Final Blow to Civil Society in Belarus?
Minsk is not taking chances in times of crisis. Only instead of heeding the advice of international economic experts, the Belarusian government is tightening the screws on civil society.
In this year of 80% inflation, the new laws in Belarus are penned almost as fast as the new rubles are printed. The latest three draft laws were (prudently) passed in a closed session of the parliament and appeared on the government website yesterday. The draft laws strengthen the KGB, outlaw protests, and prohibit foreign funding of civil society and political organizations.
Because the police and the KGB already effectively enjoy unlimited powers, the draft law simply endorses their long-standing practice of breaking into homes and organizations, sending the message to those who are still bold and incredulous. The draft prohibiting protests is also nothing more than a reminder that dissent is dangerous, even though the consequences of public protests, whatever their nature and legal justification, are already well known to most Belarusians.
It is the draft legislation that prohibits foreign assistance to political and civil-society groups and bars them from holding money in foreign banks that is likely to have the gravest repercussions of the three.
The blow to civil society comes in the midst of a global economic crisis, when the foreign aid inflows are contracting, and when Belarus itself is in a deep crisis, which undercuts the opportunities to secure resources domestically.
Ironically, this is the time when NGO services are all the more needed by the people who are plunging into poverty. Instead of enlisting civil society organizations to help solve the proliferating social and economic issues thus reducing the population’s discontent, the government has clamped down on the public sector, aggravating the situation.
Depending on future economic developments, it may be shooting itself in the foot by removing all the brakes on social dissatisfaction. Of course, given the weakness of the NGO community and the focus of Western-funded NGOs on political and human rights issues rather than social services, this effect may be marginal.
Most likely, the laws will have the intended effect and further weaken civil society in Belarus. For the NGOs that have so far survived, it may deliver the final blow. Unfortunately, Belarusian civil society and political opposition are highly dependent on foreign donors. Even though the aid proved too small to bring change to Belarus, it was enough to irritate the government.
After the donor nations pledged 87 million euros ($120 million) to Belarusian NGOs and opposition groups in February and after the European Commission promised in March to increase its funding to Belarusian civil society from the €4 million to €15.6 million in 2011-2013, the Belarusian government decided to act.
Of course, NGOs' dependence on foreign aid creates its own problems, but in the Belarusian case, it is a lesser of the two evils. The Belarusian NGOs have few other options in their struggle for survival. Few can secure domestic sources of funding because the domestic charity culture is nonexistent and the channels to entrepreneurship are obstructed by the government.
The draft falls neatly within many other documents aimed at undermining civil society in Belarus. In 2004, the law on mandatory registration allowed the government to crack down on the most threatening NGOs selectively, spurring waves of arrests and fines of civic activists. In 2008, when Presidential Edict No. 533 abolished the NGO privilege of lower rents, this raised rents on property tenfold for some organizations that were now treated like commercial entities.
On Thursday, leaders of several Belarusian NGOs asked the government to withdraw the draft laws. The EU expressed concern. However, these voices are unlikely to be heeded and only prove that the laws will have the intended effect: after all, it is the NGOs and the EU funds that the Belarusian government targets. Minsk does not budge on far smaller issues: the international outrage and the embarrassment of the Polish and Lithuanian governments following the arrest of human rights activist Ales Byalatski did not mitigate his harsh punishment.
Crack down on civil society, ramp up the powers of the police, and outlaw dissent — these steps have always come before economic reforms on the agenda of the Belarusian government.
Hit by the Crisis Lukashenka Looks for Money and Strengthens the KGB
Unable to deal with the economic crisis by economic means and fearing a revolution, Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka strengthens the KGB.
Last Thursday the Belarusian rouble fell sharply against the US dollar. Now the rate is 9,000 Belarusian rubles for one dollar. In September, the rate was less than 8,000 rubles. The new fall clearly breached Lukashenka's promise that the Belarusian national currency would be strengthened.
Because of high inflation, wages and salaries are stagnating. Most Belarusians today earn two or three times less than they did a year ago. The situation with pensions is even worse as many retired people have to survive on less than 100 dollars per month.
The Belarus National Bank is trying to convince people to keep their Belarusian rubles. But no one trusts the national currency anymore. The Government cannot do much to strengthen the national currency because it has no money. On Thursday, Belarus asked Russia to postpone payments for natural gas and suggested paying for 2011 deliveries in 2012.
Earlier this week the Belarusian government asked five of the most profitable national companies, including Belaruskali or Druzhba Oil Pipeline, to quickly transfer a part of their profits to the so-called National Development Fund. Under normal circumstances, such payments would be due only after the end of the year.
The government also ordered Belarusbank, the largest financial institution in the country, to suspend offering loans for residential developers who plan to complete construction after this year. As a result, a lot of people are struggling to either find a huge sum to pay developers or give up building their own housing.
Although Lukashenka's rule seems today very vulnerable and fragile today, the opposition is still much weaker. No significant protests are taking place in Belarus today. The 'People's rallies,' called for by some opposition activists, took place on the 8th of October. But they looked more like a farce and were characterized by extremely poor attendance. However, it is difficult to blame the opposition.Opposition activists have had to deal with intimidation and outright violence for years.They were finally crushed after the last year presidential elections and the pressure is increasing.
As the economic clouds get darker, the Belarusian rubber-stamp parliament has almost secretly adopted new amendments to give more rights to the Belarusian KGB, which still keeps its Soviet name. The proposed amendments allow KGB officers to enter any private or public places whenever they wish and to use force almost without restrictions.
In addition, the new legislation puts an absolute ban on foreign grants and financial aid. That will certainly be a hard blow for media, political organizations or civil society which have virtually no resources inside the country. Last but not least, the new amendments introduce harsher punishments for organization of and participation in public protests, as well as broadening the definitions of 'spying' and treason.
Although there is no strong opposition, the Belarusian regime has serious reasons to be afraid. Lukashenka is probably running out of money. The Belarusian authorities were never able to generate or attract serious money. The regime's arms trade was more akin to a casino game than a sustainable business. Trade in petroleum products was more lucrative but sufficient only to satisfy regime insiders rather than the country as a whole.
The regime's poverty may turn even its employees against Lukashenka. And a tiny spark of discontent may turn into a real revolution. To avoid it, the Belarusian strongman needs to tighten the screws and find money as soon as possible. And that proves increasingly difficult. Neither Russia nor the West are ready to inject significant amounts into the Belarusian economy. Other solutions include selling the most valuable national assets such as potash deposits to the Russians and seeking help from China. Iran cannot help much.
So the Belarusian opposition will hardly be able to benefit. Parallels between Belarus and late Communist Poland and calls for a “Round Table” with the regime would not be accurate because Belarusian civil society is weak. The situation in Belarus looks more like late Ceausescu's Romania and their dubious revolution.
The Polish and Romanian regime changes in 1989 were worlds apart. In Poland, strong opposition and civil society forced a military ruler into negotiations which eventually led to establishing democracy and dismantling all essential institutions of the old regime. In Romania, with its non-existent opposition and civil society, the regime insiders just dragged Ceausescu out of the palace and killed him after a kangaroo trial. The old Romanian regime was able to delay a democratic transition for many years.
As many times before in the world history, the sultanistic regime in Belarus is evolving towards full-blown authoritarianism. But how long this authoritarianism will last depends in the first place on the opposition that badly needs to reorganize, and only then on external support.