Mass Protests, Media Activism, Expert Club – Civil Society Digest
Stallholders gather outside Tax Ministry's to demand abolition of new rules – no breakthrough though. Authorities suspend criminal case against former presidential candidate Alieś Michalievič.
Press Club Belarus holds official opening ceremony in Minsk. Decree 98 will not affect calls inside Skype and Viber. BISS and Press Club launch Analytical Club governed by Chatham House rules. Liberal Club held a round table devoted to the reform of the pension system in Belarus.
Freedom Day opposition action is held in Minsk on March 25. Minsk authorities allowed to conduct the march. The Belarusian democratic community celebrates Freedom Day (March 25) every year. The independence of the Belarusian People’s Republic was announced on this day in 1918. This is considered to be the most important date in the modern Belarusian statehood.
Court tried to convict Uladzimir Mackievič for participating in a rally, who, meanwhile was outside Belarus. The philosopher Uladzimir Mackievič presented the plane tickets and a stamp in the passport, which confirm that on the day of the rally he was in Warsaw, though the riot police, who were testifying in court claimed to have seen Mackievič at the demonstration. The Central district court of Minsk sent the case for additional investigation.
Minsk court considering 17 cases of protesters during one day. On March 24, judges of Centralny district court of Minsk considered 17 administrative cases opened against a number of participants in unsanctioned protest rallies, which were held by Belarusian entrepreneurs in February and March. Almost all protesters were punished by fines up to 50 base units (around $520).
Minsk Spring – 20 years. The history of street protests in Belarus. The webportal TUT.by in its infographics traces the history of the Belarusian notable protests since the late 1980s. Minsk Spring 1996 took place on the eve of the signing of the integration agreements with Russia and raised the largest protest activity in Belarus when the number of participants reached 30-60 thousand people.
Criminal case against Michalievič suspended. However, the case can be reopened any time. Alieś Michalievič, as well as other presidential candidates, was arrested on December 20, 2010, on charges of organising “mass disorders”. After 4-year political asylum in the Czech Republic, he returned to Belarus in September 2015.
Press Club Belarus opened up officially in Minsk. The opening ceremony on March 15 was attended by more than 60 guests, including Jaroslaw Wlodarczyk, General Secretary of the International Association of Press Clubs. Press Club Belarus’ headquarters are now located on Viery Charužaj str. 3/601. This week, the new space hosts a meeting and a master class of Tatsiana Repkova from Slovakia, founder of Media Managers Club.
Calls inside Skype and Viber not affected by decree 98. The Operational and Analytical Centre has published answers to questions about the effect of the new Decree 98 "On Improving the Transmission of Electronic Messages." It became clear that the calls between subscribers of programmes like Skype and Viber are not covered by the ban. The same is true about CLIR, anonymisers and VPN. The main purpose of the decree is to fight with the gray traffic.
MediaBarCamp 2016. On May 26-29, Lithuania will host MediaBarCamp, a unique international non-conference on New Media and media activism. The main purpose of the MediaBarCamp is to stimulate New Media projects development in Belarus. Organised by Swedish International Liberal Centre (SILC), the non-conference is conducted to arrange coordination between existing projects and to establish new contacts. Participation is free of charge.
The first issue of the newsletter 55+News dedicated to the upcoming conference on ageing. The newsletter aims to exchange experience and best practices between organizations and enthusiasts on improving the quality of life of seniors in Belarus and other countries. The first issue is dedicated to the International conference that is to be held on April 8-9 by Practical Competences Studio (Golden Age University) and Vzaimoponimaniye NGO with the support of USAID, UNFPA, The Foundation «Remembrance, Responsibility and Future» and DVV International.
Expert-analytical club launched in Minsk. The first meeting was devoted to the Belarusian-Russian relations and organised by BISS and Press Club Belarus. The Club is regulated by Chatham House rules – all information articulated at an event can be used without any personification. The meeting was attended by independent experts, journalists, representatives of state bodies and Embassies. It is planned that the Club's meetings will take place on a monthly basis.
Liberal Club held a round table devoted to the reform of the pension system in Belarus. The meeting on March 16 aimed to discuss the changes in the Belarusian pension system that anyway have to happen in the coming years. The experts were Anton Boltačka, Liberal Club, Kaciaryna Barnukova, BEROC, as well as economist Uladzimir Paplyka who presented his vision of the pension reform in the country.
Year in the Bologna Process: What do Belarusians think? The next debate in the series What Do Belarusians Think? will take place on March 28, in the Minsk Gallery TUT.BY. The discussion is organised by the Office for European Expertise and Communications (OEEC) and dedicated to the quality of higher education in Belarus and the role of students in university governance. The live broadcast will be available.
Economic preferences of Belarusians under the economic crisis have changed slightly. According to the IISEPS March national poll, the crisis in the country is recognized by 87.8% of Belarusians, but the collapse of the Belarusian model – only 24%. The crisis has not led to a reassessment of the economic ideas of Belarusians – In particular, they do not lose their trust in the effectiveness of state property.
What reforms the Belarusian authorities will hold in exchange for a Eurasian credit. On March 28, the Eurasian Fund for Stabilisation and Development (EFSD) approved the provision of a new loan of $2 billion to Belarus. Director of the EFSD Project Group on financial loans, Alisher Mirzoyev explains what reforms the loan is intended to support in Belarusian economy.
IBRD loan agreement to improve public finance management in Belarus signed. A $10 million loan agreement between Belarus and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) was signed in Minsk on April 1. The loan has been provided to increase the effectiveness and transparency of public finance management in Belarus in line with a government-approved strategy.
Lukashenka: No need of reforms in education, we must improve what we have. According to the Belarus' president, "we got good education system since the Soviet times. We transformed it, returned to it several times, to write new textbooks, etc."
Strategy of reforming of state organizations will be ready by September 1. By an order of the Belarus’ Prime Minister, an inter-departmental coordination group on the reform of public administration and management of state assets has been established. The group should draft a related comprehensive strategy by September 1.
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.
Can Uber Become a Success in Belarus?
On 23 March Evgenia Shipova, official representative of Uber Technologies in the CIS region, announced that Minsk was developing faster than in any other city in Europe, Africa or the Middle East. Within four months, 80,000 city residents used this online taxi service.
Feeling threatened by the competition, regular taxi drivers have requested that the government investigate Uber activities. In contrast, most customers seem rather content with Uber. People are enjoying the high quality of service and hope it will promote a client-oriented framework which will influence the market as a whole.
Uber, however, will hardly conquer the Belarusian cabbing market, considering that old habits of ordering cabs by phone or catching them in the street remain extremely prevalent. For example, most people over 40 do not use Internet capable mobile devices and therefore cannot become potential Uber clients.
What is Uber?
Uber is a mobile application, which allows consumers with smart phones to submit a trip request which is then routed to Uber drivers who use their own cars. It spots a client via GPS and finds the closest driver who would be able to pick them up. The consumer can initially see the route price, choose a driver according to his rating and watch him approach the pick up location. Uber clients cannot pay in cash as it accepts only bank cards.
Currently, the company operates in 400 cities worldwide with their main office in San Francisco, USA. The company claims that it creates an innovative competition environment among drivers and thus raises quality of service.
However, governments and taxi companies across the globe challenge the legality of Uber because it does not follow proper consumer and labour laws. The use of drivers who are not licensed to drive taxicabs is unsafe and illegal.
Uber comes to Minsk
Uber officially opened its service in Minsk on 5 November 2015. The Belarusian media widely discussed the new service and social media highlighted user's riding experiences.
To mention a few problems, taxi drivers often use old uncomfortable and sometimes dirty cars and cheat on trip prices.
In February 2016, Uber launched a cheaper UberX service which led to a mass use of their service by Minsk residents. Those who heard about Uber earlier or used it abroad were quite excited. They hoped that Uber would raise competition and quality of taxi service.
Regular taxi drivers in Belarus often use old uncomfortable and sometimes dirty cars and cheat on trip prices. Taxi drivers in the post-Soviet space have been associated with music called criminal chanson, which is regarded as the music of criminals and people of low socioeconomic status. They are often involved in shadow market like trading i.e. illicit alcohol or prostitution deals.
In contrast, Uber drivers undergo strict control; they cannot have a previous criminal conviction, minimum three years of driving experience, a car no older than 2010 year and, moreover, pass a psychological test.
Minsk taxi drivers protest
On 6 February, Minsk taxi drivers from major taxi companies organised a spontaneous rally to discuss the “growing chaos on the market, where Uber became the last straw”. They claim that Uber has far more favourable conditions of operation: “We have to pay taxes, insurance, road tax, dispatcher service, taximeters, deal with controlling state bodies, and Uber does nothing of that!” drivers said with outrage.
Drivers threatened to “take to the roads and halt the city” if the authorities do not find a solution to Uber's activity. Less radical ones urged others to organise a trade union that will lobby taxi interests in the bureaucrat’s offices.
Uber does not breach law, partners do
On 8 February head of Minsk city Andrej Šorac ordered to investigate Uber operation in the city. “Taxi drivers complain that the service puts them in the unfair working conditions. We need to study the subject and inform the stakeholders on the results”, the official said.
After an investigation, state transport inspection reported that companies and individuals cooperating with Uber in Belarus have special licences for cabbing and do not need to have all attributes of taxis, like taximeter and lamps. They pay taxes and insurances like taxi services, but do not need to pay for dispatching office services since the online application does this job. However, this type of cabbing supposes signing a contract with each client, and the inspection doubts that Uber drivers do that properly. They also violate legislation by not using yellow car number plates.
Irregular cabbing supposes signing a contract with each client, and the inspection doubts that Uber drivers do that properly. Read more
After the investigation the transport inspection stopped the licence of Molberg company, one of the Uber partners and filed a case against another one. The reason was violation of contracting procedures with the clients. Meanwhile, Uber says the authorities punish partners who violate the rules, not the company who runs the online platform itself. Uber also claims that pressure from authorities came as the result of rivals' campaign to oust Uber from the market.
Getting rid of rivals or promoting competition?
Despite the unfriendly environment and emerging rivalry, Uber has recently announced its success in Belarus. According to Evgenia Shipova, official representative of the company in Minsk, Uber has developed more rapidly than in any other city in Europe, Africa or the Middle East. Within four months, 80,000 people have used the service. However, Uber does not yet seem to have an interest in entering other Belarusian cities.
The reaction of taxi companies to a new and unusual market player is understandable. They have operated in a familiar environment for years and have met any innovative trends with enmity. Uber, if operating in compliance with law, will definitely make the market more client-oriented and quality of service will grow.
Regular taxies should not worry much – if companies introduce high standards of service, the clients will see no major difference. Customers are deeply rooted in the habit of calling dispatcher offices or catching a cab in the street. This will last for years. Moreover, most people over 40 do not actively use Internet capable mobile devices in Belarus, and will retain their old way of cabbing. All this offers taxi companies enough time to adopt to higher working standards. Belarusian companies can finally realise what competition on the market is.