Top 10 Belarus Civil Society Achievements in 2013
Top 10 activities and achievements, which in enriched Belarusian civil society in 2013.
Advocacy of the Year: Perspectiva NGO
Perspectiva, a small vendors association headed by Anatoly Shumchanka managed to postpone, until 1 July 2014, a complex procedure of certification to confirm the quality and safety of products in accordance with Customs Union regulation. Its advocacy efforts included series of appeals, meetings with officials as well as mass strikes due to which the voice of 230,000 small entrepreneurs was heard by the authorities.
“Belarusization” of the Year: Mova ci Kava courses
Organised at the beginning of 2013 by journalist Katerina Kibalchich first in Moscow, then picked up in Minsk, free educational courses Mova ci Kava (Language or Coffee) caused a real stir among Minsk residents. Weekly classes designed for people who want to improve their Belarusian language are attended by up to 120 students. The courses are conducted in an informal manner and are bolstered by inviting well-known Belarusian cultural figures.
Research of the Year: BEROC and CASE Belarus
Two researches are nominated in this category with Growth Factors of the Economy of Belarus by BEROC and The influence of Migrants' Money Transfers on Macroeconomic Indicators of Belarus by CASE Belarus winning for their respective analytical reports. The primary reasons for both organisations being awarded the title are their proven methodology, concrete recommendations and communication/outreach efforts to policy-makers and the general public. They collected respectively 128 thousands viewers/474 comments and 193 thousands viewers/346 comments on TUT.by.
Environmental Save of the Year: In Defense of Belarusian wetlands campaign
Implemented by a number of environmental CSOs, the campaign managed to stop peat mining in protected areas and save four wetlands. Using a wide range of tools (information campaign, support of other CSOs and unaffiliated people, creative actions, etc.), the campaign got support even from institutions and people far from environmental issues.
Local Fundraising of the Year: MaeSens project
For the second time in a row Pact sees the MaeSens project as a successful local fundraising initiative. There are two main reasons for this selection: i) reportedly about $250 thousand of private donations were collected for charity; ii) a new initiative Social Weekend was introduced this year giving average people a voice to select and vote for the best grassroots initiatives out there. Under Social Weekend more than 100 grassroots initiatives were competing for local sponsors’ support based on people’s choice and a public benefit criteria.
Grassroots of the Year: European Perspective NGO
The European Perspective NGO gave a voice to people who opposed government-backed construction projects in Minsk that affect over 200,000 people. Seven local advocacy campaigns resulted in citizens’ self-organising into groups of interest who are able to act independently, protecting their properties' from construction work and articulating their interests via a series of self-initiated public hearings. President Lukashenka reacted with a recommendation for authorities to conduct a more balanced urban policy.
Innovation of the Year: Kosht Urada
Kosht Urada (Cost of the State) an interactive on-line resource was launched on December 10, 2013 by the Belarusian Institute of Public Administration Reform and Transformation (BIPART). Kosht Urada serves to every citizen promoting accountability of the government and transparency of state spending as well as educating general public on how state budget is formed, how much taxes citizen spend on the state and where citizen’s taxes go. In the first day of operating Kosht Urada was visited by more than 8000 visitors also the project received considerable media coverage (here, here and here).
Art Project of the Year: Must Act – Must Art street art project
Paid for by local business and coordinated with the Budzma campaign and city administrations, street art community SIGNAL gathered street artists who painted the walls and courtyards in Mogilev and Gomel. Thus, the project visually and brightly promotes civic practises aimed at creating a friendly and humane urban environment.
New Forum of the Year: Kastrychnіtskі Ekanamіchny Forum – KEF
On November 5 Kastrychnіtskі Ekanamіchny Forum (October Economic Forum) was launched by a consortium of leading Belarusian economic research institutions, including the IPM Research Center, BEROC and CASE Belarus, with an inauguration conference entitled New Opportunities or Old Challenges? Scenarios for Belarus Economy. KEF is designed as a new platform for an open professional dialogue on sustainable development in Belarus in the context of the newest development of global economy.
And last but not least….
For something completely different of the Year
With Presidential elections coming up in 2015, the trophy for something completely different goes to the Green Party of Belarus, which suggested in October that an octopus should pick a single candidate from the opposition. The prospective candidates should all take a short swim in a small pool with an octopus, and whoever the octopus touches wins the primaries.
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.
Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk: Authorities Struggle With Challenges
The World Ice Hockey Championship will take place in Minsk on 9-25 May. Although not as extensive as those for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, preparation for this major sporting event is riddled with abuses and misteps.
Belarusian authorities are accused of using forced labour in the ice hockey arena's construction and struggle with organising English language classes for the police. They also produced a large number of souvenirs that have subsequently been prohibited to sell.
Some in the Belarusian opposition tried to persuade the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Ice Hockey World Championship to relocate the championship from Minsk because of its human rights violations. But the campaigners failed to persuade the organisers. For the first time in its history Belarus will be hosting a sporting event of this magnitude.
Belarusian officials are waiting for thousands of foreign tourists projected to be coming to Minsk and preparing a huge PR campaign which should transform the negative image of Belarus in the west.
Forced labour at ice hockey arena construction
Two major Ice Hockey arenas in Minsk will host the championship in 2014. One of them is Chyzhouka Arena with capacity 7,700 seats projected and built especially for the tournament. Chyzhouka Arena was supposed to open on 7 November – October Revolution Day which has remained a holiday and day off in Belarus since Soviet times. As often happens during these kinds of big sporting events, the builders failed to finish the construction on the fixed deadline.
To speed up construction, Belarusian officials made a very typical decision for Belarus. They sent hundreds of students from Minsk universities to work on the construction for free as unskilled labour during the academic day. Many students claimed that universities administrators threatened to create problems for those who would refused to work.
When asked by a journalist from Naviny.by about the compulsory labour of students the rector of Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics answered that the university does not force students to work who do not want to. He mentioned that very few students were actually involved. “Anyway we will not use any kind of crackdowns to those who will refuse working. Do I look like a man who is behaving in such a way?” stated the rector.
Nevertheless it is very difficult to imagine large numbers of students volunteering to work for free. Officials responsible for the ice hockey arena construction are doing everything possible to avoid the wrath of Lukashenka, the country's most famous hockey player. An economic crisis and very low salaries for unskilled jobs have resulted in labour migration, which lead to the conditions of the current scenario.
The forced labour of students became an extreme measure which the lack of a labour force has provoked. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. According to a report released a International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) – Human Rights Center “Viasna” joint report in 2013, forced labour is widespread in Belarus in various sectors and in various forms.
Lost in translation
Belarus announced visa-free travel to Belarus during the Ice Hockey Championship from Western countries. The government expects thousands of tourists. Those who will show up at a border control desk a ticket to the ice hockey match will be able to enter Belarus without a visa from 25 April to 31 May 2013.
Most of the tourists will likely try their hand at doing some shopping and try to find a common language with local population using English. But, those who have travelled to Belarus know that even that country's border guards often do not speak single word of a foreign languages.
Although every Belarusian secondary school has foreign languages classes as a required part of their curriculum, it is almost impossible to find in Minsk an English speaking policeman or shop assistant. To change the situation the Minsk city police force organised English language classes for 500 policemen. Belarusian universities published a number of phrase books especially for the ice hockey championship.
One of the phrase books issued for roadside activities attracted the attention of journalists. Many translations in the book look very formal. Some phrases can be a cause for laughter. For example “Mrs.=Mistress/Miss”, vacuum cleaner translated as “vacuum cleaner food” etc. Some phrases seem to be useless. According to the phrase book foreigners will ask in the shop such question as “How many customers do you have?” or they will address shop assistant with words “I must buy much things” etc.
The head of the foreign languages department of The Belarusian Trade and Economics University of Consumer Cooperatives Tatsiana Dubaucova compiled the phrase book. She complained to journalists that the department had very very little time to prepare the phrase books. When speaking about the mistakes in the book she mentioned that university employees do not have opportunities for internships in foreign countries. Otherwise there would be fewer mistakes.
The phrase book illustrates well the current situation of Belarusian education system. Isolated from the Bologna process, Belarusian scholars have very few opportunities for academic exchange and to gain work experience abroad. The small salaries provided at universities do not encourage ambitious students to pursue an academic career. All these factors led to the difficulties surrounding the compiling of a phrase book for the universities.
Souvenirs not for sale
Perhaps the most frustrating incident to surface for Belarusian officials related to the championship occurred in autumn. Belarusian state enterprises produced millions of souvenirs and different products with the championship's official symbols. However, according to the IIHF rules they had to be removed from sale on 9 February 2014 – three months before the championship. It is an obligatory measure to that protects the rights reserved by an official merchandise supplier.
In November the IIHF signed a contract with the Swedish company NEH which obtained exclusive rights to manufacture the products with the championship's symbols. Beginning on 9 February the company will be an exclusive manufacturer of all souvenirs for the World Cup. So the Belarus-made souvenir-magnets, notepads, cups, bags, T-shirts and flags with championship symbols will be possible to buy only after championship’s is finished, long after all the tourists have left.
Justifying the epic failure of Belarusian marketing, state media declared that all the souvenirs would be sold before 9 February. But it is hard to believe that at the height of economic crisis Belarusians will rush to buy useless products such as clay pucks, pennants, badges, caps etc.
The Ice Hockey championship 2014 will be held the same year as the Winter Olympics, a time when all the hockey's stars will play in Sochi. It would appear that, as a result, interest in the tournament will be low. Nevertheless the Belarusian authorities expect lots of tourists to bring in the foreign currency so very badly needed by the Belarusian economy.
To attract more tourists and to have more noticeable PR campaign, Lukashenka even could release some political prisoners. That being said, even if tourists come in droves to Minsk it is highly unlikely that it will solve the problems of the Belarusian economy, which is an outsider in world market. The same as Belarusian ice hockey team which will be an outsider at the tournament and will struggle for its survival in Division A of world ice hockey according to experts.