Dealing with Slavery and Human Trafficking in Belarus
On 6 February a Belarusian businessman received 5 years in prison for enslaving a group of Vietnamese whom he had earlier agreed to deliver to the European Union. Meanwhile, the Belarusian government has defined fighting human trafficking as one of its priorities both domestically and internationally, where it feels it has been successful.
The recent US report on trafficking, however, downgraded Belarus' performance in combating the problem due to its abusive legislation and a lack of open access to information on the issue.
The positive results from the anti-trafficking campaign are visible in Belarus, though some social groups remain vulnerable to trafficking: women from weak families and men from the regions who go to Russia to work. The government needs to develop both employment and professional education policies to boost jobs for these groups.
A Slaveholder from Belarus
Belarus has not seen slavery for almost two centuries, but recently a rare case of it occurred near Lida, a city in Western Belarus. On 6 February businessman Siarhej Stoliaraŭ was given five years in prison for organising the illegal migration of individuals. Stoliaraŭ and his Russian partners developed a plan to illegally move several Vietnam citizens from Moscow to the European Union. He took 16 of them to a truck and brought them to a village in the Lida district.
But instead of immediately delivering them to Lithuania, he ordered the Vietnamese to work off the services rendered to him. The migrants got accommodation in a shed and had to dig a ditch and do other physical jobs. Stoliaraŭ kept them locked up for eight days, though his neighbours had no idea what was happening in the yard next door. The case was revealed only during a border guard check in the village for other, unrelated reasons.
A World Anti-Trafficking Activist
Belarus has engaged in actively combating human trafficking both at home and internationally since 2005. It became one of its major foreign policy initiatives, enjoying strong international consensus and a firm backing from many Western countries. The authorities claim they brought about a significant drop in trafficking inside Belarus. The following diagram from the Ministry of the Interior review these dynamics over the past decade.
The number of human trafficking and related crimes (2002–2014)
Sexual exploitation's victims are always on the minds of the leadership in Belarus. According to official sources, the number of victims decreased from around 1000 in 2006 to 81 in 2014. In general, this is a very positive trend, especially when compared to other countries in the region, like Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and Moldova, where the trends are less encouraging, according to a 2014 UN report.
Belarusian women are the most likely to be exported to Western Europe: Germany, the Netherlands, France, but also as Middle East and Russia.Traffickers have become more cautious and do not usually come to Belarus personally, though nine of them were detained inside the country in 2014.
Modern traffickers have changed their ways: if in the 1990s they attempted to deceive the victims by promising them legal highly paid jobs, today these schemes no longer work thanks to the spread of communication technology and educational campaigns. They openly invite women to work as prostitutes, and the women go in for these dirty jobs fully aware – they simply can earn more doing the same job abroad than in Belarus. And many surely hope to find a rich fiancé and start a happier life.
Belarusian Migrants Enslaved in Russia
Labour slavery has also been on the decline over the past decade, but the major reason for it remains the same. Thousands of Belarusians migrate to Russian giant cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg in search of work. Unemployed men listen to the stories of neighbours who have been in Russian and made good money in construction, convincing the to pursue a similar journey. But they often find a less optimistic reality awaiting them when they arrive in Russia.
In June 2014 two Belarusians managed to escape from servitude in the Caucasian republic of Dagestan. Strangers knocked them at a Moscow bus station with a spiked drink and brought them to a brick factory. They worked 15 hours a day and were forbidden from leaving the factory's territory under threat of a heavy beating.
The men managed to run away with the help of the Russian NGO Alternative, who received information about their presence in Dagestan. Russian media reported that Dagestan has 600 brick factories, and half of them use slave labour, 10-50 slaves at each factory. And no one knows why the Russian government does nothing to stop this outrageous crime.
US Feels Belarus's Efforts Have Been Weak
Despite the bright official statistics on trafficking from Belarus, the US Department of State has been placing Belarus in its Tier 2 watch list. This means that the government is making efforts to comply with the western standards of combating human trafficking, but the total number of victims remains significant and shows that the government is failing to resolve the problem.
The US report gives several instances where Belarusians are still vulnerable to being compelled to forced labour. It mentions the functioning of presidential decree No 9, which forbids leaving one's workplace in any mill from the wood industry without the employer's permission. Men who seek jobs abroad remain subject to falling victim to forced labour, as do women via sex trafficking.
The report criticises Belarusian officials, who allegedly understate the real number of victims in order to show the government's successful performance. The government also shows little interest in cooperating with NGOs who deal with trafficking issues.
New Policies Needed to Fight Trafficking
While the positive results in the broader anti-trafficking campaign can indeed be observed in Belarus, the government still has a ways to go in developing its strategy of dealing with the problem. Belarus succeeded in fighting human trafficking at home, but it still proves itself incapable of preventing its citizens from servitude abroad. The authorities should thus focus on problems which do not touch migration directly and stem from social and economic conditions in the country.
Authorities should specifically target the most vulnerable groups with particular social or regional origin: women from poor or alcoholic families and men from the small towns and villages who seek earnings in Russia. The government should develop policies that help these groups find a decently paid job at home, and encourage their professional and personal development.
Green Men, Western Assistance, 5 Years of Belarusian Web – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
EU foreign policy towards Belarus, who pays for journalism, the new martial law and Western assistance to Belarus are among the topics which kept Belarusian analysts busy recently.
Rethinking the EU Policies Towards Belarus – Andrei Liakhovich, the Director of the Centre for Political Education in Minsk, believes that relations with Belarus are not a pressing issue of EU foreign policy. While the EU has leverage over Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime, it does not use it, as it fears pushing Belarus more towards Russia. Such fears are groundless. Lukashenka’s regime will not cross the dangerous line of integration with Russia under any circumstances.
Belarus’s Rising International Standing and Its Implications – Grigory Ioffe believes that renewed high-level negotiations on the war in Ukraine, with an agreement signed in Minsk, on February 12, further raise the stature of Belarus in the eyes of the international community. In particular, the Belarusian president has sought to maintain close ties with both Russia and Ukraine while steadfastly appealing to Western leaders to abandon their increasingly contradictory policy of sanctions toward Belarus.
Russian Ruble's Hapless Little Brother – The worst-performing currency in the world so far this year is called the ruble, but it's not Russian. It's the legal tender of Belarus, a country increasingly uncomfortable with its too-close alliance with Russia. The small nation's latest bout of economic difficulties shows Russian President's vision of a Eurasian Economic Union – a partial recreation of the Soviet Union as a tight, European Union-like economic alliance with Russia at its center – makes little sense for its members, according to the Bloomberg View.
Andrei Aliaksandrau: Every Internet User Can Fund Journalism – State media in Belarus are funded from the state budget, while independent media are supported from abroad. It appears that Belarusian society basically doesn’t pay for the domestic journalism. 'Who is going to pay for high-quality journalism?' was the topic of the open lecture by Andrei Aliaksandrau, Belarusian journalist, that took place in December. The meeting happened within the frames of the 'Main question' cycle.
Five Years of Belarusian Web – Mikhail Darashevich, manager of Gemius in Belarus, analyzes figures of Internet development in Belarus for the last five years. Namely, from December 2009 to December 2014, the Belarus online audience has risen by 65.5% or from 3.023 million to 5.004 people. The retired people group has risen from 1.28% to 5.56%; however, this is extremely little as compared to the whole Belarusian society. The number of daily users has grown from 72.70% to 82.73% of the whole Internet audience.
Environment in the Media Mirror – the Center for European Transformation presents the results of research on covering environmental issues and activities of environmental organisations by Belarusian media. One of the recommendations of the study is the necessity for CSOs to establish their own news services, press secretaries, PR-manager, responsible for communication with the media. The lack of professionalism of CSOs (and the "greens" in particular) when dealing with the media was marked by almost all respondents from among journalists. The study was carried out on the initiative of the Green Alliance.
Human Rights and Security
Monitoring of the Situation with Human Rights in Belarus: October-December 2014– A group of Belarusian CSOs has released a regular monitoring aimed at highlighting short-term tendencies in the spheres of human rights, social, political and economic situation in Belarus. Namely, during 2014, 84 public associations, 12 funds and 40 private institutions were registered. Compared with 2013, the number of newly registered CSOs remains at the 2013 level but it is significantly lower than in 2010-2012, when over a hundred new public associations were registered annually.
Martial Law. In Search of Green Men – Dzianis Melyantsou, BISS, explains a new law ‘On Martial Law’, which became the subject of public discussions. Some media and experts consider the law as a trail of Ukrainian events and the desire of the Belarusian authorities to take into account this experience to prevent Russian aggression. Melyantsou argues that the new law is more adapted to the allied commitments of Belarus in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), rather than anticipate a conflict with Russia.
Ten Facts about Western Assistance to Belarus – Hanna Sous', Radio Svaboda journalist, conducted an investigation on the foreign aid for Belarus. In particular, the Belarusian state is a major recipient of western aid; only 12-20% of the total amount directed to the development of civil society. The European Union is the largest donor; the EU institutions spend on the development of democracy in Belarus 13% of the total aid, while U.S. – 71%.
Ioffe presents new book on Belarus. Grigory Ioffe, professor at Redford University (Virginia, United States) presented his second book about Belarus entitled Reassessing Lukashenka at the National Library on Belarus. The work is based on a number of personal interviews with the Belarusian head of state. The supplement makes up a quarter of the book. Reading transcripts of the interviews one can make his/her own opinion of the Belarusian leader. According to the writer, the book is aimed at challenging the clichés in respect to Belarus and its leader.
Dates of the Fifth International Congress of Belarusian Studies are announced. The largest Belarusian academic event will be held on 2-4 October 2014. The Congress will gather around 400 scholars and experts from Belarus and abroad. Traditionally, the Congress will include discussions, presentations, and the ceremony of Award for the Best Academic Publication in 2013-2014. Proposals for organisation of Congress panels and sections can be submitted till 12 March.
From 2014 into 2015: an Attempt to Avoid the Regional Crisis via Administrative Measures – Belarus in Focus' Information Office presents the Belarus in Focus Annual Review 2014. The review covers the political and economic situation in Belarus in 2014, as well as forecasts for the coming year. Namely, the experts note that Belarus is entering 2015 with a major currency crisis and a significant turnover in government members.
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.