Minsk alludes to ‘shared values’ with Europe as Brussels downplays repression – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Security services have so far detained over 150 protesters following mass rallies in Belarus. Many were arrested or fined, and some were beaten.
However, the authorities' return to mass repression of the opposition has provoked a muted reaction from Western democracies. The government’s actions have so far failed to disrupt the intensive dialogue between Minsk and European capitals.
High-level diplomats from Germany and Belgium visited Minsk when the repression was already in full swing. Belgium’s deputy prime minister de facto condoned the administrative arrests, while the German diplomat warned Belarus against ‘backsliding in terms of democracy’.
Meanwhile, Belarus continues to pursue closer relations with Western-oriented post-Soviet states – disregarding Moscow’s evident displeasure at Minsk's geopolitical choices. The Georgian President visited Minsk seeking to secure Belarus’s continued support for Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Russia is not a major factor in Belarus-Georgia relations
On 1-2 March, Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili paid an official visit to Belarus. His trip to Minsk bolsters the dynamic bilateral relations set in motion by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s visit to Tbilisi in April 2015.
The Georgian leader thanked his host profusely for Belarus’s unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty: despite its alliance with Russia, Belarus has refused to recognise the independence of two Georgian breakaway territories cum Russian satellites.
After Tbilisi severed its diplomatic and economic ties with Moscow, Belarus became an important hub for legal and illegal transit of Georgian people and goods to Russia. In return, current and former Georgian leaders have frequently supported Lukashenka when meeting with influential Western politicians.
The Belarusian state-sponsored media generally turn a blind eye to Margvelashvili’s harsh statements regarding Russia. Instead, they tend to emphasise the brisk pace of Belarus-Georgia economic ties.
Indeed, last year bilateral trade grew by 63.4%, reaching $73.2m. However, these figures seem less spectacular in a broader context. The goal of $200m set by Lukashenka and Margvelashvili in 2015 may prove unattainable.
Belarus is seeking to participate in the construction of major winter sports facilities in Georgia and supply non-military goods to the Georgian army. Georgia is interested in Belarus’s know-how in the agricultural and IT spheres. In return, Margvelashvili has stated his readiness to share Georgia’s experience in implementing economic reforms – an offer the Belarusian authorities are less than eager to take him up on.
Both Belarus and Georgia are comfortable with each other's geopolitical orientation. Margvelashvili described the aspirations of the two countries with regards to different blocs as ‘an advantage which should further strengthen [our] relations’.
On the same day, Belarus’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei proposed ‘not to invent some imaginary dangers for [Belarus’s] economy or the economies of other EEU member states, but rather to take a realistic view of the situation’. This attitude stands in stark contrast to Russia’s nervous position on the issue.
Germany, Belarus’s key partner in Europe
In recent weeks, Belarus and Germany have maintained remarkably active diplomatic contacts. This exchange culminated in a visit to Minsk from Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe at the German Federal Foreign Office on 13-14 March.
Earlier, on 22-24 February, Belarus’s deputy foreign minister Oleg Kravchenko travelled to Berlin to hold political consultations with his German counterpart, to speak at a business conference, and to meet several German officials. In late February – early March, Kravchenko’s boss Vladimir Makei received Johann David Wadeful, deputy chairman of the German-Belarusian parliamentary group in the Bundestag, and Bärbel Kofler, commissioner of the Federal Government for human rights policy and humanitarian aid.
Michael Roth became the highest-ranked German diplomat and politician to come to Minsk on a bilateral visit after former foreign minister Guido Westerwelle’s trip in November 2010. Roth came to Minsk to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the two countries’ diplomatic relations accompanied by Oliver Kaczmarek, chairman of the German-Belarusian parliamentary group in the Bundestag
After his meeting with Roth, Vladimir Makei called Germany Belarus’s key partner in Europe and spoke about positive momentum in their bilateral relations. Roth assured the Belarusian authorities of Germany’s support to Belarus’s accession to the WTO. Other than this, the parties were reticent about their negotiations or future plans.
At a conference dedicated to the jubilee of diplomatic relations, with Roth in attendance, deputy minister Kravchenko made a surprising statement: ‘[Belarus’s] relations with Europe must be built on shared values, not only on economic pragmatism’. This notion of ‘shared values’ is a novelty in official Belarusian discourse.
The return of the Belarusian government to large-scale repression against oppositional leaders and protesters casts doubt on the sincerity of such declarations. Michael Roth stressed Germany’s preoccupation with the ongoing events and called for the ‘immediate release of all detained’. ‘We do not want to return to the days of sanctions, but both the EU and Germany have an absolutely clear expectation that … Belarus should not be backsliding in terms of democracy and human rights’, the German diplomat said.
Belgium downplays the importance of administrative arrests in Belarus
The mass arrests in Belarus failed to dissuade Belgium’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister from visiting Minsk. On 15 March, Didier Reynders met with his counterpart Vladimir Makei and was received by Alexander Lukashenka.
The Belarusian leader used the opportunity presented by the Belgian minister's visit to send a couple of new messages to Vladimir Putin. First, he failed to name Russia among the global centres of power (his list included China, the United States, and the EU). What's more, Lukashenka called himself a ‘supporter of the EU’ and its unity and emphasised Belarus’s critical attitude towards ‘[Europe’s] Brexits and nationalistic movements’, which Russia happens to support, openly or covertly.
Reynders rejoiced at the Belarusian authorities’ apparent willingness ‘to move forward on the path of closer work with civil society’. When asked about the potentially disruptive effect of the mass arrests in Belarus on the country’s relations with the EU, the foreign minister insisted on making ‘a very clear difference between administrative arrests during demonstrations like we have seen in many European countries, and real prosecution for criminal facts.’
On the same night, the Belarusian authorities demonstrated their understanding of the implications of Reynders’ message when they detained dozens of protesters (some of them with brutal force) after a peaceful and authorised rally in Minsk.
The West’s failure to audibly condemn the Belarusian authorities for their return to repressive practises has shown that the EU and the United States continue to prioritise Minsk’s timid westward reorientation over its attitude towards human rights and rule of law.
Poor civic literacy in Belarus: a legacy of undemocratic rule
The recently published survey Civic Literacy in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus revealed that the civic literacy rate is lower in Belarus than in Ukraine and Moldova, except when it comes to such issues as budget and taxes.
The survey attempted to determine how people in the three countries understand the principles of interaction between the state and citizens, how they participate in public life at the local and national level, and what kind of knowledge they are lacking. The survey sample in Belarus included 1005 people.
The results of the survey demonstrated that the restricted nature of civil society, freedom of speech, and political activism in Belarus has led to a citizenry unaware of its rights, alienated from politics, and reluctant to participate in community life and learn civic skills.
Civic literacy: the president as a source of sovereignty
The survey showed significant gaps in knowledge of state structure, regulatory frameworks, and citizen rights and duties among Ukrainians, Moldovans and Belarusians. The civic literacy rate appears to be somewhat higher in Belarus. Ukraine ranks second and Moldova third.
As for citizen rights, respondents of all countries mentioned the right to work most frequently. Belarus was the only country where freedom of speech was not among the top five answers. Having lived in a non-democracy for decades, Belarusians seem to value social and economic rights more than political rights.
In Belarus, citizens barely know their elected representatives. Many respondents do not know the official title of the legislative body or that the people are the sole source of power and sovereignty – as few as 33% believe that power comes from the people, while 55% name the President.
Civic participation: poor engagement and international isolation
More than half of respondents in the three countries participate in the life of their local community in some form: this may mean taking part in land improvement, joint activities with neighbours, etc. The share of citizens who report community participation in Ukraine is 63%, in Moldova 62%, and in Belarus 54%.
In Moldova, the general rate of civic activism, readiness to take part in civic initiatives, and confidence in one’s own ability to influence life in the community/country is relatively higher than in Ukraine or Belarus. Of all the countries, Belarusians show the least amount of readiness to participate in public life.
Moreover, Moldovans are relatively more involved in the global context and Belarusians are involved the least, judging by indicators such as proficiency in foreign languages, experience travelling abroad, personal relations with people living abroad, desire to emigrate, and attitudes to international developments.
Civic attitudes and beliefs: Belarusians show intolerance to marginalised groups
Respect for human life, human rights, social justice, and adherence to the law were the values considered most important in Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. Respondents characterised good citizens as always abiding by the law, paying taxes, knowing his/her duties and rights, and protecting them.
Notwithstanding the declared respect for human rights, the survey indicates a certain degree of prejudice towards minorities. The respondents in all three countries would not tolerate living next to drug users, HIV-positive people, sexual minorities, and alcohol abusers; people with disabilities and people speaking other languages enjoy more positive attitudes. Comparing the two countries, Belarusians are more negative about living next to the majority of marginalised groups listed in the questionnaire. Belarusians are apparently less tolerant than they would like to believe.
Civic education: no will to learn in Belarus
The share of respondents potentially interested in civic education (those who want to obtain civic knowledge irrespective of whether they have such experience) in Ukraine is 47%, in Moldova 53% and in Belarus 29%. The top 3 areas in which respondents in these three countries wanted to improve their knowledge/proficiency are: human rights, foreign languages, and business and entrepreneurship.
The overall results of the survey show that restriction of civil society, freedom of speech, and political activism in Belarus has led to a citizenry unaware of its rights, alienated from politics, and unwilling to participate in community life and learn civic skills.
The second stage of the study used focus group discussions involving the public and researchers to better
understand the findings from the first stage. Based on the results of the survey, researchers formulated the following recommendations for civic education providers.
Recommendations regarding non-formal civic education programmes
- The NGO representatives participating in the survey consider it important to raise public awareness regarding the mechanisms of budgeting and public finance so that the people have a clear picture of how the money is spent. In addition, it is also critical to shape public attitudes to the state officials as the administrators rather than owners of public funds.
- It is recommended that civic education programmes use the positive connotation of the word ‘volunteer’ which has recently emerged, promoting the advantages of civic activism by visualising successful examples and experiences (‘act like me’), and focusing on how many social problems directly concern average citizens and how they can help find solutions.
- Experts note that one of the challenges of non-formal education (including civic education) is that no certificates are given to the graduates. Since the certification issue is associated with the quality of non-formal civic education, this should be a task of NGOs and the Ministry of Education, however complicated the process may be.
- Many people who are ready to receive non-formal civic education have unrealistic expectations. Sometimes they do not understand what is behind the names of the training programmes or lectures. Therefore, when inviting citizens to workshops or training events, it is critical to learn their expectations and explain to them the format and content of the training sessions.
- When it comes to the issue of payment, several experts believe that civic education should be paid (though perhaps with small fees) to prevent ‘training tourism’ and make sure that only motivated people attend training.
- Basic civic education should be taught in school. According to the experts, training should be provided by professionals who work in the area of civic education and civil society development rather than teachers of secondary or post-secondary schools.
The survey was carried out by the KIIS in Ukraine and CBS-AXA in Moldova and commissioned by UNDP Ukraine. In Belarus it was carried out by SBTC SATIO and commissioned by Pact Inc.
Read the full report Civic literacy in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus in English.
Читать полный текст доклада Гражданственность в Украине, Молдове и Беларуси на русском.