Politics & Civil Society Digest: Coping with the New Forms of Protests
Belarus authorities continue their crackdown against all new forms of protests. Initially security services were unprepared to actions such as Stop Petrol or Social Networks Revolution. But subsequently they found ways, often illegal even under Belarusian law, to prevent and disperse the protests.
The authorities tolerate neither single person pickets nor car owners protests fearing that they could develop into serious threats for them. The civil society and NGO activities remain low due to the summer season and the general decline after the crackdown which followed the December presidential elections.
Single picket. On July 19 a single person picket "against homophobia of authorities" was held near Minsk city executive committee. The only participant Natallia Pradzed, a LGBT activist, who held a poster with the word "ШОС" , was arrested and later sentenced to 10 days in jail. "ШОС" is an ambiguous anti-government abbreviation which usually stands for "let him die" or "let him go to jail".
Traffic police held "Stop Petrol". On July 21 when fuel prices increased by 3%, car owners planned to hold a new protest "Stop Petrol" action. The initiator and coordinator of the previous actions Artiom Sharkov told that his organization had nothing to do with the current action. On the evening of July 21 the traffic police themselves blocked the central avenue. During the action 4 people were detained, but after drawing up reports for improper parking they were released.
Sentences against December 19 protesters upheld. On July 19 Minsk City Court upheld the sentences of ex-presidential candidates Mikalai Statkevich and Dzmitry Us, as well as five other participants of the events of 19 December 2010. On July 19 a similar decision was taken by Minsk City Court on the complaints of journalist Iryna Khalip, Paval Seviarynets (chief of Rymasheuski’s campaign staff) and Siarhei Martseleu (chief of Statkevich’s campaign staff). On July 22 Minsk City Court upheld the sentences against ex-presidential candidate Vladimir Nyaklyaev and the chief of his campaign staff Andrei Dmitriev.
"Revolution through social networks" actions on July 27 were very few and almost invisible. Perhaps “Revolution” has ended in its format of mass silent protests on the city central squares. As before the authorities were well prepared for the actions: on July 27 access to social networks "VKontakte" was blocked in Belarus; men in uniform and in civilian clothes ("тихари") were placed at possible places of actions; buses without registration plates were fitted; security agents filmed the participants.
Ministry of Justice against advocates. Lawyers of political prisoners Iryna Khalip and Mikita Likhavid – Anna Bakhtina and Daria Lipkina – failed to pass qualification of the Ministry of Justice. This means that they may be denied a license to practice law.
Law suits to close down Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya dropped. The Ministry of Information withdrew from the Supreme Economic Court of Belarus suits of discontinuance of newspapers Nasha Niva (on July 12) and Narodnaya Volya (on July 13). The official decision was made "taking into account the possibility of amicable settlement of the situation and based on the principle of the media freedom".
CIVIL SOCIETY DIGEST
Official statistics. In the first half of 2011 Ministry of Justice and its departments have registered 51 new NGOs (6 national and 45 local), 11 new funds (1 international, 1 national and 9 local), 1 trade union and 1 association. Thus, according to July 1, 2011 in Belarus there are 15 political parties and 985 party organizations, 36 trade unions and 22 856 trade union organizations, 2359 NGOs (including 230 international, 682 national and 1447 local), 26 unions (associations ) of NGOs, 109 foundations (10 international, 5 national, and 94 local).
Europe allocates Belarus 2.4 million euros. This statement was made in Minsk, by program coordinator of EU assistance Stanislav Topolnitsky. Funding is available in the form of grants, aimed at maintaining civil society in Belarus. This was announced on July 27 at the information meeting under the program "Non-state actors and Local authorities". This year, EU has increased twice its support for Belarus.
List of Belarusian NGOs invited to participate in the EaP Civil Society Forum in Poznań. On July 14-16, in Brussels, the Steering Committee of the Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership selected participants in the 3rd Forum in Poznań. 24 Belarusian NGOs were invited. By the way, there is no regional NGO in the list.
The state social contracting competition announced in Homel oblast’. Executive Committees in Zhlobin, Rechytsa and Svetlahorsk announced a competition for nonprofit organizations on HIV issues. Funding for projects will be at the expense of the local budget and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. This is another step made by NGO ACT to implement the mechanism of support of Belarusian NGOs’ from the state budget.
People Program. The movement For Freedom launched a new public initiative “People Program". The project's goal is to develop a new positive vision for the future of Belarus.The Initiative announced small grants competition "People Program in Action" to promote public debate in Belarusian regions. The competition is open for regional and local NGOs, media, including non-registered groups.
Trade union group "Studentskaya Rada" asked the one hundred students of 5 Minsk different universities the challenges students meet during their learning and how they protect their students' rights. The most "mass" student problem is a lack of textbooks in the libraries (63% of respondents); on then second place there is a problem of inconvenient scheduling (56%). The problems associated with the rights of students are interested only for 15% of respondents.
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.
“This Crisis Makes Me Rich”
Since March 2011 Belarus suffers from a severe economic crisis. While the vast majority of Belarusians struggle to afford very basic things, others are making fortunes.
The reasons why neo Soviet economy of Lukashenka has failed are well known to economists. Without a steady input of foreign currency it has simply collapsed. The main recipe how to deal with the crises is the same from East to West – Belarus must switch to a more market oriented economy.
The first step what Russia and the IMF demand is liberalization of the foreign exchange market. If the authorities have no resources to support the local currency – they should let it fall. It will be a shock at first, but in medium- and long term it will boost the exports and give a chance for many to recover. However, some influential forces in Belarus are against this seemingly logical step.
There are two possible answers: the decision-makers are either very dumb or very clever. Having spoken to a Belarusian businessman (see quote in the headline) the author is tending to the second.
The scheme of making big money on the exchange rate differences is very simple. Everyone in Belarus knows, that all big businesses need to have support from close associates of Lukashenka. All major decisions need their endorsement or approval. One such thing is the allocation of foreign currency at favourable rates and on what it can be spent. Multiple exchange rates leave great scope for manipulation.
For example, the National Bank of Belarus sells importers of medicines hard currency at the official rate of 1US$=5 000 Belarusian Rubles (BYR). Having received hard currency at a low rate, the importer can place his products on the market also at a lower price. This is common practice – the Ministry of Health issued a list of medical supplies not being produced in Belarus for which foreign exchange is allocated.
The right to purchase foreign currency at the favourable rate for purposes other than medical supplies is allocated on non-transparent basis and not published. This is the sole descretion of the President and his inner circle.
How the scheme works
The scheme to make big money on currency exchange differences is simple. A Belarusian importer buys western commodity, which can be easily sold within Russia. To pay for the goods his influential friends get approval through the Central Bank to his company to buy hard currency at the official low rate. Having imported the goods, the importer immediately sells them to Russia for Russian Rubles (RUR).
Expecting high profits the re-seller can set a very low price, so that the Russian buyer buys and pays quickly. Having received the payment in hard currency (RUR) the importer sells this currency to Belarusian companies, which desperately need it to buy imports. This time not at the official rate, but at a much higher real market rate (e.g., 1US$=7 500 BYR). This can make up a margin of 40-60% for every transaction. This businessman then shares the profits with his government sponsors.
This is only one example how the ruling regime can use its absolute power for its benefit. The ruling group controls big parts of the economy either directly or through affiliated firms. The main instrument of power is the administration of the President, which stands above every law and is the final decision-maker.
Public private partnership – Lukashenka style
No private business in Belarus is possible with some kind of government protection. On a lower level it means that a businessman have to be well connected to the local authorities. For example, it is much easier to establish or operate a local business for the son of a mayor than for an ordinary person. The local government structures will not dare to bother him fearing his retaliation.
If the business exceeds a certain level the local authorities protection is not enough – a higher protection from Minsk is needed. The administration of the President is monitoring carefully every major business. If the profits are high they will either force the owner to share, will take it over completely or destroy it. They have all the power and authority to do so. No court, media or other institution can help.
Therefore, the most lucrative businesses such as lotteries or arms trade are under control of Lukashenka family or a small group of close businessmen. It is not a surprise that the European Union imposed sanctions against the biggest Belarusian arms trading company “Beltechexport“ which is run by Vladimir Peftiev, a close associate of Lukashenka.
Not only private companies, but also big state owned enterprises are a tool for financial manipulations. Like satellites, a number of smaller companies are orbiting these economic giants acting as intermediaries. They are also controlled by the ruling group. In 2006 the United States administration introduced sanctions on the largest Belarusian oil processing company “Belneftekhim“ and its subsidiaries knowing that they are under the direct control of Lukashenka and his close associates.
Of course no one would want to give up such a lucrative “family business“. In case of political changes in the country, democratic or not, the new rulers will try to make the former rulers accountable. As seen in Egypt they may end up in courts facing criminal charges. That makes democratic changes in the country very difficult.