Greenmap, Urban Picnic, UN human rights report, LGBTQ Support Centre – Belarus civil society digest
Greenmap Belarus wins a UN competition. 3rd Urban Picnic in Mahilioŭ gathers over 6,000 citizens. A new initiative makes Minsk as green as possible.
EESC organises 10th annual United Students of Belarus Rally. BEROC opens enrolment to the 7th Student School in Economics.
KGB drops criminal charges in the preparation for mass riots case against Young Front activists. UN Special Rapporteur presents a new report on Belarus.
The Samahod visa-free summer festival takes place in Minsk on 24-25 June. LGBTQ community centre is established in Minsk.
This and more in the new edition of the Belarus civil society digest.
Green and urban activism
Greenmap Belarus won the UN competition. The joint project of the environmental CSOs and the Ministry of Natural Resources took the first place in the competition for the UN Awards in the field of building the Information Society WSIS Prize 2017. The Greenmap Belarus project, an interactive map of environmentally friendly places and initiatives, was developed by the Environmental Solutions Centre.
Demolishing of Asmaloŭka brought for public discussion. The administration of the Central district of Minsk announced the public discussion of the Asmaloŭka area where two neighbourhoods with two-story buildings plan to be completely demolished. Civic activists have been fighting for the preservation of the area for several years; they consider it an important cultural, historical and ecological object of Minsk.
Make Minsk green again. A new initiative is attempting to make the central part of Minsk as green as possible and create a related public request on that. Instead young seedlings, the initiative suggests planting adult trees that are more adapted to urban conditions. The first goal of the campaign is to plant trees near the Minsk railway station.
Impact assessment of the Leadership program. Office for European Expertise and Communications (OEEC) has released a report on the social effects that the educational programme Leadership in Local Communities implemented by OEEC and Pact has produced on the ground. According to the report, 49 trained community leaders managed to mobilise 4,600 locals in solving over 90 local issues.
3rd Big Urban Picnic in Mahilioŭ. On 27 May, the Centre for City Initiatives gathered more than 6,000 people on the banks of the Dniepr. The Picnic included a rich programme of contests, master classes, and presentations, accessible to all citizens of Mahilioŭ. The festival has become the third in a row, which is held by the forces of city CSOs.
City show new episodes present a new challenge for the participants to organise a budget-zero public event in the style of Vulica Brasil to master their organisational and creative skills. The activists also tell to the jury about their community projects that will be implemented on the ground. The winner of the show will go on a study tour to Brazil.
10th annual United Students of Belarus Rally. Eastern Europe Studies Centre (EESC) invites Belarusian youth studying in Belarus and abroad to apply for the rally, which will be held on 3-5 July in Vilnius, Lithuania. This year the USB Rally will be devoted to fostering connections between Belarus and Belarusian Diaspora around the world.
RADA invites Belarusian youth NGOs to take part in a Volunteer Festival on 11 August. The goal is the creation of a positive image of volunteering among young people, increasing the information content and visibility of youth CSOs, initiatives, and cultural and educational areas among young people.
BEROC announces the enrolment to the 7th Student School in Economics. The School will be held in Minsk in September-October 2017. Working language of the school is English. The curriculum includes intensive lectures and group discussions. Specialisation in economics is not a must for the prospective candidates. The application form should be submitted before 14 July.
Educational programme on women’s social entrepreneurship. The first in Belarus, a 15-month programme to train women from Minsk and Brest who want to create social-oriented enterprises, or have already started their own businesses. The programme is implemented by a consortium of CSOs, including ODB Brussels, Brest Fund for Regional Development etc.
Repressions against civil society
The UN Special Rapporteur urges continued scrutiny as Belarus enters new cycle of repression. On 14 June, presenting his new report to the Human Rights Council, Miklós Haraszti described the severe crackdown on peaceful protesters in February-March of 2017 as revealing the nature of oppression of human rights in Belarus. In response, official Minsk urged the HRC to abolish the mandate on the Special Rapporteur in Belarus.
KGB terminated the criminal proceedings on ‘preparation for mass riots’. The Belarusian KGB has stopped criminal cases for ‘the preparation for mass riots’ (article 293-3 of the Criminal Code) started against six members of the Young Front. At the same, 14 people detained in March in connection with ‘the patriots’ case’ are still in jail. They are suspected of ‘creating an illegal armed unit’ (article 287 of the Criminal Code).
Analytical review of detention conditions and treatment of persons convicted of involvement in peaceful protests in March 2017. Human Right Centre Viasna‘s review concludes that the peaceful demonstrators sentenced to administrative detention in Minsk were held in conditions that are contrary to the state’s obligations enshrined in the Constitution and international treaties.
Samahod, the annual visa free summer festival will take place in Minsk on 24-25 June and attract nearly 1,500 participants. Samahod /Self-Propelled supports the abolition of visa usage between the EU and Belarus. The festival will include lectures, performances, roundtable discussions, film screenings, children’s zones, and many more activities.
LGBTQ Community Support Centre was established in Minsk. The Centre supports LGBTQ people and their relatives and provides legal and psychological assistance and cultural and educational activities. The centre seeks to overcome discrimination and promote the idea of equality, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
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.
Is Belarus just ‘Greater Russia’? Neighbouring states dismiss Belarusian sovereignty
Despite all of Minsk’s efforts to present itself as a neutral country, some of its neighbours doubt not only its neutrality but even its sovereignty and commitment to peace. On 5 June, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė described Belarus as a threat to the region; meanwhile, her foreign minister repeatedly alludes to the ‘remnants of Belarusian sovereignty.’
Speaking on 19 June at the Ostrogorski Forum, Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus Ihor Kizima criticised Minsk for refusing to allow foreign observers to monitor a Belarus-Russian-Serbian military exercise in Belarus near the Ukrainian border earlier this month. Kyiv put its army on higher alert because of the exercise.
Belarus’s neighbours are voicing their concern with Minsk’s foreign policy. On 2 June, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makey admitted that it is difficult for Belarus to balance between different sides in the current confrontation involving Russia given ‘how far all sides have gone in militant rhetoric and mutual accusations.’
Belarus as part of ‘Greater Russia’
Lithuania has been the source of the harshest criticism of Minsk in recent years. In an interview to LRT Radijo on 5 June, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė described the main ‘challenge and threat’ to the Baltic states and Poland as:
the presence of Russia and Belarus to our east. Certainly… the militarization we see in Kaliningrad, the use of Belarusian territory for various experimental and aggressive games directed against the West. Including the upcoming military exercise [West-2017].
These controversial statement caused protests in the Belarusian foreign ministry. Vilnius, however, refused to apologise or modify its remarks. Foreign minister Linkevičius only reiterated the words of the president.
Earlier, speaking to the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe on 31 May, Linkevičius voiced his concern over the West-2017 exercise by pointing out: ‘Belarus is completely integrated with Russia. 4,000 train wagons will bring a huge amount of weapons and military equipment to Belarus.’ Moreover, Linkevičius pointed to the length of Lithuania’s borders with Russia and Belarus and stated: ‘that would be almost one thousand kilometres of frontier with ‘greater Russia’ and huge amounts of weapons for this exercise.’ The Lithuanian minister insisted that Russian troops would probably remain in Belarus.
Linkevičius believes that the Belarusian government should realise the dangers of the drills ‘if it wants to preserve a fragment of its sovereignty.’ Earlier this year, Linkevičius had already spoken with Deutsche Welle about ‘Belarusian sovereignty, what remains of it’, causing a harsh reaction from the Belarusian foreign ministry. Nonetheless, he is once again dismissing Belarus’s ability to act autonomously.
This dismissive stance towards Belarusian independence seems to be widespread among the Lithuanian political establishment. On 24 May, former Lithuanian defence minister Rasa Juknevičienė commented on the forthcoming military exercise to Belarusian internet portal TUT.by: ‘I have only one question about this. How much sovereignty does Lukashenka have, how much sovereignty has he kept for himself?’
I want to say that many experts, not only in Lithuania, believe that Belarus is not a sovereign military force. Personally, I have more hope than representatives of other states who have forgotten that Belarus is sovereign and consider it a part of Russia.
Meanwhile, Vilnius also dismisses the Astravets nuclear power plant project as ‘not Belarusian’. Belarus is building the plant near the Lithuanian border with the participation of the Russian corporation Rosatom. Regarding Astraviets, Lithuanian foreign minister Linkevičius stated on 31 May: ‘We cannot allow them [the Belarusian authorities] to do whatever they wish. It’s not even them, since it is a Russian project, Russian money and technologies.’
On 16 June, an interview was published with Lithuanian environment minister Kęstutis Navickas, who effectively repeated the words of Linkevičius. The Lithuanian officials call the Astraviets NPP ‘a geopolitical weapon’ and the Lithuanian parliament adopted a law earlier this month calling on the Belarusian government to stop the construction of the Astraviets NPP.
Leaving the door open for Minsk
It remains unclear whether Belarus’s other neighbours are equally dismissive of Belarusian neutrality, peacefulness, and sovereignty. However, there are some signs that their approach is milder. Hannes Hanso, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Estonian parliament and former defence minister of Estonia (2015– 2016), visited Minsk recently to discuss the West-2017 exercise.
As he commented to TUT.by: ‘Belarus is effectively our neighbour. I think I can say for sure that none of the Baltic countries feels that a threat comes from Belarus.’ He welcomed Belarus’s willingness to invite NATO observers and doubted the truthfulness of the rumours that Russian troops would stay in Belarus after the exercise.
Likewise, on 31 May, Andis Kudors, executive director of major Latvian think-tank Centre for East European Policy Studies and a member of the Foreign Policy Council of Latvia’s Foreign Ministry, presented a book on Belarusian foreign policy and stated:
The Belarusian authorities have limited opportunities to manoeuvre. It is important for Western countries to be cautious. When Lukashenko is bargaining for energy prices with Moscow, he is looking towards Europe. On one hand, we must keep the doors open, while on the other hand we must not be naive, so as not to become an argument in the game of Minsk and Moscow. I think that now it is not only bargaining.
The first visit of a Belarusian defence minister to a NATO member state
Minsk is taking measures in the military sphere to make its position credible and remain on the sidelines of the spat between Russia and its opponents. In an article in the Belarusian military daily Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta on 12 May, the head of the international military cooperation department of the Belarusian Defence ministry, Major General Aleh Voinau, along with his deputy Colonel Valery Ravenka, emphasised the development of cooperation with neighbouring countries and only marginally mentioned the deployment of NATO troops there.
They listed some specific steps which the Belarusian military officials took last year to gain the trust of its neighbours and NATO. Among them were four mutual verification visits conducted by Belarusian and Ukrainian military officials on each other’s territories.
Regarding Lithuania, they mentioned a visit of the former head of staff of the Lithuanian armed forces, Vilmantas Tamošaitis, to Minsk. He met with the head of Belarusian General Staff, Aleh Belakoneu, resulting in ‘a not easy, but open exchange of opinions on the development of the military-political situation.’
Interactions with Latvia proved more successful, according to Voinau and Ravenka. Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou even visited Latvia, which was the first official visit by a Belarusian defence minister to a NATO member state. In addition, the Belarusian military developed contacts with a key NATO country, the US: on 8 August 2016, the Belarusian defence ministry finally accredited a US defence attaché after a prolonged interruption.
In the current charged atmosphere of confrontation in the region, Minsk does whatever it can to be friends with everybody. As a result, nobody is happy. Belarusian efforts to remain neutral on a number of issues already caused an uproar in the right-wing segment of the Russian political establishment. Evgenii Satanovski, a political commentator close to the Kremlin, named Belarus as a member of an ‘alliance of back-stabbing nations.’
Minsk’s efforts have failed to please at least some of its non-Russian neighbours, too, which would like to see Belarus distance itself more clearly from Moscow. The Belarusian government, however, can hardly pursue a policy other than a very cautious and incremental build-up of neutrality if it wants to survive as an independent state.