Media Freedom, Frantskevich, Fine for Refusing to Write in Belarusian – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Recently, Belarusian authorities released political prisoner Aliaksandr Frantskevich. Eastern Europe Studies Centre published its Civil Society Forum program entitled Eastern Partnership Reality Check, as one of the official events to take place at the Vilnius Summit.
Belarus ranks last in the Media Freedom Index among Eastern Partnership countries. Belarusian governmental institutions hinder the process of providing information to journalists, the Belarusian Association of Journalists informs.
Several interesting events for women also took place. Photo project Without Borders plans to show mothers in wheelchairs. Women in Hrodna have a chance to participate in the school to become a “Lady Leader”. Vitsebsk Women’s Club invites people to take part in their training on gender advocacy.
Events, lectures and campaigns
Rating of Closed Institutions. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) conducted a survey of its members regarding access to information from government institutions and rated them by degree of openness of information. As a result, more than 46% of journalists had problems getting information from the Ministry of Health; 40% – the Ministry of Agriculture, and 33% – the Committee for State Security. To end this inhibiting practice, BAJ forwarded the related official requests to more than 40 government ministries, departments and agencies.
Civil Society EaP Reality Check in Vilnius. On 27-29 November in Vilnius, Lithuania, the Civil Society Conference Eastern Partnership Reality Check: Political Challenges and Future Agenda for Civil Society will be held. It is an official event sponsored by the Lithuanian Presidency of the EU Council and will take place on the eve of the 3rd EaP Summit. Organized by the Eastern Europe Studies Centre (EESC), the conference will bring together civil society leaders from the EaP countries and the EU, key NGO experts, think-tanks, as well as international aid agencies and political foundations.
“Mova ci Kava” launches its second season. In September after the summer break, Minsk and Moscow will host courses of study for the Belarusian language “Mova ci Kava” (Language or Coffee). The second season in Minsk will start on 16 September at gallery “Ў”. The courses are free of charge lessons, a project initiated by journalist Katerina Kibalchich. Last year the Minsk classes were attended by up to 120 people.
Media Freedom in EaP countries. On 6 September on the eve of the International Day of Solidarity of Journalists, BAJ announced the results of a pilot Index of Media Freedom in Eastern Partnership countries. Namely, the most favourable conditions for the media exist in Georgia, while Belarus takes last place out of the six countries. The finalized report was prepared by Internews-Ukraine under the EU project “Monitoring of Freedom of Speech in the East Region of the European Neighbourhood Policy”.
Training on gender advocacy. The Vitebsk Women’s Club NGO invites representatives of Vitebsk and Mogilev CSOs to take part in the training “Advocacy on Gender Legislation,” which will be held on 21-22 September in Vitsebsk. The organisers cover all related costs. Source: belngo.info newsletter.
Lady Leader in Hrodna. On 12-15 September women of Hrodna of 22-35 years are invited to participate in the fall school “Lady Leader”. The School provides a series of trainings on strengthening one’s leadership capacity, the basics of communication, time management, and learning the art of presentation. After graduating participants will have the opportunity to take part in organising charitable and social activities in Hrodna.
Photo project “Maternity without borders.” Republican Association of Wheelchair Users is looking for moms to participate in a photo project “Motherhood without borders!” The photographic project aims to discuss the lives of women in wheelchairs, who were not afraid of difficulties and gave birth to a child. After the participants will be recruited and they will work with a professional photographer. The project results will be exhibited in one Minsk’s galleries.
“Civil Control” takes the regions under protection. On 4 September in Minsk, independent trade union REP and non-profit institution “Innovation Platform” announced a joint campaign “Civil Control”. The new public campaign will be apolitical and aims to address the problems of the regions. According to the campaign initiators, the traditional activities of human rights and political organizations are concentrated in Minsk while no one solves problematic issues in the regions.
Belarusian HRH looking for volunteers. Belarusian Human Rights House in Vilnius invites individuals to join to a team of volunteer-interns and is looking for civically minded people who are ready to dedicate their time and efforts to volunteer work and are interested in gaining experience. The work is unpaid, but provides opportunities for participating in Belarusian and international projects, seminars and lectures.
Six Arguments against Death Penalty-2. The second part of the film “Six Arguments against Death Penalty” by film producer Viktar Tratsiakou appeared on the web recently. Aleh Alkayeu, who used to be the head of the remand prison No.1 in Minsk in 1996-2001, discusses the specifics of the activities and the psychological state of the people who are executed after receiving death sentences. The film was prepared within the framework of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus”.
Interaction between state and civil society
Political prisoner Aliaksandr Frantskevich released from jail. On 3 September the political prisoner Aliaksandr Frantskevich was released from the Ivatsevichy colony. In September 2010, he was arrested as part of the “case of anarchists” and later sentenced to three years of imprisonment. According to the Human Right Centre Viasna, ten more political prisoners remain in prison. Commenting on the release of Dzmitry Dashkevich and Aliaksandr Frantskevich, the press-secretary of the EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, Maya Kochiyanchich highlighted that the EU calls on Belarus to immediately release and rehabilitate all political prisoners.
Status of the Belarusian language defended in the court . Blogger Gleb Labadzenka won the case in court Frunze district of Minsk – a Director of district communal services was fined of 500 thousand rubles (about $55) for refusing to answer in Belarusian in an official letter. Some Russian media commented on the case as if “in Belarus they had the first conviction for the use of the Russian language“.
Independent Council for urban development proposed to establish in Minsk. The idea to establish an independent Advisory Council for urban development has been articulated by the initiative “Minsk City Association of Local Initiatives.” The organisation plans to integrate active citizens who oppose the seal construction, the defenders of green zones, etc. The appeal for establishing a Council was signed by more than 50 people and forwarded on September 3 to the Head of Minsk city executive committee. Organisational support for the new initiative is provided by “European Perspective”.
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 Belarusians Commit Suicide?
On 10 September, the world marked suicide prevention day. Belarus ranks sixth in the world with regard to the number of total suicides that occur annually.
Last year, about two thousand Belarusians committed suicide – higher than the number of road accident victims. Belarusian men, like elsewhere in the world, tend to commit suicide more than women, though the large number of suicides in rural areas sets Belarus apart from other countries. Studies indicate that increases in alcohol consumption in Belarus correlates with an increase in the number of suicides.
The overall social withdrawal and tendency towards depression that Belarusians face, rather than poverty, constitute the main reasons for the current situation. Although the Ministry of Health Care has taken certain steps to prevent suicides, Belarusians should first and foremost decrease their own alcohol consumption in order to reach this goal.
The Grand Duchy of Suicide
Every year, about a million people all over the world commit suicide. Scientists and scholars consider those countries that have a rate of 20 suicides per 100 thousand people to be states with a high level of social behaviour. Since it gained its independence, Belarus has never dropped down to this level.
World statistics on suicides are not regularly updated, which sometimes makes it impossible to properly assess and highlight Belarus’ place with regard to the number of suicides that take place in the country annually.
In 2012, 1,949 Belarusians committed suicide. In the 1990s, the number was even larger – about 3,500 Belarusians killed themselves every year. Before the economic crisis and default happened in Russia in 1998, the number of suicides decreased while after the default it once again began to grow.
Belarus often parallels Lithuania in such ratings – a country with which it shares a long common history.
Although the countries picked different paths of development, they remained similar to one another in the number of suicides committed in each. This is perhaps due to the fact that both countries are agriculture-based as a considerable number of people could not adapt to the capitalist reforms and fell into despair.
Lithuanians often tie the large number of suicides to the overall depression of the nation, which could also be said about Belarusians as well. The problem lies also in the fact that many people in both Lithuania and Belarus lost any possibility of earning a living in the countryside and at the same time were not able to adapt to working in the private sector with industry or services.
The number of suicides in Belarus coincides with the same tendencies in many other post-Soviet countries that built their independence on the foundations of their great Soviet heritage — one that left them with an empty state budget and destroyed connections and trust between people.
Suicide in Belarus
In order to realise the seriousness of the number of 1,949 suicides, it may be instructive to compare it with the number of road accidents victims – 1,312 people last year, or the victims of alcohol poisoning – which was 1,918.
A high level of alcohol consumption often leads to higher levels of suicide. Most of the people who killed themselves and who attempted suicide abused alcohol for at least a year before they decided to take their lives.
Yury Razvodovsky, a Belarusian scholar from Hrodna State Medical University conducted research and produced a report that shows a significant association between alcohol consumption and suicide rates. The study suggests that an increase in alcohol consumption per capita by 1 litre would result in an 8.8% increase of the suicides rate.
The scholar observed that Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign reduced the consumption of alcohol from 13.3 to 6.7 litres between 1984 and 1986 which in turn led to a decrease in the suicide rate 15.4 to 7.0 per 100,000 people. Therefore the author of the report concluded that restrictive alcohol policy would be an effective measure to prevent suicides.
Rural residents tend to drink more. Although only a quarter of Belarusians live in the countryside, the number of suicides there remains 2.5 higher bigger than in the cities. Alcohol remains remarkably cheap and affordable in Belarus, which makes the problem even worse.
The average suicide victim from Belarus is a man of active working age between 45-54 from the countryside. He has a lower than the nationwide average level of education, meaning that more often than not he did not have even complete secondary education. As for women, many of the victims were retirees on pension. Still, it is working age people that have committed a majority of the suicides. Hanging or jumping remain the most frequent ways to commit suicide for Belarusians, accounting for nearly 80% of all suicides.
The low level of religiousness in Belarus also affects the numbers. According to the research of Gallup, Belarus remains one of the most atheistic countries worldwide. Only 27 percent of respondents said that religion played an important part in their everyday life. It should also be noted that none of the other world leaders in suicide are particularly religious countries.
What Does the State Do?
Although the Ministry of Health Care elaborated a complex plan on suicide prevention, the root of the problem lies in the closed mentality of Belarusians. According to TUT.by, 90% of people who killed themselves never tried to get psychiatric help from specialists. Some people are afraid of asking for counseling or support as they remain afraid of being put on a record as having received psychiatric treatment.
Although the number of suicides is decreasing, Albina Samusenka of the Mahileu Centre for Hygiene, Epidemiology and Public Health says that “the situation has not improved as the number of para-suicides is growing. The people who are attempting suicide are still there.”
Suicides are not the kind of problem that a presidential decree can solve. To cut down the number of suicides committed annually, Belarusians should lessen their alcohol consumption and conduct real economic reforms, especially privatisation of land in the rural areas.
Changing the Belarusians mentality to make their minds more open remains the key task. By restricting the freedom of association and other rights of its citizens, the Belarusian authorities have done much in the way of depriving Belarusians of the opportunity to articulate their interests.
A robust policy to reduce alcohol consumption coupled with giving more freedom to religious organisations and NGOs would help decrease the suicide rate in Belarus. Unfortunately, many authoritarian regimes view strengthening civil society as a threat to their existence. Belarus is not an exception here.