Gas Stations Switch to Belarusian, Independent Publisher Fined – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Network of gas stations switches service to Belarusian language thanks to MovaNanova. ODB publishes 2014 annual report. Belarus Research Council announces call for concept papers for policy-oriented original research.
CSOs contribute to government discussion of 2030 Concept of National Development. Government of Belarus says its finally ready to adopt a separate law on domestic violence and to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Civil Society Activities
Network of A-100 gas stations switches to the Belarusian language. From January 1, all operators of the private company of gas stations are advised to talk with customers in Belarusian; within a month all messages and labels will be replaced accordingly. The company emphasizes that the transition to the Belarusian has happened in close cooperation with the courses MovaNanova/ Language in a New Way.
Office for Democratic Belarus (Brussels) presents the results of 2014 – significant events in photos, media, and articles. The Office has collected materials to present the most interesting results of its work in 2014 – in particular, the 2nd European Intercultural Festival, Clearing House initiative, sectoral discussions and meetings with representatives of NGOs and local authorities, expert meetings in the field of higher education and energy, public lectures and other events.
'Contemporary History in Faces' in Vilnius. The Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House invites to the presentation of the book of the Belarusian journalist Aliaksandr Tamkovich ‘Contemporary History in Faces’. The book tells the stories of 70 the most outstanding people known in Belarus and beyond who over the past 15-20 years have been directly involved into the recent Belarusian history. The presentation will be held on January 14, at 3 pm, in the Belarusian Human Rights House in Vilnius.
Belarus Research Council is announcing a call for concept papers for policy-oriented original research that focuses primarily on actionable policy recommendations. The call is open for Belarusian think tanks and NGOs that intend to conduct their policy-oriented original research in Belarus focusing on solutions – policy, legislative or other related. The deadline for submission is February 1, 2015.
Local governments: 15 years online. For two years Legal Transformation Center Lawtrend monitors the information on the official websites of Belarus’ state bodies. The recent monitoring covers 135 official website in regions and Minsk. One of the basic conclusions is that the functionality and content of websites of local governments do not correspond to any legal requirements or expert expectations.
Readiness of the Belarusian higher education to join the EHEA: Alternative Report 2014. In December, an alternative report on the readiness of the Belarusian higher education to join the Bologna Process was sent to the Secretariat of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). The report was prepared by the Public Bologna Committee and submitted on behalf of the Belarusian National Platform. The key report conclusion is that despite of certain steps toward reforms, the Belarus' higher education system still does not meet the requirements to join the Bologna Process.
'Belarusian Renaissance in Homel' edition. Homel branch of Belarusian Language Society released a brochure that tells about the history of the civil society development in Gomel region in the late 1980s – mid 2000s. The brochure contains several dozen interviews and unique photos.
Gender course for young Belarusian activists. Forum SYD and IRI invite to participate in a training course for young female Belarusian activists who are interested in gender issues and have the experience of participating in non-governmental organization or political party. The course duration is 5 months. Deadline for applications is January 20, 2015.
Interaction between State and Civil Society
Ihar Lohvinau fined of $70 thousand. On January 9, the owner of the private Minsk bookshop Ihar Lohvinau stood trial where he was accused of selling books without the license of the Ministry of Information. The court supported the tax inspectors’ position and fined Lohvinau for over Br961 million (about $70 thousand). Lohvinau notes that the court decision means bankruptcy for the store.
Alena Tankachova’s trial to continue in Minsk on January 12. Human rights defender Alena Tankachova is standing trial in Minsk trying to appeal the decision to deport her from Belarus for three years for speeding. Alena Tankachova is a Russian citizen who has lived in Belarus for 30 years. She has a job and her own accommodation here. The next hearing will be on January 12.
TSEKH didn't manage to prolong lease. A Creative space TSEKH did not managed to prolong the lease of premises at Independence Avenue, which is owned to a commercial bank. The TSEKH worked for 1.5 year and became a shelter for dozens projects and exhibitions. The TSEKH director, Yulia Darashkevich doesn’t link the incident with political pressure as soon as the TSEKH has never collaborated with political organizations. The bank-owner refused to explain the reason for the eviction.
Massive blocking of websites in December. Since December 19, several informational Internet resources in Belarus were subject to blocking. In particular, users’ access to belapan.com and belapan.by, naviny.by, belaruspartisan.org,charter97.org, udf.by, 21.by, gazetaby.com, zautra.by have been restricted without explanations. Belarusian Association of Journalists considered that the blocking of socio-political websites was a complete breakdown of law and order.
Belarus develops a separate law to combat domestic violence. Vice Prime Minister orders police and Labor & Social Protection Ministry to prepare a concept of the Domestic Violence law by May 2015. Belarus is one of the last European countries where there is still no specific law against domestic violence. In 2013 an expert group within the network of CSOs to prevent domestic violence drafted a relevant bill that wasn't interested for the state bodies then.
Belarus will sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities soon, according to Alyaksandr Rumak, deputy minister of labor and social security. Belarus is one of the few European countries that have not joined the international treaty so far, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006. Belarusian CSOs strongly advocate for joining the Convention, namely, the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities is implementing the Sign with Heart campaign to collect signatures of organizations and concerned persons under the relevant public Memorandum.
CSOs contributed to the 2030 National concept. During three weeks of public consultations (November-December 2014) the Belarus Ministry of Economy received 22 letters on the draft National Strategy for Sustainable Socio-Economic Development for the period up to 2030. In particular, the Ministry publicly expresses its gratitude to a number of CSOs – SYMPA, Liberal Club, Legal Transformation Centre, Green Alliance, Minsk Bicycle Society, etc.
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.
Why Do So Few Tourists Visit Belarus?
Belarus remains a blank spot on the map for many foreigners. A mere 137,000 tourists visited the country in 2013—twenty-one times fewer than the number who visited tiny Estonia.
Onerous visa requirements, combined with an underdeveloped service industry, undermine the country’s efforts to attract foreign visitors.
The world’s largest travel guide company, Lonely Planet, warns travellers that “visas are needed by almost everybody” and that “homophobia is rife.” VirtualTourist criticises the lack of customer service, the paranoia of locals, and the country’s “lunatic” president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Belarus may have plenty of attractions, but many things have to change before the country can attract crowds of European tourists.
Given Belarus’s location in the heart of Europe, tourism could become an important source of revenue. With 28.4 million tourists, neighbouring Russia ranked as the ninth most visited country in the world in 2013, just after the United Kingdom.
But even among other post-Soviet states, Belarus ranks near the bottom in terms of tourism. Only Moldova, a country with a population 2.5 times smaller than that of Belarus, was visited by fewer tourists in 2013. According to the UNWTO, Belarus’s $722 million in international tourism receipts dwarfs in comparison to Ukraine ($5,083 million) and Poland ($10,938 million).
The Many Faces of Belarusian Tourism
The web site of the Belarusian Ministry of Tourism praises the country’s pristine nature and rich wildlife. In November 2014, the Tour&Travel Warsaw 2014 travel exhibition showcased agro-tourism opportunities in Brest and Hrodna regions, in the southwest of Belarus. Hunting in Belarusian forests is also coming into vogue.
Visitors to Belarus have more diverse interests, however.
Following the imposition of gambling restrictions in Russia in 2009, Minsk casinos began organising the so-called “Junket tours” for Russians, which include hotel arrangements, pickup at the airport or train station, and a plan of daily sightseeing and gambling activities.
Belarus’s reputation as “the last Soviet republic” also contributes to its charm among some tourists. The country is featured on web sites focused on travel to tragic death or disaster sites, such as Dark Tourism. According to the web site, “given the country's ‘pariah’ status, it’s kind of special.”
The human rights organisation “Belarusians in Exile” has instead used Belarus’s reputation as a dictatorship to undermine tourism. In 2013, the organisation published a cartoon of President Lukashenka welcoming visitors against a backdrop of police beatings. The organisation dared tourists “to experience dictatorship first-hand”.
But some tourists find Belarus’s conflicting narratives intriguing. “For a UK tourist, Belarus is a fascinating ‘other world’ destination,” said Jack Seaman, 29, of London, UK. Seaman said he would enjoy learning “how life in Belarus is and has been different to not only the West, but also to places like Poland, Ukraine and indeed Russia.”
A Haven for Russian Tourists?
Most tourists come to Belarus from Russia, the fourth largest outbound market in the world. In 2013, the country hosted 94,187 Russians, which is 31 times greater than the number of UK citizens, the second-largest group visiting Belarus. According to Belstat, Russian tourists contribute more than half of Belarus’s total income from tourism.
Thirty-one year old Moscow resident Anastasiya Pankratova has visited Belarus many times for tourism as well as business. She emphasises the country’s “tranquillity, open spaces, and order.” Belarus’s affordability makes it an attractive destination as well, according to Pankratova.
But there is a lot of room for improvement. “The catering industry is especially underdeveloped,” said Elena Babaeva, 35, a Muscovite who visited Belarus in summer 2014. “We were stunned when we learned that some cafes and restaurants are closed for lunch.” Babaeva recalled with frustration that she had to drive 150 km from the town of Braslav to Polotsk to replace a damaged contact lens.
Visa Barriers Discourage European Tourists
Currently, only citizens from CIS states, Cuba, Macedonia, Montenegro, Qatar, Serbia, Turkey and Venezuela enjoy visa-free entry into Belarus. Western tourists who do venture into the post-Soviet space rarely bother to apply for a separate visa for Belarus. When obtained at Minsk Airport, the visa can cost up to $420 (for U.S. citizens), which exceeds the cost of a round-trip flight from most European destinations.
Iacob Koch-Weser, a 32-year-old resident of Washington DC, has travelled to Belarus several times for personal reasons. In 2011, he stood in a long line in “an understaffed and poorly managed visa office” in East Berlin. In the following years, he applied for a visa at the Belarusian embassy in Washington DC, where he noted far fewer visitors and applicants. He found the visa officer “a friendly young man who was willing to pardon slight hiccups in the paperwork, so long as it was nothing major.”
“There is a weird contrast between gaudy brochures advertising Belarus's tourist attractions on one hand, and on the other, a daunting list of requirements to acquire a visa, from invitation letters to medical insurance and an obnoxious visa processing fee,” Koch-Weser said. “So do they want people to visit or not?”
An additional hassle for foreigners whose stay exceeds three days is registering at the Belarusian Ministry of Migration. Administrative reasons for the imposition of this unusual additional requirement are unclear because foreigners already fill out a migration form when entering the country.
At the same time, the tourist infrastructure is underdeveloped. “It would have been helpful to see more English and Latin [script] writing in public spaces,” said Seaman, who visited Minsk in December 2014. He recalled that a Minsk tourist information office he visited was “taken by surprise” by his request for recommendations. “Though they did provide me with some useful information, it took a lot of prompting and patience from me,” he said.
Many Other Destinations to Choose From
In April-May 2014, Minsk waived visa requirements for the 2014 Hockey Championship. Some tourists purchased the hockey tickets – a condition for visa-free entry – but chose to occupy themselves with other activities.
One of them is Katarzyna Rembeza, a 27-year old market analyst from Warsaw, Poland, who instead went on a cycling trip.
“[W]e took our tents but never used them because we were sleeping at people's homes. […] Never before have I experienced such a level of hospitality!” she said.
According to Rembeza, while the visa is affordable (€25 for Polish citizens), collecting documents and standing in the line diminished her interest in travelling to Belarus. “The majority of Poles would probably tell you: 'why should we travel to countries with a visa requirement where we have so many non-visa countries to choose from?’” she explained.
Belarus has not only imposed more stringent visa requirements, but also dragged its feet on initiatives that could facilitate visits from abroad. One example is the 2010 Polish-Belarusian agreement on border crossings for people who live within 30 km from their shared border. Signed and ratified by the respective parliaments, the agreement was inexplicably stalled at Lukashenka’s desk.
For Belarusians, getting a visa is a precondition for visiting all but 22 states in the world. Despite high visa costs and humiliating procedures at the European consulates, Belarusians lead in the number of Schengen visas per capita. They have to apply multiple times per year because many EU states grant only one entry short-term visas to Belarusian citizens. For every international visitor into the country, about four Belarusians go abroad.
With countless visa-free destinations to choose from, tourists from Western Europe and North America will choose to travel elsewhere unless Belarus simplifies its visa procedures, modernises its tourist infrastructure, and improves its international reputation.