Poor civic literacy in Belarus: a legacy of undemocratic rule
The recently published survey Civic Literacy in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus revealed that the civic literacy rate is lower in Belarus than in Ukraine and Moldova, except when it comes to such issues as budget and taxes.
The survey attempted to determine how people in the three countries understand the principles of interaction between the state and citizens, how they participate in public life at the local and national level, and what kind of knowledge they are lacking. The survey sample in Belarus included 1005 people.
The results of the survey demonstrated that the restricted nature of civil society, freedom of speech, and political activism in Belarus has led to a citizenry unaware of its rights, alienated from politics, and reluctant to participate in community life and learn civic skills.
Civic literacy: the president as a source of sovereignty
The survey showed significant gaps in knowledge of state structure, regulatory frameworks, and citizen rights and duties among Ukrainians, Moldovans and Belarusians. The civic literacy rate appears to be somewhat higher in Belarus. Ukraine ranks second and Moldova third.
As for citizen rights, respondents of all countries mentioned the right to work most frequently. Belarus was the only country where freedom of speech was not among the top five answers. Having lived in a non-democracy for decades, Belarusians seem to value social and economic rights more than political rights.
In Belarus, citizens barely know their elected representatives. Many respondents do not know the official title of the legislative body or that the people are the sole source of power and sovereignty – as few as 33% believe that power comes from the people, while 55% name the President.
Civic participation: poor engagement and international isolation
More than half of respondents in the three countries participate in the life of their local community in some form: this may mean taking part in land improvement, joint activities with neighbours, etc. The share of citizens who report community participation in Ukraine is 63%, in Moldova 62%, and in Belarus 54%.
In Moldova, the general rate of civic activism, readiness to take part in civic initiatives, and confidence in one’s own ability to influence life in the community/country is relatively higher than in Ukraine or Belarus. Of all the countries, Belarusians show the least amount of readiness to participate in public life.
Moreover, Moldovans are relatively more involved in the global context and Belarusians are involved the least, judging by indicators such as proficiency in foreign languages, experience travelling abroad, personal relations with people living abroad, desire to emigrate, and attitudes to international developments.
Civic attitudes and beliefs: Belarusians show intolerance to marginalised groups
Respect for human life, human rights, social justice, and adherence to the law were the values considered most important in Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. Respondents characterised good citizens as always abiding by the law, paying taxes, knowing his/her duties and rights, and protecting them.
Notwithstanding the declared respect for human rights, the survey indicates a certain degree of prejudice towards minorities. The respondents in all three countries would not tolerate living next to drug users, HIV-positive people, sexual minorities, and alcohol abusers; people with disabilities and people speaking other languages enjoy more positive attitudes. Comparing the two countries, Belarusians are more negative about living next to the majority of marginalised groups listed in the questionnaire. Belarusians are apparently less tolerant than they would like to believe.
Civic education: no will to learn in Belarus
The share of respondents potentially interested in civic education (those who want to obtain civic knowledge irrespective of whether they have such experience) in Ukraine is 47%, in Moldova 53% and in Belarus 29%. The top 3 areas in which respondents in these three countries wanted to improve their knowledge/proficiency are: human rights, foreign languages, and business and entrepreneurship.
The overall results of the survey show that restriction of civil society, freedom of speech, and political activism in Belarus has led to a citizenry unaware of its rights, alienated from politics, and unwilling to participate in community life and learn civic skills.
The second stage of the study used focus group discussions involving the public and researchers to better
understand the findings from the first stage. Based on the results of the survey, researchers formulated the following recommendations for civic education providers.
Recommendations regarding non-formal civic education programmes
- The NGO representatives participating in the survey consider it important to raise public awareness regarding the mechanisms of budgeting and public finance so that the people have a clear picture of how the money is spent. In addition, it is also critical to shape public attitudes to the state officials as the administrators rather than owners of public funds.
- It is recommended that civic education programmes use the positive connotation of the word ‘volunteer’ which has recently emerged, promoting the advantages of civic activism by visualising successful examples and experiences (‘act like me’), and focusing on how many social problems directly concern average citizens and how they can help find solutions.
- Experts note that one of the challenges of non-formal education (including civic education) is that no certificates are given to the graduates. Since the certification issue is associated with the quality of non-formal civic education, this should be a task of NGOs and the Ministry of Education, however complicated the process may be.
- Many people who are ready to receive non-formal civic education have unrealistic expectations. Sometimes they do not understand what is behind the names of the training programmes or lectures. Therefore, when inviting citizens to workshops or training events, it is critical to learn their expectations and explain to them the format and content of the training sessions.
- When it comes to the issue of payment, several experts believe that civic education should be paid (though perhaps with small fees) to prevent ‘training tourism’ and make sure that only motivated people attend training.
- Basic civic education should be taught in school. According to the experts, training should be provided by professionals who work in the area of civic education and civil society development rather than teachers of secondary or post-secondary schools.
The survey was carried out by the KIIS in Ukraine and CBS-AXA in Moldova and commissioned by UNDP Ukraine. In Belarus it was carried out by SBTC SATIO and commissioned by Pact Inc.
Read the full report Civic literacy in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus in English.
Читать полный текст доклада Гражданственность в Украине, Молдове и Беларуси на русском.
Anarchists, the avangarde of social protests in Belarus
On 15 March, Belarusian authorities detained dozens of citizens protesting against the social parasite decree. Anarchists were one of the most noticeable movements at the protests in Brest and Minsk, causing an immediate reaction from the police.
Anarchists in Belarus, who have a long history, tend to participate only in particular political events. Their creativity and integration distinguished them from other groups during the last two weeks of protests.
The regime has put considerable effort into diminishing the influence of any uncontrollable and integrated group of dissidents, including anarchists. Independence Day on 25 March will show whether the anarchist movement in Belarus is ready for social and political protest or whether it will continue to operate mostly underground.
The anarchist movement in Belarus
Belarusian anarchism has a long history, dating back to 1905-1907 when anarchist movements appeared in Smarhon, Kouna, Hrodna, and Minsk. In Soviet times, anarchists focused their efforts resisting the upper class. In 1992, Belarusian anarchists formed a ‘Federation of Belarusian Anarchists'. However, it soon disappeared because of problems with coordination. In 1999 anarchists published their first newspaper, Navinki, but it was shut down by the government four years later.
In the 2000s anarchist activism became restricted due to continued confrontation with the government. In 2003, anarchists created a group called Revolutionary Movement which, however, failed to unite Belarusian anarchists under one umbrella organisation. Repression against anarchists has created additional obstacles to their activity. Political prisoners such as anarchists Ihar Alinevich, Mikalai Dziadok, and Aliaksandr Franskievich spent five years in prison for torching a vehicle at the Russian Embassy yard and throwing smoke grenades into the Ministry of Defence building.
There exist several main groups of anarchists, such as Pramien and Revolutionary action, but most of them are local and somewhat notorious. Their activities remain hidden and highly conspiratorial, and their membership is quite marginal. The anarchist movement over the last few years became more visible due to participation in particular events, such as Charnobylski Shliah (Charnobyl movement) or small-scale protests. In 2015, anarchists in Minsk protested against police and KGB brutality after a rock-concert at a club called Pirates.
Belarusian anarchists criticise not only the government but also the opposition for their desire for power and money. At the same time, they sometimes tend to support democratic ideas of the opposition by participating in social protests. During the 'anti-parasite decree' protests, anarchists were noted for their integration and social-oriented messages, such as 'The government is robbing the people, or 'Officials are the main social parasite'.
In an interview with Kyky.org, anarchist Dzmitry Palienka stated: 'People actively support our slogans because they were social and thematic…People have less and less trust, both to the authorities and to the opposition leaders. This, obviously, makes us happy'.
Uniting the protests
Anarchist became one of the most active groups fighting against the ‘social parasites’ decree. The march of angry Belarusians demanded the abolishment of the decree, which obliges unemployed citizens to pay an annual tax of €220. During recent protests, anarchists appeared right at the front of crowds and encouraged the demonstrators to maintain a spirit of protest.
Brest has become a hot-spot for 'anti-decree' protests. The demonstration on 5 March gathered between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Anarchists occupied leading positions in the protests’ columns. Although during the marches the authorities did not employ force, violent actions started soon after.
Authorities blocked web-pages, such as revbel.org or groups on VK.com, a popular social media platform. Dozens of anarchists reported being beaten, detained or sentenced to short-term imprisonment after the demonstrations on 15 March.
This was the first time in a long period that so many Belarusian anarchists participated in social protests. Authorities aim to decrease public protest by putting a stop to a main source of protest messages – anarchists. At the same time, oppositional forces might be using anarchists to increase their support and heighten the chances of regime change.
Anarchists as scapegoats for the state?
Belarusian anarchists have draw the public's attention only in special cases related to anti-governmental protests or due to particular small-scale actions, such as the graffiti protest. However, in February and March during the 'social parasites' protests they appeared to be organised and attracted the attention of both citizens and the police.
The regime attempts to discredit anarchists and sees them as a threat. On 6 March, Belarusian national TV broadcasted a programme comparing the symbols and ideas of anarchism to those present during the protests in the former Yugoslavia and Ukrainian Maidan, which ‘led to the war’. Today, in order to maintain an atmosphere of fear, authorities are repressing more than just the opposition, unlike previous protests. The state is detaining anarchists who appear strong, united, and leading.
In the words of anarchist Stas Pachobut to Radyjo Svaboda 'secret services have developed a system which is able to restrict political movements. And it does not work with the anarchist movement. Therefore, it was impossible to stop anarchists during the social marches against the 'social parasites' decree'.
Although the social parasites tax was postponed, authorities might be preparing the political arena before Independence Day and large anti-decree protests, which are to be held on 25 March. On 11 March, the authorities sentenced oppositional leaders Anatoĺ Liabiedźka, Juryj Hubarevič, Vital Rymašeŭski , and Volha Kavalkova to 15 days of detention. The day after, police detained politician Paviel Seviaryniec and five independent journalists.
Anarchists have demonstrated that they are well-organised and, at the same time, not controlled by governmental structures since they have no legal status and rarely act in public. The regime draws an analogy between anarchists and the football fans in Ukraine who strongly resisted the government during Maidan. Recent harsh punishments of six football fans, who were sentenced to 4-12 years on 10th March, is evidence of this attitude.
Demonstrations on 25 March will become a test for the anarchist movement and show whether they are able to become a strong protesting power. Otherwise, anarchist activity could go underground until the next occasion triggers them to make an appearance on the political arena.