Svetlana Naumova Awards – Belarus Civil Society Digest
In the context of the high level political scandals a surprising number of new civil society developments takes place in Belarus. Belarusian NGOs launched new campaigns moving on social responsibility and institutionalising its networks. The civil sector activities covered education, business, targeted better social inclusion as well as police misconduct.
Svetlana Naumova awards. On 1 March, the awards ceremony named in honour of Svetlana Naumova, a prominent political scholar who passed away last year, took place in Minsk. The award was established by the civil campaign "Tell the Truth" and given in three categories – "Journalism", "Analytics" and "Hope." This year winners are Svetlana Kalinkina, chief editor of the Narodnaya Volya Valeria Kastsyuhova, editor of the website "Nashe mneniye", and Nasta Palazhanka, deputy chairwoman of the "Young Front".
National platform institutionalised. 34 Belarusian civil society organisations signed a Memorandum of Cooperation and became permanent members of EaP CSF National Platform. Now they have the opportunity to vote on the procedural and strategic issues of the National Platform. Among the signers there are Consortium "EuroBelarus", Ecodom, Legal Transformation Centre, Minsk Capital Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers, Association for Long-Life Education, Human Rights Center "Viasna", RADA, etc.
Education & Research
OEEC round table. On February 29, Office of European expertise and communication (OEEC) together with the Brussels-based "Office for Democratic Belarus" held a round table "European support for higher education in Belarus" in Minsk. The debate between the governmental bodies and NGOs has shown that there is no unity in the understanding of the principles of the Bologna process in the Belarusian academic community.
Hrodna Center "Third Sector" presents an educational program BY_HUB. On 17-18 March Hrodna hosts a training "How Internet technologies can help to achieve personal and organisational goals", which launches an educational program BY_HUB. The program invites to participation NGO representatives, journalists, bloggers who are interested in learning of modern communication technologies.
International Congress of Belarusian Studies. On 28-30 September International Congress of Belarusian Studies will take place in Kaunas (Lithuania). It is an annual meeting of Belarusian and foreign scientists, experts, analysts, representatives of public institutions engaged in Belarusian studies. International Congress of Belarusian Studies is organised by a Consortium of academic and expert organisations of Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and other countries, including Institute of Political Studies “Political Sphere”, BISS, Internet newspaper “New Europe”, etc.
Assembly of business circles. On 29 February, Minsk hosted XIII Assembly of Business Circles of Belarus "To modernization – Together." The event was attended by businessmen and representatives of 46 business associations. The event was organised by Minsk Capital Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers, Republican Confederation of Entrepreneurship, with the support of the Council for Business Development. The Assembly adopted a draft "National Business Platform of Belarus – 2012" developed to facilitate improvement of business climate in the country.
The right on social responsibility. On 28 February, International Socio-Economic Foundation "Idea" conducted a talk show "1% Project: The Right to Social Responsibility". The talk show’s participants discussed the need for a law on social responsibility, and also got acquainted with the results of national research "Social Responsibility of the Modern Belarusian Business" commissioned by the Fund at the end of 2011. The talk-show, covered on the national television, was attended by representatives of business companies, NGOs, government agencies and journalists.
The chiefs of the colonies can be added to the EU blacklist. Non-profit institution Platforma declares that it will ask EU to include in a travel ban list representatives of prisons and detention centres, involved in torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment against Belarusians.
Legal experts, rights defenders criticise Belarusian police. On 1 March, prominent legal experts and rights defenders voiced criticism of the Belarusian police at a conference in Minsk. In particular, Mikhail Pastukhow, a former judge of the Constitutional Court, stressed that the Belarusians 'must think about how to make the police safe for the public, how to make them serve public interests and law exclusively.'
Review "Poverty and Social Inclusion in Belarus." The most important social issues were analysed in a pilot study, "Poverty and Social Inclusion in Belarus", prepared by economists of the IPM Research Center. Economists have analysed the poverty level in Belarus, identified the most vulnerable groups, and also examined the effectiveness of existing social transfers.
Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities launches a No Barriers banner campaign. On 1 March 2012 the Disability Rights Office launched a No Barriers banner campaign on four major Belarusian websites: tut.by, ej.by,naviny.by and interfax.by. The banners will appears on a daily basis on at least two of these website (rotating), except for weekends and holidays. Over the next month the total of four banners will call Belarusian citizens’ attention to mental and physical barriers, as well as issues that persons of disabilities are facing in employment and education.
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.
The Logic of Sanctions and Engagement
The recent pull-out of EU ambassadors from Minsk signals the deeply troubled relations between Belarus and the West. The amended and updated Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011 that was signed by US President Barack Obama in January outlines the official policy and maintains sanctions that have been in place for several years.
The proposed goals of the West, however, remain largely unfulfilled. The increased isolation has affected Belarus as a whole and despite the clear messages sent to denounce violations of human rights and democratic norms, civil society remains very weak and Belarus’ economy has become even more anchored to Russian subsidies. In the months ahead a clear strategy must be developed that goes beyond sanctions and intimidation.
The EU Exits Belarus
On 27 February, the EU passed further sanctions through blacklisting an additional 21 individuals, all of whom are Minsk city officials. In response the Belarusian regime promptly requested the EU’s delegation leader in Belarus Maira Mora and the Polish ambassador Leszek Szarepka to leave. That escalated into a wholesale withdrawal of all EU ambassadors from Minsk.
The fresh EU sanctions are meant to renew pressure on Belarus to release its political prisoners, many of whom were detained as a result of their involvement in the protests following the December 2010 presidential elections. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague reasserted this point and the position of the EU. The United States made statement of solidarity with the EU shortly thereafter. The bottom line: release all political prisoners and allow civil society to flourish.
In the wake of their withdrawal, EU officials have taken a hard-line in response to Belarus’ accusations of its ‘hysterical’ reaction. Hungarian Ambassador Ferentz Contra stated that he personally felt that a condition of their return would be, ‘the release of political prisoners and their rehabilitation.’ The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland demanded the same and also said they would consider introducing further sanctions. Lithuanian foreign minister echoed the position of other EU nations stating that ‘normalisation of relations between the EU and Belarus is in the hands of Belarus.’
It is clear that the EU is frustrated with the situation in Belarus. Little progress has been made from their perspective. Previous sanctions have worked to further isolate Belarus. The removal of its diplomatic missions, which appear to be temporary at the moment, shows a deep commitment to this policy. This fatigued policy, however, does not appear to be strengthening civil society nor democratic freedoms in Belarus.
The addition of 21 officials to a list of 200 is a symbolic gesture, as is the withdrawal of the EU member-state ambassadors. Similar actions in the past have done little to serve civil society, nor strengthen the democratic institutions of Belarus. The absence of any western diplomatic mission ahead of the parliamentary elections due to take place this fall surely cannot be the best means of supporting Belarusian civil society.
The absence of any western diplomatic mission ahead of the parliamentary elections due to take place this fall surely cannot be the best means of supporting Belarusian civil society.
Therefore any continuation of this policy would have to be coupled with new approaches.
The Role of Russia
As painful as it may be for the EU and the US, Russia is and will remain a very important entity in Belarus. Western diplomats often admit to being exasperated with the Kremlin, but including Russia in talks in reforming Belarus are long overdue. The question that remains is how to do so.
There are certain areas that Russia is already cooperating with the West on and will likely continue to do so. The most prominent examples of this cooperation are the US and Russia signing of a new START treaty ratified in 2010, the EU-Russia energy partnership, and the efforts between the US, EU and Russia to accelerate Russia’s WTO ascension.
On the other hand, discussions revolving political prisoners and the health of Belarus’ democracy are clearly off the table. Russia keeps the Belarusian economy alive with generous subsidies which undermine the Western pressure to reform. Russia is in the midst of its own war with what Putin has deemed ‘foreign interests’, the West, trying to interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs. Similar critiques from the West towards Belarus simply reinforce the Kremlin’s message.
The most vital and overlooked component to creating a more democratic and free Belarus is the citizenry itself. Numerous official decrees from the West state their solidarity with the Belarusian people time and time again. However, the simple fact that most of Belarusians know nothing of the speeches of foreign presidents or ministers. The West should not only devise new sanctions against the regime or help the opposition but also take steps for more direct engagement with the people of Belarus.
The most vital and overlooked component to creating a more democratic and free Belarus is the citizenry itself.
What is missing are some concrete and highly visible positive policies directed at Belarusians themselves. Extending support and funding for programmes already in existence in western nations to Belarus is the most obvious option.
Belarusian youth needs more opportunities to study outside of Belarus. Although new initiatives such as the Open Europe Scholarship Scheme emerge, most of the programmes currently in place have either reduced their funding or have ceased to operate in Belarus. Those still working receive far more qualified applicants than can possibly be accepted. By providing a substantial increase in funding for opportunities through scholarships and research grants for Belarusians to study in western universities at the undergraduate and postgraduate level is a clear investment in the future of Belarus.
Volunteering and professional exchange programmes exist in almost every western nation. Individual EU member states and EU institutions can create such programmes operating in Belarus and in western countries for Belarusians. These programmes would ideally come at no cost to its participants, be open to everyone interested and last a month or longer, depending on the needs of the communities being served.
The introduction of Working Holiday residence permits that would allow recent university graduates to work in a country of their choosing for up to a year. Again, this already exists in many EU countries, but need to be extended to Belarusians.
The most powerful and meaningful policy, however, would be the introduction of a visa-free regime for Belarusians to travel throughout Europe. The high visa fees and complicated procedures currently in place limits on the movement of a majority of Belarusians. They also virtually eliminate their ability to interact with the European community.
All of these initiatives directly connect the Belarusian public and the rest of Europe bypassing the regime in Minsk. They involve very few political risks, are relatively inexpensive, and clearly demonstrate the West’s interest in Belarus and its people.
Devin Ackles is a Fulbright fellow in Kyiv, Ukraine.