Research Contest Winners, EBRD, Conference on Belarusian Studies – Ostrogorski Centre Digest
In March Ostrogorski Centre (OC) analysts discussed a variety of issues in the fields of foreign policy, religion and migration. As the economic crisis unfolds in Belarus and Russia, many Belarusians will seek refuge in the west, where Poland is providing increasingly attractive conditions for migrants from the former USSR.
Sweden is changing its approach towards cooperation with Belarus, shifting from only supporting civil society and the opposition to engaging the government.
Meanwhile, inside Belarus the authorities continue to search for an identity that could save them from the “Russian World”. They may try to reanimate the independent Greek Catholic Church.
Vadzim Smok analyses the Card of the Pole – the Polish authorities’ instrument to attract a young labour force from former USSR countries. As the negative demographic trend in Poland increases and the economic crisis across the post-Soviet space continues, an increase in the migration flow of Belarusians to Poland seems very likely. Many Belarusians see it as an opportunity to work and study in Poland with the prospect of getting EU citizenship. The Belarusian authorities definitely dislike the initiative, but have proved unable to counter it so far.
Ryhor Astapenia highlights the Belarusian authorities’ seeming change in attitude towards the Greek-Catholic Church in Belarus, which has long been on the margins of public life. The situation is difficult because it has been criticised by the Orthodox Church, which commands the largest following in the country, and shunned by the Catholic Church, which is concerned that the Greek Catholics could undermine its already fragile relationship with the Orthodox Church.
Igar Gubarevich discusses the recent visit and talks of a delegation of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) with Belarus officials. SIDA used to have democratic activists and NGOs as its preferred partners in Belarus, but the situation seems to be changing. The Belarusian government has been stressing its greater openness to cooperation with Europe, and Sweden may try to see whether greater involvement of government actors in cooperation can be a more effective means of triggering policy change in Belarus.
Director of the Ostrogorski Centre Yaraslau Kryvoi takes part in consultations in Minsk on the political climate in Belarus with Acting Vice President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Alain Pilloux and the head of EBRD Belarus office Francis Delaey (pictured).
Winners of research contest announced
On 15 March in Minsk the Ostrogorski Centre delivered a training session on writing up research for winners of a competition organised in cooperation with the Pontis Foundation and the Mott Foundation (pictured).
The selection panel approved five research projects on Belarusian foreign policy and education:
- Belarusian Analytical Workroom, ‘Geopolitical orientations of Belarusians: sociological analysis and survey‘
- Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘Belarusian soft power in the region: evaluation of its potential and impact‘
- Belarusian State University, School of Business and Management of Technology, ‘Conditioning factors of entrepreneurial activities of Belarusian students‘
- Centre for European Studies, ‘The problem of modernisation of higher education in Belarus: social sciences and humanities’
- Political Sphere Institute, ‘Challenges for Belarusian foreign policy and the post-Soviet space after 2008‘.
‘Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century’ Conference
Organisers released the programme for the Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century conference and Annual London Lecture on Belarusian Studies which will take place on 23-24 March 2016 in London. The conference will serve as a multidisciplinary forum of Belarusian studies in the West and offer a rare networking opportunity for researchers of Belarus.
It is organised by University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) and the Ostrogorski Centre in partnership with Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum, the Anglo-Belarusian Society and the Journal of Belarusian Studies. For those who complete the registration form before 22 March 2016, attendance is free. The programme is available here. The registration form is here.
Comments in the media
- Ryhor Astapenia, analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre, explains to Polish Television 24 why Belarus detained major oligarch Jury Čyž. According to Astapenia, Čyž’s arrest is part of a struggle between different factions of the Belarusian regime and an attempt by the authorities to find money inside the country.
- Siarhei Bohdan discusses with the Belarusian Programme of Polish Radio the current situation in and around Syria. Bohdan sees the breakup of Syria as a likely scenario, as Kurds are receiving support from all over the world and Assad’s army has made no major breakthrough, even with Russian support. He thinks that Iran’s relations with the west will play a key role in determining the fate of Syria.
- Igar Gubarevich gives Polish Radio a foreign policy forecast for 2016. He predicts that relations with the EU and US will get better, but will not lead to high-level mutual visits. Belarus will continue its old brotherhood game with Russia while at the same time trying to reduce dependence on it, and will make efforts to enhance cooperation with China.
- Siarhei Bohdan discusses with the Belarusian Programme of Polish Radio the current situation around Iran and sanctions against this country. Influential groups in all countries are interested in rapprochement with Iran, yet many hindrances still remain.
- Ryhor Astapenia in a comment to Polish Radio opines that the role of the opposition and civil society in the dialogue between Belarus and the West will decrease as a result of EU sanctions being lifted. In contrast, contact between officials and business will grow. However, this step will not bring more democracy to domestic politics in Belarus, as the authorities will continue to carry out occasional repression.
The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following personalities: Jaŭhien Šastakoŭ, Paviel Vinahradaŭ, Aliaksiej Šein, Arciom Šrajbman, Voĺha Šparaha, Paviel Šaramiet, Aliaksandr Smaliančuk, Iryna Vidanava, Siarhiej Nikaliuk, Alieś Suša.
We have also updated the profiles of Natallia Ejsmant, Mikalaj Jafimčyk, Andrej Jahoraŭ, Andrej Švied, Siarhiej Kaliečyc, Uladzimir Makiej, Mikalaj Samasiejka, Hienadź Svidzierski, Paviel Sieviaryniec, Anatol Sivak, Siarhiej Sidorski, Halina Skarachod, Alieh Sližeŭski, Viktar Sniažycki, Valiancin Čakanaŭ.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
- Aliaksandr Autuška-Sikorski. Improving the country competitiveness of Belarus: what the state development programs miss. BISS, 2016.
- Uladzimir Akulič, Uladzimir Valietka, Darja Suškievič, Sierž Naŭrodski, Alieś Aliachnovič. CASE Belarus Macroeconomic Review of Belarus (Is. 4, February 2016). CASE Belarus, 2016.
- Maryja Akulava. Foreign investment: a focus on borrowing. BEROC, 2014.
- Voĺha Bieĺskaja, Darja Urucina. Belarusian business associations: problems and potential for development. BEROC, 2012.
- Ihar Pielipaś. Is inflation in Belarus inertial? BEROC, 2012.
Any partner organisation of BelarusPolicy.com can submit its research for inclusion onto the database by completing this form.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.
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Death Penalty: is There a Price Tag for Mercy?
On 10 March 2016, Minsk hosted an international conference titled The Death Penalty: Transcending the Divide.
According to Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, a moratorium on the death penalty would send a positive signal for relations between Belarus and the EU and improve the international image of Belarus.
The existence of the death penalty has contributed to the pariah image of Belarus – it lost its guest status at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) after the 1996 referendum, when more than 80 per cent of the population voted in favour of maintaining capital punishment.
Currently, Belarus remains the only European state in which the authorities continue to execute criminals convicted of serious offences.
The EU's recent lifting of sanctions has created a window of opportunity for the improvement of relations with the EU in all spheres. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty appears to be an easy yet important symbolic step for sealing rapprochement with the EU and demonstrating Belarusian good will. Yet while public opinion shifts more towards accepting the moratorium, the government appears to be treating the death penalty issue as a bargaining chip.
Dark secrets of death row
Currently, 14 articles of the Belarusian Criminal Code foresee capital punishment as one of the available penalty options. These include war crimes, genocide, international terrorism, use of weapons of mass destruction and various categories of serious crimes, including murder. The Belarusian Interior Ministry has also pointed out that those Belarusians who signed up as mercenaries in Ukraine could be accused of committing crimes against the humanity and potentially face the death penalty.
According to the Ministry of Justice, Belarusian courts have handed down death sentences to over 300 people since 1990. Yet the transparency and availability of information leave a lot to be desired.
For instance, official statistical information on the website of the Interior Ministry is not up-to-date, reflecting only the numbers of death penalties carried out between 1998 and 2010. According to officially released information, over the last decade the average number of executions ranged from between 2 to 9 people per year.
The government keeps all procedures secret and neither society nor the families of the convicted know what has happened to them after they hear their verdict. One of the few sources of information available to the public is the book The Death Squad by the former chief of the Minsk detention centre Aleh Alkaeŭ, who used to be in charge of executions.
The most infamous case in recent years featured Uladzislaŭ Kavalioŭ and Dzmitry Kanavalaŭ, found guilty of organising explosions in the Minsk subway on 11 April 2011. Both were promptly tried and convicted before the year was out. Resonance of the case and the haste with which the trail was organised resulted in the first serious instance of public debate on capital punishment, exacerbated by growing distrust of the judicial system.
Lukashenka and public opinion: pros and cons
With regard to the issue of the death penalty, President Alexander Lukashenka persistently refers to the results of the notorious 1996 November referendum, when 80 per cent of voters refused to abolish the death penalty. Therefore, the president has typically maintained that as “a servant of the people, who knows the popular mood” he has no power to force society to accept a moratorium.
Yet his recent statements on the death penalty indicate some potential for a change of heart. On 9 March 2016, the president noted that Belarus has developed “its own interpretation of humanitarian issues, including on the question of human rights.” He tied progress in the sphere of human rights to the economic situation, hinting that changes in public opinion depended on the material well-being of the people. In other words, the death penalty would be abolished if the EU provided an economic incentive.
37 per cent of Belarusians did not know that Belarus still employed the death penalty Read more
According to a 2013 survey carried out by Penal Reform International, 37 per cent of Belarusians did not know that Belarus still employed the death penalty. Belarusian civil society actors, including the Helsinki Committee and the human rights organisation Viasna with the support of the EU institutions, engage in information campaigns to raise public awareness on the issue.
Gradually, these efforts are creating a potential shift in public opinion. The president’s reminders that 80 per cent of the population is in favour of the death penalty sound less and less credible. According to a sociological survey conducted by the consulting company SATIO in cooperation with Penal Reform International and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee in 2014, the number of death penalty opponents for the first time exceeded those supporting it, with 43.3 per cent against versus 41.9 per cent in favour.
Opponents are convinced that the death penalty is not an effective means of punishment. According to IISEPS opinion polls, these people are more social responsible, are tolerant towards minorities and tend to oppose the current political regime. On the contrary, supporters of the death penalty are more likely to trust the police and state authorities.
Capitalizing on the death penalty moratorium?
On 5 January 2016, the Minsk Regional Court handed down the first death sentence of the new year. Henadz’ Yakavicki from Vilejka was tried and convicted for the cruel murder of his girlfriend.On 15 February another verdict of a certain "Kh." followed.
The EU promptly expressed its concerns, urging the Belarusian authorities to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty and to encourage public debate on the issue. Since the EU lifted its sanctions against Belarus in February 2016, governing circles have started to show some willingness to co-operate with their EU counterparts.
On 10 March 2016, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) hosted an international conference titled The Death Penalty: Transcending the Divide. Despite acknowledging the need to launch a broad dialogue about capital punishment, Belarusian organizers requested that journalists be removed from the conference venue following the official opening ceremony. The unregistered human rights organisation Viasna, known for its active position on the issue of the death penalty, was not invited to participate.
These circumstances throw a shadow of doubt over the government's commitment to a genuine dialogue. The authorities remain reluctant to address a moratorium on capital punishment. It is also likely that the president is unwilling to relinquish the absolute symbolic power he holds over the lives and deaths of Belarusian citizens.
However, the main issue appears to be in the practical realm of politics. Recent statements by Lukashenka specifically point to the connection between human rights issues and the economic well-being of the population. For now, the Belarusian regime is attempting to raise the stakes in what it perceives to be a trade process with the EU. It hopes to sell the death penalty moratorium for the highest possible price.