CharkaShkvarka, BEROC Conference, Shorebirds Festival – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Belarusians can afford less than 300 shots of vodka and pork bites per month, according to BIPART’s new CharkaShkvarka Index. Sustainable Development Week continues until May 25.
34mag launches a series of off-line meetings with the editorial teams of Belarusian media. BEROC announces opening of the registration for the Fifth International Conference in Economics and Finance. Science Without Borders project will make science closer to ordinary people.
Free bike rental launches in Minsk from May 1. Andrei Bastunets elected new Chair of BAJ. Accessibility Forum showcases initiatives to increase inclusivity of Belarusian society.
Nash Dom campaign explains its communication provocations with purpose to promote women's leadership and gender issues. Photos in the pin-up style, where the Nash Dom leader, Olga Karach is presented as a la Marilyn Monroe are conscious provocative, because it is the way where "the Belarusian society reacts most". The previous 8-year traditional efforts haven't given significant results, while over the last two years Nash Dom's provocations have successfully raised a topic of female presidential candidate in the public sphere.
Shorebirds Festival in Turov. In early May, Gomel region hosted the sixth Festival of Shorebirds, traditionally organised by APB-BirdLife Belarus NGO and the local municipality. The main purpose of the festival is eco education of local residents and children. The participants visited a local meadow, a unique place where hundreds of thousands of birds stop for rest and meals during seasonal migrations.
34mag with informational support of Press Club Belarus launches a project Open Briefing. This is a series of off-line meetings with the editorial teams of Belarusian media. The events will be held every Thursday in May, in the TSEKH space. The internal kitchen will be told by Bolshoimagazine, KYKY.org, Belarusian Tribune and CityDog.by. This series of meet-ups is designed for all who are interested in the field of Belarusian media. The first meeting with the Bolshoi magazine took place on May 7.
MediaBarCamp 2015: Sub-Cultures of Politics. On May 7-10, the 8th international MediaBarCamp 2015, a unique social media, participant-driven, non-conference event, is taking place in Lithuania. The event has brought together activists from Belarus and all around the world. The organisers are the Swedish International Liberal Centre (SILC) in cooperation with local partners in Belarus and Sweden. The topic of 2015 is Sub-Cultures of Politics.
Accessibility Forum opened with a dozen of different initiatives. On April 28, the Accessibility Forum, the key event of the 3rd Accessibility Week, gathered together examples of Belarusian initiatives representing successful practices of expansion of accessibility of inclusion to public life and perspective ideas. However, state representatives didn’t find it necessary to visit an open event despite the invitation to cooperation. Organised by the DisRights Office, the Accessibility Week 2015 took place on April 24-30 and included a series of thematic events to show the society the importance of accessibility issues for persons with disabilities.
Lectures, Seminars, Conferences
BEROC announces opening of the registration for the Fifth International Conference in Economics and Finance that will take place in Minsk on June 2. The goal of the conference is to facilitate integration of the Belarusian economic community into the global academic environment. Professors of the best universities and business schools from all over the world will be among the speakers and moderators of the conference. Working language is English.
Summer School on Human Rights calls for participation in 2015. Organised by the international community of human rights organizations, the Summer School will take place in Vilnius, at the Belarusian Human Rights House. The educational course aims to introduce to the history and philosophy of human rights, as well as methods of protection at the national and international levels. Young people from Belarus at the age of 18-27 years are invited to participation.
‘Science Without Borders’ project invites to a lecture on astronomy. On April 30, the Central Scientific Library hosts a public lecture Clashes of Galaxies by astronomy Alexander Shimbalev. The lecture is a part of the ‘Science Without Borders’ project, initiated by the Youth Educational Center Fialta. The project aims to make complicated scientific issues clear and attractive and respectively provide knowledge outside the walls of schools, universities, laboratories, using accessible language and informal communication with the experts. The project got support from the national contest of social projects Social Weekend 5.
EU-funded project holds training seminars for CSOs in Belarus. The EU-funded ‘Civil Society. Dialogue for Progress’ project has conducted a series of training seminars in Belarus aimed to enhance the capacity of CSOs and to help them more effectively to participate in policy dialogue. Representatives from 20 CSOs took part in trainings, which included six seminars over a period of a year. The project is implemented by Consortium led by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V. in cooperation with local NGOs from the EaP Countries.
EU/UNDP: Funding for local initiatives discussed in Minsk. On April 24, Minsk hosted the first round table within the framework of the EU/UNDP project Support to Local Development in the Republic of Belarus. Participants of the meeting are representatives of local authorities of Minsk region and the regional CSOs – reviewed case studies of international technical aid projects that were implemented in Belarus and discussed preparation for the 1st Contest of Local Initiatives.
The contest video stories Aktyvi333uysya/Get Active named the winners. Video clips submitted under the competition of NewGroupMedia, tell about civic activism and promote socially important topics for society and communities. The winner of the contest became a video "The brutality will not go unpunished" by the legal service Lapa law, which draws attention to the mistreatment of animals and tells what to do if you face it.
During the first quarter of 2015, prices rose by 4.9%, but "eating and drinking" became cheaper by 2.6%. Such data are presented in the CharkaShkvarka Index by the BIPART think tank. The Index takes into account the cost of a standard shot of vodka (charka) and 100 grams of pork (shkvarka). The Index converts income residents into CharkaShkvarka – thus, today, having the average salary of 6.5 million rubles (about $450) Belarusians can afford 297 sets of "eat and drink". This is one of the lowest indicators compared to neighboring countries.
Free bike rental appears in Minsk. From May 1 to October 1, 2015, Minsk residents and guests have an opportunity to rent a bike for a day for free. Bicycles will be located on bicycle parking on a code lock with a password available through a free online service. Free bike rental is implemented under the Kind Bike project; the organizers collected 37 used bicycles, put them in order and prepared for the season. Also, on May 1, the first ever City Bike Parade launches a bike season in Minsk.
Andrei Bastunets elected Chairperson of BAJ. This is a unanimous decision taken by delegates of the IX Congress of the Belarusian Association of Journalists on April 24, in Minsk. Zhanna Litvina, who had performed the functions for almost 20 years, announced she would not suggest her candidacy for the post. Earlier, 48-year Andrei Bastunets was BAJ deputy chairperson.
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.
Political Opposition in Belarus: Movements Instead of Parties
At the Chernobyl Way rally last month, activists from the opposition group Malady Front carried a controversial poster titled “Game Over.” The poster, listing most opposition parties and movements, highlighted the dire state of the democratic opposition in Belarus.
Activist Mikola Dziamidzenka, who carried the poster, explained that the opposition parties are losing membership and legitimacy because senior figures are putting their ambitions above the common cause. Dziamidzenka’s statement follows the departure of Uladzimir Niakliajeu, one of the most prominent opposition figures, from the opposition coalition.
Opposition leaders increasingly split from their parties and create civic movements, which combine political goals with social and cultural initiatives. A 2014 article by Konstantin Ash in Democratization suggests that foreign assistance for pro-democracy movements, combined with political repression within Belarus, may be to blame for the fragmented state of the Belarusian opposition today. According to Ash, opposition leaders have to campaign and challenge the regime to secure funding. The cycle restarts with each bout of post-election repression, when old movements divide and new aid-seeking entities emerge.
Contesting Elections For Seats in Prison
During Belarus’s twenty-year history, eleven out of seventeen presidential hopefuls saw their run for office end in harassment, prison, or even exile. Despite this, the number of presidential candidates grew from just two in the 2001 election to three in 2006 and ten in 2010. Their vote shares, on the other hand, fell from a maximum of 16% in 2001 to 6% in 2006 to 2% in 2010.
Nonetheless, three opposition politicians have already declared their intention to run in the November 2015 election: Anatoly Liabedzka, Chairman of the United Civic Party; Taciana Karatkevich of Tell the Truth campaign; and Siarhei Kaliakin of the left-wing party The Free World. While some argue that this is the only opportunity to legitimately reach a broader constituency in Belarus, others see the absence of a unified candidate as a weakness.
Fickle Membership in Opposition Parties
On paper, membership in both opposition and pro-government parties in Belarus has grown over time. In reality, twenty years of repression have probably thinned the base of active members in the opposition parties. According to Ihar Barysau of Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), “Under a dictatorship…opposition organisations are less engaged in real politics than in trying to survive.”
New members are hard to recruit due to the low visibility of the opposition, the persistent lack of electoral success, and the high risk of being associated with groups that oppose the incumbent regime. Intraparty conflicts sometimes lead to the outflow of existing members.
Many current members of opposition parties joined in the 1990s, at the height of Belarusian democracy. Newcomers also join during election years, when the opposition is most prominently displayed in the media. Recruitment through friends and professional networks predominates – "few people come in from the street", Barysau said.
Belarusian Christian Democracy, an unregistered party founded in 2005, has enjoyed the greatest gains in the number of supporters. The party recruits during campaigns, via social networks, and by keeping detailed records of people who have attended its events. According to Dzianis Sadouski, each potential supporter is contacted at least two to three times.
Leaders Play an Outsized Role and Contribute to Fragmentation
An analysis of media references by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) in 2014 suggests that, around one-third of the time, individual politicians from the opposition are mentioned without party or movement affiliation.
State harassment of opposition politicians is especially effective because the opposition movement fares poorly without strong leadership. For example, while the 2006 presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin was in prison, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) nearly fell apart due to the contentious decision to reshuffle leadership. The party endured another crisis following the departure of chairman Anatol Liaukovich, who was accused of breaking the party's charter, in 2011.
Another 2006 election candidate, Alyaksandr Milikevich, lost leadership of Coalition Plus Five following incarceration. He reacted by forming his own movement, For Freedom.
Last month, Uladzimir Niakliajeu, the most recognisable among the opposition politicians, left the opposition coalition People’s Referendum and announced plans to create a new movement for the statehood and independence of Belarus. The emergence of yet another entity would exacerbate the fragmentation of the opposition.
Reliance on Western Donors
For the Belarusian opposition, domestic electoral success and state financing lie outside the realm of possibility. But international popularity – and funding – are attainable. Trips abroad by some opposition politicians thus seem to play a disproportionate role when compared to party activities aimed at developing the domestic base. According to data collected by BISS, trips abroad accounted for 9.1% of all media references to opposition parties in 2013, and meetings with foreign politicians for 17.5%. At the same time, meetings with the domestic electorate made up just 27% of media references.
Competition for international support, as well as close encounters with the Belarusian KGB and prisons, may explain why opposition leaders are so suspicious of each other. For example, in 2011, Stanislau Shuskevich of Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly called 2010 presidential candidates Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Yaraslau Ramanchuk traitors and criticised their invitation to a Warsaw conference on democratisation.
Proliferation of Movements
The proliferation of movements, such as the one proposed by Niakliajeu, may be another product of the dependence on foreign support in a repressive political environment. The number of political parties – registered and unregistered – has remained constant since 2008, while the number of movements continues to grow.
Establishing a movement carries several advantages. First, some international donors may feel uneasy when overtly seeking political influence by supporting political parties. Civic movements, in contrast to parties, can tap into a broader pool of international funding, adjusting their stated goals in accordance with the available grants. They can compete in both social and political spheres.
Second, political parties lack the trust and confidence of the post-Soviet electorate. Being classified as a movement brings up fewer negative associations in Belarus and facilitates recruitment. It allows claiming legitimacy on grounds other than electoral success.
One should not expect electoral miracles from an opposition that has no access to mass media or domestic funding. This November’s election is all but certain to end in another victory for Alexander Lukashenka, regardless of how united the opposition is.
Having witnessed the aftermath of Maidan protests in Ukraine, the majority of Belarusians believes in “As long as there is no war!” and is willing to overlook the country’s deepening economic problems. Instead of playing Don Quixote and waiting for a Belarusian Maidan, the opposition should prepare for the long haul. That means building trust among the electorate, developing distinct party platforms, and aiming to influence particular policies of the Belarusian state.