Successful Crowdfunding, Protestants Allowed to Gather For Prayer – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Mova Nanova website has reached 100,000 views per month. First success of Belarusian crowdfunding at Talaka.by – animated Peppa Pig collects 164% of the needed amount. Stakeholders continue discussion on establishment of the National University for Belarus.
First Mahiliou city picnic gathers more than 1,000 people. Minsk authorities for the first time allow the Protestants to gather for a mass prayer. Regional volunteers collect and deliver aid assistance for the wounded in the conflict zone in Ukraine.
Civil Society Initiatives
Mova Nanova website reaches 100,000 views per month. The traffic of an updated website of Mova Nanova, free Belarusian language courses, has reached 100,000 views in a month. The most popular section is Mediateka, where one can find several thousands of Belarusian videos, audio materials and books. Mova Nanova/ Language Anew was founded in early 2014 and work in 10 Belarusian cities; weekly the courses are attended by 650 people.
Discussion on establishing the National University goes on. EuroBelarus Information Service continues a series of interviews with different stakeholders on the initiative of establishing the National University. In her interview Dr. Tatsiana Sshytsova, the EHU professor, reasons whether Belarus needs such university and why: “Belarus strongly needs powerful constructive social initiatives. Retrograde Europe’s import is a mistake. Belarus is European to a degree it develops institutes in common-European context, reflexively identifying its experience in plural field of European cultures.”
First success of Belarusian crowdfunding at Talaka.by. On 1 June the first successful crowdfunding campaign at Talakosht crowdfunding platform has finished. Project Peppa Peg that aimed at making a Belarusian language audio version of a known cartoon, has collected 61,85 million rubles (about $4,300); that is 164% of the sum needed. For two months of the campaign, the project was financially supported by 135 people.
First Mahiliou city picnic collects more than 1,000 people. Dranik Fest is next! On 30 May the first ever city picnic was held in Mahiliou. The organisers – City Initiatives Centre – tried to make it as different as possible: people could play Frisbee, twister, chess laser tag. The aim of the picnic was to inspire Mahiliou residents on collaborative actions. Now the City Initiatives Centre has an ambition to hold the second Dranik Fest that last year got a very positive feedback.
Regional Social Weekends identify winners. On May 22, Vitsebsk hosted finals of a regional Social Weekend, which brought together social ideas and business to support them. The competition presented eight projects of various topics; Grand Prix went to the Paralympic Fencing project. On May 30, the finals for regional projects is to be held in Brest. The Social Weekend is organised by MaeSens charity platform together with the Office for European Expertise and Communications (OEEC).
Humanitarian route Initiative Belarus-ATO helps Ukrainians in need. Homel volunteers collect and deliver aid assistance for the wounded in the conflict zone in Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees. The money collected were enough to purchase a car for the medical service. The key principle of the initiative is not to arm any of the parties, but to help people who are left without protection – the wounded, the bereaved families, refugees.
Competition of public art objects at Brest. Agency of regional development Dzedzich opens a competition for creation of city installations and small architectural forms in Brest. The aim of the competition is forming of progressive cultural field in Brest and development steps in new forms of actual art. Everyone is welcome take part and make Brest more attractive.
Interaction between state and civil society
Minsk authorities for the first time allowed the Protestants to gather for a collective prayer. The day before Saint Easter evangelic Christians gathered to pray in the walls of Chyzouka Arena Ice place. As organisers explained, the place was supposed by Minsk city council. The collective pray was attended by about 800 people and the Christians are perceived that first ever approved mass-pray (after several rejections) is caused by their community social work.
Political prisoner Yury Rubtsou sentenced to two years in penal colony. On May 28, the Pružany District Court has sentenced a political prisoner Yury Rubtsou to two years of imprisonment in a minimum security penal colony on charges of evasion of serving his initial sentence. In the autumn of 2014, the Gomel activist Yury Rubtsou was sentenced to 1.5 years of special settlement on charges of insulting the judge. During the Charnobylski Shlyakh rally, Rubtsou was wearing a T-shirt with the inscription "Lukashenka, go away."
Easier terms for setting up trade unions in Belarus. The procedure of setting up trade unions has been simplified in Belarus in accordance with ordinance No.4 signed by Alexander Lukashenka on 2 June. The related amendments will create more favorable conditions for the operation of trade unions, enforcement and protection of social and labor rights and interests of employees.
In 2015 Belarusian journalists fined for more than $5,000. Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) tracks a chart of fines to journalists for violating article 22.9 of the Administrative Code (unlawful production and distribution of mass media products). In 2015, the whole amount of fines is 85 million rubles, or about $5,600.
Delegation of European Parliament announces a 2-day visit to Belarus in June. Delegation of European Parliament headed by the chief of delegation on Belarus Bogdan Zdrojewski will have a two-day visit to Minsk on 18-19 June. The delegation plans to meet families of political prisoners, opposition and civil leaders and Belarus officials.
Top 30 websites in Belarus in April. Marketing.by presents the top 30 resources that have the largest coverage in Belarus in April 2015. Now Bynet has 5 million followers. In April, the Belarusian portal TUT.BYbeat youtube.com service and takes 5th place in the ranking. As before, the top 30 primarily consists of search services (Google.com – 1st place), social networks (Vkontakte – 2nd place), shopping sites, and entertainment services.
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.
Political Prisoners – No Longer a Sticking Point in Belarus-EU Relations?
This May, the Belarusian authorities increased pressure on a number of political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkievič, anarchist Mikalaj Dziadok and political activist Jury Rubcoŭ.
This move appears unreasonable when set against a backdrop of improving relations with the West, as the political prisoners issue has always been a major contributing factor in western policy towards Belarus. However, in recent months, an unheard of number of Western officials have visited Minsk, and few, if any, raised much of an alarm about the human rights situation.
The reason for their conduct is, clearly, a result of the regions' profoundly changed geopolitical landscape. The growing concerns surrounding the Ukraine conflict and Belarus' position on Crimea's annexation and peacemaking efforts are pushing the West to change their strategy towards Minsk.
Isolation is giving way to strengthening Belarusian independence in order to weaken Russian influence in the region. Still, western negotiators should be careful not to remove human rights issues from the agenda, while acknowledging that talking to Minsk requires some delicacy.
Growing Pressure on Political Prisoners
On 5 May the court of the Škloŭ colony ordered Mikalaj Statkievič to be transfer into a prison for the rest of his time in confinement for breaking the terms of his imprisonment. Mikalaj Statkievič, a famous Belarusian politician, is serving a six-year term in prison for leading the 2010 street protests that opposed the results of the presidential election. He is the only former presidential candidate still in prison, and continuously refuses to sign an appeal for a pardon to Lukashenka, an position that seriously irritates the authorities.
On 20 May, another political prisoner, Mikalaj Dziadok deliberately injured himself protesting against harsh conditions in the penal ward. However, after receiving medical aid he was sent back to the ward. Mikalaj was one of the anarchists imprisoned by the authorities for allegedly attacking state buildings and private institutions in 2011.
On 28 May, the Pružany district court sentenced Jury Rubcoŭ to two years in prison for evading compulsory work, which he was originally sentenced to serve out in an probationary correctional facility. Rubcoŭ found the wages for jobs the administration assigned him to be too low and demanded the average Belarusian salary. He was serving a 1.5 year term for insulting a judge during an administrative trial after a Čarnobyl Way annual protest gathering.
Who is (and Who is not) a Political Prisoner in Belarus
Currently, Belarusian human rights groups, the International Federation for Human Rights and Freedom House list six political prisoners in Belarus. Four of them, Ihar Alinievič, Jaŭhien Vaśkovič, Mikalaj Dziadok, Arciom Prakapenka, were tried in 2011 under the so-called “anarchist trial” and sentenced to 4.5-8 years in prison. They are accused of attacking banks and casinos, as well as a KGB office in Babrujsk. As for the cases of Jaŭhien Vaśkovič and Arciom Prakapenka, Belarusian human rights groups accept that certain laws were broken, but say their prison terms are excessive.
However, earlier this spring the head of Latvian Foreign Ministry Andrejs Pildegovičs stated that the EU officially only recognises three political prisoners: Ihar Alinievič, Mikalaj Dziadok, and Mikalaj Statkievič. In other words, the EU apparently accept, more or less, the validity of the the charges against the remaining three anarchists as well as Jury Rubcoŭ.
Moreover, authoritative international groups Amnesty International recognised only Mikalaj Statkievič and Jury Rubcoŭ as "prisoners of conscience". Meanwhile, Minsk continues to insist that there are no political prisoners in Belarus, and those whom human rights groups call political prisoners are serving fair sentences for specific criminal offences.
Lukashenka's Prisoner Dilemma
Political prisoners are now a part of the Belarusian electoral cycle, with each of the two last presidential campaigns in 2006 and 2010, as each were accompanied by the imprisonment of activists and opposition figures. By doing so, they demonstrate their control over what is considered politically acceptable in Belarus.
At the same time, political prisoners have been the chief obstacle in developing relations with the West, which thus far have set a proper human rights record as a necessary pre-condition of any improvement of relations. As Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski stated at a EU foreign ministers meeting in 2011, "the liberation and rehabilitation — their participation in politics — of all political prisoners in Belarus is a prerequisite for our resumption of dialogue with authorities in Belarus". Consequently, Lukashenka sought to find a balance between demonstrating his firm grip on the domestic situation, all while maintaining some degree of cooperation with the West.
The image of a dictator holding people in prison for political reasons, in Belarus' case, continues to damage the investment attractiveness. It damages any real potential economic cooperation with western countries, to say nothing of securing loans from international financial institutions like the IMF. Moreover, Lukashenka is now in dire need of a counterbalancing force to overwhelming Russian influence in Belarus if he is to retain his ability to independently make decisions. Although he tries to find it elsewhere in the world, Europe and the US certainly remain major actors in the game.
Lukashenka sees bowing to demands to release the prisoners, sees as humiliation. Perhaps he hopes that the growing security threats in the region may help him build relations with the West without releasing political prisoners.
Hostages of the Ukraine Crisis?
In recent months, Minsk has hosted unusually large number of western officials, including the Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service Helga Schmid, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn, PACE special rapporteur on Belarus Andrea Rigoni, and US Department of State representative Eric Rubin.
In their meetings with Lukashenka and other Belarusian senior officials, they have largely discussed Ukraine and appear to have shelved any serious discussion on human rights issues in Belarus. Minsk's peacemaking efforts in the Ukraine conflict and its refusal to support Crimea's annexation, by all apperances, have proven to be of greater importance to the West.
As Eric Rubin stated, “In our view, support for Belarusian independence, economic growth and trade do not contradict the issues where we have disagreements”. This new approach allows for limited cooperation in a de-politicised manner that seek to strengthen Belarus' independence and, consequently, weaken Russia's influence on its neighbours.
While the West does still recognise the political prisoner problem in Belarus, it has assigned it to the competency of a sovereign state to deal with. This limited cooperation suits Minsk well. It has no interest in adopting European political models and norms, and can benefit from other forms of cooperation with the West, especially those that can nudge Russia towards new concessions with energy and loans. By taking the political prisoner issue of their foreign affairs agendas, even temporarily, is precisely what Minsk has been yearning for for years.
While it may make cooperation between the West and Belarus easier and could potentially lead to deeper engagement between them, the issue of political prisoners should not be set aside. This requires a delicate balance of diplomacy and determination by western officials in their dealings with Minsk.