Invisible Minority: Surviving with Disability in Belarus
On 5 May 2016, Minsk hosted a rally of Belarusians on wheelchairs, who gathered to remind the society of continuing discrimination.
Neither the state nor the public noticed this desperate cry in the desert, ignoring the needs of about 500,000 people with disability.
In 2015, Belarus was the last state in Europe to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, yet disabled people here still remain a hidden minority.
Various forms of discrimination in education, employment, and everyday life limit the chances of the disabled for full social integration. They suffer from the lack of barrier-free access and persisting stereotypes, which deny them equal chances of realising their potential.
“Nobody sees or hears us here”
Any traveller to Belarus who strolls through the streets of its capital or any other cities for that matter, will not likely see disabled people, wondering if they indeed exist here. Yet according to Belstat, about 500,000 Belarusians suffer from various disabilities, making up 6 per cent of the population. Among them, around 20,000 are wheelchair users.
These people are often left on their own in the struggle for equal opportunities. Only a few dozes of disabled managed to attend the rally in Minsk on 5 May 2016. The organiser of the event, the Republican Association of the Wheelchair Users, wanted to highlight basic needs of the disabled, primarily creation of barrier-free environment and ending discrimination.
Unfortunately, the rally took place far from the city centre, on the Bangalor Square, invisible to the wider audiences. It is a traditional venue where Belarusian authorities allow the opposition to organise political protests, thus conveniently moving them away from public attention.
Same scenario applied to the protest of the disabled, only in their case authorities did not even care to send the police forces to secure order. Neither medical teams nor restrooms were available on site, indicating callous neglect from the side of the state.
The head of the Republican Association of Wheelchair Users, Jauhen Shauko, noted that not much has changed since the last similar rally of the disabled in 2012: “Yes, we have better food and clothes now, but our cages became tighter. Authorities try to force us into accepting the role of a burden, in need of constant supervision.”
Ordinary Belarusians often display similar attitudes, pitying disability or seeing it as a drawback. Belarusian model Angelina Uelskaja aka Angel of Wales demonstrated how disabled people can fight these stereotypes. She built her career and achieved professional success despite the diagnosis of cerebral palsy.
Barrier-free: quantity over quality?
On 28 September 2015, Belarus signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, committing to the creation of an inclusive community. Recently, it also funded a series of initiatives to introduce facilities for the disabled into urban spaces. One of them was the state program of barrier-free environment for 2011 – 2015 aimed to improve the quality of life of the disabled.
According to the representative of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, Anatol' Razhanec, the program turned out to be a success, overfulfilling its goals in the best traditions of the Soviet record-setting. Instead of initial re-equipment of 5,000 facilities to meet the needs of the disabled, the state constructed 9,000 barrier-free access points.
In Minsk alone, it has spent over $3.5 million, creating 2,107 barrier-free objects. Minsk subway invested over $150,000 into re-equipment of the stations: overall, 32 stations now have elevators, special platforms or ramps.
What this optimistic statistics does not reflect, is how many disabled people have benefited from the new barrier-free environment. Many of these new facilities are extremely difficult to use, while others are there just for a show-off or simply do not work.
In a recent incident at the train station in Puhavichy, Viktoryja Zhdanovich, suffering from cerebral palsy, wanted to use the elevator, installed on the bridge over the tracks. After failing to turn it on, she had to contact the station employees, who demanded to see a special ID, identifying her as a disabled person. In the end, Viktoryja still could not use the elevator – it did not work.
Campaigning for parking spots
According to Siarhej Drazdouski, who coordinates the Office on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, most problems of the disabled Belarusians stem in discrimination. Pointing out the chief responsibility of the state, he suggested amendments to the Law on Social Protection. New clauses should define discrimination of disability, provide for its prevention, and protect the rights of people with disability.
Currently, discriminative practises surround all aspects of everyday life of the disabled. Many stores, administrative and residential buildings often lack necessary ramps for barrier-free access. If a wheelchair user travels abroad by car, he or she is stuck in lines for hours at the border crossings, which usually lack adequate restrooms.
Parking spots for the disabled started to appear in Belarus only about five years ago. Yet drivers often ignore this innovation and feel free to park their cars in these stalls. In April 2016, activists of the Republican Association of the Wheelchair Users launched an awareness campaign, reporting parking violations to the police and the media.
However, some recent trends show more promise for people with disabilities. For instance, barrier-free tourism directly addresses people with disabilities, seniors, and families with young children. One of the initiatives in this sphere is a collaborative project of several Belarusian NGOs and Valozhyn administration in the Naliboki Forest. Using the grant from the EU, they plan to create a tourist itinerary and a hostel suitable for people with disabilities by 2018.
For such projects to succeed, Belarusian society still needs to change its mentality and overcome stereotypes. Most of them root in the Soviet practises of marginalising the disabled people and removing them from public spaces, as it happened with the disabled WW2 veterans on the eve of the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
Equally important is the challenge for the contemporary Belarusian state, which should abandon indifference and take the lead in securing basic constitutional rights of its citizens with disability.
Belarus-EU Relations: Reaching the Limit?
Recently Belarus was considered a relative success story of the Eastern Partnership – no territorial disputes, no broken promises, only gradual positive dynamic in relations with the European Union (EU).
However, the intensity of Belarus-EU cooperation seems to have reached its limits. The lack of further progress in the human rights arena and dubious plans of Belarusians officials on electoral reform harm the relations.
Announcing the Foreign Ministers' meeting on 23 May, the EU External Action Service listed achievements in building ties with Eastern neighbours: functioning association treaties with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, foreseen agreements with Armenia and Azerbaijan and “evolving relations” with Belarus. Such vague phrasing indicates the general slowdown in the Minsk-Brussels re-engagement.
This trend was also noted during Alexander Lukashenka's visit to Rome on 20 May – the first EU trip after lifting of sanctions. Unlike seven years ago, this time he did not meet with the Prime Minister of Italy.
Just as in 2009, when Minsk got brief sanctions' relief, Lukashenka went to Rome as a first destination point. In fact, both – Italy and Vatican seem proper places to serve as "gates to Europe" for the Belarusian leader.
Italian leadership has always been one of the major advocates of pragmatic (some argue – cynical) approach to Belarus. Until recently, two countries had sizable trade – up to 2 bn Euro a year. However, it has fallen threefold in 2015, primarily because the price of refined oil products and potash fertilisers have drastically declined.
Meeting the Pope gives Lukashenka some sort of moral clearance Read more
Meeting the Pope, in its turn, gives Lukashenka some sort of moral clearance; it is supposed to wind down his "non-handshakeble" image in the West.
The meeting in Vatican went almost perfect – the Belarusian leader and Pope Francis exchanged gifts, the latter called Minsk "the place of peace" and Lukashenka said he and the leader of Catholic Church share common vision of the world.
The Pope even received an invitation to Belarus, for a meeting with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. This long-held Lukashenka's idea will unlikely come true: two senior clerks have recently met in Cuba for the first time in history; there is no reason to repeat this unique event anytime soon.
Regarding Italy, in contrast with 2009, when Lukashenka held talks with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, now he met just with President Sergio Mattarella. The president in Italy lacks real power and his position is purely nominal. It looks like political leadership of Europe still finds it either inappropriate or unnecessary to meet Lukashenka.
New and Old Challenges on the Way
The developments of recent months show a mixed picture of Minsk-Brussels relations.
On the positive side, a Belarusian-EU investment forum took place in Austria on 24 May. Minsk has sent a high-level delegation, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Vasil’ Matsiusheuski. More than a hundred companies from both sides came to Vienna to discuss Belarusian investment opportunities. It remains to be seen how fruitful this forum will become in terms of actual contracts, but such event is already an achievement.
despite the ongoing discussions with the EU and the UN, Belarus continues to practise the death penalty Read more
On the other hand, despite the ongoing discussions with the EU and the UN, Belarus continues to practise the death penalty. Courts have already sentenced three people to death in 2016. Another man Siarhei Ivanou was executed in April.
After the latest death sentence announcement on 19 May the EU issued an unusually harsh statement. Brussels accused Minsk of breaching its commitments to engage in dialogue with the international community on this issue and to consider a temporary moratorium on death penalty.
During his visit to Brussels on 23 May Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei also reiterated the Belarusian proposal to negotiate a basic treaty with the EU – a framework document that Brussels has with almost every post-soviet state. Still, European officials either remain silent on this initiative or, like the head of EU delegation to Minsk Andrea Wiktorin, say, “the time has not come yet”.
After sanctions relief, Brussels obviously views the upcoming September parliamentary elections as a litmus test for Belarusian authorities. Lukashenka knew that and ordered Central Electoral Commission to come up with something he can offer as a concession to the West.
Lydzia Yarmoshina announced that electoral legislation would remain the same because of “the shortage of time before the elections." Read more
Head of CEC Lydzia Yarmoshina announced that electoral legislation would remain the same because of “the shortage of time before the elections." However, the CEC promised to adjust some practises to make the process more transparent. It includes letting observers closer to the ballot counting tables, providing them a clear view, giving slightly more rights to international observers, publishing more online data about elections and making local authorities publicly debate each candidacy when composing district electoral commissions.
Needless to say, these cosmetic changes address only a few of 30 recommendations OSCE made after last presidential campaign. Kent Harsted, who headed short-term observers’ mission on 2015 presidential elections, told TUT.BY the OSCE expected legislative changes and had already heard many promises from Minsk. Members of European Parliament, who visited Belarus recently, complained they “did not get comprehensive answers” to their questions from Yarmoshina about planned electoral changes.
Other areas of dialogue like mobility partnership or visa facilitation talks (lasting for 2,5 years) also lack visible progress so far. In addition, Lithuania does it best to raise its concerns about Atravets nuclear power plant to the level of political dialogue between Belarus and the EU. Makei discussed this issue with the Vice-president of the EU Comission Maros Sefcovic in Brussels, which suggests that Vilnius' efforts have achieved certain progress. It might additionally burden the Minsk-Brussels dialogue in the future.
Elections to Become a Turning Point
Recent developments in Belarus-EU relations indicate a degree of mutual disappointment. Brussels expected more readiness to human rights improvements from Minsk. Belarusian authorities hoped to get tangible carrots from the EU sooner. In his recent state of the union address, Lukashenka described the current stage of Minsk-Brussels relations as “a talk-fest”, meaning too many negotiations with little outcome.
If this trend continues, the future of the Belarus-EU thaw will likely depend on the parliamentary elections.
In case the campaign follows the usual scenario or with only cosmetic procedural improvements, the EU might lose its remaining enthusiasm and curb further attempts to engage Belarusian authorities.
On the contrary, some visible progress – such as more inclusive composition of electoral commissions, transparent ballot counting or letting the opposition into parliament – might give the re-approachment with the West a second breathe.
However, knowing the Belarusian authorities’ attitude towards democratic procedures, their deep-held fear of political experiments, the first option seems more feasible. Only serious quarrel with Moscow or truly deep economic downturn can make Lukashenka more inclined to establish new concessions with the West.