NGO Assembly, Here you can Be Served in Belarusian – Civil Society Digest
NGO Assembly was refused to hold its Congress the last minute. “Here you can be served in Belarusian” campaign kicks off in Gomel. The Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities presents its survey on attitudes towards people with disabilities. EHU returns to Minsk – for the sake of an art presentation.
Congress of the Assembly of NGOs cancelled. The 7th Congress of the Assembly of pro-democratic NGOs, which was to be held on May 5-6 at the Minsk International Educational Centre (IBB), did not take place. IBB management referred to the directions from Minsk city authorities and cancelled all former arrangements two days before the Congress.
Representatives of nearly 200 NGOs from all over Belarus were aiming to attend the Congress in order to discuss problems and further steps in development of the country s civil society. Now the organising committee of the Congress considers postponing the event further to June. According to the Assembly of NGOs newsletter.
Belarusian stickers for the stores. Civil campaign "Paperwork in Belarusian" starts a new phase of popularisation of the Belarusian language in the service and advertising. The activists developed a special sticker that says "Here, you can be served in Belarusian." The stickers will be offered to the stores, ready to communicate with customers in Belarusian. Now the new initiative is tested in Gomel.
EHU project in Minsk. On May 03-25, the Minsk Gallery "Ў" hosts an art and educational project Artes Liberales. The project starts with an exhibition of design works of students of European Humanities University. During three weeks the exposition will vary according to the agenda of the project, implemented by EHU students and teachers.
Viasna’s new editions. Human rights Centre "Viasna" marked its 16th anniversary with a presentation of two books – a photo album "For the Right to Elect: Portraits of Convicts" featuring photographs of participants in the post-election demonstration of December 2010 and a book "Our Viasna. History via people". The presentation was held on May 02 in Minsk and was attended by journalists, human rights activists, public figures, former political prisoners and their relatives.
IPM Research Center launched a new version of its website with the latest information on the studies of the Belarusian economy, economic reviews and forecasts developments in the economy, as well as announcements of IPM Research Center events.
"Free Word" Contest Winners. The day before the World Press Freedom Day, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) administrative board announced the winners of the yearly journalistic contest “Free Word”. The awarding ceremony took place in Minsk on May 03. Not only representatives of the independent, but also of the state-owned media have become the award winners, which illustrates BAJ’s aspiration to keep the professional standards in the whole journalistic community in Belarus.
Meeting on regional development and agriculture. On May 03, in Minsk, the "Clearing House" project conducted the working group meeting on regional development and agriculture for Belarusian organisations and initiatives. The discussion on the perspectives of regional and local development was followed by presenting different opportunities to participate in EU programmes and calls for proposals for organisations and initiatives working in the sphere of regional and local development. According to the Clearing House newsletter.
Small projects competition is announced for educational initiatives aimed at expanding the ideas of democracy and human rights, increasing civic competence, and the development of critical thinking among children, youth, teachers, parents, local communities. Project budget should not be more than $500. According to belngo.info newsletter.
Invitation to event in Brussels. On May 08, in Brussels, the Solidarity with Belarus Office (Warsaw, Poland) invites to attend a discussion on the current situation in Belarus: Lukashenka is ready to start a new game with the EU, who defines the rules? The leading Belarusian experts will share their views on the current political, economic and the human rights situation and the state of affairs in the media sector. The discussion will be followed by a presentation of the book ‘Belarus in Focus: through the eyes of international journalists’ representing 14 winning articles at an international competition Belarus in Focus.
The sixth stage of the German-Belarusian partnership. On May 01, Support Program for Belarus launched the sixth stage of the German-Belarusian partnership. As part of the stage the Support Program for Belarus of German Federal Government announces a call for proposals. The aim of the Program is to support non-state actors such as NGOs, networks and other institutionalised structures involved in the processes of sustainable development and promoting reforms at the national and regional level.
Information Meeting on NSA-LA Call for Proposals for Belarus. On May 11, the EU Delegation to Belarus will organise an information meeting on the ongoing call for proposals "Non-State Actors and Local Authorities in Development: In-country Operations for Belarus". The session will take place in Minsk, at the Hotel Viktoria, from 11.00 to 12.30.
Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities conducted a study to identify some aspects of attitudes towards people with disabilities in Belarus. The study was made by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) and the Centre of European Transformation (CET). Research results show that the public consciousness of Belarusians is determined with an archaic charity view both on disability and people with disabilities.
Disability rally. On May 05, Republican Association of Wheelchair Users conducts a rally aimed at supporting the international disability movement in Europe for equal rights and against discrimination, paying attention to barrier-free environment for disabled people. The event will be held at the Friendship Park in Minsk, from 12.00 to 15.00.
Week against homophobia. On May 12-17, a human rights project "Gay Belarus" organises a series of educational activities titled "Action Week Against Homophobia in Belarus 2012." The events are devoted to the International Day against homophobia and transphobia, which is celebrated on May 17.
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.
European Dialogue on Modernization: Last Chance to Reform Belarus?
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka highlighted the need to modernise the Belarusian economy in his annual speech for the national Parliament on 8 May. These words coincide with a goal of the new EU project "Dialogue on Modernization for Belarus". But the two sides see the process of modernization quite differently. Minsk wants to avoid any political reforms while the EU is ready to provide financial assistance only after the release of all political prisoners.
Despite Lukashenka's bravura rhetoric, reforms in Belarus are inevitable as the country will be forced to become a WTO member soon. Moreover, Russia guaranteed Belarus beneficial oil and gas supplies only for the next 3-4 years. It means that the country may be approaching its last chance to conduct necessary reforms before another deep crisis hits its Soviet-style economy in 2015-2016.
Prepared Reforms for Faster Transition
The EU launched a new initiative for Belarus called "Dialogue on Modernization" at the end of March 2012. It is supposed to help lay the foundation for a successful transition of authoritarian Belarus to liberal democracy and market economy. Four key areas are subject to reforms: political system, people-to-people contacts, economic policies and trade reform. The real content of this reforms is unclear at this point.
Polish diplomats who played an important role in the establishment of the dialogue want to see "a catalogue of reforms" as a result of the process. They note that Leszek Balcerowicz’s reforms in Poland were successful because they had been prepared beforehand and were implemented in the first 90 days of transition.
At the initial stage, experts and civil society representatives will be the main participants from Belarus. European officials hope to see the preparation of reforms with their help before the parliamentary elections in September. They also hope that Belarusian authorities will release all remaining political prisoners before then, which will allow the EU to start high-level political negotiations.
if political prisoners remain in custody, the road maps for reforms will be not used and become obsolete Read more
However, observers fear that if political prisoners remain in custody, the road maps for reforms will be not used and become obsolete. Besides, it is hardly possible that Belarus will change its geopolitical orientation if the EU does not promise concrete investments and aid.
Should Belarus Authorities Participate?
Opposition leaders Anatol Lebedzka and Siarhei Kaliakin were recently unable to attend a large conference on privatisation in Warsaw due to a travel ban imposed on them by Belarusian authorities. This illustrates the possible implications of ignoring the authorities in the dialogue. They will just create all kinds of obstacles for the Belarusian opposition leaders and experts, leaving the EU face-to-face with a failure of their new project.
Unfortunately, today the EU can talk only with a very small group of Belarusians. Opposition leaders do not have communication channels with the wider Belarusian society. Thus it could be reasonable to normalise relations with Belarusian authorities in order to transmit the European message through state-owned mass media that have a greater audience. Analyst Yury Chavusau says that the dialogue should involve those state officials that possess information about the real situation in the state.
Rent-Seeking State Forced to Modernise
At the same time, it is not the EU to be blamed for the lack of reforms in Belarus. Belarusian authorities are reluctant to conduct political and economic liberalisation because they fear losing power. Moreover, they do not have any strategic vision of Belarus' future and prefer to make ad hoc decisions.
one does not have to be a genius to sell natural resources Read more
What is more important, the EU should understand that Belarus is an export-oriented rent-seeking state. Petrochemicals and potash fertilisers constituted 83,8% of its export in January 2012. The share of other exported goods is just 16,2%. This is why Belarusian authorities do not care much about modernization: one does not have to be a genius to sell natural resources.
Despite that, modernization of Belarus is inevitable. Belarus is a part of the Single Economic Space launched this year with Russia and Kazakhstan. After Russian accession to the WTO, Belarusian trade with other states will be regulated according to the WTO rules. It means that Belarus will be forced to start active negotiations on its WTO accession soon. Otherwise, it will be not beneficial to trade with foreign partners and Belarusian goods will be less competitive in the world market.
In addition to that, Russia does not guarantee that its generous subsidized oil and gas supplies to Belarus will last forever. They may stop in 3-4 years and Belarus will face another economic collapse similar to that in May-July 2011. Moreover, Belarus' neighbours are increasingly integrating into the Single European Market through Free Trade Area agreements. There are no more opportunities to live in Lukashenka’s dreamworld of a post-Soviet reality and only ensure the continued isolation of the country.
The EU should inform Belarusian authorities of its readiness to provide Belarus with adequate financial assistance for large-scale reforms, because they will not be cheap. If it manages to convince them that this money may be allocated even under Lukashenka, they may show more willingness to participate in the process.
After the release of all political prisoners, the EU should also restore full contacts with Belarusian authorities and engage in a dialogue with businessmen and other major stakeholders of the regime. They may lack democratic aspirations, but they decide on what is going on in the country. Real modernization is impossible without their involvement.
The dialogue is especially necessary with government and liberal ministries in charge of finance and the economy. State experts should participate in seminars and conferences on the EU territory. Experience of the Office For a Democratic Belarus in Brussels shows that it may be quite efficient. Civil servants should be ready to govern the state properly during reforms.
Support for Belarusian Society Is a Key to Pro-European Reforms
Modernization is a long-term project that will definitely fail if it changes continuously depending on street actions or detentions in Minsk Read more
Even if EU-Belarus relations are restored after the parliamentary election, the modernization programme should not depend too much on political situation inside Belarus. Modernization is a long-term project that will definitely fail if it changes continuously and is dependent upon street actions or detentions in Minsk. Multilateral cooperation within the Eastern Partnership framework has been significantly undermined due to the EU's inconsistent approach towards authoritarian Belarus.
Modernization should also be accepted by Belarusian society. According to recent opinion polls, Belarusians show higher support for Russia by 10% than support for the EU. This is in contrast with the geopolitical choice registered one year ago, when 60.5% of Belarusians were ready to integrate with the EU. The EU may increase pro-European sentiments through easier access to Schengen visas for Belarusians, including unilateral abolishment of the application fee.
Finally, education is a key to bringing Belarus closer to Europe. The EU should continue to support such initiatives as the Open Europe Scholarship Scheme and promote internships for government officials and young professionals in different spheres. It is hardly possible to expect much from Soviet-educated politicians and economists. The more people with European values and education in Belarus, the more changes will be possible.