Criminal case against trade union leaders tests civil society in Belarus
On six occasions during March 2018 border patrols removed activists from the Belarusian Independent Trade Union of Radio Electronic Industry Workers (REP) from trains and buses under the pretext of “random” personal inspections. REP leaders claim that this continues a campaign against the trade union, whose activity proved instrumental in the postponement of Decree No.3 “On the prevention of social dependency”.
Over the last month, inspectors from regional branches of the Investigative Committee interrogated around two hundred members of the REP and at the beginning of February, someone hacked the organisation’s website. Still, civil society and political parties keep silent about the situation, perceived as punitive measures against the REP’s activists. Why does Belarusian civil society disregard the persecution of an independent trade union?
Struggle against the “social parasites” law
Initially the adoption of the so-called “Social parasites’ law” aimed at forcing Belarusians employed in the shadow economy to pay taxes. The legislation obligated all adults in Belarus, irrespective of their health and life situation, to “become engaged in the financing of public expenses.” Should they be unable to find a job or explain why they are not employed to a special commission, they would have to pay a single fee of around $300; a significant sum in a country where the average salary amounts to $400 per month.
Dzmitry Čarnych, a Belarusian Helsinki Committee legal expert, pointed out in an interview to Euroradio that the law directly violated the constitution and primarily targeted vulnerable segments of the population, such as disabled people. Members of the REP stood up against the law: rights inspector Leanid Sudalienka helped a member of the trade union, Aliaksandr Siamionaŭ, to file a claim against his local tax office.
Siamionaŭ received notification that he was qualified as a social parasite and hence obliged to pay the corresponding fee. He refused and proved in the court that he was engaged in the financing of public expenses through paying both road tax and goods/services tax among other things.
The outcome of that high profile case surprised Belarusians who recognised the possibility of ignoring similar notifications and calls from tax office in relation to social parasites’ law. Only 54,000 citizens paid the tax, which is about 9 percent of the presumed number of “social parasites” (470,000) as specified by tax authorities.
Moreover, the most intensive and emotional protest actions in six years shook Belarus in 2017. Over several weeks Belarusians gathered in city squares to protest against Decree No. 3. Eventually, the authorities took a step back and postponed the law’s entry into force. In January 2018 they cancelled the decree altogether. Several months later police launched an investigation against the leaders of the REP.
The launch of a “second Bialiatski” case
Tough Belarusian legislation compels NGOs to register all financial aid received from foreign countries with the Department of Humanitarian Activities. The authorities do not allow sponsorship of political social events. A variety of state bodies, such as Committee of State Control and the tax authorities and criminal lawyers enforce the law. That said, many NGOs have no option but to open bank accounts in Lithuania or Poland to continue their proper operation. This allows the authorities to persecute unwanted NGOs allegedly for illegitimate financial operations.
On 2 August 2017, State Control Committee agents staged a raid in the REP’s Minsk office under the pretext of a criminal case against its chair, Hienadź Fiadynič, and his associate, Ihar Komlik, both charged with tax evasion. Throughout 2017 and 2018 the authorities have gathered information about REP leaders, undertaking raids, interrogating its members and impeding the organisation’s activities in all sorts of ways.
The State Control Committee released a statement alleging that the chair and general accountant of the trade union “opened accounts in foreign banks on behalf of the organisation for the purpose of personal enrichment.”
The trade union’s representatives fundamentally disagree with these accusations. In particular, the REP’s Homiel committee vice-chairman, Andrej Stryžak, said in an interview that the authorities “launched an orchestrated campaign against the trade union because of its activity.”
This situation largely resembles the infamous case of Alieś Bialiacki’s case. Bialiacki, convicted of tax evasion in 2011, spent almost three years of a 4.5 year-sentence behind bars before his release in 2014. This became possible because seven years ago Lithuanian Department of Justice passed information about a bank account belonging to the human rights centre “Viasna” (chaired by Bialiacki) to Belarusian colleagues. However, after the persecution of the human rights activist, Lithuania stopped cooperation with Belarus in this sphere.
Silent treatment from civil society
Despite ongoing interrogations, political opposition and civil society remain largely silent on the REP case. One reason is that, due to the large-scale campaign against independent trade unions in the 2000s, the REP lacks full integration into civil society structures. Throughout the 2000s independent trade unions and REP in particular actively opposed presidential Decree No. 29, which introduced a discriminatory system of short-term contracts.
The authorities launched a campaign against activists designed to weaken the influence of the independent trade unions. In some cases, they changed unwanted management of independent organisations during orchestrated internal elections, while in other cases they forced members to transfer to pro-governmental trade unions. Also, the authorities prevented the formation of cells at the enterprises by forcing out “rebellious” workers.
The International Labour Organisation qualified this situation as a failure to comply with Belarus’s obligations as regards freedom of association for workers and withdrew trade preferences. Belarus joined Myanmar as the only two countries in the world deprived of trade preferences at the time.
Though opposition parties recognise the importance of independent trade unions, they look on their activities with a grain of salt. While opposition leaders sail close to the wind and risk arrest for their activities, the REP can act within the boundaries of the law when defending the rights of workers in court. Stryžak says that for this reason, various organisations credit the trade unions for defending the rights of workers and contributing to the cancellation of Decree No. 3, but none of them supported the REP after the initiation of the criminal case.
Still, human rights activists will speak in support of the REP. Recently they handed information on the ongoing repressions to Miklós Haraszti, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus.
The REP’s case represents a test for Belarusian civil society, which will show whether recent protests against decree No. 3 contributed to the building of solidarity networks between people not previously politically engaged. Should people stand firmly against the repressions of REP, it could ruin the authorities’ plans on the implementation of the second version of the infamous law – Decree No.1 “On the support of employment”.
Vasil Navumau is a visiting fellow with the Open Society Foundation’s Global Dialogues Program – Fellowship of the “Artes Liberales Institute” Foundation (FIAL). He is also the editor of the Belarusian journal e-gov.by, devoted to discussion of ideas in the sphere of e-government formation and e-participation enhancement in Belarus.
Belarusian authorities confront YouTube vloggers
On 12 March 2018, the Pinsk court equated live streams on Facebook and YouTube to foreign media. The unprecedented court decision marks the latest step in the Belarusian authorities’ crackdown against popular YouTubers. Prior to this, Belarus’s Investigative Committee pressured two well-known vloggers with criminal charges for insulting the president of Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities’ nervous reaction to popular YouTubers demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the state’s ideological efforts. The giant Belarusian state media machine has failed in both Minsk and the regions by promoting outdated propaganda narratives. Belarusians of all ages turn to the internet in search of objective information and discussion. Therefore, instead of instilling fear and intimidation, the persecution of Belarusian vloggers brings them additional clicks and subscriptions.
Minsk’s YouTube celebrities
The recently pressured vloggers share an antipathy for the current authoritarian system in Belarus. Over the last two years, they have produced politically-charged content which captured the attention of millions of Belarusian viewers.
Sciapan Sviatlou, a 19-year old student from Minsk, recently became the biggest Belarusian star of YouTube. Sviatlou’s YouTube channel, NEXTA, excels in producing original videos about Belarusian events. The channel features regular newscasts, entertainment videos, and music covers. “What news” – NEXTA’s weekly news digest – focuses on Belarus’s politics and social life. “What news” skilfully combines serious analysis with humorous commentary. Alexander Lukashenka remains the top target of the channel’s sophisticated satire.
The NEXTA channel boasts staggering popularity in Belarus: each video receives on average between 200,000 and 400,000 views. In the two years since its registration on YouTube, NEXTA has outperformed Belarusian state television. In particular, NEXTA possesses more subscribers on YouTube (130,078) than either the top Belarusian state television channel ONT TV (100,352) or the Polish-funded multimillion-euro television channel aimed at Belarus, Belsat TV (57,598).
Pavel Spiryn, a 33-year old lawyer from Minsk, uploaded his one-hour movie about Lukashenka in December 2017. Spiryn chose to name the movie “Step-father”, highlighting the contrast with Lukashenka’s official nickname “Batska” (“father” in Belarusian). According to Spiryn, Lukashenka acts as an evil “step-father” towards the Belarusian people and holds them hostages to his authoritarian rule. Spiryn harshly criticizes Lukashenka’s policies and slams incompetent Belarusian officials. So far, “Step-father” has received approximately 600,000 views on YouTube.
Powerful voices in the Belarusian regions
Several influential YouTubers have appeared in the Belarusian regions. In many ways, the scandalous Presidential Decree No. 3 on “preventing social dependency” (also known as the “social parasites” tax) triggered their media activities. The discriminatory character of the infamous Decree No. 3 rapidly turned ordinary people into political activists.
Maksim Philipovich, a 34-year old driver from Homiel, initially set up his YouTube channel “No Guarantees” to blog about online purchases from China. Yet, the vlogger got actively involved in protests against the social parasite tax. Philipovich filmed mass rallies across Belarusian cities and put the videos on his channel. “No Guarantees” subsequently featured numerous trials of political activists from the Homiel region. So far, the channel has accumulated more than 8 million views.
Siarhei Piatrukhin, a 48-year old actor from Brest, earned his popularity by following the footsteps of Alexei Navalny. Piatrukhin’s channel, “People’s Reporter”, features videos related to controversial issues affecting the Brest region. Notably, Piatrukhin publicly investigated corruption schemes used by Brest’s top officials and filmed his personal experiences dealing with rude police officers. Moreover, he raised the alarm about the construction of a potentially dangerous accumulator plant near Brest. Dramatic content coupled with bold headlines have brought at least three million views for “People’s Reporter”.
The popularity of these regional vloggers largely stems from their focus on local issues. In fact, Piatrukhin and Philipovich act as investigative journalists. Unlike Belarusian state television, the vloggers honestly report about the problems of their regions.
Belarusian authorities initiate a crack-down
Philipovich was the first target of the Belarusian justice system. In July 2017, the Homiel court opened a criminal case against him on charges of “replacing the state media with his own video production.” The prosecution maintained that Philipovich had to officially register his YouTube channel as foreign media. A team of human rights lawyers managed to prove the absurdity of charges against the vlogger, and the Homiel court eventually ruled that video hosting platforms did not count as foreign media in Belarus.
Nevertheless, on 13 March 2018, the Pinsk court fined Piatrukhin and his colleague Alexander Kabanau for live-streaming on Facebook and YouTube during their meeting with the managers of the accumulator plant’s managers. Hence the court in Pinsk de-facto recognized Facebook and YouTube as foreign media in Belarus.
Sviatlou has recently attracted the attention of Belarus’s Investigative Committee. On 22 February, unknown representatives of the Investigative Committee confiscated a camera and notebook from Sviatlou’s parents’ flat. They cited as legal grounds for the confiscation a written complaint by an unknown citizen, which stated that one of Sviatlou’s videos insulted the president (punishable under Article 368 of the Criminal Code).
On 5 March, Spiryn visited one of the police departments in Minsk to testify about the production of “Step-father”. The officers conducted a phonoscope examination of Spiryn’s voice. Spiryn does not exclude the opening of a criminal case against him on charges of insulting the president.
A threat to internet freedom in Belarus?
The Pinsk court’s absurd decision presumes that each personal video uploaded by Belarusian citizens to social media platforms classifies as foreign media. Any Belarusian YouTuber could find themselves fined for “illegal media production and distribution.” So far, the Pinsk court’s decision has not sparkled mass outrage among Belarusians. Hence its implications remain unknown: either the Belarusian justice system will neglect the premature decision of an overzealous judge, or it will use it as a precedent to fight politically-charged vloggers.
Nevertheless, the persecution of popular YouTubers has not benefited the Belarusian authorities thus far. On the contrary, Belarusian vloggers have received additional popularity at home and abroad. Taking into account the fact that criminal proceedings against Sviatlou and Spiryn have not officially resumed, the Belarusian authorities still weigh up whether to persecute vloggers or to set them aside.
In conclusion, the Belarusian authorities still focus on the little things while ignoring serious issues. The true danger for Belarusian statehood lies in aggressive messages undermining its sovereignty by Russian media outlets. Instead of persecuting vloggers, the Belarusian authorities should limit anti-Belarusian propaganda conducted by Russian media.