Pro-life vs pro-choice in Belarus
On 3 October 2016, women in neighbouring Poland went on a nation-wide strike protesting a notorious law criminalising abortion. This ongoing controversy has also provoked public debate in Belarus.
Unlike Poland, Belarus does not infringe on women’s reproductive rights. Its legislation guarantees the right for every woman to decide on motherhood herself.
However, since late September, the Belarusian media have been actively discussing the pro-life and pro-choice standpoints. These debates reveal that society remains divided on the issue of abortion.
Is Belarus turning pro-life?
In 2013, Belarus revised its abortion legislation, yet it still remains very liberal in comparison to Poland; women can decide for themselves whether they want to become mothers. Current laws allow abortions until up to the 12th week of pregnancy. Under certain conditions, such as rape, it is also possible up until the 22nd week of pregnancy.
Since the 2000s, the number of abortions in Belarus has declined steadily. According to the National Statistical Committee, the current abortion rate in Belarus is about 24.7 abortions per 100 live births. This is a significant improvement compared to 2000, when the rate was 128.7 abortions per 100 live births. Belarus's neighbours display similar trends of declining abortions.
Since 2014, psychological consultations have been a requirement for all women who wish to terminate their pregnancy. Currently, such counselling leads to around 20 per cent of women changing their minds about having an abortion. Doctors in Belarus can also refuse to perform the procedure, reserving the right to redirect women to a different medical professional.
Concerned about the negative demographic trends and low birthrate in Belarus, the state also supports other pro-life initiatives. Besides counselling, it has introduced incentives for families with children and sponsors awareness campaigns. For instance, in 2015, the National Programme of the Demographic Safety of Belarus organised events such as “a week without abortions” at selected hospitals across the country.
Facing the choices
In the pro-life camp, Belarusian conservative forces have been teaming up with religious institutions to protest abortions. In recent media debates on abortion, the Belarusian Christian Democrats in particular have reiterated their uncompromising position as the country's major pro-life advocates.
On 23 September 2016, Volha Seviarynec, married to leading Belarusian Christian Democrat Pavel Seviarynec, publicly shared her personal story about deciding against having an abortion under circumstances in which a majority of people would have opted for one.
During the 12th week of pregnancy, Volha’s child was diagnosed with a serious genetic disease known as Patau syndrome. Even though doctors strongly advised them to terminate the pregnancy, the couple refused. After the birth, their child survived for only eight days. Volha acted in this ordeal according to her faith, and her going public with the story sent a powerful pro-life message.
A few days later, tut.by published a series of interviews with Anna Gerina, coordinator of the charitable organisation Genom. The foundation was established by the families of terminally ill children with rare genetic neuromuscular diseases. Anna’s story is also a tragic one, as she turned her life around fighting for her daughter Yana, diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at the age of eight months.
According to Gerina, there are no statistics available on the number of people suffering from this disease in Belarus. Moreover, the country does not have a single doctor specialising in such cases as her daughter’s. The life expectancy of these children remains low and the state does not invest resources into programmes that could help them.
Anna too believes in God, yet she is on the pro-choice side. In her opinion, no mother with prior knowledge of the diagnosis would consciously choose to give birth to a child with this kind of genetic disease: “It is not for the sake of the woman, but for the sake of the child.”
According to Sviatlana Prakapenka, chief of the maternity centre in Polatsk, two of the major reasons for having an abortion in Belarus are social and material insecurity. For many, it still remains one of the main forms of birth control, as about 50 per cent of unplanned pregnancies end with an abortion in Belarus.
Husbands and partners often shy away from responsibility, refusing to take part in the decision to terminate the pregnancy. Thus, the woman alone bears the pressure of family planning.
The Belarusian media regularly report gruesome cases of discarded and abandoned babies. Just recently, on 19 September, a 28 year old mother dropped her newborn daughter down the garbage chute of a residential building in the Minsk suburb of Machulishchy. The child, who was just three hours old, miraculously survived falling from the seventh floor.
Hospitals still do not offer baby-boxes, which could help save the lives of unwanted newborns and give their mothers a way out. On 21 September, the newly elected Belarusian parliament declared its intention to discuss introducing such an initiative, which already exists in Russia and Ukraine. Civil society activist Nasta Dashkevich pointed out that along with baby boxes, the state could also guarantee the right to anonymous childbirth, ease adoption laws, and foster a more child-friendly mentality.
However, presidential decree Nr. 18, adopted in 2006, might obstruct the baby-box initiative. It imposes certain obligations for women considering leaving their newborn in the care of the state: she must reimburse the costs of the child’s upbringing and education. Thus, women with low incomes are more likely to choose abortion over preserving a life.
Offering counselling for women who are considering terminating their pregnancy remains a short-term fix. In the long run, the state should invest resources in promoting a healthy lifestyle and responsible family planning. Demystification of modern hormonal contraceptives could also help women avoid difficult choices. Ideally, these topics should also become a part of the educational system.
Money talks? Belarus’s quest for cash from the West
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in 2014, Belarus’s Foreign Minister, Uladzimir Makiej, criticised the imposition of “alien” political and economic models on his and other countries.
He said that weaker states were given a choice: either they accept such models, or they face “threats, sanctions, and colour revolutions.”
Similar criticism of Western policy recurs in Belarusian leaders’ rhetoric over the years. Sometimes rhetoric equated the imposition of external models themselves with Western-backed regime change. Both variants surely reflect anxieties that Western states might one day move against Aliaksandr Lukashenka and his government.
Despite this many commentators see a thaw in Belarus-West relations over the past two years. This is motivated by Belarus’s disquiet about Russia’s foreign policy and the critical need for new sources of finance.
There are persuasive reasons to think that Belarus will continue to negotiate with Western partners: one reason links to its financial dependence on Russia, another reason links to a shift in Western policy. However, the fear of regime change will cast a shadow over developing relations.
Losing out to Russia
Belarus’s growing dependence on Russia compels it to seek alternative partners. In the past oil and gas transit bolstered Belarus’s bargaining position with Russia, but the sale of the pipeline operator, Beltransgaz, to Russia’s Gazprom in stages from 2011 reduced this leverage. So too will the proposed extension of the Nordstream gas pipeline.
Belarus’s bank capital largely comprises Russian money Read more
A more significant problem is that Belarus’s bank capital largely comprises Russian money. Specifically, foreign ownership – primarily Russian – accounts for more than half the capital in sixteen of the twenty-six Belarusian banks. Foreign ownership grew significantly over the past year, and Belarus will lose financial independence if the trend is not reversed.
In effect, Russian owners could withdraw the cash from Belarus’s banks. If this were to happen there would be very little liquidity in the banking sector. Economist Anton Boltačka says, “At present Belarus is strengthening its [financial] dependence on Russia. Finding non-Russian sources of financing is imperative.”
Bargaining in the West
The Belarusian leadership thinks that recent events changed Western attitudes towards Belarus. For this reason too Belarus will persevere in dealing with Western organisations. Indeed, in the case of the European Union (EU) Belarus’s leaders are correct: the EU became more pragmatic following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine.
The EU signalled its policy shift by lifting most of its sanctions on Belarus in February. This action ostensibly rewarded Belarus for the release of political prisoners and improving relations, but in truth the sanctions were originally imposed for “a deteriorating political and human rights situation” that remains largely unchanged.
Belarus sees in the West’s revised attitude an opportunity to shop around for loans. The lifting of sanctions allows Belarus to apply to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Meanwhile the European Investment Bank provides a further prospect, and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Mission returned to Minsk in mid-September.
The Belarus-West thaw therefore looks set to continue. This most likely happens against a backdrop of mutual suspicion. For the Belarusian government, any perceived efforts to foist on Belarus “alien” economic development models augur threatening changes. Put simply, loan conditionality may threaten perceived regime security.
Some Western writers corroborate Makiej’s 2014 comments, which reassures Belarus’s leadership it is rightly suspicious. Clearly Western states dominate the IMF with preponderant voting rights, and this allows their political policy preferences to prevail – although this is slowly changing.
The suspicion cuts both ways. The IMF’s 2012 consultation report on Belarus states that the 2011 crisis was “self-inflicted.” It attributes the crisis to the reversal of structural reforms implemented as a condition of its earlier Stand-By Arrangement financial assistance.
The IMF’s 2016 consultation report finds “structural weaknesses left largely unaddressed.” Consequently, it can be expected that the IMF demands evidence current structural reforms are irreversible before lending further money. Its prospective $3 billion loan hangs in the balance.
Moreover, Western organisations attract criticism from some in the Belarusian opposition. Jaraslaŭ Ramančuk, an economist and former leading figure in the United Civic Party, argues that the so-called Washington Consensus – the standard reform proposals issued by the IMF and World Bank – reflects “no consensus” and weak conditionality. For him, IMF loans “saved the Lukashenka regime” in 2006 and 2009.
What is to be done?
In lifting sanctions, realpolitik trumped the EU’s allegedly values-based foreign policy. However, domestic pressures from human rights groups will constrain the EU from making further major concessions towards Belarus. Muted criticism came in the wake of sanctions. A recent Amnesty International press release implored that ongoing developments “must not be allowed to eclipse the dire human rights situation.”
Perhaps this explains why EU diplomats pressed Minsk in the run-up to September’s parliamentary elections. Otherwise the emphasis on free and fair voting appears odd, given the parliament’s minimal role. Emphasis on the conduct of elections therefore indicated that EU officials are unwilling to soften their stance much further.
In the short term, Lukashenka provides order and stability in the Eastern neighbourhood, and this will be welcomed. But EU capitals expect that Lukashenka will respond to their concessions more substantively.
Lukashenka is experienced enough to know how swiftly attitudes change. He has witnessed “dictators” turn from friend to foe in the eyes of the West Read more
For his part, Lukashenka is experienced enough to know how swiftly attitudes change. He has witnessed “dictators” turn from friend to foe in the eyes of the West. He watched the toppling of Saddam Hussain and Muammar Qaddafi. Accordingly Belarus can be expected to exercise continued caution. As Lukashenka told the Washington Post in 2011: “It’s better for Americans to work with us, rather than try to subvert us.”
Money for old rope?
Lukashenka also knows how swiftly the circumstances could change. The outcomes of elections in the United States, France, and Germany have implications for the maintenance of sanctions against Russia, which means spill-over effects for Belarus’s economy.
On the one hand, Belarus arguably needs the West more than the other way round given its present financial predicament. On the other hand, as Ramančuk observes: “Lukashenka is much smarter than Western officials at getting his ends.” Western organisations need to be sensitive to Belarus’s concerns, but equally shouldn’t buy old rope.
Paul has degrees from the University of London and the University of Oxford. He is currently a doctoral candidate in International Relations, also at the University of Oxford.