Kurapaty memorial in danger: business versus historical memory

On 24 February 2017, Siarhej Palčeuski chained himself to a truck to protest the construction of a business centre in the vicinity of Kurapaty – a commemoration site for the victims of the 1930s Soviet repressions. Palčeuski's great-grandfather was among the thousands of Belarusians who disappeared in 1937.

In 2014, the Belarusian authorities re-drew the boundaries of the protected area surrounding Kurapaty to accommodate several construction projects. Belarusian civil society and oppositional activists argue that the state is thinking only of profit, disregarding transparency, public discussion, and proper historical research.

When the construction of a business centre in the contested area began in February 2017, protests flared up immediately. Local residents and civil society activists confronted workers on the site, setting up a 24/7 watch to protect the memorial.

The modern history of Kurapaty

Kurapaty is the site of NKVD-led mass shootings in a forest on the outskirts of Minsk, where thousands of Belarusians perished as a result of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s. Belarusian society learned the truth only in 1988, after Zianon Pazniak and Yauhen Šmyhaliou published the article 'Kurapaty – the Road of Death.' It sparked the first anti-Soviet mass demonstration in Belarusian modern history.

Kurapaty continue to feature prominently in Belarusian national discourse – every year the traditional Dziady demonstrations head there to commemorate the victims. However, Belarus has yet to recognise the true scope of the Soviet-era crimes.

Even though the authorities of independent Belarus granted the status of memorial site to Kurapaty as early as 1993, its history remains under-researched. The current political regime is reluctant to discuss Stalinist repressions. The school curriculum does not focus on the Great Terror at all, while historians are still denied full access to relevant archives to reveal the whole truth of the Kurapaty tragedy.

Thus, the exact number of victims remains unknown. Historians estimate that anywhere between 40,000 and 250,000 were killed there. Due to the lack of proper archaeological excavations, it is equally hard to determine the boundaries of the mass shooting and burial site.

Construction vs. memory

The current construction controversy surrounding Kurapaty is not the first of this kind: 15 years ago, opposition activists held a 24/7 watch of Kurapaty in a tent camp for 8 months. From September 2001 to June 2002, they protested against the ring road project, which was to cut right through the memorial site. They erected wooden crosses to mark the site and eventually managed to divert the highway away from Kurapaty.

The site continues to suffer from vandalism, while the authorities remain indifferent, consistently trying to extract profit by selling adjacent land plots. For instance, in 2012, Minsk city authorities approved the construction of an entertainment centre bearing an insulting name, “Bulbash-Hall” ("Bulbash" is an epithet for Belarusians), in the protected area of the memorial site.

As the controversy over the inappropriate project was intensifying, the Ministry of Culture started re-drawing the boundaries of the protected area around Kurapaty, cutting it down from 100 to 50 metres. It ignored criticism from historians and civil society and proceeded with the construction of the entertainment centre. However, even though the project was completed in 2015, it remains closed.

Kurapaty 2017: the fight continues

The current conflict in Kurapaty originates in 2013, when Minsk authorities auctioned the land plot in question. At that time, it was still located within the boundaries of the protected area of the memorial site. Any construction required consultations with the Ministry of Culture, as well as the public, but this did not take place.

The person in charge of the construction company, Ihar Aniščanka, is one of the most successful Belarusian real estate moguls. In a comment to Radio Svaboda, he claimed that his company was acting according to the laws and permits granted by city authorities.

Construction commenced on 17 February. When local residents raised the alarm after seeing the workers, leader of the Young Front Zmicier Daškevič launched a campaign to protect Kurapaty from a new incursion. However, on the night of 23 February, a group of 15 masked individuals attacked the tent camp, harming one of the activists, Ales Kirkevič. Tensions resumed again on 24 February, when another group dressed in black provoked a fight with the activists.

So far, the Young Front activists enjoy support from local residents, civil society groups, the Belarusian Christian Democrats, the United Civil Party, and the movement For Freedom. A leader of Tell the Truth, Andrej Dzmitryeu, supported the campaign for Kurapaty, yet hesitated to confirm his party's active participation. Belarusian social-democrats remained aloof, claiming they were not invited.

Confrontation or dialogue?

The head of the Belarusian Voluntary Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments, Anton Astapovič, noted that business centre construction violates the law 'On the Protection of Historical and Cultural Heritage.' Astapovič has already sent complaints to the KGB and the Main Construction Expertise Agency. He questioned the legitimacy of the current project, suspecting corruption.

The Roman-Catholic archbishop Tadevuš Kandrusevič also made a statement on the current conflict over Kurapaty, commenting that the roots of the controversy lie in the lack of sufficient research and a clear delineation of the burial boundaries. He called for an open dialogue between officials, local residents, and civil society to avoid further escalation.

Independent researchers and civil society activists have been leading the way for greater public awareness of Kurapaty. On 22 February 2017, in the midst of the newest construction conflict near the memorial, the civil society initiative Experts for the Protection of Kurapaty opened an exhibition entitled 'The Truth About Kurapaty' in Minsk. A follow-up to the first such exhibition in 2015, it showcases rare oral history testimonies and focuses on identifying victims and perpetrators.

It is up to the authorities to de-escalate the unfolding tensions surrounding Kurapaty. Incidentally, on 24 February, the major official newspaper Belarus Segodnia held a round-table discussion on the need to turn it into a national memorial, dedicated to the victims of Soviet repressions. The outcome of the current construction controversy will prove whether these debates represent serious intentions or yet more empty promises.




Belarus pursues ‘social parasites’ at home and abroad

Since late 2016, Belarusian tax authorities have started sending out notifications to all unemployed Belarusians forcing them to reimburse the government for 'state expenditures.'

In other words, the Belarusian state automatically assumes that all people not reported as working are freeloaders, taking advantage of the social system without contributing to it.

For some Belarusians, the infamous tax became the straw that broke the camel's back, pushing them towards suicide. In January 2017, president Lukashenka modified the 'parasite law,' exempting the most vulnerable groups. Nevertheless, he left the notorious policy in place.

How the authorities see the tax

In 2015, Belarus became probably the only country in the world where the unemployed have to pay the government for not having a job

In 2015, Belarus became probably the only country in the world where the unemployed have to pay the government for not having a job, rather than counting on its support. Currently, the notorious 'social parasite' decree concerns all Belarusian citizens, permanent residents, and stateless people residing in Belarus. Anyone who works less than 183 calendar days in one year 'owes' the state around €220 per annum.

On 12 January 2017, the decree was slightly modified when the president approved new amendments. Meanwhile, the tax ministry set the final payment deadline for 20 February 2017.

The modified decree clarified the categories of citizens eligible for a tax waiver. These include athletes playing for national sports teams, alternative civilian servicemen, and unemployed people who are registered at job centres.

A significant difference from 2015 is that currently unemployed parents raising children from three to seven years old will be eligible for a tax waiver only if the child does not visit a daycare or pre-school facility. In the original decree, waivers were available to unemployed parents of children under seven regardless of whether or not they go to daycare.

More importantly, the new decree permits local authorities to waive the tax for individuals in 'dire circumstances.' However, authorities did not specify what constitutes 'dire circumstances' for an unemployed person.

How the tax really works

On 13 January 2017, a representative of the Belarusian tax ministry, Mikhail Rasolka, informed the media that the authorities have mailed out about 400,000 notifications to Belarusian citizens who are not participating in financing state expenditures. Out of this number, only 24,000 people have already paid the 'parasite' tax, thus contributing only €3.3 million to the budget instead of the anticipated €21.5 million.

The tax authorities were not able to comment on the number of people who managed to prove that they received these notifications by mistake, as apparently they do not have these statistics. So far, it seems that errors are abundant and the databases of various agencies are still not coordinated.

Notifications have also been sent to women on maternity leave, students, and even the deceased. 

For instance, the tax ministry waived the 'parasite' tax for Belarusians who spend less than 183 days in the country, regardless of whether they participated in the financing of the state expenditures or not. However, all Belarusians who currently reside abroad automatically received reminders to pay the new tax.

What happened is that despite having full access to the databases of the border crossing agencies, the authorities mailed out the notifications in bulk. Now, it is up to the citizens to prove their whereabouts to become eligible for the waiver.

Notifications have also been sent to women on maternity leave, students, and even the deceased. Many recipients reacted with indignation, noting that they were not obliged to provide jobs for bureaucrats or prove their status.

Harassment of the unemployed

According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, unemployment has been declining steadily, with 35,800 unemployed people, or 0.8 per cent of the working population as of December 2016. Yet official numbers do not reflect reality, as a majority of unemployed people do not register at job centres.

Currently, the perks of being officially registered as unemployed in Belarus are meagre. Financial aid ranges from €10 to €20 per month, provided the unemployed works several days a month at any job that the job centre offers them.

Moreover, the unemployed person must prove to the job centre that he or she is actively seeking employment. However, with the ongoing economic crisis, job-hunting is becoming increasingly difficult, especially in smaller towns.

According to human rights activist Viktar Sazonau from Hrodna, many people have started seeking legal help to deal with the 'parasite' tax. The overwhelming majority of them are unsuccessful job seekers. Some of them are destitute, not even able to cover the cost of their utilities.

In the most extreme cases, the tax has cost lives. After paying €173 of his 'parasite tax' in October 2016, 60-year old Ajvar Jaskevič from Asipovičy jumped from the fifth floor of his apartment building in December 2016. He quit his job one year before he was due to retire and could not find a new one. His suicide note read: 'I have never been a parasite, I have worked honestly my entire life.'

A chance for the opposition?

As the tax authorities try to squeeze money out of the most socially vulnerable citizens, popular discontent with the new tax is spreading. United Civil Party MP Hanna Kanapackaja has already declared that she would initiate a campaign against the 'parasite law' in the House of Representatives.

On 18 January 2017, activists from her party collected signatures against the notorious law. They demanded that the state 'fight unemployment instead of the unemployed.' Nine opposition parties have already announced a 'March of Non-Parasites' for 15 March 2017, and other protests are also planned for February, closer to the final payment deadline.

It is unclear how the state would react if the unemployed refuse to pay en masse by 20 February. Possible sanctions range from a fine to administrative arrest. However, the criteria for applying these punishments remain fuzzy.

If cases of non-payment are numerous, they would require considerable time and resources to deal with. At the end of the day, the costs of the parasite law implementation might outweigh the gains for the state, discrediting the current political regime, and encouraging the growth of popular discontent in society.




Formation of Precinct Election Commissions – Digest of the 2016 Parliamentary Elections

On 27 July, the formation of Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) ended. PECs are responsible for conducting the vote count. In total 5,971 PECs were formed inside the country, plus another 47 abroad. On July 29, the Central Election Commission (CEC) published a list of PEC representatives and held a press conference. In total 65,856 representatives were included in PECs.

Five hundred and fourteen opposition party representatives applied to serve on PECs. Only 53 (10.31 percent of the applicants) were approved to serve as commissioners. The PEC acceptance rate of those representing, what are generally known as, pro-governmental parties was significantly higher – 89 percent.

Forty five percent of included PEC commissioners represent public associations, 37 percent are citizens who filed applications, 13 percent are from labour collectives and 5 percent represent political parties.

Registered opposition parties recently held party congresses to nominate candidates for parliament. “Fair World” nominated 50 candidates, Belarusian Social-Democratic Party Gramada (BSDP-G) – 34, Belarus Popular Front (BPF) – 72, and United Civil Party (UCP) – 70 (32 of whom are members of the unregistered party Belarusian Christian Democrats who were nominated as part of a coalition agreement with UCP). Candidates from other forces such as “Tell the Truth” and Movement “For Freedom” are attempting to register their candidates through the signature collection process. The candidate nomination ended on August 1.

Human rights observers noted the use of “administrative resources” to promote pro-governmental candidates in state-run media and to support their signature collection efforts.

“Belarusian Association of Journalists” (BAJ) published a report on the coverage of parliamentary elections in 18 media outlets. The research reveals that state-run television gives much less airtime for coverage of the 2016 elections compared to other topics such as sports.

Formation of Precinct Election Commissions

On July 27, the formation of PECs for the 2016 parliamentary elections ended. In total 65,856 commissioners were included (out of 73,293 nominated). Opposition political parties nominated 514 people to PECs. Only 53 opposition representatives (10.31 percent of nominees) were included in PECs.

This constitutes 0.08 percent of the total number of PEC commissioners. According to CEC reports the rate of inclusion for pro-authority organisations (such as “Belaya Rus”) and pro-authority parties was considerably higher. The following chart based on CEC figures demonstrates the significant difference in inclusion rates between pro-government and opposition parties.

PECs were formed during meetings of local executive committees and administrations. A PEC consists of between five and 19 commissioners. A new legislative amendment allowed international observers, representatives of political parties, and public associations to attend the PEC formation meetings. The amendment also required discussion of “professional and political qualities” of nominees at these meetings.

Representatives of opposition political parties shared their impressions of PEC formation meetings. UCP hopeful Nikolay Kozlov (Starovilenskiy district #105) said that a large portion of nominated UCP representatives were not invited to PEC formation meetings. Local administration claimed these UCP members could not be reached over the phone. Another UCP activist from Mogilev informed candidates that PEC commissioners were approved without a discussion of their qualifications.

“For Freedom” reported that none of its 21 nominated representatives to PECs in Kalinovskiy district #108 were approved. A similar situation was reported by representatives of the public association BPF “Adradzhenne”. It reported that only one of their 25 nominated representatives was included as a precinct commissioner in Oktyabrskiy district #16, with the local administration claiming that many BPF nominees did not have experience.

“Right to Choose” reported that activists nominated to precinct commissions in Senetskiy district #76 from the labour union REP received calls from local officials, urging them to withdraw their PEC applications.

Nomination of candidates

Officially registered opposition political parties nominated candidates for parliament at their party congresses. The table below summarises the outcomes of opposition congresses.

Unregistered opposition political parties/movements, “Tell the Truth” and “Movement For Freedom” sought to nominate their candidates through signature collection. “For Freedom” Deputy Chair Ales Logvinets organised a major signature collection event in Minsk coinciding with the anniversary of the adoption of Declaration of Sovereignty of Belarus on July 27. Logvinets invited Belarusian musician Lavon Volski to perform at the event. According to media estimates, the signature collection picket-concert was attended by over 1,500 people.

Forces generally considered loyal to the authorities also held congresses to nominate their candidates (see the summary table below).

The public association “Belaya Rus’” (which currently has 67 seats in the parliament) reported on its website about signature collection pickets in Minsk.

In total, 443 initiative groups sought to nominate candidates through the signature collection process. One thousand signatures are required to nominate a candidate. According to the parliamentary election calendar, the candidate nomination period (by party or labor congress or signature collection) ended on August 1. Candidate registration will be determined by district election commissions between August 2 and 11.

Campaign observation and incidents

In mid-July, the “Right to Choose 2016” election observation campaign released their first observation report, in which they conclude Belarus’ authorities “have not listened to the recommendations provided by domestic and the OSCE/ODIHR mission observers.” I

In recent weeks, “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” continued to publish weekly observation reports (July 11-17, July 18-24) noting the use of the “administrative resource” both for signature collection and the promotion of certain candidates’ in state media. On July 30, the human rights observers released a report on the formation of PECs, which concluded executive committees had a “discriminatory approach” toward representatives of opposition parties.

Meanwhile, “Belarusian Association of Journalists” (BAJ) published a report analysing how elections are covered by 18 Belarusian non-state and state-run media. Their analysis reveals that the state-run online media outlets “gave much less prominence to the forthcoming election than subjects such as sports or weather.” For instance, the news show on ONT channel allocated 1.8 percent of airtime to cover the elections, while 20 percent was allocated for sports.

Democratic political activists reported various incidents that occurred during signature collection. For example, an unknown person threatened members of the initiative group of BPF contender Natalya Iljinich in Mariana Horka. “Tell the Truth” candidate Pavel Kurskiy filed a complaint because he was not allowed to collect signatures in two dormitories in Minsk.

BCD contender Marina Homich also filed a complaint claiming that district commission members prevented her initiative group from collecting signatures. “For Freedom” activists reported the police officers tried to disrupt signature collection for their Deputy Chair Yuri Gubarevich near the “Belteleradiocompany” territory, and an unknown person also cut a white-red-white flag at Gubarevich’s picket.

Juljan Jachovic
National Democratic Institute




Audit of Belarus-Ukraine Relations, Obstacles to Higher Education Reform – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

80% of Ukrainians consider Belarus the friendliest country: Belarus-Ukraine foreign policy audit event in Kiev airs on national TV in Belarus. BISS Foreign Policy Index: after the lifting of sanctions EU-Belarus relations have entered a new period.

Libereco analysis: no signs of liberalisation after 100 days since the EU abandoned its sanctions against Belarus. Belarusians become more indifferent to people with disabilities, according to fresh survey of the Disability Rights Office. BOSS presents analytical report on the situation with students’ mandatory job placement in 2016. This and more in the new Digest of Belarusian Analytics.

Foreign policy

Foreign Policy Audit: Ukraine-Belarus. On June 8, in Kiev, Institute of World Policy presented its research on the current relations between Ukraine and Belarus. The report shows that more than 80% of Ukrainians consider Belarus the friendliest country. The discussion was attended by Belarusian experts Jaŭhien Prejherman, expert initiative Minsk Dialogue, Andrei Scriba, the Institute for Privatisation and Management, and diplomats.

To Belarus-Ukraine Strategic Cooperation: Benefits and ChallengesAndrei Scriba presents his study that offers opportunities to encourage the development of Belarusian-Ukrainian cooperation. In particular, Belarus and Ukraine interaction should be as inclusive; that is, it's necessary to engage other countries, first of all, post-Soviet states and EU countries in Eastern Europe.

Belarus Foreign Policy Index #31 (March–April 2016)BISS presents its regular issue of Belarus Foreign Policy Index, which explores Belarus’s foreign policy in the five key dimensions – Russia, EU, China, “developing world”, and Ukraine. In particular, in relations with the Russia, Belarus has found compromise solutions on a number of areas of cooperation. After the lifting of sanctions, EU relations have entered a new period.

Belarus Between Elections: Lukashenka LimitedBalázs Jarábik and Alena Kudzko believe that without a finessed approach in the West, Lukashenka, always a deft maneuverer, might not be able to continue to resist falling under the spell of Russia’s influence. The EU`s policy should not sacrifice democracy for the sake of security, but the former should be viewed as an endgame instead of an ultimatum defining the entire relationship.

Education

Second Monitoring Report on Implementation of Belarus Roadmap for Higher Education Reform – The report is drawn by the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee and the Ad Hoc Commission of the Belarusian National Platform of the EaP CSF. The report covers the period from January to June 2016. As before, the main obstacle to the Roadmap implementation is the absence of a clear regulatory and legal framework that would serve as a basis for the fulfilment of Belarus’ obligations.

Modernisation of Higher Education in Belarus: Social and Humanities SciencesCentre for European Studies held a study on academic mobility, communication between teachers and students, creation of curricula and programmes. One of the findings of the study is that the standardisation of education seems to be brought to absurdity and does not ensure quality. Students are quite happy as the background of reducing demands allows getting a diploma easily.

Human rights

Analysis: 100 Days of Belarusian Rule of Law – June 3 marks 100 days since the EU abandoned its sanctions against Belarus, suggesting that a process of liberalisation in the authoritarian state merits such a decision. However, an analysis by human rights organisation Libereco – Partnership for Human Rights shows that the country is still far removed from rule of law and respect for human rights. In several respects the pressure on civil society has been heightened.

Human Rights Situation in Belarus: May 2016 – Human Right Centre Viasna released its monthly monitoring on human rights in the country. The issue notes that during the month, there were some negative trends indicating the deterioration of the human rights situation in comparison with the previous months, namely, due to the Critical Mass peaceful cycling event's crackdown and two participants facing criminal charges.

Mandatory Job Placement of Young Professionals In 2016. Analytical Report – The Brotherhood of Organisers of Student Self-government (BOSS) presents an analytical report on the results of the mandatory job placement’s campaign of 2015/2016. The report summarises the facts of legislation violations and pressure on students. The report includes an analysis of the data on-line questionnaire of 141 graduates. Namely, 56% of the respondents are satisfied with the results of their assignment, while 31.9% answered negatively.

Belarusians Become Indifferent to Persons with Disabilities – Over the past five years, a higher percentage of Belarusians has come to an opinion that people with disabilities should learn, live and work in special conditions, rather than to have equal opportunities with others. Namely, according to a fresh survey of the Office for Rights of Persons with Disabilities, now only 30.7% of Belarusians believe that the inclusive education is “rather helpful” (in 2011 – 46.1%).

Other

Will the Opposition Gain Seats in the Belarusian Parliament, and Is That Still Relevant?Grigory Ioffe notices that in a post-Soviet state still lacking a healthy democratic tradition, unbending external demands that Minsk make room in the parliament for the opposition could well backfire. Not recognising and properly taking into account actual realities risks Western policymakers once again losing Belarus.

Tax Freedom Day Belarus 2016 – Liberal club releases an annual study that shows how many days the nation is working to get rid of the tax burden of the state, and reminds citizens that they have to share part of their private property for the sake of society. The study's calculations show that the day of freedom from taxes in 2016 begins on May 15, ie Belarusians should work for the state nearly 136 days.

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.




Freedom of Press, Lennart Meri Conference, Defence Industry – Ostrogorski Centre Digest

Over the last few weeks analysts of the Ostrogorski Centre focused on the treatment of the Chernobyl issue in Belarus' foreign and domestic policies, as 26 April marked the 30th anniversary of the disaster.

They discussed the recent Freedom House report on media freedom worldwide arguing that it wrongly ranked Belarus too low and showed how Belarus' defence industry demonstrated good results even despite Russia’s restrictive measures.

On the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl disaster, Igar Gubarevich discusses the return of Chernobyl issue to the list of Belarus' foreign policy priorities after several years backstage. The treatment of the Chernobyl issue in Belarus’ foreign policy is an example of good-quality diplomacy. When fighting for resources, Belarusian diplomats have learned to adapt their actions and rhetoric to modern trends and the new vocabulary of multilateral relations.

Artyom Shraibman criticises the recent Freedom House global report, which ranked Belarus in the bottom ten countries in the world in terms of media freedom. Belarus provides complicated conditions for journalists’ work, but journalism in Belarus remains a far less dangerous job than in many of the countries ranked more favourably in the report. The expert suggests that engaging more Belarusian experts and revising the questionnaire would help Freedom House fight stereotypes rather than spread them.

Siarhei Bohdan shows how the Belarusian defence industry has succeeded even while Moscow continues its policy of restricting access to Russian markets for Belarusian defence firms. Minsk is responding by cooperating with Ukraine, China and numerous developing countries. The Kremlin is effectively forcing Belarusians to distance themselves from Moscow and build the economic foundations for an independent state.

Comments in the media

Siarhei Bohdan comments for Polish Radio on the possibility for Russia's hybrid intervention in Belarus as a response to NATO activity on its western borders. Experts believe that the Crimean scenario is impossible in Belarus. It is more likely that Russia will be pushing Belarus to establishing military objects on its territory.

Yaraslau Kryvoi at the annual Lennart Meri conference in Tallinn posed a question to the Foreign Minister of Poland Witold Waszczykowski about the changing perception of Belarus in the new Polish Government. According to the minister, there is definitely a new perception of Belarus in Poland because of the new government which tries to open all channels of dialogue with Belarus to keep it as closely as possible to Europe.

Yaraslau Kryvoi comments on the improvements in Freedom House rating for Belarus in 2015. The rating in the field of civil society grew due to the lack of political prisoners, increasing opportunities for civil society to raise funds inside Belarus and peaceful nature of the presidential election. He also explains the situation with the Brexit referendum and how it may affect Belarus to Belsat TV.

Ryhor Astapenia discusses on the Polish Radio the feasibility of the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, chances that authorities will support Belarusian language, why China does not invest in the Chinese-Belarusian Industrial Park and how Belarusians should celebrate V-Day.

Ryhor Astapenia analyses the chances of Belarusian opposition to boost people's support at the time of economic difficulties. To become more popular, the opposition should become a consolidated force, demonstrate interest in the daily life of Belarusians rather than focus on geopolitical questions.

Ryhor Astapenia explains to thinktanks.by why public administration in Belarus in its current form remains disfunctional. On a number of his examples shows that the government is unable to set realistic targets and ensure their implementation. This leads to a drop in public trust in the authorities.

Vadzim Smok explains to Radio Racyja why the Belarusian authorities do not persecute DNR fighters and pro-Russian groups in Belarus. These groups have the support of security forces, the Orthodox Church and the Russian government. In addition, they represent themselves as supporters of Belarusian authorities, although many of them deny the existence of Belarusian nation and statehood.

Siarhei Bohdan talks on Radio Liberty on pro-Azerbaijan position of Minsk in the new escalation of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Lukashenka's visit to Turkey. Analyst sees these action as a continuing attempt to keep Belarus neutral and stick to international law, rather than switch to the side of Russia's enemies.

Ryhor Astapenia comments for Polish Radio on the failure of Belarusian delegation at the new loan negotiations with IMF. Belarusian government does not want to take responsibility and tries to represent reform package as the IMF condition rather than urgent internal need.

Ryhor Astapenia talks on Belsat TV about the upcoming parliamentary elections in Belarus and new elements of the Belarusian electoral legislation. He predicts that Belarusian authorities will allow a relatively free parliamentary campaign to make elections legitimate for external observers, yet vote counting will hardly become transparent.

Belarus Profile

The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following personalities: Anžalika Borys, Andrej Bastuniec, Mikalaj Chaliezin, Jaŭhien Nieŭhień, Viktar Šadurski, Maryna Zahorskaja, Alieh Trusaŭ, Anton Matoĺka, Alieh Hajdukievič, Andrej Stryžak.

We have also updated the profiles of Uladzimir Siamaška, Uladzimir Siańko, Iryna Tačyckaja, Paviel Tapuzidzis, Aliaksandr Fiaduta, Andrej Jelisiejeŭ, Anatoĺ Filonaŭ, Valiery Fraloŭ, Andrej Charkaviec, Aliaksandr Cierachaŭ, Valieryj Capkala, Viktar Ciareščanka, Mikalaj Čarhiniec, Aliaksandr Čubryk.

Belarus Policy

The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:

Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their 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.




Swamp Campaign Victory, Alexievich in the Palace of Republic, Who Hates Whom – Civil Society Digest

Fastest crowdfunding campaign ever has collected money for an athlete and rock band singer Vitaĺ Hurkoŭ. Online registration on the 6th International Congress of Belarusian Studies is now open.

Svetlana Alexievich held its first public presentation in the very heart of Minsk – the Palace of Republic. A public campaign In Defense of Belarusian Swamps achieved the adoption of the Strategy of conservation and sustainable use of peatlands.

IDEAby published a grid based on relations between Belarusian political parties and movements' leadership. This and more in the new edition of Civil Society Digest.

Crowdfunding

Fastest crowdfunding campaign has collected money for an athlete. For 7 hours a crowdfunding platform Talakosht collected Br68.2 mils ($3,4K) for Vitaĺ Hurkoŭ to participate in the Muaythai World Championship in Sweden. Vitaĺ Hurkoŭ is a world champion and vocalist of BRUTTO band banned for performances in Belarus. After his dismissal from the Ministry of Vitaĺ Hurkoŭ looked for money via crowdfunding; his campaign was supported by 170 people, who donated from $2,5 to $250.

Talaka.by celebrates one year of its crowdfunding activity. During the year, 19 out of 48 crowdfunding campaigns hosted at Talakosht (Talaka.by crowdfunding resource), finished successfully. More than 200 people consistently support the new campaigns at the platform. The total amount of funds raised is around Br600 million (around $30,000).

Education and science

To the 10th anniversary of the Kalinoŭski programme, opened since 2006 for repressed Belarusian students and funded by the Polish government, Svaboda.org has collected 10 alumni success stories. Andrej Dyńko, Naša Niva editor, reviewed the stories and revealed that 9 of the 11 best graduates remained in Poland, two of them opened the hookah. Dyńko concludes that now when there are no cases of expulsion from the Belarusian universities the program brings damage since the most talented youth move from Belarus.

Online registration on the 6th International Congress of Belarusian Studies is open from 1 April. The 6th Congress will take place on October 7-9, in Kaunas, Lithuania. The Congress was initiated as an annual meeting of Belarusian and foreign scholars, experts, analysts and representatives of civil society and government institutions, which are involved in studying Belarus. Application deadline is 20 May.

Green initiatives

Swamp campaign won: the resolution on draining marshes replaced by strategy for their conservation. A public campaign In Defense of Belarusian Swamps started three years ago at the initiative of several people and has grown to the Bagna eco-CSO. The campaign could cancel the Council of Ministers' Resolution on peat extraction and achieved the adoption of the Strategy of conservation and sustainable use of peatlands. The organisers share their experience of successful implementation.

Zrobіm! action attended by over 22 thousand people. On April 9, the global action of cleaning illegal dumps Let's Do It! (Zrobim! in Belarusian) gathered about 22,700 volunteers from 43 cities and villages of Belarus (1,500 volunteers last year). Participants collected 560,000 litres of waste, thus removing more than 500 contaminated sites. The action was coordinated by Green Network, Centre for Environmental Solutions, Interaction Fund, Minsk Cycling Society and government ministries.

New educational program "City: Core, Community, Image of Action"is implemented by the Flying University in partnership with Green Network and Urban Tactics almanac. The course focuses on the modern approaches to the development of Belarusian cities and consists of three phases: intensive education, research and a summing-up workshop. Researchers and activists of environmental and urban movements are invited to participate. Deadline for applications is April 15.

Interaction between state and civil society

Svetlana Alexievich's presentation took place in the Palace of Republic. On April 14, a presentation of the Radio Svaboda's book Alexievich on Svaboda took place in the very heart of Minsk – the Palace of Republic. This was the first public presentation of Svetlana Alexievich in Belarus after receiving the Nobel Prize.

One-fifth of appeals at the Comfortable City resolved positively. For five months of its activity the website Comfortable City (petitions.by) posted 137 petitions, received 58 responses from government bodies, and 26 issues were decided in favour of citizens. Two-thirds of appeals are linked to the community level. Appeals submitted via the website are legally valid and require a mandatory reaction of related officials.

Freedom House has raised the rating of democracy in Belarus. In its annual report Nations in Transit 2016 Freedom House improves the Belarus' overall rating of the level of democracy, for the first time in six years. The growth is recorded only on two of the seven parameters – electoral process and civil society.

29 CSOs submit a group proposal for the changes in the rules of foreign aid receiving. The initiative to develop a consolidated position is initiated by Centre for Legal Transformation Lawtrend and the Assembly of NGOs. The program maximum is to cancel a permit procedure for receiving foreign grants and go to the notification principle, or at least to determine the minimum amount of aid, which does not require the state registration.

Other

Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities presents an annual monitoring of citizens' appeals. The total number of requests increased by 40% comparing to 2014. Geographical distribution is almost equal 49% (Minsk) and 51% (regions). The major part of requests is still on social protection issues – 39%. Increasing the number of appeals can be linked to the signing by Belarus of the Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons, which took place in autumn 2015.

Play "Seven" in Belarus. On April 4, in the framework of the UNFPA information campaign, the National Academic Janka Kupala Theatre hosted a play "Seven" aimed to draw public attention to the problem of domestic violence. The play is a monologue of seven women from different cultures, who have overcome major obstacles on the path to justice, freedom, and equality. In each country, the roles are performed by famous women and men.

IDEAby map of the opposition. IDEAby published a grid of opposition relations, jokingly called ‘Who Hates Whom’. The grid is based on relations between Belarusian political parties and movements' leadership. It is noticeable that the relations within the opposition has changed for the year.

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.




Belarus between EU and EEU, New Opposition Strategy – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

Over the past month analysts discussed continuing rapprochement of Belarus with the West and potential Russia’s responses to it. Meanwhile, influenced by Russian propaganda, Belarusians favour Eurasian integration over European, although official Minsk finds its result unsatisfactory.

Belarusian opposition changes its strategy in relations with the authorities and plans to push them to negotiations with backing of mass street pressure. However, a Ukrainian sociologist predicts that democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years and conditions for a Maidan do not exist there. This and more in the new Digest of Belarusian Analytics.

Foreign policy

Belarus in the EAEC: a Year Later (Disappointing Results and Doubtful Prospects) – This report was presented in Minsk on March 22, by the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The report is devoted to the analysis of the first year of existence of the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) for Belarus. Among the key findings is that Minsk had great expectations from this association, but now finds it unsatisfactory.

Europe’s Last Dictator Comes in From the ColdArtyom Shraibman, for Carnegie Moscow Center, notices that Lukashenka’s fortunes have changed. Once known as “Europe’s last dictator,” he has won friends in Europe, while antagonizing his traditional ally, Russia. It’s a situation that has left the Kremlin in a difficult position: should it punish Belarus for its pro-Western tendencies? Or should it continue to prop up the Belarusian economy rather than risk further unrest in the region?

Belarus-Ukraine Relations Beyond Media HeadlinesYauheni Preiherman, in Eurasia Daily Monitor, notices that media narratives often distort the reality of Belarus-Ukraine relations. Some observers explain this by the absence of a “strategic vision for a long-term relationship”. The author sees this a typical feature of inter-state relations in the post-Soviet space, where politics is mainly about tactics, and fighting protectionist trade wars is part of the political culture.

Politics

Belarusian Opposition Comes Up With New Strategy: Negotiations With Authorities Due to Protest Pressure – Politicians and leaders of the mass protests discuss the lessons of "The Square-2006". The new strategy is likely to depart from the revolutionary approach to power change and focus on evolutionary approach, by changing relations between the authorities and the opposition through negotiations, backed by mass street pressure.

Ukrainian Sociologist: Maidan will not be in Minsk – Democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years. This will happen only when society is ready for this. Artificial imposition of liberal values does not work, as well as there are no political or social preconditions for Maidan of the Kyiv scenario in Minsk, according to Ukrainian sociologist, Professor Eduard Afonin.

Public opinion polls

Majority of Belarusians want to keep death penalty. According to the March national poll conducted by IISEPS, 51.5% of Belarusians do not agree with the idea to abolish the death penalty; opposite opinion is shared by 36.4%. Women are less in favor of abolition of the death penalty than men – respectively 55.3% and 46.9%. Belarus is the only country in Europe and on the post-soviet space, which still applies the death penalty.

Belarus Between EU and EEU. Nation-Wide Poll – The ODB Brussels commissioned a survey about perceptions, preferences, and values Belarusians attribute to the European Union (EU) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). According to the study, Belarusians have a high-level understanding and appreciation of the EU, a clear opinion that the EU and EEU are competitors while public reasoning is currently swayed in favor of economic cooperation with the EEU.

Peculiarities of Public Opinion in BelarusGrigory Ioffe overviews the key results of a fresh national poll by IISEPS and an alarming reaction of official sociologists to the results, namely, the decline in Alexander Lukashenka’s electoral rating. Siarhei Nikalyuk, an associate of IISEPS, suggests that independent sociologists who are de facto allowed to work in Belarus are playing the role that jesters did in medieval Europe. After all, only a jester was allowed to speak the truth to the monarch, who actually appreciated that.

Other

Advocacy Sector in Belarus: CSO Experience – The study analyses the actual practices of advocacy in Belarus for the recent five years. The researchers see the key factor of success/failure of any campaign in its capacity for politicisation, i.e. whether authorities perceive a campaign political or not. The study was commissioned by OEEC in a series of sectoral studies aimed at summarising data on the development of specific sectors of civil society in Belarus. The presentation was held on March 24.

How to Make Minsk a Cycling City? – Pavel Harbunou, the Minsk Bicycle Society, shares the results of an annual monitoring on bicycle traffic on the Minsk streets, which shows that the number of cyclists has increased significantly in the city. The activists tells what can be done to make Minsk comfortable for all road users. Namely, the Bicycle Society launches a new campaign Street Bike Supervisor aimed to provide a regular feedback on the conditions of Minsk streets.

Ghetto for Each. Why Minsk Art Spaces Live Separately From Each OtherBelarusian Journal online describes the existing art spaces in Minsk, both mainstream and alternative. While a growing number of cultural spaces is a positive sign, it is too early to talk about the impact of these spaces for culture in general. It is more a question of the formation of separate subcultural groups, the original "ghetto" that arise, rather against the wishes of the state.​

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.




Belarus Reality Check, Life After Sanctions – Digest Of Belarusian Analytics

Over the last weeks Belarusian analysts widely discussed the removal of EU sanctions and possible scenarios of further rapprochement, as well as benefits for Belarus. The surveys demonstrate that Belarus citizens became worse off, yet they are not going to channel the falling incomes into mass protests.

Green activists reveal that funding of EU-Belarus projects remains barely transparent. Belarus ranks 127th in the 2015 Democracy Index out of 167 examined states and territories. This and more in the new Digest of Belarusian Analytics.

6th Belarus Reality Check took place on February 25, in Vilnius and gathered Belarusian and international analysts, diplomats and development practitioners for an evidence-based review of the situation in Belarus. The topics raised were Belarus' economy and the processes of reforms; Belarus security and foreign relations, and Belarus-Western relation in light of Ukrainian crisis. Please check out the program of the event. A non-paper will be published based on the results of the meeting.

Belarus without sanctions

Amplituda. Life After Sanctions: How To Negotiate With Europe? – A new release of the TUT.by program discusses if the EU hastened with lifting the sanctions, who will determine the road map of rapprochement, which proposals can make Belarus to the EU and vise versa, which recent numerous bilateral meetings are the most significant. The speakers are Denis Melyantsou, BISS and Yauheni Preiherman, Liberal Club.

Belarus Without Sanctions: What Now?Artyom Shraibman, Belarus Digest, notices that with the sanctions removed, Belarus can now hope for increased financial support from Brussels. Still, the new phase of relations is a positive development. In the end, Belarus will need a foreign helping hand to launch reforms and drag itself out of the crisis. For the sake of the country’s future and independence, this hand would be better coming from the West.

EU Lifts Most Sanctions Against Belarus Despite Human Rights Concerns – The Guardian highlights that decision to lift sanctions against 170 people including president Alexander Lukashenka prompts widespread criticism. The EU’s view of progress in Minsk stands in stark contrast to the concerns about political repression and human rights abuses.

Why Sanctions Against Belarus Could Not StandGrigory Ioffe analyzes the reaction of the Belarusian and Russian media on the removal of the sanctions on Belarus by the EU. The expert concludes that while the lifting of sanctions has manifested an overdue change in the Western policy vis-à-vis Belarus, it effectively posed more questions than it addressed.

Economic situation in Belarus

Fresh Charka&Shkvarka Index. BIPART Research Center and the KostUrada project released a Charka&Shkvarka Index (Shot & Bacon) for 4th quarter of 2015. The Index is calculated quarterly on the basis of price of 100 grams of pork and 100 grams of vodka. In the 4th quarter of 2015, the Index has risen by 1.6% – now the average Belarusian can afford 321 Charka&Shkvarka per month, which is equivalent to 32.1 kg of pork and 32.1 liters of vodka.

Belarusians Live Worse, But do Not Intend to Protest – According to a survey conducted by Vardomatsky laboratory in late December 2015, the nation's economic self-perception was worse in 2015 than during the previous year. At the same time, the growth of protest mood is not observed. The geopolitical orientation of Belarusians is characterized by the pro-Russian dominance throughout the year and a sharp rise in recent months (2/3 of the population).

REFORUM. Improving the Competitiveness of Belarus: What the State Development Programs Miss – The study conducted in the framework of REFORUM project identifies gaps in the state programs, the elimination of which would improve the competitiveness of Belarus. So far Belarus has not included either in the WEF ranking or any other rating, evaluating the competitiveness of countries, because the experts distrust to the Belarusian official statistics.

Foreign and security policy

Belarus Prepares to Adopt New Military DoctrineYauheni Preiherman, Eurasia Daily Monitor, notices that in recent months, military affairs have featured high on the political and media agendas in Belarus. The analyst believes that this should not be interpreted in terms of Belarus being afraid specifically of a Donbas-type scenario or of increased military activity along NATO’s eastern flank. But this is generally a logical reaction of a small sovereign state to the multiple security challenges it faces on different levels.

Civil society

Freedom of Associations and Legal Conditions for Non-Profit Organizations in Belarus – Legal Transformation Center and Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs released the monitoring of the Belarusian non-profit sector for 2015. Major changes of the last year affecting the interests of NGOs concerned legal regulations of foreign funding. At the same time, all pre-existing legal restrictions and enforcement practices regarding all aspects of the NGOs establishment and operation remained unchanged.

Amplituda. Around What Authorities, Opposition and the Society Can Unite in Belarus (Video) – In TUT.by studio, political analyst Alexander Klaskouski and BPF leader Alexei Yanukevich discuss the recent protests of entrepreneurs. They raise such issues as fears of entrepreneurs to cooperate with politicians; who should set an example of the integration; why politicians united before; what challenges can shift to integration with pro-government structures.

Where the European Money Goes – WildLife.by journalists decided to get acquainted with organizations that have received grants under the project "Facilitating the transition of Belarus to the green economy", funded by the EU and implemented by the UNDP. Using the information from open sources, the journalists could not find a half of the grantees.

International rankings

Belarus ranks 127th in the Democracy Index. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Belarus 127th in the 2015 Democracy Index out of 167 examined states and territories. The Index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Ukraine is ranked 88th while Russia is 132nd. Compared to last year, Belarus dropped two positions.

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.




What Is at Stake in the Small Traders Protests?

On 1 January 2016, a new edict came into force in Belarus demanding that small traders who sell imported goods must provide details of their origin.

The edict was based on laws for small traders introduced by the Eurasian Customs Union that came into effect in January 2013. As a result, most outlets selling light industrial goods have closed.

The traders held an “anti-crisis forum” at the Hotel Belarus’ on January 11, but to date the government has refused to rectify the situation. Moreover, the impasse seems likely to continue at least until the convocation of the next Business Forum on January 25.

While the difficulties for such forms of business in Belarus date back more than a decade, the current conflict represents the most serious dilemma to date for both the authorities and small traders.

Traders' response to decree 222

The bill requests that traders selling imported goods — mostly from Russia — must provide certificates indicating their origin. Traditionally, Russian exporters have either declined to provide such information or fabricated it. The government’s stated goal to procure transparency in trade masks a larger concern that cheap imported goods undermine the sale of Belarusian products. In turn, the traders insist that the quality of local manufacturing is both inferior to and more expensive than imports.

The mass desertion of their market stalls clearly surprised the authorities, and the Ministry of Trade acknowledged that 68% of outlets had remained closed, which it attributed in official parlance to the holiday season. Yet according to the head of the business association Perspektyva, Anatol Šumchanka, 90% of traders nationwide abandoned their businesses during the holiday season, which is normally their peak period for sales.

The president of Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, made reference to the stoppage of sales on January 14 at a meeting related to the protection of the state border. He noted that advance warning of the decree was given last year to self-employed small traders and commented that he was puzzled by recent events.

Decree 222, he added, constitutes the first step in trade transparency, thus implying that more measures would follow. For the president, the struggles of the state sector in the current dire economic climate remain the priority and thus traders must sell homemade products.

The anti-crisis forum

An estimated 1,500 small traders attended the anti-crisis forum held at the Hotel Belarus, with a further 800 gathering outside in the foyer. Šumchanka addressed the assembled and complained about the lack of prior consultation of the new decree. He stressed that traders do not oppose the certification of goods, but the authorities introduced the laws without consultation.

Šumchanka cited a former judge of the Constitutional Court, Michail Pastuchoŭ, who analysed Edict 222 and reached the conclusion that the document illegally restricted the rights of citizens. Šumchanka​ proposed the gathering of 50,000 signatures to introduce a new law into Parliament on behalf of the traders to create more favourable conditions for small businesses.

Perhaps unsurprisingly some participants wanted more direct action and in the foyer Minsk trader Aliaksandr Makajeŭ called for a mass protest at October Square on January 16.

Notably also, former presidential candidate Taссiana Karatkievič attended the forum, as did two (invited) officials from the government, Andrej Miaškoŭ (Ministry of Trade) and Valery Chomčanka (Ministry of Economy).

Šumchanka​, however, who highlighted the campaign on his Facebook page (Anatoliy Shumchenko), responded angrily to what he perceived as the attempt to politicise the protests and commented that radical actions would not bring the desired results. At the same time, Miaškoŭ​ provided an overt warning that traders would be held responsible for “violating established working hours” should they fail to report to work the next day. The vast majority ignored the threat.

Could the protest widen?

Šumchanka referred to political activists as “scum” and “provocateurs” who should hold their own events, but some political activists perceived the dispute as a potential for more coordinated anti-government actions, perhaps based on Šumchanka’s own estimate that the new decree encompasses potentially not merely 37,000 individual traders, but also over 120,000 businesses operating in shopping centres and as private companies.

The gathering at the Hotel Belarus also comprised delegates from all parts of the country, indicating the breadth of the protests. The leader of Perspektyva believes that the government logically must come to an agreement with traders who have no alternative but to oppose a law that undermines their very livelihood.

Opposition leader Mikalaj Statkievič provided an interview to Belsat TV on the same day as the Anti-Crisis Forum. He made it clear that if the authorities failed to respond to demands of ‘democrats’ for electoral reform, they should be prepared to gather “in the Square” in order to “maintain dignity” and demonstrate their willingness to fight for their rights.

Street actions, in his view, remain the sole mechanism to influence the authorities. He revealed that he is preparing a group of 150-200 committed and “courageous” people who are prepared to lead street rallies. The call for confrontation contrasted with the milder approach of Šumchanka​, who although equally dismissive of the government’s responses to date, still holds out the hope of reaching agreement.

A time for compromise?

The dispute between the government and small traders carries potential for broader protests, especially given the dilemmas of large companies who are cutting the workforce and dealing with high costs of imported materials.

Moreover, an immediate solution appears unlikely as the suppliers of the imported goods refuse to provide documentation of their origin. Such trade originated in Soviet times and constitutes an essential mechanism for supply of consumer products in a command economy. And while the majority of small traders in Minsk on January 11 seek economic rather than political solutions — such as a change of government — their frustration is evident.

Belarus can ill afford a sustained mass protest given the forecasted sluggish GDP growth of 0.3% in 2016 — a prediction itself based on a highly implausible oil price of US$50 per barrel. A wise government would consider a compromise solution.

David R. Marples

David R. Marples is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta




Peaceful Elections as a Foreign Policy Tool

In October, the Belarusian foreign ministry worked hard to use the presidential elections as a tool to strengthen the positive trend in relations between Belarus and the West. Foreign minister Vladimir Makei managed not to miss this second chance, after the failure of a similar attempt in 2010.

Belarusian diplomats contacted the domestic opposition through different channels to dissuade it from possible street protests. They also used hand-picked “independent” observers to create a positive image of the elections.

The peaceful elections allowed Europe to decide on the suspension of sanctions against the regime. However, the EU can reimpose them at any moment should Lukashenka abandon his rapprochement policy.

Talking to the Opposition and Hand-Picking Observers

Belarusian diplomats focused on securing a positive image of the elections in the international media and public opinion. They also sought to prevent any incidents that would jeopardise the progress already achieved in Belarus’ relations with Europe.

Domestically, Vladimir Makei and other high-ranked diplomats worked to convey a message to opposition leaders in Belarus that Russia might use eventual street protests to stage provocation aimed at sabotaging the positive trends in Belarus’ relations with the West. They did it mostly through Western envoys in Minsk.

Internationally, the Belarusian embassies worked with the usual sympathisers of the Belarusian regime to engage them as “independent” observers or members of the European observation missions at the presidential elections. These are people who are ready to support the regime with positive testimonies, either out of their sincere sympathy for Belarus or in pursuit of lucrative business opportunities in the country.

“Nothing Abnormal” at Polling Stations

The Belarusian government has often sponsored, fully or partially, the trips of many hand-picked “observers” to Minsk. Many of them, like Mikhail Morgulis, President of the Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation (US), are regulars at presidential elections in Belarus. Unlike the European observation missions, Morgulis and his collaborators tend to praise the elections as “free and fair” .

Thierry Mariani, a French MP, came to Minsk as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) delegation. This former minister, known for his pro-Russian stance, visited fourteen polling stations in Minsk and found “good organisation" and “nothing abnormal” there. However, he took no apparent interest in the vote counting process and early voting, which drew the most criticism from others.

Belarusian diplomats also remained in good working contact with the observation missions of the European institutions. Despite the critical conclusions of their joint report, the ministry refrained this time from criticising them as biased and even avoided commenting on them altogether. Lidia Yermoshina, head of the central election commission, went as far as thanking the mission for its objectivity.

Getting the Sanctions Suspended

Rumours about the imminent recall of the sanctions against high-ranking officials and companies circulated well before the elections. They became almost a certainty after Lukashenka released all the political prisoners in September.

The EU will first renew the sanctions and then suspend them

The European Union virtually confirmed the veracity of these rumours on 12 October, when the European observation missions made public their preliminary conclusions. Harlem Désir, France’s minister for European affairs, announced the decision to suspend the sanctions for the next four months. He made this announcement when answering a question from a reporter after an EU meeting in Luxembourg.

The format of the announcement mattered in this case. Belarus was not on this meeting’s official agenda. The EU intends to formally review and action upon the issue of sanctions before they expire on 31 October. In such circumstances, the news could have come from an “anonymous source” or even been postponed altogether under the premise that the observers’ final conclusions needed to be studied first.

However, Belarus needed a prompt quasi-official confirmation that the EU would stick to its part of the step-by-step arrangement. In its turn, Brussels wanted to reassure Minsk on the eve of Lukashenka’s meeting with Vladimir Putin. Thus, they chose as a messenger the French minister who met with deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna in May 2015 and is familiar with the situation in Belarus.

Low-Key but Positive Reaction

On 15 October, Dmitri Mironchik, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, refused to comment on this announcement but reiterated Belarus’ position on the “inefficiency and futility” of anti-Belarus sanctions. He pointed out that the ministry expected their “complete abolition… as soon as possible”.

Lukashenka: "The sanctions have been lifted. Get moving!"

Four days later, his boss Vladimir Makei was more outspoken in his reaction. In an interview with a Belarusian TV station, he labelled as “positive” the emergence of such statements. The foreign minister also expressed his understanding of the fact that the sanctions would not be lifted immediately, blaming it on the EU bureaucratic mechanism.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka sees the repeal of sanctions as a fait accompli. “The sanctions have been lifted. Get moving!”, he told his ministers at a meeting on 20 October in Minsk, prompting them to expand Belarusian exports.

Announcing the suspension of sanctions, the French minister stressed that they “can be reimposed immediately if this is justified”. In fact, the EU will first renew the sanctions and then immediately suspend them.

The definitive lifting of sanctions would mean that the reasons for their introduction no longer apply, which is untrue. Also, it would make their reimposition quite difficult if Belarus lapses into its old ways of serious human rights abuse. The suspension of sanctions will allow the European Union to have Belarus on the ropes, stimulating the government into taking further steps towards the political liberalisation.

Belarus and Europe are now at the very beginning of a complex diplomatic play, trying to squeeze as many concessions from each other without giving ground on matters of principle.

Europe will demand more democratic reforms culminating in free and fair parliamentary elections next year and will be ready to provide economic assistance in return. Belarus will seek economic benefits as a payment for its role as a "donor of security" in the region and try to avoid meaningful political liberalisation.

Starting with the release of political prisoners, Belarus added the "peaceful elections" and minor electoral improvements to the package to obtain a serious concession from the EU. This is a culmination of the rapprochement, which began after the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The next big test for the step-by-step strategy will be in early 2016 when the EU and Belarus will negotiate the full abrogation, or at least further suspension, of the sanctions.




Editorial: Three Election Controversies

The 2015 presidential election in Belarus revealed three important controversies for the authorities, the opposition and the West.

First, the Belarusian authorities want to look more democratic to the West without allowing any real changes inside the country.

Second, the opposition has the difficulty of wanting to play a role in the political process in Belarus but at the same time without legitimising the fraudulent election process.

Third, the desire of the West to engage more with Belarus clashes with its commitment to the principles of human rights and democracy.

As with most controversies, the best practical outcome is a compromise, which usually leaves none of the parties completely satisfied.

The Belarusian authorities allowed the opposition to conduct a relatively free campaign and refrained from brutal repression similar to the 2010 post-election crackdown. However, they persisted in abusing the early voting process and largely prevented observers from watching the vote count, as the preliminary report of a mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe suggests.

Western observers appreciated the peaceful nature of the election campaign but concluded that the election process was far from being fair and democratic. Nonetheless, the European Union is all set to suspend sanctions against most of the individuals and companies, which will be a reward for the "peacefulness" of the Belarusian authorities and the release of all political prisoners in September.

These developments have opened the door for a more meaningful cooperation between the West and Belarus not only on political, but also on economic issues. The Belarusian authorities particularly need economic help because of the deteriorating Russian economy, which is the main supporter of the Belarusian regime. The West will have another chance to test whether the policy of engagement yields more results than the policy of sanctions.

The Belarusian opposition reached the election deeply divided between those who wanted to engage with the system in order to use all opportunities which the election period provides and those who wanted to boycott the election. The engagement camp managed to assemble many protest votes behind a new personality, presidential candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich. However, she is unlikely to become a uniting figure for the opposition.

Ironically, this time the non-democratic election may bring Belarus closer to the West because of the removal of sanctions. However, any optimism about Belarus turning West is misplaced. The Belarusian president will be careful not to cross the red lines drawn by Russia. Although Lukashenka feels uncomfortable in the shadow of Russia, he understands that this is the only game in town if he wants to stay in power.

Time will show how long Belarus will remain a country without political prisoners and free from sanctions. It is also too early to say whether we will see a repeat of the vicious sanctions-engagement circle or the West will manage to develop and implement a long-term strategy towards Belarus.




Candidates for 2015 Presidential Elections: Who Are They?

On 20 July the Central Election Committee of Belarus registered eight initiative groups which nominate candidates for the presidency. Except Lukashenka himself, two candidates can be regarded as pro-government, three as oppositional and the other two as neutral and marginal.

Both pro-government candidates hold a strong pro-Russian position, but they cannot hope for any serious support from Russia – Lukashenka would not allow anyone to play the Russian card in Belarus. Their role in the campaign is rather to support Lukashenka and criticise the opposition.

Pro-Government Candidates Criticise the Opposition

Siarhej Hajdukievič, the leader of the Liberal Democratic party since 1995, participated in presidential elections in 2001, 2006 and 2010. In the 1990s he held a position in the security services and in 2004-2008 had an MP mandate.

Hajdukievič calls his party a “constructive opposition”, but actually criticises Belarusian opposition leaders and demonstrates loyalty to the authorities. He has a rather populist programme, holds a firm pro-Russia position and supports deeper Eurasian integration. In 2010 the party even signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian-backed breakaway republic of South Ossetia.

The second pro-government candidate, a 64 year old retired colonel Mikalaj Ulachovič, appeared on the electoral field somewhat unexpectedly. He was closely affiliated with Lukashenka in the 1990s and served as his authorised representative at the 1994 presidential elections.

Ulachovič established the first Cossack organisation in Belarus in 1995, and remains an unchallenged leader of the pro-government Belarusian Patriotic Party, which hardly ever showed any serious political activity. Ulachovič also occupies a middle-level position in state bureaucracy.

In the interviews about the reasons of his nomination for president, Ulachovič states he disagreed with the authorities on a few minor issues. The Belarusian cossacks organisation has close ties with the Orthodox Church and are seen by many as a major pillar of Russian influence in Belarus. It is unclear where Ulachovič gets funding.

Ulachovič denies any ties to the Kremlin and “never was a fifth column, despite accusations of being Moscow protégé since 1995”. He says he strongly supports Belarusian independence, but sees the threat for independence in the west rather than in Russia.

The two pro-government candidates appeared very pro-Russian, but Lukashenka will hardly allow them to play the Russian card and receive considerable support from the east. As the history of Belarusian elections shows, a serious pro-Russian candidate has never appeared in Belarusian politics and not without pressure from the authorities.

As Russia remains the major factor in Belarusian politics, Lukashenka has a monopoly on dealing with the Kremlin and will not let anyone challenge it. Therefore, despite their pro-Russian position, these candidates will have to support the incumbent president or perish politically.

Oppositional Candidates Seek To Reach Out to People

The Belarusian opposition chose not to agree on a single candidate and three will compete for the presidential seat. However the problem is that not one of them actually hopes to win. The candidates explain their participation as an opportunity to show people as an alternative and de-legitimise Lukashenka's re-election.

Anatol Liabedźka, the United Civil Party leader since 2000, can be considered as a veteran of the Belarusian politics. He was an MP position two times in the 1990s. In the 1994 elections he supported Lukashenka, but later switched to strong opposition to the authorities.

Liabedźka says he participates in elections to prevent their international legitimation, as the authorities, according to his opinion, will try to forge the results if oppositional candidates participate. A part of the Belarusian opposition, including a hardline exile opposition website Charter97.org and the Christian Democracy Party, criticise this position, since they see a boycott as the only strategy to de-legitimise Lukashenka.

Siarhej Kaliakin, a leader of the former Communist party now called the “Fair World” party, is another veteran of the opposition to run for the presidency. He was an MP and communist party position back in Soviet times and became one of communist party leaders in independent Belarus.

In 1995 the party of Belarusian communists split in two because of a different position towards Lukashenka and Kaliakin headed the oppositional one. Kaliakin also ran for the presidential post in the 2001 elections. At the 2015 elections Kaliakin hopes to demonstrate to people an alternative view of the country’s development and to “fight for people’s minds”.

Tacciana Karatkievič, the third oppositional candidate, appeared as a totally new figure in Belarusian politics, but received the support of several major oppositional parties and movements. A representative of the Social Democratic Party and the Tell the Truth civil campaign, she is also backed by the For Freedom movement and the right-wing Belarusian Popular Front party. Karatkievič worked as a teacher and social worker and has the shortest record of political activity among oppositional candidates.

Despite wide organisational support, Karatkievič also expects to present people an alternative programme rather than receive a presidential post. As the Tell the Truth manager Andrej Dzmitryjeŭ put it, they will use the current campaign for training and the rebranding of the opposition.

The "Unclear" Candidates

The two remaining candidates, Viktar Ciareščanka and Žana Ramanoŭskaja, do not exactly fall into pro-government or oppositional categories. Viktar Ciareščanka is an experienced politician, who ran for presidency in 1994, 2001 and 2010, had an MP seat in 1996-2000. He has a PhD in economics and also studied in Ukraine and the United States, where he received an MBA from the University of Delaware. Despite his academic achievements, Ciareščanka remains an unknown and unpopular figure, who cannot hope for any achievements at the elections.

The other neutral candidate, Žana Ramanoŭskaja, on the contrary, has no experience in politics at all and appears in public for the first time without any organisational support. Her ambitions for the presidential post remain unclear and she looks rather an accidental person in the campaign.

The 2015 presidential campaign looks like a traditional electoral ritual: pro-government candidates will support Aliaksandr Lukashenka, while opposition and neutral ones will try to de-legitimise him or train their campaigning skills, but neither is seriously hoping to win.

Although many Belarusians would like to see a strong alternative to the current regime, elites, opposition and even all presidential candidates seem to accept that Lukashenka will stay here for another term.




Will an Economic Downturn Cause Unrest Ahead of Elections?

On 2 July Belarus witnessed a rather unusual show – 200 Chinese workers marched dozens of kilometres towards the city of Homiel in protest against wage arrears and poor working conditions. These foreign workers are currently employed by the Chinese company Siuan Yuan which is building a paper factory.

A similar protest organised by Belarusians is almost unthinkable in modern Belarus. The government controls every employee through a contract system and dissidents who raise their voices may lose their jobs instantaneously, while independent trade unions have almost disappeared under Lukashenka's rule.

However, the situation may be changing as Belarus experiences its deepest industrial crisis since the collapse of the USSR. Production is constantly falling and enterprises are having to make personnel cuts.

While previously the government restricted layoffs to prevent social unrest, currently they are using a hands-off approach. Ahead of the presidential election the authorities will try to keep the situation calm, but afterwards Belarus may face a period of painful restructuring and social tension.

Chinese Protest March – A Sight Unseen in Belarus

On 2 July a column of Chinese workers of around 200 people employed at a Chinese-owned construction company in Dobruš town left their workplace and marched 33 kilometres towards Homiel, accompanied by emergency services and special police units. The Belarusian police, well-trained to prevent massive political protests, stood by with rather confused looks on their faces, having no idea what to do with the angry Chinese crowd.

The deputy head of the presidential administration Mikalaj Snapkoŭ and head of the state wood industry consortium Jury Nazaraŭ personally took part in the negotiations between Chinese diplomats, the company and workers.

The workers explained to journalists that they were protesting against late salaries. After failed negotiations with Chinese diplomats, who quickly arrived in Homiel, they announced that they were heading towards Minsk and intend to speak to the Chinese ambassador. However, closer to evening the diplomats persuaded workers to return to their workplace by bus.

As it later turned out, the workers were dissatisfied not only with delayed salaries, but also with the working conditions at their construction site. They had no days off, the company took their passports, they had no right to buy Belarusian sim cards to call home, and the food and lodging were in poor shape as well. To top it all off, when they did get paid, their salary was lower than the employer had originally promised.

​The Chinese protest was a real sensation among Belarusian media outlets – the way the citizens of half-totalitarian China defended their labour rights very much contrasts with the local climate. Belarus has not seen worker's protests of this type since the 1990s when Lukashenka's power had not calcified and an economic crisis was still unfolding.

Industry Crisis May Cause Social Tension

Today, Belarusians who work in state-owned industries can easily lose their job for dissenting against the upper management and there are virtually no protections in place to ensure their rights are being observed. Virtually all independent trade unions, save a few, have been eliminated and most workers belong to the state-controlled Federation of Belarusian Trade Unions. However, this year the situation may change unexpectedly, and the reasons are becoming more apparent by the day.

The industrial sector of the country, and in particular machine building – the core of the Belarusian economy since the Soviet era – is experiencing hard times. In 2014 Belarus produced 20-50% less machinery than the year prior according to official statistics. Numerous industrial enterprises, such as the wood industry factory Homieldreŭ, the Mahilioŭ automobile plant, machine builder Strommašina, the Svietlahorsk concrete production plant and many others have either reduced the length of their working weeks and sent workers on unpaid holidays or cut their salaries.

As a result, in 2014, many Belarusian industrial giants, including Hrodna Azot, Mahilioŭ Chimvalakno, Minsk Automobile Plant and BelAZ, had to lay off between 5 to 20% of their employees.

According to the World Bank's estimates, state-owned industries employ around 10% of individuals which they classify as economically unjustifiable personnel, who hinder their economic efficiency.

The government has been reluctant to make cuts to the labour force for decades, as they believed that minimal social guarantees and salaries are better than unemployment which can lead to political turmoil. But with the current layoffs their concerns about the effect of unemployment may be realised ahead of the October presidential elections.

Can Workers Spark a Belarusian Maidan?

Tacciana Čyžova, a researcher at the Political Sphere Institute, has been monitoring protest activity in politics and the economy for the past few years. In a comment to BelarusDigest she noted that in 2014 the level of protest activity at Belarusian enterprises clearly grew when compared to 2013. The conflicts usually were tied to salaries and working conditions.

However, these clashes with companies' management usually do not transcend the territory of the enterprise or town and last no more than 1-2 days. Enterprise managers and local authorities usually seek to resolve the conflict peacefully and as quickly as possible, tactics which apparently are part of a model established by the central government.

A fine example of these tactics being employed happened in 2014 when a protest by ambulance workers, who after minor concessions from the authorities, promptly returned to their jobs. As the economic situation is unlikely to improve much ahead of elections, the authorities will attempt to avoid any radical reforms and mass layoffs in order to keep situation on the ground calm. Any mass protests, let alone a Maidan, seems very unlikely, Čyžova believes.

Moreover, this time even most opposition-minded candidates running for the presidency have warned against mass protests. A leftist party leader Siarhei Kaliakin says that violent scenarios will not bring results, but rather lead to tragedy. Tacciana Karatkievič, a candidate from Tell the Truth campaign, believes that the very idea of protests is not popular in modern Belarusian society, but she would join a protest and try to turn it peaceful if people do it spontaneously.

Meanwhile, United Civil Party leader Anatol Liabedźka stated that "we are not going to dissuade people from peaceful protests, as other candidates are, because the authorities push people to them with their unprofessional policies".

While the opposition agrees with the authorities about the danger of a violent scenario (clearly with a potential Ukrainian situation developing in the back of their minds), any real developments will probably follow the election. Belarus needs painful economic restructuring, and mass layoffs may well be on the menu shortly after Aliasksandr Lukashenka assumes the presidency for his fifth term in power.




Political Parties in Belarus – Do They Really Matter?

On 9 June, the Chairman of Central Election Commission, Lidzia Yarmoshyna, declared that the 2015 presidential election in Belarus would take place on 11 October, pushing it ahead of the previously declared 15 November date, the latest possible date permitted by law. The House of Representatives will likely make the final decision on the matter by June 30 before their summer recess.

However, for the outcome of elections the date does not really matter. Despite the official figure of around 98,000 members of political parties, many of pro-government parties have only maintained a nominal existence while the freedom to operate for opposition forces has been severely constrained.

Parties as a Representative Force

The decision of Central Council of the Belarusian "Green" Party to support an unemployed Yury Shulgan exposes the farce of the election and the lack of influence of political parties within the Belarusian political system. Shulgan has expressed his willingness to become the President as a symbol of protest against the tax on the unemployed signed on 2 April by the incumbent president.

Political parties in Belarus are struggling to fulfil what would be considered their most basic principle functions, nor the activities of the state apparatus or supporting the implementation of the domestic and foreign policy of the state. While the Presidential Administration has proven to be much more powerful than the Parliament, both the parties, whether they oppose or support the government, have been denied a significant presence, if any presence at all, in the Parliament.

The Communist Party of Belarus gained six seats in the 110-seat House of Representatives in the previous elections, by far the most seats any registered party was able to obtain in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

As in Western democracies, the Belarusian Constitution identifies political parties as entities responsible for contributing to, and the expression of, the political will of its citizens. Lukashenka, however, has repeatedly declared that Belarusians are the source of his legitimacy. In reality, the people’s is not represented by any legislative authorities.

Party Membership: By the Numbers – on Paper and in Reality

Joining a political party presupposes that one wants to significantly influence the governance of their country. A modest membership base of Belarusian parties hardly justifies such claim. While the Ministry of Justice does not have the most current numbers on party membership, the total number of members of political parties, as reported by the parties, amounts to 98,000 people in a country with a population of about 9,5 million.

It is hard to determine the real number or the number of active members. As Yauhien Valoshyn of Euroradio suggests, after contacting the Liberal Democratic Party, claiming to have the largest membership base, two different party representatives reported 45,000 and 51,000 members respectively. The total number of members on the party web site, however, was determined to be around to 36,849 members.

The mass media, for its part, report that the leader of the Belarusian Patriotic Party Mikalai Ulahovich has forced Cossacks to join his party. Anatol Liabedzka of the United Civil Party recognises that the number of active members of his party adds up to less than the reported total of 3,668 members.

Unlike other countries, Belarusian parties do not provide social opportunities, personal status or business contacts. In addition, the majority of Belarusians do not believe that party membership will have an effect on whether or not a party will achieve its goals.

According to IISEPS, 59.8 per cent of respondents do not believe in the possibility of radical changes in domestic or foreign politics of Belarus, and 79.2 per cent will not participate in mass protests should election outcomes are falsified.

Party Leaders

Most of the leadership of the political parties have been in the opposition for a decade and often much longer. One-third of the leaders of Belarusian political parties of all registered parties in Belarus have been ruling for the same amount of time or longer as the incumbent president.

The average time of opposition leaders in office now has been inflated to 13.6 years. In a research survey published on Arche portal, Yury Chavusau reports that the absence of opposition sub-parties in the majority of opposition parties. According to the author, no one is fighting for power within the parties because of the hardship and danger of the party leaders' work.

The average time of opposition leaders in office now has been inflated to 13.6 years.

The existence of multiple potential presidential candidates does not increase the chances for success. According to Gene Sharp, a renowned political scientist advancing the study of nonviolent action, resistance leaders need to formulate a comprehensive plan of action capable of strengthening the people. The reality leaves much to be desired. IISEPS reports that 33.1 per cent of their respondents do not believe in the opposition's success, regardless whether it has a single candidate or not.

In April, Siarhei Haidukevich, one of the potential presidential candidates and a known supporter of Lukashenka, tried to downplay the opposition leaders for their inability to consolidate by offering several of them the posts as deputy ministers if they would offer their support to his presidential candidacy. According to him, the opposition needs a new generation to take over. Ironically, he himself has been the leader of Liberal-Democratic Party for 21 years.

The existence of a multiparty system in Belarus provides an opportunity for the government to display a bit of window dressing as evidence that it is not authoritarian. In reality, many of the parties supporting the government have only maintained a nominal existence while the freedom to operate for opposition parties has been severely blocked.

The government has used the tools of state coercion to demobilise, marginalise, or criminalise the opposition’s activities. Although opposition leaders still have three months to step up their game, it is important not to place unrealistic expectations on their ability to change the status quo in Belarus in 2015.




IMF, FDI and Security Discussed in Minsk – Belarus Civil Society Digest

Belarus hosts events focused on Belarus's place in the region, the role of FDI in modernisation of the Belarusian economy, and corporate social responsibility.

Street artists from different countries will paint Minsk walls based on urban folklore during the Urban Myths festival, which runs from June to November 2015. Read about the upcoming conferences, competitions, and exhibitions in Belarus Civil Society Digest.

Public Discussions

Idea online journal organises the first public event to host a speaker from the International Monetary Fund in Belarus. The guest is the IMF senior representative in Central and Easter Europe Mr. James Roaf. The expert will present his office’s special report ‘25 Years of Transition: Post-Communist Europe and the IMF’. The meeting starts at 7 pm, on April 23, at the Minsk Imaguru Business Club.

Conference 2014: Belarus and the Region was held by Belarus Security Blog Project, on March 28. The event attracted both local experts and their counterparts from the Belarusian diaspora. The event was dedicated to the most important events in the country and in the region over the past year. According to the organisers, the conference was held on a minor note: Belarus is still interested in the world more than the world is interested in it.

Foreign Direct Investments: Driver for Modernisation of the Belarusian Economy round table is organised by the Association of European Business in cooperation with the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS). Belarusian experts will present the recommendations that have been drafted as a part of REFORUM project for the government on how to improve the business climate in Belarus in order to attract foreign direct investment into the country. The event will take place on April 24, in Crowne Plaza Hotel.

Discussion ‘Corporate social responsibility (CSR) for small and medium businesses’ will be held on April 29, in Minsk. Experts from Ukraine and Belarus will talk about the opportunities that CSR has for business companies, including in times of economic crisis. Business professionals, entrepreneurs and representatives of private companies are invited to participate in the discussion. The event is organised by ODB (Brussels) in partnership with the Association of European Business (Minsk).

Campaigns

Leadership in Local Communities course sums up results. On March 28, a graduation meeting of the Fellowship Program Leadership in Local Communities took place near Minsk. The event summed up the key results of the long-term education course for Belarusian community leaders, implemented by the Office for European Expertise and Communications (OEEC) in partnership with Pact. Namely, under the program the fellows managed to involve in activities about 1,000 local residents and mobilised local resources for implementing more than 20 local initiatives. The OEEC website has started to post real cases of the fellows’ achievements.

29 Belarusian CSOs sign the collective proposal for changes in the rules of foreign aid. The CSOs’ proposals have become a response to changes in legislation on obtaining and using foreign aid. The Center for Legal Transformation Lawtrend and the NGO Assembly took the initiative to develop a consolidated position on behalf of the third sector. Inter alia, CSOs offer to introduce the notification principle to receive foreign aid.

Results of the Week against Racism in Belarus. On March 14-22, Belarusian human rights defenders held a series of actions and activities within the European Week Against Racism. Young activists have prepared videos on the topic of racism featuring Belarusian intellectuals, organised a public lecture and film screening as well as posted their photos on Facebook.

Free screenings of films about the problems of people with autism. Film screenings are held on April 3-8 in Minsk and supported by the U.S. Embassy in Belarus, Kufar.by company and the initiative Good Jam for Good People. The event aims focus public attention on the problems of social inclusion of people with autism.

Exhibitions and Competitions

VI Belarus Press Photo competition awarded its winners on April 16, at the Minsk Gallery TUT.BY. Winners in 8 categories and the Grand Prix were selected from among 137 authors, who submitted for the competition more than 2,000 works – series and single photos. Belarus Press Photo is an open independent press photography contest, organised in 2009 by the Belarusian photojournalists with the support of photo portal ZNYATA.

Winners of the annual Svetlana Naumova award were identified at the ceremony conducted by the civil campaign Govori Pravdu, on March 27. Charity store Kali Laska won in the nomination The Project of the Year; Hope of the Year went to activist Oleg Korban, Alternatyva NGO leader; Analyst of the Year – to Yury Drakakhrust; the Journalist of the Year – to Dmitry Galko, the author of a series of reports from Donbas.​

Urban Myths Festival. Street artists from different countries will paint Minsk walls based on urban folklore during the Urban Myths festival, which runs from June to November 2015. It will bring together artists from Belarus, Brazil, Spain, Ukraine, Poland, Russia and Sweden. The project is initiated by street art community Signal. Part of the funds for the festival is planned to collect through Belarusian crowdfunding platform Talakosht.

Exhibition 'Person Holding a Flower' opened in the new premises of TSEKH on April 14. The exhibition presents photos of blind Natalia Kavalevich and photographer Anastasia Hralovich and plunges into the world of a blind person. During the exhibition, until May 15, the organisers promise to conduct a few tours with a blindfold and a cane, as well as master classes for children.

Other Developments

Lukashenka doesn’t prepare a successor and advises the opposition to change ideology. In his interview with Bloomberg, Lukashenka said that the Belarusian opposition demonstrates that "they are not ready to take power in Belarus and keep the country." Meanwhile, two opposition political forces – Volha Karatch, the Nash Dom civil campaign leader, and Movement For Freedom – made official statements that they will not take part in the presidential election in 2015. Journal Ideaby produces an infographics that explains all the links within the Belarusian opposition – who is friends with whom and against whom.

Belarus takes the 78th place of 102 countries in the Open Government Index 2015, released by the World Justice Project (WJP). The best result Belarus has in the category "complaint mechanisms" (52nd place), the worst – "civic participation" (93rd place). The WJP Open Government Index 2015 is the first effort to measure government openness based on the general public’s experiences and perceptions worldwide.

Belarus is ranked 52th in the Passport Index. Based on collected data, the site enlists a Visa Free Score per passport. Points are accumulated based on each visa-free country that holders can visit, meaning they can either visit without a visa or obtain one upon arrival. Belarusian passport holder can visit 66 countries without visa or get visa on border. Visa Restrictions Index put Belarus on the 67th place and counted that Belarusians may visit 63 countries without visas. ​

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.