Global Belarusian Leaders Plan to Unite Successful Emigrants
Global Belarusian Leaders organisation (GBL) came into existence at the end of August in Vilnius, Lithuania. The founders propose an alternative to the conventional Belarusian emigre networks and seek to unite immigrants who will be able to give their country a hand during the period of its political and economic transformation.
The organisation is going to recruit new members among young and perspective Belarusian professionals all over the world. Several young Belarusians living abroad are the founders of the organisation. Emigrating in the 2000s, and not being able to fulfil their potential in Belarus, they intend to influence the country of their origin by creating a network of professionals with Belarusian roots and those affiliated with Belarus.
A Belarusian project born in Lithuania
On August 31, the founding meeting of the non-commercial, non-partisan organisation Global Belarusian Leaders (GBL) took place at Vilnius City Hall. GBL aims to build a global network of accomplished professionals from Belarus and those affiliated with Belarus. The founders of the organisation claim that it seeks to connect and involve the Belarusian population living outside of Belarus in contributing to the economic, political, social and cultural development of Belarus.
When speaking about the future of GBL, Tatsiana Kulakevich, one of the founders and a local representative of the organisation in the USA, sees it as an association of professionals who will be able to give their country a hand during the period of its political and economic transformation.
According to one of the GBL founders Mikalai Tsimashenka “the idea of GBL was met with support and enthusiasm from different institutions particularly European Humanities University (EHU), German Marshall Fund of the US and Eastern Europe Studies Center (EESC). In addition to financial support EHU also offered venue for the founding meeting in Vilnius. All these organisations clearly see great potential of building a global professional network of Belarusians."
The idea of GBL came from Lithuania. The organisers followed the example of the Global Lithuanian Leaders organisation (GLL) established in 2009. GLL connects Lithuanian professionals in different fields from all over the world by organising such activities as World Lithuanian Economic Forum and Global Lithuanian Awards. GLL also offers mentoring for Lithuania’s growing businesses and Lithuanian students abroad.
The founders of GBL met at one of the annual meetings of Belarusian students studying abroad called the United Students of Belarus Rally (USB Rally). The Rally has taken place annually in Lithuania since 2007 under the auspices of the Vilnius-based Eastern European Studies Centre (EESC) which works on the promotion of civil society and democracy in Eastern Europe. Every year the USB Rally gathers dozens of students originally from Belarus who are studying abroad, mostly in Poland and Lithuania, but also in Czech Republic, Russia, Italy, USA and other countries.
USB rally is a unique meeting for Belarus. Within six years, USB Rally created a network of students involved in Belarusian activities in the countries where they study. GBL is a first joint project of the USB Rally participants, most of whom graduated from Western universities and are living abroad. They were able to attract successful young entrepreneurs from Belarus and abroad, well-known athletes and artists like the poet Valeryja Kustava and musician Zmicier Vaiciushkevich to GBL's founding meeting.
If the GBL founders would make an attempt to register the organisation in Belarus, surely, they would have problems. Officially, there is only one “Global Belarusian Leader” in the country and even the name of the organisation can raise the suspicions of the registration authorities. For that reason, same as many Belarusian NGOs, GBL would have to be registered in Lithuania. It makes the functioning of the organisation much easier. The representatives of the organisation would have an opportunity to receive financial aid from international partners circumventing restrictive Belarusian legislation on foreign aid.
Influencing Belarus from abroad
Most of the founders and local representatives of GBL live abroad. Growing up in Belarus, they left Belarus to study in the European Union and USA. It became a common phenomenon after the presidential election of 2006 when hundreds of students were subject to repression at their universities and many western schools offered scholarships for them. As a result, thousands of students left Belarus. Mostly to Poland and Lithuania, where the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university in exile, renewed its activity in 2006.
A majority of the students after graduation do not come back to Belarus and try to find work in countries where they studied. A permanent financial crisis and the political situation in the country are not at all attractive to young people educated in the West.
Belarusians are going abroad not only to studying, but also to work. According to various estimates, from 200 thousand to 1 million Belarusian citizens are permanently living and working outside of Belarus. Moreover, according to a survey by the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, 35.6% of Belarusians want to leave the country for different reasons. In these circumstances, GBL has all the opportunities to become a huge network of Belarusians abroad.
Belarusians, residing abroad and making careers in business, science or IT-industry very rarely take part in activities of conventional émigré associations that were established after the Second World War with the main idea to retain national traditions and to make a network of Belarusians throughout a particular city or a country.
GBL proposes another theory for its network. As the name implies, GBL intends to unite Belarusians all over the world with the main goal is to expand international ties and relationships, as well as establishing business contacts between Belarusians living abroad. In other words, instead of building churches and organising folk festivals, the new wave of Belarusian émigrés aims to help each other to make money and, thereby, increase their ability to promote their interests inside Belarus.
Evidence of this trend can be seen in the events the organisation plans to hold in 2013-2014. The GBL will cooperate with BelBiz in a workshop “GBL as a platform for professional connections” during the Global Entrepreneurship week in Minsk in November 2013. Lithuanian representatives plan to run the conference "Belarusian Business in Lithuania: Perspectives." Moreover, GBL will have their representatives at the Eastern Partnership Summit and the 24th Economic Forum in Krynica-Zdroj (Poland).
It is too early to predict whether GBL will succeed. The obvious fact, however, is that latest members of the Belarusian diaspora have a huge potential to become a power that can influence Belarus now and even more so in the future. Such initiatives as GBL propose alternative ways to unite Belarusian immigrants globally.
Moreover, both immigrants and the country they left can benefit from GBL. Being united on a global level can help immigrants prosper, which, in turn will make a positive image of the country and, potentially, create an opportunity to improve the economic, political, social and cultural development of the country of their origin. Maryia Anishchankava, one of the founders and a local representative in Italy is hopeful that “within 5 years GBL will become a hub for Belarusians spread around the globe who want to grow personally and professionally..”
Belarusian Official Fined for Using Russian instead of Belarusian
On 3 September, Belarus saw an unusual legal precedent set. The court tried Alieh Halaŭko, the director of a branch of a Minsk district housing services, for answering an address written in Belarusian with Russian. According to the Law on Addresses of Citizens and Legal Persons adopted in 2011, responses to written addresses must be in the same language of the address.
Meanwhile, citizens and interest groups within the government recently prevented some Russification measures introduced by indifferent officials. In the Minsk metro, announcements reverted back to Belarusian after a large mass of citizens voiced their concern and the geographical names continue to be written in a Belarusian Latinised script instead of a transliteration from Russian.
While strategically the government does not care about the revival of Belarusian culture and Lukashenka’s regime did much to diminish its status during its earlier period, today at the lower levels of administration citizens can advocate for Belarusification quite successfully by simply exercising their legal rights. Moreover, inside the bureaucracy various attitudes to the language question exists and collisions among officials on that matter have become possible in Belarus.
Blogger Wins an Unprecedented Trial
In September 2013, Belarusian blogger and journalist Hlieb Labadzenka decided to sue the director of housing services of his district, Alieh Halaŭko. The conflict started from Labadzenka’s neighbour complaint which he sent to the district authorities. He accused Labadzenka of illegally rearranging his flat which apparently disturbed the neighbour, although it turned out that this was not the case. The housing service issued a warning to Labadzenka without even visiting the flat. Labadzenka wrote a note of protest to the authorities, demanding that the response should be written in Belarusian.
However, in his reply, the service director not only used Russian, but also noted that according to the Constitution of Belarus, citizens can use any of the two official languages. Here, he demonstrated a lack of knowledge of Belarusian law, because according to the 2011 Law on Addresses of Citizen and Legal Persons, the officials must write replies to addresses strictly in the language in which the address was originally written.
Labadzenka decided to exercise his legal rights and support the Belarusian language, so he sued Halaŭko over this violation. The trial took place on 3 September, to which the accused did not show up. Nevertheless the court found him guilty and imposed a charge of BYR 500,000 ($55).
According to Labadzenka, all of the officials he dealt with during the case behaved very politely. Even the judge herself expressed her support to Labadzenka. However, they also had to admit that they cannot do their paperwork in Belarusian – there are neither the proper documentary forms nor specialists that can record the trial in Belarusian.
Afterwards, in response to journalist’s question, the director of housing service admitted that it was his fault indeed and in the future he will stick to the law.
“I am not hungry for Mr Halaŭko’s blood, I would rather he received a warning, but the court simply cannot give a smaller fine according to this article [of the law -ed. BD]. For me the most important thing is creating a precedent: not just shout out that the authorities are endangering the Belarusian language, but to support it with legal means”, Hlieb Labadzenka said.
Another Public Transportation Victory
In August 2013, Minsk dwellers heard some new announcements about the Minsk underground transportation system, which explained the rules of conduct in the tube. The new announcements were in Russian, although the stations themselves are always announced in Belarusian. One of the metro officials explained that in addition to Belarusians other people (meaning Russian-speaking foreigners) are using the metro and might not understand.
Immediately a civil campaign started which demanded that the announcements should be made in Belarusian. The campaign very closely resembled the Minsk transport tickets case, when the transportation service decided to change the language of their tickets to Russian. Concerned citizens demonstrated a fast reaction to the change and eventually won the battle: the following month, new tickets came out in Belarusian.
This time the situation followed a similar pattern. The director of the Minsk metropolitan shortly after the campaign publicly said that soon all announcements will be made in Belarusian. “We missed this point, it is our fault. Tomorrow we will change it”, he explained to journalists, speaking in Belarusian.
Meanwhile, metro managers continue to rewrite the topographical city names in a Belarusian Latinised alphabet, which caused much discussion when introduced in the metro in November 2012.
Some people in the city administration, and in particular chief executive deputy Ihar Karpenka, demanded that the geographical names should be transliterated from Russian using the English alphabet. The opposite side presented by Toponymical Commission at the Council of Ministers supported the use of the Belarusian Latinised script, which has a centuries worth of tradition in Belarus.
As the metro director said in October, they continue to rewrite the geographical names in the established Belarusian Latin script. In other words, experts from the Toponymical Commission defeated the bureaucrats from the city administration in this small battle for identity.
The head of Belarusian Language Society Alieh Trusaŭ optimistically says that “the situation is getting better little by little. We just need to watch thoroughly the language policies and actively express our concerns. It is thanks to active citizens that numerous recent cases were successful”.
Understanding Language Policy in Belarus
These cases shed more light on the language situation in Belarus and positions of various interest groups within the government, as well as citizens and civil society. First, it is clear that the government has no strategic goal of reviving the Belarusian language. As the censuses of the last two decades show, after a short revival in 1990s Belarusian language sharply decreased in use.
After the 1996 Referendum initiated by Lukashenka, the Russian language became the second official language in Belarus and soon almost fully displaced Belarusian language in public life. In Minsk, only a few Belarusian language schools exist and in regional centres not even a single such school exists at all. All TV channels broadcast in Russian, public administration runs all its paperwork in Russian, and Russian dominates everywhere except for a few small spheres. So, the Belarusian language became, in fact, an endangered language due to state policies and the weak support of the population, a result of decades of a Russification policy throughout the Soviet period.
However, as the political environment is changing, Lukashenka is less concerned with the “opposition” language. The government lets lower level bureaucrats deal with it. These bureaucrats, for their part, deal with it rather voluntarily and in a reactionary manner. It is precisely here that citizens can influence the situation by advocating for the Belarusification of the public administration.
Second, the bureaucracy has no unified approach to the Belarusian language, and attitudes to it varies from person to person and from institution to institution. Therefore, such collisions, as in the case of Latin script in the metro, become possible, and their outcome is never clear.
Third, citizens can indeed influence the situation without making holding massive protests in the streets. They can simply exercise their legal rights and officials have to consider them and implement their demands. Belarusians just need less indifference and more assertiveness as the situation is actually as not as bad as it might seem.