Belarus Top Civic Actions in 2012
With the New Year celebration just around the corner, it is time to think about the list of top civic actions in 2012. As a disclaimer, the goal of the list is to highlight achievement and recap success, often overlooked in the repressive environment.
Event of the Year: Educators and Researchers
We could not choose between significant events organised by educators, capacity builders and researchers in 2012. Our choice would be the educators, as they managed to conduct both of their national events in Belarus. Nevertheless, researchers gained both in quality and quantity, being at a core of modernization attempt of the Belarus government (at least part of it), as well as of the EU’s modernization policy.
On October 12, the First Capacity Building Fair took place in Minsk. The Fair was organised under the Marketplace project which promotes a market model of consulting services for CSOs in Belarus. The Fair was attended by more than 150 providers and CSOs-customers of capacity building services. On December 7-9, the 4th Festival of Non-Formal Education took place in Minsk. The Festival was attended by about 250 participants – teachers, trainers and other people sharing the values of life-long learning and non-formal education.
On September 28-30, The Second International Congress of Belarusian Studies took place in Kaunas, Lithuania. The event was attended by about 300 scholars from around the world involved in studying Belarus and East-Central Europe. The final agenda includes 20 sections in different fields like regional development issues, Belarus relations with other countries, etc.
On May 25-26, Vilnius hosted an international conference "The Future of Belarus" dedicated to the 20th anniversary of independent studies in Belarus and the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS). The conference was attended by about 100 well-known Belarusian and international researchers, experts, civil society leaders. Following the conference, a book was published titled "The future of Belarus. Opinion of independent experts".
Evidence of the Year: Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS)
The September-October public opinion poll of Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) showed the real results of September parliamentary elections – regardless of numerous declarations and evidence of the opposition representatives, they were valid: 17.4% of respondents had voted early, and 49% – on September 23.
Only 9.6% answered they had boycotted the elections, and another 24% said they had not participated in voting due to other reasons. Some Belarusian politicians expressed distrust in results of the poll. In his turn Oleg Manaev responded that there is a very little difference between both authorities and opposition who manipulate the truth to the same extent.
Watchdog of the Year: Mediakritika
A new analytical media project was launched – Mediakritika.by. Created by a team of Belarusian journalists, it is aimed at comprehensive critical analysis of the media in Belarus. The new project has a slogan “Truth Loves Criticism” and sets the task to improve the quality of the Belarusian journalism by monitoring the quality of news as it is presented in all Belarusian media.
Cross-Sectoral Cooperation of the Year: Mark Chagall Open Air Exhibition
During the summer season, an open air exhibition of reproductions of works by Mark Chagall worked at the Yakub Kolas Square in Minsk. The exhibition was dedicated to the 125th anniversary of the artist. The project was implemented by the “Fond of Ideas” paid for by Belarus business and opened by the Minister of Culture.
Advocacy of the Year: Social Contracting by ACT
During the year, the law "On Social Services" passed all levels of approvals and was adopted on July 13, 2012. One of the most important parts of the bill is introduction of the mechanism of social contracting that allows nonprofit organizations to get funding from the state budget. The main advocate for this change was NGO “ACT”.
Political Project of the Year: Election Monitoring
Political parties managed to agree and deliver partisan poll-watching – For Fair Elections – of the 2012 parliamentary elections in a coordinated fashion and with a clear methodology based on the local conditions. Two additional project were operating in a coordinated fashion. The interactive platform of monitoring elections resumed its work before the parliamentary elections in Belarus of September 2012. It is an open platform where anybody can share their experience and observations of the election campaign. Electby.org is powered by the platform Ushahidi (which means “evidence” in Swahili).
The “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” campaign is an independent and non-partisan joint initiative of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and Belarusian Helsinki Committee. From the very first day of the election 95 long-term observers began their work, covering 106 out of 110 election districts. They prepared weekly reports on the course of the election process which were processed, presented and spread as the campaign’s weekly and preliminary reports on all stages of the election.
Belarusian Language Promo of the Year: AD.NAK! by Budzma
Festival of Belarusian-language advertising and communication AD.NAK! is a platform that unites the most active professionals in advertising and communications field and aims to interest others to do advertising and create communications in Belarusian. This year the event was held for the third time and attracted over 300 applications from more than a hundred participants. The Festival is organized annually by Budzma! civic campaign.
Branding of the Year: Tsmoki-Minsk
At the beginning of 2012 Budzma! launched a pilot addition to their campaign – Searching for Tsmok – which aimed to provoke wide public discussion of ‘cool’ Belarusian cultural heritage and the country’s brand. Tsmok is a mythical Belarusian dragon, friendly to people, who represents richness in every sense of the word. As a result, the most popular Belarusian professional basketball club Minsk-2006 was renamed to Tsmoki-Minsk (Цмокi-Мiнск).
Local Fundraising of the Year: MaeSen project
In December 2012, the project MaeSens transferred 40 million BYR to charity, and this means that the mutual assistance to children has increased $100,000. One-year-old MaeSens project raises funds for the treatment of seriously ill children and orphanages by organizing the online auction of meetings, where anyone has the opportunity to set a meeting with him/her or to buy a meeting with a person he/she liked. In 2012, the project was awarded as a "Best Startup of the Year" by Bynet users.
Pro Bono of the Year: Minsk United Branding Team
Self-organized Minsk United Branding Team offers to design alternative brands for Minsk. Minsk United Branding Team, a voluntary mixed group of creative professionals and civic activists with a dedicated page on Facebook, starts designing city brand, alternative to INSTID proposal. The team is open for anyone interested and declared its three main principles as: Professionalism; Inclusivity; and Love to city/country and self-respect.
New Topic of the Year: Working with the Elderly
The issues dealing with intergeneration interaction and non-formal education accessibility for older people became the main topic of Festival of Non-Formal Education of 2012 “Non-formal education for all generations”. The Grodno-based NGO “Third sector” for 3rd year implements a project “Golden Age University” for Grodno residents of pension age; this year the University is attended by 140 people.
Effective Cooperation with State Authorities of the Year: RAIK
Due to the RAIK’s initiative, the National Airport Minsk approved a policy to adopt the quality standard of service for persons with reduced mobility. In addition, from January 26, “Kind Button” was launched in Belarusbank ATMs all over Belarus. The initiative of Republican Association of Wheelchair Users (RAIK) provides an opportunity for users of plastic cards transfer the money to the charity for the Association. From April 14, RAIK launched a charity project "Kind Call". Every resident has the opportunity to make a paid call from local phone and donate for the rehabilitation of disabled persons in wheelchairs. Also,
Last but not least….
Rural citizen of the Year: “Village Girl”
Kseniya Degelko’s ‘I am from the village’ song gathers over one million views on youtube in a few weeks period and spark heated debate. Produced by a GONGO, it is characterizing what kind of (civil) society our partners are operating in and trying to influence.
This overview has been prepared by Pact and published by Belarus Digest. It 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.
Political Overview of 2012: Diplomatic Wars, Sanctions and Elections
Belarus started the year 2012 in a rather bad shape.
Alexander Lukashenka has been occupying his post for almost 18 years. A dozen political prisoners remained behind the bars. Relations with the West were worse than ever before. The opposition was suppressed and the economy went through a painful recovery from the economic crisis of 2011. That year the inflation reached 108% and the national currency went through a threefold devaluation.
The 2012 in Belarusian politics promised to be tough. And tough it was for everybody.
Winter Froze the Foreign Policy
The events shaping the political landscape of the winter took place at the very end of the season. On 27 February the Council of the EU decided to extend its "black list" of Belarusian citizens prohibited to travel to the countries of the Union.
21 new persons were included into the list. The Belarusian response did not take long. On the next morning two diplomats: the Head of EU Delegation to Belarus Maira Mora and the Polish ambassador Leszek Szarepka were asked "to leave for their capitals for consultations". Simultaneously, two Belarusian ambassadors were recalled from Brussels and Warsaw.
Benjamin Franklin once sharply noted: "Whatever is begun in anger, ends in shame". On 28 February the European Union has decided to withdraw all its member-states’ ambassadors from Minsk.
The decisive, swift and surprisingly coherent actions of the EU took Belarusian authorities aback. Later they begged Russia for diplomatic and moral support, did their best to explain that the EU ambassadors can return to their workplaces, but nothing really helped. The time has come to perform some due and proper political steps towards Europe.
Slight Changes Came with the Spring
Notwithstanding the subtitle, the spring began with another governmental action isolating Belarus from the West. On 15 March 2012 two young men: Vladislav Kovalev and Dmitry Konovalov were executed for the terrorist act in Minsk subway that had taken place in April a year before.
Death penalty has always been a sticking point in Belarusian-European relations. Moreover, some experts and observers asserted that the investigation had been done improperly, with many procedural violations while others regarded it as normal.
European officials and domestic civil activists criticised the Belarusian authorities for the undertaken act. Some raised their voices in support of new portion of sanctions against the regime. Others doubted their effectiveness.
On 23 March these sanctions were adopted. Not only Belarusian officials were included into the new "black list", but also businessmen who were considered to be the regime’s sponsors. The message was pretty plain. The EU switched to hard line towards Belarus.
After the presidential elections of 2010 several tens of political activists got in prison. During the 2011 many of them were released with or without signing the plea for presidential pardon. Experts believe that was done in order to get some concessions from the EU. Spring of 2012 became the new "time to bargain".
On 14 and 15 April two political prisoners were released: Andrey Sannikov, ex-candidate for presidency, runner-up on the elections of 2010 and Dmitry Bondarenko, coordinator of the "European Belarus" campaign.
Soon after this event European ambassadors returned to Minsk. There was no doubt: their freedom was beholden to the European firmness and solidarity. Spring didn’t resolve all the problems in Minsk-Brussels relations, but the degree of tension was surely mitigated.
In May the news came from the East. Vladimir Putin, aspiring to reunite former satellites within the new integration project – Eurasian Union, came back to full power in Russia. He chose Belarus as a first country to visit, which seemed more like a landlord travelling across his provinces and reminding who was still in charge there.
Swedes Warmed the Summer Up
Usually, summer is a time of low political activity. So was it in Belarus until 4 July. On that day an airplane, chartered by the Swedish advertising agency "Studio Total", illegally entered the Belarusian airspace and parachuted several hundred teddy bears with notes carrying pro-democracy messages. The event was immediately called "the teddy bear airdrop".
In the best soviet traditions the first official reaction was the denial. Only by the end of July Belarusian government had officially recognised the fact of illegal intrusion in sovereign air-space.
Soon after that Lukashenka sacked two top generals, the heads of Belarus’ border guards and of air defence, for failing to intercept the plane. Belarusian-speaking Swedish ambassador Stefan Eriksson was expelled from the country.
Then the cannons of state propaganda fired their volley. Eriksson was convicted of supporting the Belarusian opposition and assisting the trespassers. That time Europeans decided not to escalate the tensions and other ambassadors remained in Minsk.
Inside the country the summer passed in preparations for the September parliamentary elections. The opposition divided into three camps: those who fully partake in the elections, those who utterly boycott them and those who register their candidates with further exit from the race.
Gloomy End of the Year: No Gleams of Democracy
Parliamentary campaign was, by all estimates, very passive. Political apathy and people’s distrust to both governmental and oppositional candidates were the prevailing trends before and during the elections.
Besides, the government resorted to its traditional tools. Some oppositional candidates were not registered. Their representatives had almost no chance to get into electoral committees. Even their legally guaranteed TV-speeches were censored.
In such an atmosphere nobody really hoped for the elections to be fair or democratic. On 23 September 109 pro-governmental candidates were "elected" into the House of Representatives – the lower chamber of Belarusian parliament.
No mass oppositional rallies followed the elections. OSCE observers traditionally didn’t recognize the elections as free and democratic, while observers from post-soviet states did. European leaders refused to deal with newly formed Belarusian parliament.
On 15 October European Union prolonged sanctions against Belarusian regime for one year, which caused relatively moderate verbal response of Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Meanwhile, Andrey Sannikov, ex-candidate for presidency that had been released from prison half a year before got political asylum in the United Kingdom and moved there with his supporters’ team.
At the end of the year Belarusian president astounded the whole country by the now infamous Decree No9. According to this decree, if you are an employee of a certain "modernizing" enterprise you can’t leave the job without special permission from your boss. His decision, in its turn, can be appealed to the head of the local administration. If you refuse to work you will be fined with a gross sum of money or subjected to forced labour at the same plant. The decree has already been characterised as introducing the new serfdom in Belarus.
All in all the year of 2012 in terms of political development has been just another wasted twelve months. There are still several political prisoners in jails. Parliamentary elections passed unnoticed. Relations with the West are cold and strained, while economic misunderstandings with Russia tend to transform into political tensions.
Paraphrasing one famous Israeli politician of the 20th century, Belarusian authorities never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. And the outgoing year is the best example.