Civil Society in Focus, Belarusian Opposition, Internet Users – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
According to a recently released report, in 2011- 2015 the civil society sector has seen seen certain improvements although civic engagement in civil society initiatives remains weak.
Another recently-released study concludes that it is impossible to speak of an improvement in the status of CSOs as the state intentionally drives many of them to the periphery of public life.
Other studies analysed the Internet usage in Belarus showing that now over 70% of Belarusians aged 15 to 74 use Internet. A report produced by Warsaw-based OSW concludes that the Belarusian opposition is currently experiencing its deepest crisis since Alexander Lukashenka took power in 1994. This and more in this edition of Digest of Belarusian analytics.
2015 Future Search Report. Pact has released 2015 Future Search Report, based on a working meeting of representatives of Belarus’ civil society. The report notes that despite the post-2010 crackdown on Belarusian civil society and wave of repressions, the period of 2011- 2015 has seen certain improvements. However, the low level of trust towards CSOs amongst the citizenry results in weak civic activeness and participation in CSO initiatives. There is still no regular interaction between think tanks and other civil society agents directly contacting the people.
In spite of the impression of an advanced dialogue culture emerging inside Belarus’ civil society (compared to 2011), civil society organisations still find it difficult to agree even on issues of no principal significance. Some view the government (especially local authorities) as a partner or, at least, a stakeholder whose engagement is a necessary factor of fostering social change. Others continue seeing it as an “enemy” or the “evil necessity”, while real interaction is either impossible or immoral.
The authors argue that preservation of Belarus’ independence and further upturn of demand for national identity and Belarusian and European values should become the answer to the geopolitical situation in the region. The report urges to tie capacity building to the efficiency of CSOs and their ability to better meet the needs of respective target groups and fulfil their missions, i.e. improving the quality of work and outreach.
Belarus Civil Society Organisations In Cross-Sectoral Dialogue: Experts Survey – a major study funded by the European Commission, analysed the current state of interaction between CSOs and government agencies. It shows that CSOs in Belarus must contend with with constant challenges threatening their existence. More politicised organisations have little chance of being registered in Belarus and are accordingly outside the law in terms of the Belarusian legislation. Legal complexities lead to the marginalisation of many CSOs and CSO membership is associated with a number of risks (job loss, expulsion from university, etc.), thus reducing the attractiveness of CSOs for many people.
The report concludes that it is impossible to speak of an improvement in the status of CSOs as the state intentionally drives many of them to the periphery of public life. But despite the hostile environment, Belarusian CSOs demonstrate a high degree of application of different tools for influencing policies, seeking to initiate a cross-sectoral dialogue and managing co-operation with the authorities to achieve their goals.
Internet: Infrastructure, Users, Regulation – Mikhail Doroshevich and Marina Sokolova sum up the key developments in Internet field for the last year. Namely, by the end of 2014, Belarus totaled over 5 million Internet users, which constitutes 70% of the population aged 15 to 74. The Internet is still not available to all, which poses a serious problem when it comes to the offered e-government services. Only half of households have access to the Internet from home computers.
Analytical paper on Belarus’ HR situation for April-June 2015 is published. The report analyses the dynamics of the situation with human rights in Belarus. The analytical report was prepared by Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Belarusian Association of Journalists, Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus, Legal Transformation Centre, Human Rights Centre “Viasna”, and Committee “Salidarnasc”. English version of the report here.
A Game Played According to Lukashenka’s Rules: the Political Opposition in Belarus – Tomasz Bakunowicz from Warsaw-based OSW believes that the Belarusian opposition is currently experiencing its deepest crisis since Alexander Lukashenka took power in 1994. The report analyses the inability of opposition leaders to develop a long-term political and social strategy which would be adapted to the situation, which does not reflect well on their political maturity.
Furthermore, Bakunowicz notes, the opposition leaders rarely establish genuine co-operation with experts in Belarus. Many of their demands are confined to formulas which have been repeated for 20 years. The failure to select a joint oppositional candidate for the presidential election has proven that not only is the opposition unlikely to threaten Lukashenka’s rule; it will not even be able to demonstrate to society that it could provide a genuine alternative to the present government.
Beyond Politics: Advocacy Opportunities in Today's Belarus – Political scientist Alesya Rudnik argues that there are external political and legal obstacles for advocacy campaigns in Belarus as well as subjective factors of mistrust or disbelief of activists to achieve success. But the key barrier remains the authorities' preferences in selection of advocacy topics and issues – problems of social sphere or infrastructure are more secure and promising. Among analysed campaigns are Budzma, Against the death penalty, In defence of the Belarusian swamps, Public Bologna Committee, etc.
Environmental problems worry 78% of Belarusians. Green Network publishes results of a nation-wide survey performed by SATIO in March – April this year. According to the survey results, most Belarusians (95%) are concerned about price hikes, while low salaries and inflation are among top three issues. At the same time, 78% of Belarusians consider environmental issues to be more pressing than crime and unemployment. Top five environmental issues that worry Belarusians include air and water pollution, consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, illegal dumps and deforestation.
Real Assistance from the EU Can Come in a Few years, Debt Restructuring is More Realistic – True motives of the release of political prisoners are impossible to guess. It is naive to expect the lifting of sanctions against Belarus but even their temporary freeze will allow resuming contacts at the highest level. The most tangible support for Belarus from the West could become a restructuring of debt. These issues are discussed in Amplituda TUT.by program by political analyst Yury Chavusau, BISS analyst Dzianis Melyantsou and CET director Andrei Yegorov.
Belarus-West: "Love" Does Not Come Out – Andrei Porotnikov, Belarus Security Blog, considers Foreign Minister's visit to Ukraine, Vladimir Makei as one of the most important events of August. The significance of this trip "overrides" the current presidential campaign, as the unofficial purpose of the trip is to enlist the support of Mikheil Saakashvili in terms of the restoration of relations between Belarus and Washington.
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.
Opinion: Russia’s Troublesome Ally
Belarus’ strained relationship with Russia illustrates the contradictory relationship between its leadership and that in Moscow during the presidential election campaign.
The problematic areas include the war in Ukraine and the closely related issue of collaboration in the military-industrial complex.
In late 2014, at a meeting between president Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu, the latter proposed to station a regiment of 24 Sukhoi Su-27SM3 Flankers at the Babruisk Air Base. Russia already uses other bases in Belarus to deploy SU-27s, in response to NATO operations in Lithuania and Estonia.
The Babruisk Base
Currently Russia operates two military objects in Belarus: a naval communication station near Vileyka, in service since 1964 and the Hantsavichy Volga-type radar station near Baranovichi founded in 1986, but fully functional only from 2003. It intends to open the new base in Babruisk in 2016.
Belarus is caught in a fragile situation between NATO and the Russian Federation, a position exacerbated by the forthcoming election as the president seeks more support from the West. Having decommissioned its own Su-27s, Belarus becomes central in Russian plans to bolster forces in response to United States’ decision in late August to station F-22 Raptors in Europe.
The opposition quickly turned on these plans. After the release from a correctional facility of Mikalai Statkevich on 23 August, he held an interview with Radio Svaboda on 3 September, in which he launched an attack on the stationing of SU-27s on Belarusian territory. Statkevich argued also that the proposed new base could be a cover for use of nuclear weapons. The obvious target, in his opinion, is Kyiv 350 kilometers to the south.
Likewise the presidential candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich (cited by Aliaksandr Klaskouski in Naviny.by), declared on Belapan that
These bases will make Belarus a target and constitute a threat to our national security. Given the conflict in Ukraine, it is irresponsible to station weapons of another country on our territory, as well as in the entire region, as they can be fired at any time.
In theory, the weapons could not be fired without the consent of Belarus.
Klaskouski also discussed the Russian government’s goal of joint protection of the external borders of the Union State and using Belarus “as a sword against the West.” He considers it the “Achilles heel” in terms of public relations, and particularly inappropriate for Belarus to enter the confrontation between Moscow and the West when the country’s relationship with the European and United States has normalised.
Russian Media and Lukashenka
Belarusian state news agency Belta reported on 21 August that the Belarusian president denied that he faces a choice between Russia and the West. He maintained that Russia can have no doubt as to our “honesty, principled [position] and reliability.” Nevertheless, he continued, “we wish to normalize relations with the European Union and America” just as with Russia or any other state. Yet Russian critics—“weathercocks [flyugery] and provocateurs”—continue to pester him, as Lukashenka acknowledged at a meeting with Aleksey Miller, chairman of Gazprom in late August.
On 21 August Poland-based TV station Belsat broadcasting in Belarusian racked down some Russian media critiques of Lukashenka. One Russian outlet noted the change in election slogans from “For a strong and enlightened Belarus” (2010) to “For the future independent Belarus” (2015). Lukashenka’s verbal assaults have targeted Russian oligarchs, the company “Rossel’khoznadzor” (which deals with sanitary surveillance), and the general concept of “Russkiy Mir.”
Further the relatively liberal website “Slon.ru” held a discussion on the theme “When Lukashenko decides to break with Russia,” observing that the Belarusian leader has begun sharply and even crudely to criticize Russia. Notably the most outspoken jibe pandered to non-state media in his interview of 14 August when Lukashenka described the notion of the Russian world as propagandistic nonsense and that “in Russia they have neither money nor brains.”
Does Russia Seek Regime Change in Minsk?
Belsat analyst Mikhas’ Likhtarovich points out that in the view of the Russian leadership, Moscow finances keep the Belarusian leadership in place. A decision needs to be made on how to deal with Lukashenka, and hasten the integration of Belarus into Russia. Such integration presupposes the introduction of the Russian ruble (an old canard first debated in the mid-90s), the transfer of executive functions to Moscow and even lustration of Belarusian officials.
The current assaults during an election campaign resemble those of the 2010 elections when Moscow’s NTV network ran the 5-part documentary “Krestnyy Bat’ka” (The Godfather) but with the significant absence of a war in Ukraine to increase the external pressures on Minsk.
Writing in Eurasia Review last week, Paul Goble cited Arseniy Sivitsky of the Belarusian Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research that if Belarus refuses to agree to the new Russian base in its territory, Russia may take steps to destabilise its neighbour.
Fellow analyst, Yury Tsaryk, maintains that Russians concur that Lukashenka has betrayed Vladimir Putin and thus favour a regime change in Minsk to bring the recalcitrant ally under full control. The Russian government, however, has not expressed that view and media attacks remain milder than five years ago.
Playing for Time
Russia’s economic assistance to the “Near Abroad” has experienced a steep decline. In turn, the fall of GDP, collapse of currency, and general recession in Russia has brought analogous dilemmas to the Belarusian economy. Between January and July 2015, compared to 2014, GDP has fallen by 4%, exports incomes declined, and foreign capital dropped. Belarus lacks sources for internal stimulation, according to experts of the Eurasian Bank of Development. The joint problems, together with Ukraine’s disaffection, further induce the Russian side to step up integration.
During the election campaign, Lukashenka has adopted a strong patriotic stance to undermine the so-called “nationalist opposition.” Thus he needs to delay commitment to the Russian base and further integration to attain a comfortable victory in the coming elections, with a mollified West reducing its traditional support for the opposition and—he hopes—recognising his victory. The Russia problem looms large, but the government intends to win the elections and wait out the economic crisis before making further commitments to Moscow.
David Marples and Uladzimir Padhol
David Marples is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta.
Uladzimir Padhol is Belarusian political scientist and journalist, editor and publisher of Narodnyi televisor. Tsitaty i baiki A.G. Lukashenko [People’s Television: Citations and Stories of A.G. Lukashenko], which is now in its thirtieth edition.