Non-Formal Education, Minsk Brand, Gender Conference – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Festival of non-formal education, National Gender Platform approval, discussion of Minsk brand and human rights defenders of the year were among the most notable civil society events in Belarus last week.
Festival of Non-Formal Education. On 7-9 December, the 4th Festival of Non-Formal Education took place in Minsk. The Festival was attended by about 250 participants – teachers, trainers and other people sharing the values of life-long learning and non-formal education. The Festival format included various activities: a panel talk, more than 60 master classes and presentations, exhibition boxes, discussions, contests, etc.
The largest number of awards went to the Grodno-based NGO Third Sector, including the top prize for the best educational website Golden Age University. For the Festival, The Association Life Long Education released a special issue of Adukatar magazine.
Minsk brand discussion. The past week was marked by hot public discussion around a new symbol of Minsk "Think Minsk", which turned out to be very similar to a London one. Alexander Zimovsky, former chief of state propaganda in Belarus, dismissed it as flawed. TUT.BY hosted a large talk show among various advertising and creative groups to discuss the brand. A group of Belarusian marketing professionals announced that they are going to create an alternative original brand.
Human rights defenders marked anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On 10 December, human rights defenders and representatives of civil society celebrated the date in different ways in different parts of the country, mostly going out onto the streets and handing out brochures with the text of the Declaration and other human rights publications.
Human Rights Defenders of the Year. On 10 December, representatives of human rights organisations announced the winners of the Belarusian human rights prize of 2012. This year the lawyers of the year were Alina Shostak and Alvira Drygo, human rights defender of the year was Liubou Kavaliova, and journalist of the year was Andrei Poczobut.
Intellectual conference in Minsk. On 14-15 December, The Flying University held a conference titled "Intellectual situation in Belarus: the circumstances and self-determination of thinking." The purpose of the conference was a joint discussion of the contemporary intellectual situation in Belarus. The conference was attended by Valentin Akudovich, Vladimir Matskevich, Mikhal Anempadystav, Valeria Kastsyugova, Alexei Pikulik, and other researchers, intellectuals and cultural figures.
Statement of the National Platform. On 12 December, members of the National Platform of the Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership adopted a statement expressing deep concern regarding the repressive actions of the Belarusian authorities. In particular, the statement condemns the confiscation of the Viasna premises, the practice of criminal prosecution of journalists, independent media and youth organisations, and the denial of visas for foreign partners of Belarusian organizations.
Gender conference in Minsk. On 8 December, in Minsk, participants of the conference “Women’s movement in Belarus: challenges, achievements and perspectives” approved the National Gender Platform (NGP) and adopted an appeal to the National Gender Council under the Council of Ministers of Belarus. NGP suggests introducing basic provisions guaranteeing gender equality in Belarus, as well as hope for equitable cooperation of civil society with state structures. The conference initiated by the Women’s Independent Democratic Movement was timed to the 20th anniversary of the women’s movement in Belarus.
Legal Transformation Center (Lawtrend) issued invitations to the press conference "Non-freedom of associations in Belarus after December 19, 2010: Facts, trends, and recommendations". The event is to take place on 17 December in Minsk. The press conference speakers will present two unique publications on administrative and criminal proceedings on the events of December 19, 2010, as well as an analytical report of the monitoring group Lawtrend on administrative cases in 2012.
Presentation on Poverty and Social Inclusion in Belarus. IPM Research Center and the Center for European Transformation invite to the presentation of the study Poverty and Social Inclusion in Belarus. The presentation will be held on 17 December in the Minsk IBB. The survey's text is available on the IPM website.
Monitoring of barrier-free environment. On 7 December, the members of the "Accessibility" coalition went on to conduct regular tests to study the availability of architectural objects and buildings. This time the research was conducted at newly opened Minsk underground station Petrovschina and the Berestye cinema. The project titled Monitoring of barrier-free environment initiated by the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities aims to create a barrier-free environment monitoring tool and its pilot implementation.
Essay competition on Accessibility and Disability. The Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities has announced the essay competition, Accessibility and Disability, aimed at increasing knowledge about the issues of disability rights in Belarus, the promotion of the ideas of equal participation, etc. The winner will be awarded with a laptop.
New website to help in cases of domestic violence. A New website has been launched to help people – both victims and aggressors – in situations of domestic violence. Online consultations are conducted by experts of 19 CSOs dealing with domestic violence. The website is coordinated by the Belarusian Association of Young Christian Women.
Belarus Press Photo Multimedia Winners. The awarding ceremony of the Belarus Press Photo – Multimedia contest took place on 9 December, in Minsk's Zнята photo studio. First place went to a clip dedicated to the presidential elections in 2010; second place to the Food not Bombs project; and third place to Andrei Liankevich for a multimedia-clip called Paganstva.
Meetings in Washington. BAJ Chairperson Zhanna Litvina, wife of political prisoner Ales Bialiatski Natalya Pinchuk and activist Tatiana Revyaka are visiting Washington DC, where they have a number of meetings at the Senate, the State Department and the US Security Council. The main topic of the visit is the freedom of speech and the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. The Belarusian guests took part in the event with Congressman Christopher Smith dedicated to the 2nd anniversary of the events of December 19, 2010.
Belarusian photo-exhibition in Brussels. On 18 December, the Office for a Democratic Belarus and the Secretariat of the Steering Committee of the EaP CSF will host the opening of theDiscovering Belarus: Images of Today and Beyond exhibition by the Belarusian photographer Siarhei Balay, which will be followed by an informal presentation of the EaP CSF Secretariat and a Christmas cocktail reception.
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.
Civil Society and Political Parties: Together While Apart
In November, civil society representatives convened in Minsk to vote on the Concept of the National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EAP CSF). The adopted version of the Concept favours an expansive interpretation of the civil society mission and was criticised by some groups as pushing civil society organisations on the road of political conflict with the Belarusian authorities.
Unnecessary politicisation of civil society activities was mentioned as the primary reason for the refusal to sign the Concept by the Belarusian Association of Journalists, human rights centre “Viasna”, Office for Democratic Belarus, Belarus Helsinki Committee, Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, and others. How harmful politicisation harmful for the development of the Belarusian public sphere?
“Civil society" has become a buzzword among Western political leaders and analysts concerned about the future of Belarus. Glorified as the springs of democracy, civil society is sought after — by the EU policymakers, who would like to fund, meet, and consult civil society actors on every visit to authoritarian states. The authorities, in their turn, would like to control, eliminate, or coopt them.
This dynamic is forcing some uneasy choices on the civil society leaders in Belarus. One of these choices concerns the appropriate extent of political involvement. How close to politics can Belarusian civic leaders get without endangering subverting their mission, getting imprisoned, or losing trust of the Belarusian population?
Staying away from politics?
In the past, much of the Belarusian civil society tended to follow the lead of the Belarusian opposition. This has changed around 2006: with the political opposition suffering one defeat after another and lacking support in the Belarusian society, many NGOs began to take over the initiative and eschew dangerous association with the opposition. Civic groups learned independence and cultivated their own leadership. This was a propitious development at the time.
Moving away from politics saved many nascent groups from repression, improved the image of the civil society in the Belarusian public, and contributed to the emergence of new leaders in the Belarusian public sphere.
At first glance, continuing to stay away from politics also seems like a good idea today. After all, political parties still have little credibility with the public. According to the sociological monitoring by the pro-regime Institute of Sociology of the NAN of Belarus and non-regime agencies such as the Independent Institute for Social and Economic Studies only a tiny fraction of the population trusts political parties in Belarus.
Therefore, political involvement risks undermining the political neutrality of the civil society organisations and tarnishing the image. With politics generally considered dirty in Eastern Europe, association with the opposition may prevent civil society organisations from fulfilling their goals. This is a particularly great obstacle for organisations that have to work with the state, which includes professional associations, organisations defending human rights, or environmental groups.
Another potential problem from associating with political parties is breeding conflict among the civil society actors. While it is easy to agree on the need to prevent pollution or protect women’s rights, it is a lot harder to converge on issues that involve collaborating with the authorities or boycotting elections.
the Belarusian civil society also has had its share of political conflict in the past, with the two feuding unions of Belarusian writers and two unions of Poles Read more
This is why the Belarusian opposition has had trouble coalescing around common goals despite the enormous costs of disunity. In fact, the Belarusian civil society also has had its share of political conflict in the past, with the two feuding unions of Belarusian writers and two unions of Poles. Avoiding such disagreement and contestation among civil society actors may be a difficult task in the context of an authoritarian state.
However, it has by now become clear that if a democratic transition is indeed to occur in Belarus, it will not come through the efforts of the civil society alone. While civil society actors may initiate change, it is the political parties that will help aggregate and represent societal interests when the change comes.
This is why there needs to be a healthy relationship between the civil society and political parties – with cooperation, but at a distance. The EU can contribute to this goal by supporting projects that promote the development of coalitions between NGOs, parties, and even state organisations.
To be sure, simply functioning in an authoritarian state automatically imparted a political hue on most civil society organisations in Belarus. In order to survive, some Belarusian NGOs resorted to financial support from the West. This support is motivated primarily by political goals, such as bringing about democracy or compensating for the inauspicious political climate in Belarus, — even as it is directed to groups distant from the Belarusian politics. Today, EU support needs to be directed toward fostering collaboration between political and civil society actors.
The alternative — promotion of civil society at the expense of political parties — creates a dangerous imbalance by increasing the popular demand for change without strengthening the political actors who could deliver such change.
Whereas civil society groups help individuals discover and articulate their preferences, political parties alone are able to actualise these preferences in a nation-wide policy. Without the degree of synergy between political parties and the civil society, citizens will eventually become disillusioned with the political process and could be captured by populist leaders.
Belarusian civil society needs to work with political parties to accomplish their goals, but these political connections are likely to undermine neutrality and unity of the civil society Read more
Although the absence of linkage between the civil society and political parties hampers the ability of civic actors to shape politics, too much of a linkage undermines credibility and neutrality of the civil society. This is essentially a Catch-22 situation. Belarusian civil society needs to work with political parties to accomplish their goals, but these political connections are likely to undermine neutrality and unity of the civil society. We see today that the regime has succeeded in dividing the opposition, the civil society, and the Belarusian people thus fostering the impression of the impossibility of a democratic transition.
Is change possible in Belarus? History shows that opposition parties can win elections even in authoritarian states, but only if they collaborate with civil society groups and regional and transnational democracy activists and adopt bold and innovative electoral strategies, as argued by political scientists Valery Bunce and Sharon Wolchik.
Working alone or approaching elections passively has inevitably failed. Without collaboration, audacity, and unity, one cannot convince the people of the possibility of victory and, as a result, the people stay out of the streets and choose not to vote. Achieving unity among the civil society actors and the political opposition by creating connections between these two forces is therefore key to preparing the ground for a democratic transition in Belarus.