Opening public spaces for people with disabilities in Belarus
On 18 March, the Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang finished with Belarus eighth in the medals table. While the state invests in its paralympics competitors, the living conditions for other Belarusians with disabilities remain discriminatory.
Recently, various initiatives and individuals have promoted a barrier-free environment and inclusion for people with disabilities in such spheres as fashion and cultural life. Although public spaces for this social group have been opened up more than before, Belarusians only partly accept people with disabilities as equal members of society.
An unnoticeable minority of Belarusians
After the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016, public areas in Belarus started to adapt for wheelchair users. However, the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has noted repeatedly that most ramps have inclines too steep, while lifts are too small for wheelchair users. In January 2018, the labour minister, Iryna Kastsevich, said that the government plans to introduce an administrative responsibility for the creation of a barrier-free environment.
According to Belstat, only a third of the 180,000 employable people with disabilities in Belarus have a job, while the rest live on a salary of $75 to $112 (data for August-October 2017). In that regard, in January the authorities initiated a discussion about the proposed introduction of a 5% quota for the employment of people with disabilities.
Of more than 500 thousand people with disabilities in Belarus, most remain invisible. Only part of the public transport system has special ramps and places for the disabled and public spaces remain inaccessible because of high stairs or small premises; this forces thousands of people to stay home. Greater restrictions also impose access to the culture and the labour market, where persons with disabilities lack representation. According to the National Research Institute of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, more than 70% wheelchair users rarely leave their homes.
An inclusive beauty industry in Belarus
Aliaksandra Chychykava attracted attention to people with disabilities in the beauty industry when, in 2017, she won the Miss Wheelchair World competition. In February, the Tumany bar in Minsk refused to admit her into the venue because of its unsuitability and the presence of many drunken people. The reaction of Chychykava drew media attention to the place of wheelchair users in Belarusian society. While the authorities claim to work on developing infrastructure for people with disabilities, such cases demonstrate the real situation with an access to public places.
Belarusian fashion designers have paid attention to the needs of people with disabilities. In May 2017 they organised the first fashion show with models using wheelchairs. Katsiaryna Tsikota released a TIKOTAinclusive collection with a special range of clothing designed to be comfortable for wheelchair users. Dozens of wheelchair users attended the show, including paralympians and social activists. So far, this remains the only show in Belarus using models in wheelchairs, while the massive state-owned enterprises ignore a need of such clothes production. In May last year the project won the Grand Prix in the annual competition of the best social initiatives at Social Weekend 9.
On 4 March, models in wheelchairs took part in another popular event, the Hrodno Fashion Show. Designers Valiantsina Apanovich and Volha Vialichka from Hrodna created two trendy collections for people with disabilities. Before 4 March, the organisers refused to let people in wheelchairs from Hrodna perform at Hrodno Fashion Show for two years because of “inconsistencies with the aesthetic format of the show,” according to the show’s administrators. After models in wheelchairs participated in the show, the designers announced their intention to produce and distribute a catalogue of clothes for wheelchair users.
Business and food places for wheelchair users in Belarus
In contrast to civil society activists, wheelchair users appear very rarely among Belarusian businessmen. For ten years Alexander Mahortau has produced qualitative and stylish wheelchairs at his own Minsk-based enterprise, Invatech. As the businessman told Radio Liberty, state-produced wheelchairs have a very low-quality and ugly appearance. Since the majority of his employees use wheelchairs, they aim to create comfortable wheelchairs taking into consideration users’ measurements and preferences. Mahortau receives orders from abroad and from famous Belarusian wheelchair users. For instance, Chychykava performed in the Miss Wheelchair World competition in one of the company’s wheelchairs.
The Belarusian authorities are ready for dialogue and action in support of persons with disabilities but remain reluctant to take the initiative. Civil society activist Alexandr Audzevich has demonstrated an ability to negotiate with the authorities. Thanks to him, the town of Lida has the first beach in Belarus adapted for people in wheelchairs. In addition, an activist successfully raised money through crowdfunding in order to travel 4,000 km through Europe on a manual bike, raising awareness about other Belarusians in a similar situation. Audzevich constantly visits Minsk’s cafes and restaurants, and motivates wheelchair users to pursue an active life.
Most public places in Belarus remain unavailable for wheelchair users; a problem that can be solved at the local level. At the end of 2015 a journalist from Kyky.org, Dmitry Valotka, checked the availability of 11 central cafés and restaurants of Minsk – only one of which wheelchair users can access on their own. According to the owners of such cafés, people with disabilities do not visit them, “so there is no need for [special] equipment.” Research conducted by the Belarusian State University and the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016 revealed that only 60 hotel rooms in Minsk suit tourists with special needs, and only five tourist agencies organise tours for wheelchair users.
Inclusive Belarus without governmental reform?
In recent years, the authorities have begun to address the problems of people with disabilities. After the Belarusian Parliament signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2015, wheelchair-friendly infrastructure has become topical once again. The authorities focus on the question of benefits, the definition of disability in the framework of international qualifications and the introduction of quotas for the employment of people with disabilities.
However, Belarusian society remains a long way from accepting people with disabilities as an independent part of society. This is demonstrated through the attitude in public places. At the same time, there exist positive examples in spheres such as fashion shows for wheelchair users or businesses created by people with disabilities.
To create favourable conditions for wheelchair users, Belarusian activists and authorities must cooperate closely towards the education of society. Labour quotas discussed in the parliament, better conditions for businesses owned by disabled as well as widening spheres of inclusion of disabled might lead to real, not merely formal, improvements.
Opinion: Cannabis Reform in Belarus?
On 17 February 2018, a group of young Belarusians holding a banner reading ‘Legalize Belarus’ gathered on Independence Avenue in the heart of Minsk. The group was campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana in Belarus, a proposition that, at least for now, seems unlikely to attract support from the public or government officials.
Why reform is needed
The perception of cannabis use in Belarus has been largely shaped by Soviet-era misinformation and anti-cannabis propaganda disseminated by the Lukashenka government. Adding to the stigma of cannabis use is the fact that Belarus has some of the harshest drug laws in Europe and its penal code makes no distinction between categories of drugs.
This means that possession of cannabis is prosecuted (and perceived by the public) in much the same way as possession of heroin. With Belarus’s draconian drug laws having a permanently detrimental impact on the lives of untold numbers of youth due to simple cannabis possession, those advocating for legalisation would likely consider any measure of decriminalization a success.
On Legalize Belarus’s website it states that more than 15,000 people are currently in prison in Belarus for drug-related crimes. The majority of those convicted are serving 5-8 year sentences with many working as forced-labourers in prison camps. In an article posted in January 2017 on Belarus Digest, Alesia Rudnik noted that in Belarus a conviction for drug possession can carry a significantly heavier prison sentence than even criminal acts of paedophilia.
In clear cases of petty possession, Belarusian prosecutors tend to always push for trafficking charges, as this guarantees a minimum prison sentence of 5-years. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities’ intolerance of both drugs and dissent puts participants in organisations and events supporting the decriminalisation of cannabis at risk for steep fines and up to 15 days in jail for their activities.
As part of instilling a fear of cannabis into the minds of Belarusian children, the government occasionally holds trials of accused (though soon to be convicted) cannabis users in public locations such as schools. In the Fall of 2017, a 30-year-old woman charged with ‘storing hash’, was sentenced to three years of ‘restricted freedom’. The trail was held in the classroom of a school in Minsk while students watched.
And while three years of ‘restricted freedom’ was a mere slap on the wrist by Belarusian standards, this case was an outlier. Show trials and unreasonably long prison sentences undoubtedly serve as powerful deterrents against cannabis use amongst Belarusian youth, especially when the accused are tried and convicted in schoolrooms full of children.
Cannabis in neighbouring states
Even in comparison to the Russian Federation’s cannabis laws, Belarus is far stricter. In Russia, possession of 6 grams or less of cannabis is prosecuted as an administrative offence, the Russian equivalent of a misdemeanour. In Ukraine possession of up to 5 grams and the cultivation of up to 10 plants for personal consumption is also classified as an administrative offence. Of Belarus’s neighbours, it is Poland who has been the most progressive in terms of cannabis reform and in 2017 legalised medical marijuana. Moreover, nearly 80% of Poles were in favour of the legislation, a level of support that would be difficult to imagine in Belarus.
In 2017, even the production of industrial hemp, a plant that contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, was made illegal. Since industrial hemp has a wide range of practical uses, particularly in the production of textiles and paper products, and no potential to be abused as an illicit substance, outlawing the crop seems to have been a hysterical reaction on the part of the government rather than a serious measure to protect public health. If, however, the Lukashenko regime is shielding Belarusians from cannabis and industrial hemp due to health concerns, they may be focusing on the wrong substance.
Cannabis vs. alcohol
In Belarus, like much of Eastern Europe, alcoholism is a significant health crisis that seems to affect, at least in some way, nearly every family in the country. Based on current statistics coming from the U.S., the legalisation of medical marijuana appears to result in a substantial decrease in alcohol consumption.
In fact, a study published in 2017 found that in states where both medical marijuana and alcohol are sold, the legalisation of medical marijuana had reduced alcohol sales by an average of 15%. Of course, this only sounds like good news to those who view marijuana as significantly safer than alcohol for one’s overall health and wellbeing.
With its never-ending financial crises, if Belarus’s authoritarian government is to be persuaded on the issue of cannabis reform, it will likely be due to economics, not ethics. In 2015, just one year after recreational cannabis became legal for purchase in Colorado, the state’s marijuana tax revenues were three times greater than those from alcohol sales.
Additionally, though Colorado has a population of just 5.5 million, from 2014-2017 the state’s total tax revenue from cannabis sales was $506m. With sales from government-owned alcohol companies accounting for approximately 80% of Belarus’s alcohol sales, advocates for cannabis legalisation in Belarus will likely need to make their case to the authorities by presenting cannabis as a more profitable and less dangerous alternative to alcohol.
Michael Dorman holds an MA from the University of Texas at Austin’s Centre for Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies. His research interests include WWII and the Holocaust in Belarus, post-Soviet Belarusian politics, and current social issues in Belarus.