Dranikfest, Superheroes in Minsk, Human Rights – Belarus Civil Society Digest
European Perspective launches a map of public hearings in 2015 to strengthen the participation of Belarusians in public affairs. Perspektiva holds an Entrepreneurs Forum.
Astravets becomes the 9th city reached by Mova Nanova language courses. Creative community from Brest launches regular sarcastic videos about everyday life of Belarusians.
Campaigns in Minsk
Superheroes take the Minsk streets. Last year, the Centre for Cultural Management with TUT.BY support launched the project ‘Superheroes School/ Creative City’. The team of 42 volunteers is engaged in the development and implementation of urban socio-cultural projects with the involvement of the city administration, local communities and businesses. Currently 'superheroes' conduct field research in the Minsk areas. In February, the School organises public lectures on the development of urban communities.
European Perspective initiative is launching a new map of public hearings in 2015. The map monitors the upcoming public hearings in all nine districts of Minsk and contains basic information on the place, date, organiser of public debate and other useful information. Thus, the European Perspective aims to making urban development issues closer to the population and strengthen the participation of citizens in public affairs.
New web project about Minsk city launched. How to Live Here/ Kaktutzhit is a new web resource about Minsk. The project positions itself as a "site for people who want to spend in Minsk decent and interesting life." The project will focus on topics such as people, food, entertainment, clothes and, of course, city news.
СSO female activists created the board game ‘Stereotypes’. The game consists of 34 cards, which depict certain gender stereotypes. During the game the stereotypes need to be refuted by 170 facts. During the game, participants receive a variety of emotions, argue, and try to defend their point of view. The creators of the game are sure that board game can be considered as an alternative to traditional seminars and training in receiving information on gender equality.
Internet platform Talaka.by launches a new service #TalakaNavіny. The service allows anyone to share the news about social projects, urban practices, events or activities beneficial to communities. The news should not affect politics or religion. After posting the news become available to more than 6.5 thousand subscribers in Talaka.by groups.
Forum of Entrepreneurs 'Goals and objectives for small business in Belarus' is to take place in Minsk, on 16 February. The organiser, Perspectiva NGO invites entrepreneurs and authorities to take an active part in discussing pressing issues. Organisers warn that the Forum has only an economic format and aims to unite sensible entrepreneurs under the Perspectiva’s auspices.
Professional contest Brand of the Year rewards best Belarusian companies. The gold medal in the category 'Inclusive projects and business models' went to Talaka.by project, a non-profit platform, which helps active people in Belarus to implement projects for their communities. Grand Prix in the category 'Social Responsible Business' was received by Game Stream company, a developer of the popular game World of Tanks.
Green Alliance is to conduct a presentation of the Green Steps multimedia toolkit in Gomel, on 12 February. The Green Steps multimedia toolkit for Belarus has been developed to raise public awareness about sustainable lifestyles and the changes that individuals can make in their everyday lives. Its primary target groups are members of CSOs. Green Steps was developed by the Regional Environmental Centre for Central and Eastern Europe (REC) in close cooperation with a number of Belarusian CSOs.
Dranik-fest recognised an event of the year in Mogilev region. Mogilev initiative 'Public Magistrate' announced the person and the event of 2014 year. According to the results of the voting of journalists, social network users and the 'Public Magistrate' Council, the event of the year in Mogilev oblast was recognised as the October Festival of traditional Belarusian food 'Dranik-fest' that attracted over 4 thousand visitors. The person of the year became Yuri Stukalov, a leader of the Mogilev Center for Urban Initiatives, one of the organisers of Dranik-fest.
Mova Nanova launches in Astravets. The first classes on February 4 gathered 35 residents of Astravets and the surrounding villages. Classes will be held once a week in the premises of the new school, which opened earlier this year. Astravets became the 9th city, where free courses of the Belarusian language Mova Nanova/Language in a New Way takes place with outreach of about 1,000 students across the country.
Creative Brest residents launch comic video series. The first movie tells about a trip in a marshrutka/ municipal transport, minibus. The video shooting took one day; the budget was $100. Funny videos are to be issued every three weeks. An idea is borrowed from the French television series ‘bref’.
Search for yourself and your profession using Adukacyja.info. Adukacyja.info team invites young people to participate in the project Your Destiny, designed to help youth in search of work and their own career path. The project consists of training modules, meetings and individual consultations. Entry fee to the program is 200,000 rubles (about $12).
Platform for children and their parents launches. The platform ‘Tarancіny and Sons’ identifies itself as the first independent educational project for children, pupils at the individual school plan (homeschooling) and their parents. The project goal is to study a new level of secondary education, the introduction of non-Soviet methods in teaching as well as the possibility for parents to obtain new knowledge in the field of education.
Interaction between state and civil society
Trial cancelled after Lukashenka’s press conference. On 2 February the Supreme Court informed that there would be no court hearings into cases of four activists who had staged an action of solidarity Je Suis Charlie near the French Embassy in Minsk. A new development occurred on 29 January when at his press-conference Alexander Lukashenka declared that police shouldn’t have arrested people supporting Charlie Hebdo.
Human rights situation in 2014: Trends and evaluation – According to the Human Rights Centre Viasna’s report, the situation of human rights during 2014 remained consistently poor with a tendency to deterioration at the end of the year. Basic civil and political rights were extremely restricted; there were no systemic changes in the field of human rights (at the legislative level and/or at the level of practices). The only positive development during the year was the early release of Ales Bialiacki, Chairman of the Human Rights Centre Viasna.
Belarusian human rights activists allowed to inspect eight colonies. From October 2014 to early February 2015, human rights defenders of the Platforma Innovation visited eight Belarusian colonies and detention centers, correctional facilities of the open type, etc. Platform Innovation director, Alena Krasouskaya-Kaspiarovich, says that the main trend in these colonies is positive. Everywhere new buildings are constructed, conditions gradually improve, although there are also problems.
Human Rights Centre Viasna held a rally of solidarity with the arrested activists of the anarchist movement on 5 February. Recently, six activists of anarchist movement were detained and sentenced to administrative arrest from 10 to 25 days. Viasna considers the arrests as a classic example of arbitrary detention.
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.
Belarus Approaches the EU Through ‘Old Europe’
Just before German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande came for negotiations on Ukraine to Minsk, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei visited Germany.
The foreign minister's trip on 5-8 February was just one of numerous steps that the Belarusian government is taking recently to repair its relationship with the West.
This has had some success. Lukashenka's “role in the attempts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine made us to look in another way at the leader of Belarus,” an official of the European External Action Service said.
Given the Belarusian geopolitical situation plus that its economy is so closely aligned with Russia only gradual evolution can lead to a successful rapprochement with the West. And this process may have been launched now as the Ukrainian crisis has made Minsk and the West look at each other in a different light.
Reaching Out to Old Europe?
While in Munich, the minister told Belarusian ANT TV: “We do not see fundamental changes in relations … Yet it is important that Europeans come incrementally to understand and positively perceive the peculiarities in relations with Belarus. … Now we are going to activate the dialogue with the EU and US.”
In Munich on 6-8 February, Makei met German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini, the foreign minister of Italy among others.
the Belarusian authorities have demonstrates unprecedented activity in it's previously moribund relations with France Read more
The Belarusian government always tried to establish more contacts with so-called 'Old Europe' (Western European countries like Germany, France or Italy), who are the main protagonists in the EU and shape its policies. Sometimes Minsk scored successes with such a strategy, when for example the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (the first Western European leader in the history of independent Belarus) came to Minsk in November 2009.
Since September the Belarusian authorities have demonstrates unprecedented activity in it's previously moribund relations with France. Against the backdrop of a series of official visits in recent months, Minsk finally managed to establish a joint commission on economic cooperation with Paris and sign an agreement on export insurance.
On 2 February, the sale of the first Peugeot cars assembled in Belarus started. At the same time, Accor (a French company), known for its global Ibis hotel network, plans to start construction three hotels in the three Belarusian cities of Hrodna, Brest and Barysau.
Russia Warns Belarus Against Rapprochement With US
Minsk knows that it cannot ignore the United States in mending its fences with the EU. As early as the 22 September, the former Belarusian Prime Minister (Myasnikovich) met the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland in Washington.
Nuland is widely blamed by the Russian regime for the Ukrainian crisis, thus it is little wonder that when on 17 December she proclaimed US willingness to improve relations with Belarus and spoke positively about Minsk's peace efforts, it was met with an immediate Russian response.
Belarusian chargé d'affaires in Washington Pavel Shydlouski asked the United States to support Belarus at this time as the country's sovereignty is under threat Read more
A leading foreign policy expert of the Russian government, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs Alexei Pushkov warned that by trying to befriend America Lukashenka might finally face the fate of Milosevich, Qadhafi and Hussein. He also dedicated a part of his weekly programme (27 December) on Russian TV to lash out at the Belarusian leader.
Nevertheless, at an extraordinary session of the Belarusian parliament on 15 January Lukashenka said that Belarus would strive to normalise relations with the West. On 30 January, speaking at a conference in Washington, Belarusian chargé d'affaires in the United States Pavel Shydlouski asked the United States to support Belarus at this time as the country's sovereignty and independence had come under threat.
Prospects For the Riga Summit
All in all, the Belarusian relationship with the EU is starting to improve. Currently, Belarus and the European Union are negotiating the signing of agreements on lowering visa fees and readmission at the Riga summit.
However, several important questions remain unresolved. First, in visa negotiations Belarus (as usual for such agreements) wants to remove visas first for diplomatic passport holders. On the contrary, the European External Action Service insists on the requirement to ease visa restrictions first for ordinary citizens and not officials.
Secondly, a representative of the Latvian Foreign Ministry in late January said that his government hopes for the “highest level of Belarusian participation” in the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga in late May. Minsk demands “equal terms,” meaning by that at least a nominal right to decide itself which Belarusian officials will attend the summit, and whether it might be Lukashenka.
the situation with political prisoners will force EU officials to suppress a lot within us before sitting down at a table with Lukashenka Read more
An official of European External Action Service told Euraradio on 2 February that the question of Belarusian representation at the summit remained unresolved. He added that it would be hard to reach an agreement on President Lukashenka's coming to Riga.
He explained, “the situation with political prisoners […] will force us to suppress a lot within us before sitting down at a table with Lukashenka. And Lukashenka can easily send us an appropriate signal – to release all political prisoners.” But the issue may have to be resolved by compromise.
Recently, Latvian Foreign Minister Andrejs Pildegovičs hinted at it as he repeatedly spoke about three political prisoners in Belarus. The figure remains contentious with different sides presenting different views of who should be deemed a political prisoner. Talking about three prisoners (and not six as some activists would like) Pildegovičs demonstrated a more moderate stance in hoping to reach a deal with Minsk.
Whether such a deal can lead to further rapprochement between the EU and Belarus depends on the patience and pragmatism of both the EU and the Belarusian side. After all, the Belarusian regime is not an ideological foe of Europe. President Lukashenka talks about Belarusians as a European nation, while Foreign Minister Makei proclaims his political hero to be Otto von Bismarck.
The conservative and pragmatic Bismarck presents a good example for Belarusian politicians. For decades, he worked inside Germany and avoided unnecessarily antagonising external powers to unify the German nation. Likewise, only years of modernisation could change the Belarusian economy to reduce its dependence on external powers. Only taking account of the legitimate interests and sensitivities of external powers (Russia primarily) could Belarus secure success.
Although today many Belarus-Western contacts and visits concern the Ukrainian issue, Minsk, 'Old Europe' and the United States have started to look at each other pragmatically, managing to even put aside slogans, such as "the last European dictatorship" and the "aggressive NATO bloc." It may be the beginning of a new period of patient cooperation.