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Setting Up an NGO in Belarus: Challenge Yourself

Earlier this month the Belarusian authorities refused to register yet another human rights organisation called For Just Elections (Za Spravedlivye Vybory). To put it mildly, the three reasons for the refusal are odd: none of them seemed to be based...


Earlier this month the Belarusian authorities refused to register yet another human rights organisation called For Just Elections (Za Spravedlivye Vybory). To put it mildly, the three reasons for the refusal are odd: none of them seemed to be based on Belarusian legislation.

In addition, on 8 May 2013, the Tell the Truth campaign headed by ex-candidate for presidency Vladimir Nekliaev applied for state registration as a public association for the third time. Two previous attempts ended in refusals. As the campaign’s activists commented before, “This year all the documents are prepared competently and thoroughly. If the registration body refuses registration, it will be a political decision”. The registration body again declined their registration.

In Belarus, the application procedure for the registration of a public association (the main type of NGO based on membership) remains among the most complicated throughout the post-Soviet region. Barriers to entry vary from high minimum membership requirements to long decision-making processes on registration. Further still, even the successful passing of all these ordeals does not guarantee one's registration.

Tricky Consequences

The strict Belarusian rules on public associations have quite specific results. On the one hand, they encourage Belarusian public activists to comply with the legislation’s requirements with a maximum of attention and seriousness. On the other hand, the existence of many organisations acting without registration in Belarus highlights the noncompliance of Belarusian laws with the basic principle of  freedom of association.

Unlawful refusals to Tell The Truth and For Just Elections are no news for Belarus. In 2012, the Ministry of Justice registered 12 new international and republican public associations, while 19 associations of the same type received refusals.

The NGOs unwanted by the Belarusian government can find other ways to operate in Belarus. For instance, instead of registering a public association, activists can set up an institution — another organisational form for NGOs. It does not allow broad membership, but its registration procedure is much simpler. However, the state authorities can liquidate institutions easily as well.

Belarusian NGOs Abroad

Belarusian NGOs increasingly recourse to registration abroad. The Belarusian Institute For Strategic Studies, Assembly of NGOs, Centre For Transition Studies, and Palityčnaja Sfiera are just a few examples of NGOs operating in Belarus, but set up in other countries.

A brief outline of classification of Belarusian NGOs abroad offered by Belarusian lawyer Yury Chavusau is of particular interest here. Among others he singles out:

  • NGOs that only need the status of a registered organisation. The status of a registered organisation is necessary to avoid sanctions for operating without registration based on Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code. The brightest example of NGOs of this type is Young Front registered in the Czech Republic;
  • NGOs willing to circumvent restrictive Belarusian legislation on foreign aid. Belarusian rules on foreign aid require compliance with a long list of bureaucratic procedures, and in certain cases will even make receipt of foreign grants impossible. Registration of a foreign organisation abroad allows evasion of the difficulties. This category of Belarusian NGOs abroad is the largest;
  • NGOs originally created abroad to implement activities not possible to carry out in Belarus. For example, the Belarusian Human Rights House in exile in Vilnius founded for hosting annual Belarusian human rights schools, other seminars and conferences, etc.

Those who venture to get registered as a Belarusian public association should remember that barriers arise at almost every stage of the process.

Four Challenges of the Registration Procedure

Besides being ready to apply repeatedly for registration, setting up a public association also requires considerable resources: people, finances, expertise and time.

People. The wish to carry out activities across the whole territory of Belarus can make finding human resources a hard task. The founders will need at least 50 Belarusian nationals.  The minimum number of founders for a local public association is ten people, but all of them must be permanently living in the respective territory. Legal entities cannot be founders of public associations.

Money. After finding the people, the restless activists have to think about money. State registration of local public associations and foundations costs the same as for commercial organisations.  A national or international association or foundation, however, is required to pay twice the fee of the national commercial entity (approximately $124). Additional expenses include fees for registration and for securing a legal address. The address cannot be the flat or house of its founder or anyone else. As a rule, initiative groups have to rent an office or part of one – which rarely costs less than $40 per month.

Expertise. The pre-registration stage arrives: preparation of more than a dozen of documents in accordance with numerous mandatory requirements, including using the font and the right size of margins. Registration authorities do not advise on the documents’ correctness. As a result, if they subsequently find any faults (however minor) in your documents – they will use them to justify their refusal to register an organization. Moreover, after all reported faults are eliminated and the same set documents is submitted, registration body can refuse again – on different grounds.

Still some valuable assistance in drafting the documents for registration comes from other Belarusian non-governmental organisations such as Lawtrend. Those unaware of Lawtrend’s services will either bear additional expenses for legal advisor, or should reconcile with the idea that this application round is not the last for them.

Time. It takes registration authorities one month to make a decision on the registration of a public association. The state authorities can prolong the term for one more month, if desired.

Registration By Any Means

Whatever difficulties Belarusian public associations face on their way to registration, it is worth completing. Public associations’ operation without registration are illegal and can entail criminal liability.

In 2005, the notorious Article 193-1 became a part of the Criminal Code of Belarus. According to it, participation in activities of unregistered public association results in a fine, or arrest for up to six months, or a prison term of up to two years. The same rule applies to other types of NGOs.

So far Belarusian courts have used Article 193-1 for verdicts against 18 activists. State authorities often notify the civil society activists of the possibility of the Article’s application, using it as a threat. Only during April 2013 Belarusian state authorities notified three civil society activists of the possibility to qualify their operation as falling within Article 193-1’s scope.

Strikingly, with all these troubles Belarusian public associations still get registered and operate: as of 1 January 2013 their number all over the country reached 2,477. Links to the state explain why many organisations manage to get registered. Others managed to register because of the strong motivation and determination of its founders – the leaders of Belarusian civil society. 

Darya Firsava
Darya Firsava
Darya Firsava is a Minsk-based lawyer working on her PhD and leading a number of educational projects in Belarus.
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