Top 10 Belarus Civil Society in 2015
In anticipation of the New Year, Belarus Digest publishes Pact's overview of some of the most notable Belarus’ civil society developments in 2015.
For the fourth straight year, Pact presents its version of the top 10 civic initiatives in order to acknowledge individuals and groups whose enthusiasm, dedication, and communication contributed to positive change in Belarus.
The top 10 list below represents only a portion of developments in Belarus civic space, which has become more vibrant and diverse over the years.
Event of the Year: Open-air Concerts at the Town Hall
For the third consecutive year, Fond of Ideas organized open-air free music concerts in the heart of Minsk on the Freedom Square. This summer, three Saturday jazz evenings (with participation of European stars) and four classical music concerts attracted a record high of more than 70,000 people.
The events were funded by local business companies according to the concept of social corporate responsibility and aimed “to change urban space, make Minsk brighter and louder” and closer to European standards with wider civic space.
Advocacy of the Year: Entrepreneurs
This year, vendors continued to advocate for a workable regulatory environment for small businesses, which came under threat following the Presidential Decree #222, which introduced a complicated procedure of certification of light industry products in accordance with the Customs Union rules.
Due to their visibility and consistency achieved through a number of massive events (at least four public forums, the most abundant of which gathered 1,200 participants in February) and protests (in October nearly 500 entrepreneurs went on strike in Polotsk), the entrepreneurs managed to freeze new regulations for one and half years.
Perspektiva, a small vendors association headed by Anatoly Shumchanka, articulates the voice of 120,000 individual entrepreneurs and 140,000 hired employees. At the recent forum, Perspektiva proposed an anti-crisis plan to authorities in order to postpone the Decree for another 6 months and create an inter-sectoral working group to resolve the situation.
Authorities, including president Lukashenka, reacted to the entrepreneurs’ situation (in March Lukashenka met with entrepreneurs in one of the Minsk malls), however it looks like officials will push for the implementation of new regulations as they believe that the abolition of the Decree will cause negative consequences for the economy.
Civil Society Theme of the Year: Community Development
This year, several programmes gave a new impetus to the adoption of local community (and particularly urban) development topics and promotion of community activism. Superheroes School trained 42 activists who implemented a number of visible improvement projects in Minsk communities. After piloting the topic last year, the 2015 Leadership in Local Communities program recruited 30 rural and urban activists for a community development-learning course.
The first summer reality-competition of urban projects #RazamMіnsk received 300 applications and rolled out 12 projects implemented without donor funding. The General Plan For Minskers! campaign was highly visible, fostering public discussion of the draft plan for Minsk development, as well as the Minsk Urban Platform urban-oriented projects and events.
Moreover, 87 out of 722 initiative applicants are lined up for funding under the UNDP/EU joint Support to Local Development project; 12 out of 60 community proposals were selected for their economic empowerment by New Eurasia.
Breakthrough of the Year: Bologna Process
In May 2015, Belarus joined the Bologna process. The accession to the Bologna process has the potential to affect nearly 400,000 university students in Belarus every year. In 2012, Belarus’ accession to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) was blocked due to the alternative report of the Public Bologna Committee of Belarusian civil society representatives that referred to numerous violations of academic freedom, particularly students and teachers who had been expelled/fired because of their political opinions.
This year the Bologna Committee achieved the mandatory condition for Belarus to implement the roadmap for higher education reform in Belarus in accordance with the values, principles and goals of the EHEA. While Pact has chosen the Bologna accession as its Breakthrough of the Year nominee, we would like to give due regard to another important development this year: Belarus’ accession to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which after 8 years of efforts may positively affect over 500,000 disabled Belarusians.
Policy Outreach of the Year: Kastryčnicki Economic Forum (KEF)
In November, Minsk hosted the largest economic conference in Belarus in a decade – the Kastryčnicki Ekanamičny Forum (KEF), organized by the independent think tanks IPM Research Centre, CASE Belarus, and BEROC. The event gathered over 300 high ranking professionals for an open dialogue on economic reforms, reaching out to over 2,5 million Belarusians through conference-related publications.
First Deputy Economy Minister of Belarus Alexander Zaborovsky presented the road map of reforms and, while President Lukashenka publicly reacted with criticism and reluctance, the public debate and demand is out there thanks to KEF. Thus, BISS’ surveys demonstrate that the Belarusians, including entrepreneurs and state servants believe in the urgency of economic reforms.
Political Event of the Year: Release of Political Prisoners
On August 22nd, six political prisoners were suddenly released in Belarus: Mikalai Dziadok, Ihar Alinevich, Mikalai Statkevich, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka and Yury Rubtsou. Aliaksandr Lukashenka pardoned them in accordance with the "principles of humanity," in an attempt to normalise relations with the West.
Since that time, police have been applying ‘soft practices,’ such as avoiding new politically motivated cases and arrests of organizers and participants of unauthorized protests. However, on December 7th, Belarusian human rights defenders recognize a founder of Platforma NGO, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, as a new political prisoner.
Fundraiser of the Year: Crowdfunding Platforms
Three crowdfunding platforms that attract people’s funding for non-profit ideas emerged in 2015 in Belarus – Talakosht by Talaka.by platform and Ulej/Beehive by Belgasprombank in the spring, as well as MaeSens after upgrading at the end of the year. For the first six months of the platforms’ activity, the projects placed at Ulej collected $30,000; at Talakosht – $17,000; and at MaeSens (which has been working since 2011) – $300,000.
Art Project of the Year: Urban Myths Festival
From September to November 2015, street artists from different countries painted Minsk buildings based on their talks with local activists and modern history as part of the Urban Myths festival, organized by the Signal street art community. Two of the Minsk murals – Man without Identity and Girl in Embroidered Shirt – for the first time in Belarus history place in the top 10 ratings of the best graffiti in the world. The new artistic images caused heated debate between citizens who are irritated with graffiti and those who believe that street art makes Minsk more European.
Innovation of the Year: Online Platforms to Petition Government Agencies
This year’s mechanism to petition authorities and resolve citizens’ concerns moved increasingly online. A Minsk resident Valery Koldachev launched the One-Window-Online website, which enables people to send information about Minsk problems to the relevant state agency and monitor how the issue is resolved.
Comfortable City platform founded by the KoshtUrada project helps to create petitions and collect signatures to support them. The most impressive statistics belong to the 115.бел website of the Center for Information Technology of the Minsk municipality – launched on November 1st, the website has already solved about 1,500 issues in the sphere of housing and communal services.
And For Something Completely Different: The First Ever Nobel for Belarus Was not Celebrated by The State and Сaused Debates in Civil Society
This year’s Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, the country’s first Nobel laureate. While officials discreetly congratulated the laureate, who consistently criticizers the authoritarian regimes, ordinary Belarusians, independent media, and CSOs conducted creative flash mobs, organised joint watching of the award ceremony, and intensively covered the event.
Aleksievich also came under fire from some of Lukashenka’s opponents for allegedly not doing enough to cultivate Belarusian national identity, as well as not turning the Nobel lecture into a political rally. Yet, over a hundred Belarusians gathered at the airport to greet Svetlana Alexievich as she arrived back home and congratulate her on winning the prestigious award.
Quality of Gender Equality in Belarus
Various publicly available indexes portray Belarus as a country with high gender equality.
Belarus carried the 6th highest UNDP's Gender Development Index (GDI) value and ranked 31st in the 2014 Gender Inequality Index (GII). In comparison, GII ranks for Russian Federation and the United States are 54 and 55 respectively.
At the same time, social and political life in Belarus lacks influential women. While promoting equal employment of women, state predominantly practises selective appointment of women to high posts in politics and state owned enterprises based on their loyalty to the regime.
In addition, patriarchal thinking dominates social system in which male remains the primary authority figure central to social organisation and the central role of political leadership.
Declared Gender Equality
Measures to ensure equal opportunities for men and women have been an integral part of the social policy of the Belarusian state. Belarus ratified a number of international documents on gender equality and combating discrimination on grounds of sex.
The National Council on Gender Policy at the Council of Ministers currently implements its fourth national action plan for gender equality for 2011 – 2015. Priority in this document is given to the situation of women in the socioeconomic sphere, issues of reproductive health, development of gender education, prevention of domestic violence and others.
President Alexandr Lukashenka significantly increased the number of women in representative bodies using his almost complete control over the political system of Belarus. On 14 April 2014 Lukashenka in his address to the National Assembly and the Belarusian people said: "Women in parliament should represent no less than 30 – 40 per cent. This will make Parliament stable and calm." Today women indeed occupy 30.1 per cent of parliamentary seats. Parliament, however, has no real real authority in Belarus as it merely rubber-stamps decisions of the executive.
"Women in parliament should represent no less than 30 - 40 per cent. This will make Parliament stable and calm." Read more
Women lack representation in the highest echelons of the executive branch. While one of the deputy prime-ministers is a woman (Natallia Kačanava), out of 24 ministers, only two (8 per cent) represent females. The highest number of women ministers never exceeded three and occurred only once in the government of 2004 – 2005, when women held the posts of Minister of Labour and Social Protection, Minister of Healthcare, and Minister of Taxes and Duties.
In Belarus, a woman never served as a chair of regional executive committee, the highest executive position of one of the six administrative regions in the country.
Women in Business
The situation with women in Belarusian business is rather mixed. According to U.S. research firm Expert Market, which looked at data from the International Labour Organisation Statistical Office (ILO) 2014, Belarus ranks 6th in the world with 46.2 per cent among the countries that have a higher percentage of female CEOs than men.
Many first world countries including the U.S. are outside top 10 countries on that list. The U.S. for example ranks at number 15 with 42.7 per cent of women in managerial positions.
Women in Belarus can indeed become heads even at the higher managerial levels: Aliena Kudraviec, the present General Director of JSC “Belarus Potash Company”, one of the world's largest suppliers and exporters of potash fertilisers, is a woman.
Currently replaced by males, females managed such Belarusian giants as “Kamunarka” and “Spartak”, confectionery factory “Slodych”, and garment factory “Elema”.
The high rating of the number of female CEOs Belarus, however, only gives a general picture of who is who in business in Belarus. Belarusian National Statistical Committee does not keep records of the number of entrepreneurs by gender, but it shows that women compose around 53 per cent of population in the country. However, the list of top 300 Belarusian businessmen in 2014, annually composed by an online Belarusian newspaper Ezhednevnik, included only fourteen female names (less than 5 per cent).
Women’s presence on the board of large companies does not surprise anyone. However, the majority of female entrepreneurship in Belarus mainly develops in the form of small companies in retail and wholesale trade, catering, educational, and professional services.
Covert and Overt Interference with Gender Equality
One of the causes of selective business or political representation of women hides in patriarchal mentality of many Belarusians. The majority sticks to the installation that men should have the prerogative of making money, whereas women should adhere to household chores.
One can see a paradox in public remarks of the female Chair of the Central Election Commission of Belarus Lidzija Jarmošyna about participation of women in the post-election protests on 19 December 2010. She said
These women should sit at home and cook borsch [traditional beetroot soup – BD] instead of walking on the square. It's a shame for a woman to participate in such events. I can understand when a girl is young and foolish. But when a woman is aged, then, sorry, something is wrong with her intelligence.
All women occupying high positions only perform purely structural function ensuring the reproduction of a model, in which the head of the state – "batska" or paternal leader – acts as a guarantor of stability. As a result of merging of politics and economics, the government of Belarus with all resources in its hands, has acted as a “father” providing for the livelihood of its “family” – the people of Belarus.
International rankings and organisations recognise that Belarus has made considerable progress in aligning social status of men and women. However, regardless that women in Belarus can occupy high business and political posts, such practise is not widespread. On the one hand, Belarusian society still remains full of gender stereotypes. On the other hand, state appoints only loyal females to high posts to ensure the functioning of the government vertical.