Civil Society and Political Parties: Together While Apart
In November, civil society representatives convened in Minsk to vote on the Concept of the National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EAP CSF). The adopted version of the Concept favours an expansive interpretation of the civil society mission and was criticised by some groups as pushing civil society organisations on the road of political conflict with the Belarusian authorities.
Unnecessary politicisation of civil society activities was mentioned as the primary reason for the refusal to sign the Concept by the Belarusian Association of Journalists, human rights centre “Viasna”, Office for Democratic Belarus, Belarus Helsinki Committee, Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, and others. How harmful politicisation harmful for the development of the Belarusian public sphere?
“Civil society" has become a buzzword among Western political leaders and analysts concerned about the future of Belarus. Glorified as the springs of democracy, civil society is sought after — by the EU policymakers, who would like to fund, meet, and consult civil society actors on every visit to authoritarian states. The authorities, in their turn, would like to control, eliminate, or coopt them.
This dynamic is forcing some uneasy choices on the civil society leaders in Belarus. One of these choices concerns the appropriate extent of political involvement. How close to politics can Belarusian civic leaders get without endangering subverting their mission, getting imprisoned, or losing trust of the Belarusian population?
Staying away from politics?
In the past, much of the Belarusian civil society tended to follow the lead of the Belarusian opposition. This has changed around 2006: with the political opposition suffering one defeat after another and lacking support in the Belarusian society, many NGOs began to take over the initiative and eschew dangerous association with the opposition. Civic groups learned independence and cultivated their own leadership. This was a propitious development at the time.
Moving away from politics saved many nascent groups from repression, improved the image of the civil society in the Belarusian public, and contributed to the emergence of new leaders in the Belarusian public sphere.
At first glance, continuing to stay away from politics also seems like a good idea today. After all, political parties still have little credibility with the public. According to the sociological monitoring by the pro-regime Institute of Sociology of the NAN of Belarus and non-regime agencies such as the Independent Institute for Social and Economic Studies only a tiny fraction of the population trusts political parties in Belarus.
Therefore, political involvement risks undermining the political neutrality of the civil society organisations and tarnishing the image. With politics generally considered dirty in Eastern Europe, association with the opposition may prevent civil society organisations from fulfilling their goals. This is a particularly great obstacle for organisations that have to work with the state, which includes professional associations, organisations defending human rights, or environmental groups.
Another potential problem from associating with political parties is breeding conflict among the civil society actors. While it is easy to agree on the need to prevent pollution or protect women’s rights, it is a lot harder to converge on issues that involve collaborating with the authorities or boycotting elections.
the Belarusian civil society also has had its share of political conflict in the past, with the two feuding unions of Belarusian writers and two unions of Poles Read more
This is why the Belarusian opposition has had trouble coalescing around common goals despite the enormous costs of disunity. In fact, the Belarusian civil society also has had its share of political conflict in the past, with the two feuding unions of Belarusian writers and two unions of Poles. Avoiding such disagreement and contestation among civil society actors may be a difficult task in the context of an authoritarian state.
However, it has by now become clear that if a democratic transition is indeed to occur in Belarus, it will not come through the efforts of the civil society alone. While civil society actors may initiate change, it is the political parties that will help aggregate and represent societal interests when the change comes.
This is why there needs to be a healthy relationship between the civil society and political parties – with cooperation, but at a distance. The EU can contribute to this goal by supporting projects that promote the development of coalitions between NGOs, parties, and even state organisations.
To be sure, simply functioning in an authoritarian state automatically imparted a political hue on most civil society organisations in Belarus. In order to survive, some Belarusian NGOs resorted to financial support from the West. This support is motivated primarily by political goals, such as bringing about democracy or compensating for the inauspicious political climate in Belarus, — even as it is directed to groups distant from the Belarusian politics. Today, EU support needs to be directed toward fostering collaboration between political and civil society actors.
The alternative — promotion of civil society at the expense of political parties — creates a dangerous imbalance by increasing the popular demand for change without strengthening the political actors who could deliver such change.
Whereas civil society groups help individuals discover and articulate their preferences, political parties alone are able to actualise these preferences in a nation-wide policy. Without the degree of synergy between political parties and the civil society, citizens will eventually become disillusioned with the political process and could be captured by populist leaders.
Belarusian civil society needs to work with political parties to accomplish their goals, but these political connections are likely to undermine neutrality and unity of the civil society Read more
Although the absence of linkage between the civil society and political parties hampers the ability of civic actors to shape politics, too much of a linkage undermines credibility and neutrality of the civil society. This is essentially a Catch-22 situation. Belarusian civil society needs to work with political parties to accomplish their goals, but these political connections are likely to undermine neutrality and unity of the civil society. We see today that the regime has succeeded in dividing the opposition, the civil society, and the Belarusian people thus fostering the impression of the impossibility of a democratic transition.
Is change possible in Belarus? History shows that opposition parties can win elections even in authoritarian states, but only if they collaborate with civil society groups and regional and transnational democracy activists and adopt bold and innovative electoral strategies, as argued by political scientists Valery Bunce and Sharon Wolchik.
Working alone or approaching elections passively has inevitably failed. Without collaboration, audacity, and unity, one cannot convince the people of the possibility of victory and, as a result, the people stay out of the streets and choose not to vote. Achieving unity among the civil society actors and the political opposition by creating connections between these two forces is therefore key to preparing the ground for a democratic transition in Belarus.
The New Serfdom in Belarus
The Belarusian government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. It finds it more and more difficult to perform its daily tasks without resorting to administrative force.
This is the major implication of the unprecedented decree that Alexander Lukashenka signed on 7 December.
The world media have already interpreted the decree as legally introducing serfdom in Belarus. It ties workers to their workplaces. Now they can only leave their current jobs with permission from their boss. Otherwise, they will have to pay the state or be subjected to forced labour.
At the moment this affects fewer than 20,000 employees in Belarus. But many fear that the decree might well become a model across the whole economy later.
Lukashenka Is “Tired of Pleading”
For the last several weeks, Alexander Lukashenka has been particularly busy with the country’s wood processing industry. He visited two large factories in Ivatsevichi and Barysau where he wanted to assess the progress of the state modernization programme.
Since 2007, the government has provided discounted credits worth about €700m for the reconstruction and modernization of nine wood processing factories in different regions of the country. The rationale behind the programme was to boost the productivity of the industry which is based on local raw materials and can be competitive on international markets. Through these measures, the authorities sought to lower their dependence on Russian oil, the major driver of Belarus’s exports.
In spite of significant state subsidies, the Belarusian Statistics Agency did not record any progress of the industry. Some indicators even demonstrate regression. For example, the share of the wood processing industry in the overall output of all processing industries has declined. In 2007 it was 2 per cent. And in 2011 it went down to 1.5 per cent.
During his visits Lukashenka blamed the failure on the government and the factories themselves. In Ivatsevichi he fired the executive director and in Barysau he came up with more radical ideas. He said that he was “tired of pleading” with everyone and ordered the draft of a decree that would prevent employees from quitting their current jobs.
Decree in Violation of National Law and International Treaties
On 7 December Lukashenka’s order materialised in Presidential Decree No 9 “On Additional Measures for the Development of the Wood Processing Industry”.
According to the decree, employees technically become serfs of their bosses. The latter will now decide who can leave for other jobs and who must stay. If an employee disagrees he or she can appeal directly to the governor of the voblast.
The decree specifies no criteria on which governors will have to make judgments. In the Belarusian reality, this means that governors will generally support the factory management, unless there is a personal conflict between them.
Lukashenka believes that the decree will help the factories keep employees who leave in search of higher wages. Today the average salary of workers in the wood processing industry is about $250-300. The incumbent demands that workers additionally start getting monthly bonuses which will depend on their factory’s financial means.
If an employee decides to leave against his boss’s will he or she will have to pay back the whole amount of the bonuses received since 1 December 2012. And if the person has no money to pay, he will be forced to remain at his previous workplace and the amount of all his previous bonuses will be withheld from his salary.
The decree will affect all the employees of the nine wood processing factories that have been part of the government’s modernization program. They make up about 13,000 people. Additionally, it will also affect the personnel of the state construction companies that participate in this program. They amount to around 3,000-5,000 people.
Needless to say that this legal act violates national and international labour standards. It looks shocking even to Belarusians, who are already used to different kinds of forced labour. Many already fear that this model will later be applied to other sectors of the economy. Lukashenka, too, said on 10 December that "the wood processing sector should become an example for others".
Besides the emotional side of this story, it signals that the Belarusian authorities are becoming increasingly dysfunctional. The case of the wood processing industry clearly demonstrates that they cannot perform the task of economic modernization without violating the law and resorting to extraordinary administrative measures. The usual social and economic policies do not work any longer. The authorities have nothing else but to use force.
However, even administrative pressure on the people can hardly solve the problem.
You cannot make your production innovative and your goods competitive by simply forcing your employees to stay with you. And even if you threaten all of them into staying, it does not automatically raise their labour productivity.
You cannot even increase employees' salaries administratively. Well, you can. But as last year's economic crisis has shown, the whole country will then need to pay a very high price for that.
Thus, administrative force cannot solve Belarusian economic problems. Even if the authorities try introducing Stalin-like mobilisation of the whole economy. We live in the era of globalisation. And administrative measures, like the ones in question, seem absolutely barbarian. People have multiple opportunities to overcome them and to make the authorities look even more dysfunctional.
Interestingly, all this is happening in the background of the melting social benefits (rising costs of utilities and goods, worsening access to healthcare and education, etc). The incumbent regime has never really been socialist. But now even the idea of the Belarusian socially-oriented market economy looks more and more like a myth.
Falling social benefits and projected economic difficulties next year will surely bring more similar stories.