether meeting with the Pope helped Aliaksandr Lukashenka break out of international isolation, what implications public spending cuts will have in Belarus and why the flagship enterprises of Belarusian machine building have topped the list of loss-making companies for several years in a row.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
- Alieś Sieržanovič, Iryna Juzvak, Andrej Kažamiakin. Analysis of the sphere of organisational development of civil society organisations. OEEC, 2016.
- Arevik Mkrtchan. Determining the common external tariff in a customs union: evidence from the Eurasian Customs Union. BEROC, 2015.
- Alieh Mazol. Exchange rates, imports of intermediate and capital goods and GDP growth in Belarus. BEROC, 2015.
- Andrej Skryba. Towards strategic cooperation between Belarus and Ukraine: benefits and challenges. BISS, 2016.
- Tacciana Vadalažskaja, Andrej Jahoraŭ, Aliona Zujkova, Voĺha Laškievič, Iryna Lašuk, Ihar Rasoĺka. Monitoring of the implementation by the Republic of Belarus of UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. CET, 2015.
Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by completing this form.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.