Minsk Dialogue, Lohvinau, Dragon Country – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Minsk Dialogue Conference, organised by Belarusian think tanks, attracts a number of high profile Euroean experts and over 20 journalists.
Annual CSR Award Ceremony gathers over 70 business reps to recognise best Belarusian CSR practices. Fifth Social Weekend sums up results – social projects receive over $20,000 from local business and private philanthropists.
Freedom Day gathers over 1,000 participants – few detained, but released without sanctions. Lohvinau bookstore raises full enough to pay fine and receives state license to sell books.
On March 26-28, Minsk hosts the Minsk Dialogue conference aimed at establishing a unique platform to bring together think tanks from East and West for regular expert meetings and joint publications. Two Belarusian think tanks – the Liberal Club and the Ostrogorski Centre – have been working together to make this ambitious project happen. First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Alexander Mikhnevich participated in the conference's opening.
Civil society campaigns
Annual CSR award ceremony takes place on March 27, in Minsk. Founded by the Fund of Ideas, the award is given for the second consecutive year and aims to encourage successful corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects of Belarusian business companies. This year the winners are identified in nine basic and two additional nominations like charity, culture, sports, education, healthy lifestyles, the interaction with local community, the environment, etc.
Social Weekend 5 sums up results. The contest of social projects Social Weekend is held in Belarus for the fifth time and aims to support the social significant ideas at the expense of local business companies and individuals. This year winners received for a total of 300 million rubles (about $20.7 thsd) on the implementation of their projects. The contest gathered more than 240 applications. Grand Prix went to a project to create tactile books for visually impaired children.
Budzma! campaign presents a Dragon Country map. The map Kraina Cmokau/Dragon Country emerged as a result of a travel expedition that covered more than 80 cities and villages. The map shows places with various images and possible locations of the Belarusian dragon. Thus, the organisers are willing to show that the Belarusian culture is an inexhaustible source for tourism development and city branding. The maps are available for free at all gas stations A-100 in Minsk.
Publisher Lohvinau collects almost whole amount of fine. About 1,000 people donated money to collect $67,000 necessary to pay the fine. The money was raised within two months. Donations came from 27 countries on 3 different continents. Remind that on 9 January 2015, the Economic Court of Minsk ordered that for trading without a licence, Lohvinau Bookstore must pay a fine and pay back ‘the illegal income". In total, it is 967 million rubles.
Belarus to join WWF’s Earth Hour on March 28. Belarus will join the largest environmental campaign Earth Hour and will switch the lights off for one hour from 8.30 pm to 9.30 pm local time. Social actions and events will be held throughout Belarus. Building lighting will be off in Minsk along Nezavisimosti and Pobeditelei Avenues, on the National Library, etc. The Earth Hour in Belarus is initiated by the Green Network Environmental Association with the support of governmental bodies.
A new Internet service launched for event organisers in regions. Organisers of parties, competitions, social events, concerts in the Belarus regions are invited to use a special free service "Events" on the web site of their city in the REGIONY.BY to advertise the event. The opportunity is available for both organisations and individuals. REGIONY.BY site covers 198 cities and towns of Belarus. According to the belngo.info newsletter.
Sustainable Development Week 2015. From April 24 to May 25, the Sustainable Development Week was held in Belarus to contribute to the further consolidation of the participants and strengthen the movement for sustainable development in Belarus. The organisers announced a competition for organisations to hold an event under the Week. The final conference will be held on 20-21 May. The Week organisers are IBB and Belarus Support Program, the UN, the EU, and the Research Institute of the Ministry of Economy.
Regional Fairs of Cultural Projects. On 10 March Mogilev hosted the fourth Fair of Projects, organised by Budzma campaign. All the presented creative ideas were united by one theme – how to improve the urban space of Mogilev, make the city attractive to tourists and residents, and what place history and culture take in the process. Presentations of Mogilev projects are available online.
Interaction between state and civil society
"It Belarus, baby!" What to do when police detains you for taking photos. TUT.BY collects recent incidents with detentions for taking photos in Belarus and provides tips how to deal with law enforcement officers in such a situation.
Opposition leaders in ‘Sovetskaya Belorussiya’. On March 5, Pavel Seviarynets, BCD co-chairman, and Lev Margolin, UCP deputy chairman, took part in a round table in ‘Sovetskaya Belorussiya’ newspaper, where they presented the anti-corruption platform of the opposition. For the first time in many years these opposition leaders were invited to the main state-run newspaper in Belarus.
House of Representatives refuses to call referendum. The campaign People's Referendum got a written response from the relevant parliamentary committee reported that there is no reason for the appointment of a referendum. Remind that last year People's Referendum, initiated by For Freedom movement, Tell the Truth campaign, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) and BPF, passed for the House of Representatives 50 thousand signatures in support of the national referendum.
Lohvinau bookstore gets permission to sell books. On March 16, the Ministry of Information issued a license to the Lohvinau bookstore to sell printed materials. In 2014, the bookstore tried to obtain the license six times to no avail. On January 9, the Minsk economic court fined Lohvinau Company 5 million rubles for illegal business activities. It also ordered to pay the state more than 960 million rubles that were ruled to be illegal income. The Lohvinau bookstore declared a public campaign in its support and within two months collected the necessary amount to pay fine.
Freedom Day 2015. The 97th anniversary of the proclamation of independence of the Belarusian People's Republic was marked on March 25 by a street rally in Minsk. The journalists calculated that about 1,000-1,200 people gathered at the march.
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.
Dazhynki Festival Upsets Belarusian Villagers
On 25 February the local government of the Belarusian town of Kruhlaje announced that its residents will have an obligatory unpaid day of work. The authorities still are trying to collect money for the annual Dažynki festival, since the financing from the state budget was cut back in 2014.
In 1990s the authorities decided to turn a folk harvesting holiday into a magnificent festival, to demonstrate the success of Belarus's agricultural policy and concern for the average Belarusian. Thanks to the lack of cultural development and the hands-on administrative management of culture in Belarus, the festival has become notorious for its ridiculous decorations, which has been nicknamed “agrotrash style”.
Despite its role in state ideology, the actual success of Belarus's agricultural policy appears has been quite. Salaries in agriculture remain among the lowest in the country, alcoholism is widespread and it suffers from severe labour shortages.
The Festival of Agriculture and Ideology
Aleksandr Lukashenka, a former collective farm manager, established the harvest festival of Dažynki as a major national holiday back in 1996. Previously a rural folk holiday dedicated to harvest season, it became a major economic and ideological event for Belarus. The celebration of Dažynki took place in a new town every year.
The state provided huge financial subsidies from the national budget for the reconstruction of towns where the festivities were scheduled take place. A serious renovation project usually take place throughout the year leading up to Dažynki has been typical in the interceding years. The authorities renovate roads and buildings, and sponsor large-scale projects “for the people”, like ice hockey arenas.
For the local authorities, Dažynki has transformed into more than a festival which the president visited personally, but a huge investment project large influxes of cash from the national budget. Since the mid-2000s, the government has allocated around $100m for the festival annually. The right to host the holiday was subject to intense lobbying and competition between regional governments.
However, in 2014 Aleksandr Lukashenka decided to switching things up. Instead of a nationwide festival, regional festivals were established in all six regions of Belarus, as well as in the villages. Introducing these changes, he called the local governors 'parasites' on the national budget.
The end of subsidies for the festival has forced the local authorities to seek for other sources of financing. In some cases, as in Kruhlaje, they have no choice but to collect the funds from people whom they control that work at state-owned enterprises.
Who Will Finance Dažynki 2015?
This February the local Kruhlaje authorities in the Mahilioŭ region announced an initiative which upset local residents – in place of a holiday, they would have an unpaid workday. Enterprises and organisations received orders about the number people they would need to send to the festivities. Local people say the unpaid workday will take place every month and their daily earnings will go to the Dažynki festival fund, which Kruhlaje will host this autumn. The authorities deny that the unpaid workday will become a monthly occurrence and have dismissed it as a special situation.
The authorities claim that employees from local enterprises were behind this shift in policy – a infamous Soviet-style formula of faux democracy. Yet, locals are very distressed with the state's proposal.
The region is poor and most local enterprises are already bankrupt. So people prefer to keep their jobs and work one day for free rather than openly criticise the government. A majority of the local residents in the region work in state organisations, which can easily fire 'unruly' workers.
Over the past couple of years, the Belarusian authorities have been suggesting introducing forced labour as an administrative solution to the nation's economic problems. In 2012 Aleksandr Lukashenka signed a decree which banned wood industry workers from quitting their jobs without the express permission of their enterprise heads. In 2014, the government came up with a similar proposal for the agricultural sector, but the initiative went no further than that.
Dažynki's Culture of the Absurd
Not only foreign visitors, but also Belarusians are taken aback by the ridiculous decorations that the local authorities put out for the festival. Cultural expert Maxim Žbankoŭ commented to Belarus Digest called the current image of Belarusian culture Soviet, but minus the ideology. The authoritarian system of Belarus inherited the culture mobilisation of the Soviet Belarus, which served as ideological support for the communist government.
The Lukashenka regime has failed to create a viable national ideology which people would accept and respect. Thus, the authorities deprived the country of cultural mobility with ideological content, while also repressing new cultural patterns and intellectual movements developing in civil society.
In these circumstances the archaic views of a festival coupled with Soviet mobilisation culture led to a “collective farm culture”. It received the name “a crackle and a shot”, meaning teh satisfaction with basic needs and support for the authorities, alongside the “agrotrash” culture, which sponsors ridiculous rural art.
The Future of the Belarusian Village
The Dažynki festival has been serving as a kind of grand sate for the achievements of the Belarusian government in agriculture. However, these achievements appear to be more modest than they really are. Despite massive investment in agriculture, nearly $50bn since 2001, the government has failed to create a sustainable rural society in Belarus.
Wages in agriculture remain among the lowest and the authorities discourage private farming. Lukashenka has been continuously saying that there can be no alternative to collective farm in Belarus, while other officials acknowledge that most collective farms have poor management.
Problems in these villages have reached a troubling state. Alcoholism ravages their inhabitants, with most males and a fair share of females partaking in drink on a daily basis. The youth flee to the cities and never return. Life in the village rarely provides employment alternatives, so those employed at bankrupt or unprofitable farms have to seek employment in the cities or in Russia, where they often are used.
Although the government tried to improve upon the nation's regional development through tax and housing incentives, little has changed. Without the possibility of making farming a real business, rural communities will continue to decline. A comprehensive land ownership reform and an agricultural market, as well as programmes of support for private farming could be a solution, but the authorities have turned their backs on such ideas.