New Charity Technologies and Education Initiatives – Belarus Civil Society Digest
This week is marked with significant intensification of civil society activities, in particular in the field of human rights. Civil society organisations are adopting new charity technologies through online tools and attempt advocacy attempts, and it seems that governmental bodies began to make available draft laws for public discussion.
Challenges of EU strategy towards Belarus discussed in Minsk. On February 18, a ‘round table’ initiated by Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies took place in Minsk. Its agenda included the challenges of the EU – Belarus relations and their development, as well as the impact that the visa ban imposed on some representatives of the Belarusian regime has on the EU – Belarus relations. The round table was attended by about 20 members of the Belarusian expert community, civil society and human rights organisations.
Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs celebrates its 15th anniversary. On February 22, the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus, the largest association of Belarusian NGOs, celebrates its 15th anniversary. Now the Assembly consists of more than 300 organisations – both registered organisations and unregistered initiatives. After three unsuccessful attempts to register in Belarus the Assembly got a legal status in Lithuania (in July 2011). This year VII Congress of the Assembly is to be held.
School of Educators-2012. Education Centre "POST" within the framework of the "Flying University" program conducts a training course "School of Educators". The School is to represent POST's experience and the concepts in the field of informal education. It will also provide an opportunity to get acquainted with some successful practices of the educational work, to evaluate their effectiveness, as well as develop trainers’ skills. The course will be held in Minsk, from February to June 2012 in the format of interactive seminars, workshops and lectures.
Distance learning for lawyers in nonprofit law. Republican NGO "United Way" invites students and the NGOs members to participate in the e-learning for lawyers. The program includes a wide range of issues relating to the legal regulation of non-profit organisations. The course is practical and considers the real issues faced by nonprofit organisations. Study period is March-December 2012.
EHREL in action. On February 16-19, the Belarusian Human Rights House hosted a working meeting and training within the framework of the project Electronic Human Rights Education for Lawyers (EHREL). Coordinators, experts and project partners discussed the key issues and perspectives of the project. The curriculum of the project, carried out simultaneously for Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine, aims at teaching jurists and lawyers professional use of international and constitutional law in the jurisprudence.
In-depth course on human rights. Belarusian Human Rights School announces a competition for participation in the in-depth course on human rights, aimed at deepening the knowledge of motivated young people in the field of human rights, enhance their practical application in the professional and public spheres. Young Belarusians of 20-30 years old, who have a basic knowledge of human rights are invited to participation in the program. The course will be held in March-June 2012, at the Belarusian Human Rights House in Vilnius (Lithuania).
School of Local Governance. Educational NGO "Leu Sapieha Foundation" within the framework of the "Flying University" holds the School of Local Governance." The School will present the Foundation's long-term achievements in the field of local governance. The School will be held in Minsk in March-June 2012.
Study tour for Belarusian lawyers in Lithuania. Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) and the Institute for Development and Training EDUCATIO announced a call for applications to participate in a study tour for Belarusian lawyers in Lithuania "Exchange jurisprudence in favor of the Belarusian people." The project goal is to gather a group of Belarusian lawyers, advocates and people involved in legal issues in the political parties / NGOs, in order to enable them to review the legal system of Lithuania and other European countries.
Charity online store. Charitable NGO "Belarusian Children's Hospice" has launched a charity online store www.takprosto.by , where everyone can put their goods, which can be bought by other online users. The money from the deal goes to the bank account of the organisation.
On line service of charitable meetings. Online auction "Mae сэнс" was launched in October 2011 and has already collected about 60 million rubles and sold more than three thousand meetings. The project offers two ways to participate in a charity – one can fill out a questionnaire and to offer himself/ herself as a lot, and then go to a meeting with the winner of the auction, and also one can buy a meeting with a pleasant person. The money raised organisers give to charity – usually for children with serious illnesses.
Web platform for national monitoring. Crisisby.net developed by a group of Internet activists from different cities and countries, is a platform for national monitoring of crisis events in Belarus. The platform allows gathering and organising messages from multiple sources, applying them on the map, presenting in the form of graphs and tables. Everyone can send a message; post a link to the text, video or photos.
New office of EuroBelarus and Forum Syd in Vilnius. On February 21, in Vilnius a joint office of the International Consortium "EuroBelarus" and the Swedish organisation "Forum Syd" has been opened. The event was attended by leaders of EuroBelarus and Forum Syd, as well as representatives of diplomatic missions, international organisations and Belarusian NGOs in Lithuania. The purpose of the new Office is the promotion of civil society in Belarus.
Press-conference of the DisRights Office. On February 28, Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities conducts a press-conference in Minsk. The main purpose of the event is to summarise outcomes of the regional stage of the Office campaign. The speakers are Sergei Drozdovskiy, the Office coordinator, and Jamie Bolling, Executive Director of the European Network for Independent Living (ENIL). The event starts at 12:00, at the hotel "Yubileyny".
International Conference on alternative methods of rehabilitation. Belarusian Association of UNESCO Clubs in conjunction with the Branch of the Russian State Social University in Minsk invite to take part in the 2nd International Scientific Conference on alternative methods of rehabilitation of children and adults with disabilities, HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. The Conference will be held on 30-31 May 2012 in Minsk.
Volunteers wanted for building environmentally friendly houses. International NGO "Ecodom" (Minsk), together with the charity organisation "Houses instead of Chernobyl" (Germany) invites to participation in building of environmentally friendly houses in Lepel district, Vitebsk region. The project needs in builders on a volunteer basis (11 people) and translators of German (5 people).
Invitation to discussion about Legislation on Philanthropy. Legal Transformation Centre invites to discuss the necessity to develop legislation on philanthropy in Belarus. For this purpose, the Centre's web site has created a special section with documents on international experience in the legal regulation of charitable organisations, reference to media publication, etc.
Experts of civil society involved in the drafting of the pension reform. In March 2012, the government should get a pension reform project, developed by independent Belarusian experts, including representatives of the Business Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers. The experts are going to stir up the Belarusian authorities, and, above all, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection regarding the issue of reforming the current pension system.
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.
Belarusian Election As An Opportunity For Change
The September 2012 Parliamentary elections offer a chance for the opposition to reconnect with the wider Belarusian population rather than retain the current status quo. Even though some economic pressure on the regime has been lifted by the latest deals with the Russians, the population is increasingly looking for alternative sources of information and for different visions of how Belarus could develop.
Against the background of the recent Russian protests, the upcoming election campaign is a major window of opportunity – if exploited to the full – for the opposition. Elections provide a time of heightened interest for the population in the political situation of the country, and are therefore the perfect time to re-build party structures comprising activists willing to carry out political activity today.
In spite of this, the opposition remain divided about how they should approach this campaign. Alternative strategies include a boycott, an “active boycott” involving submitting candidates and withdrawing before election day, and running fully committed candidates through the entire electoral process.
Why Boycotting is Likely to Fail
More radical opposition activists argue that it would be immoral to run given that political leaders and former presidential candidates remain in jail.
Groups considering an “active boycott” have identified three main conditions to be addressed. These are the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners detained following December 19 2010 events; amendment of the election law to include changes proposed by opposition; and full representation of opposition candidates onto the electoral commissions at all levels.
While it is theoretically possible that these conditions could be met, they would all require significant political will from the side of the authorities, which is clearly missing at present. Arguing for strict implementation of these commitments before running is thus virtually synonymous with arguing for a boycott.
A boycott of the election would simply remove the opportunity for legal campaigning that the election time presents. It would also take away a chance for the opposition to reach out on issues that the “political middle” in society cares about, such as the economy and health care. The boycott would condemn the opposition to continue to be sidelined from mainstream Belarus. For an opposition without widespread support in society, as is the case today in Belarus, such a strategy is therefore a privilege that they cannot afford.
It is also very unlikely a boycott would have any major impact amongst the population – as pressure from the regime to vote will be high. With it proving impossible to build a united coalition of democratic forces around a boycott, it is unrealistic to expect the wider public to be convinced. No attempts have been made, even by its proponents, to quantify what would be a successful boycott.
In this environment, even if a boycott could in theory be run successfully, the the opposition’s current lack of effective coordination, inability to communicate a consistent message, constant internal gamesmanship and distrust between them would mean any effort at a credible “boycott campaign” would almost certainly fail.
The lack of clarity of strategy is already impeding the opposition's preparations for the elections – indeed it seems the preparation for partisan election observation is more advanced than for the campaign the observers should be safeguarding – an example perhaps of the perverse situation (and incentives) operating in Belarus now.
The opposition will risk repeating one of the main mistakes of 2008 parliamentary elections – letting the campaign be dominated by whether and when they are going to boycott or pull out of the campaign. Worse – by proposing the condition of the release of the political prisoners – they are putting this decision in the hands of the authorities.
This level of uncertainty as to whether pull out or not – which may not be clarified until the last minute – is likely to seriously undermine the opposition. Neither are candidates likely to take their campaign seriously, nor will the population take the candidates seriously as they are planning to withdraw.
Indeed it is this uncertainty and division in the opposition about whether to take the election seriously that has so undermined the opposition in the past. Some observers see this as a successful implementation of a “divide and rule” strategy implemented by the authorities.
In this regard, some politicians have warned the regime may seek to improve relations with the West through allowing a pseudo-opposition “KGB group” into Parliament, who would be handpicked by the security services based on their likelihood for collaboration. Opposition politicians should avoid being distracted by such red herrings – and the desire to protect their own status quo – and focus instead on becoming the most credible and popular candidates in their electoral district.
Commitment to Run Serious Campaigns
The window offered by the recent decline in support for Lukashenka should be maximised to the full during the election period through prospective parliamentary candidates from the opposition seeking to run credible election campaigns.
Developing credible candidates takes time. Efforts should be made already to build up election support teams, message development and efforts to increase name recognition and popularity with voters ahead of the elections. The focus should be on developing personalities in each constituency through direct dialogue with the voters on local issues that matter to them.
To enhance their credibility in the eyes of voters, candidates should commit to run to the end of the electoral process. They should maximise opportunities to engage with the electorate, including using all public meeting opportunities and possibilities for canvassing, such as door to door. Above all, candidates should focus on clear coordinated messages of relevance that make the case for political change and include credible alternatives proposals, to the wider population.
Parties and candidates should also attempt to work more closely with trade unions, which have been more active in recent time, albeit mostly on individual factory based issues.
Elections to Motivate Demand for Change rather than the idea of Revolution
Transformations in the region over the last 15 years show clearly that election time has provided the prime focus for expressing discontent.
In Belarus too, election nights have seen the largest protests in the last 10 years. Against the backdrop of the post-parliamentary election protests in Russia, there may also be a window of opportunity for similar events in Belarus – if the opposition was able to campaign solidly, including a message of “vote and defend your vote”.
However, the population will only take such events seriously if the opposition takes the whole campaign seriously – which it did in 2004 (Parliamentary Elections), 2006 and 2010 (Presidential) but did not in the 2008 Parliamentary elections.
Protesters are liable to pay a high price for participation including possible loss of employment or detention. Therefore, the opposition must ensure people are sufficiently motivated to demand change through a campaign focused on issues that matter to them, rather than on any idea of revolution. If people are won over in what they see as a serious campaign they will naturally seek to defend their vote. If not, as seems likely, they will simply avoid any risk and stay at home.
Indeed, the prevailing view in both the opposition and wider society is that the Parliament is a toothless institution not worth fighting for. In spite of this, the parliamentary elections provide a rare opportunity to turn the silent majority into active seekers of change. Failure to use it will set the opposition on track for three years of stagnation and eliminate any chance of election related change until the Presidential elections due in 2015.
Dr Alastair Rabagliati