Top 10 events of Belarus Civil Society in 2018 according to Pact
Traditionally Pact highlights some of the most prominent developments in and affecting Belarus civil society. Belarus Digest publishes the top ten list below.
Soft “Belarusization” of the Year: BNR#100
A large-scale celebration of Freedom Day dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR) took place on March 25, in front of the Opera Theater in Minsk and gathered – according to various sources – up to 50,000 Belarusians. For the first time in many years, this day was held as a festival and for the first time sanctioned by authorities in the down-town of Minsk. Organized by civil society and opposition political parties, a crowdfunding campaign to conduct the event broke the national record by the number of donators: over 2,000 people contributed $25,000 to cover event-related costs.
Engagement of the Year: Civil Society Gains Voice
The international forum Eastern Europe: In Search of Security for All, organized by an unregistered Minsk Dialogue Track-II Initiative in May 2018 to discuss challenges to regional and global security, was addressed in person by Alexander Lukashenka. Belarus top-officials were in attendance of other flagship civil-society events. Few examples include: Prime Minister Siarhei Rumas opened the Global Entrepreneurship Week, GEW; First Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Turchin was a key-note speaker at the Kastryčnicki Economic Forum, KEF.
Civic Action of the Year: Gender Initiatives
At least two noticeable gender-focused initiatives emerged in 2018 in response to actions of state officials. The sexist remark Lady, Comfortable in Daily Life in the state-run newspaper describing an independent female journalist became viral in social networks and gave birth to the eponymous Art project. The campaign March, Baby! originated after Lukashenka rejected law criminalizing domestic violence as ‘Western nonsense’, prepares a public march to show that the issue is pertinent to the mainstream society in Belarus.
Grassroots of the Year: People Take Action
The growth of local activism continues in Belarus, especially in the field of protection of residents’ rights. In the village of Kolodishchi, local residents resist the construction of a plant that threatens a green zone near their houses. In Brest, regular rallies gather hundreds of people to protest against the construction of a battery plant with potential lead emissions.
Picketing in Kurapaty lasts for half a year: activists are seeking the closure of a restaurant built near the memorial to the victims of Stalin’s repressions.
Fundraising of the Year: Imena platform
Imena (’Names’ in English) non-profit platform is known for its local fundraising success. Starting its work as an online magazine about people in need, Imena attracted over $700,000 to support social projects and its own operations. In 2018, together with a commercial bank, Imena launched a unique initiative: 0.5% of each bank customer’s purchase goes for the Imena-sponsored projects. Now Imena is transforming into a fund that will help ad-hoc teams of activists develop from scratch into sustainable civic initiatives.
The inclusion of the Year: Sasha Avdevich and School of Inclusive Barista
Sasha Avdevich, a wheelchair user, is a bright example of how people with disabilities can live a full life. Sasha travels the world, runs his blog on YouTube and initiates projects for the “invisible” people to society. In 2018, Sasha created the first-ever School of Inclusive Barista that helps people in wheelchairs get a new profession. One more civic start-up is implemented jointly with a local sneaker factory: for each pair sold, part of the money goes to charity.
Repression of the Year: Independent Media
In 2018, independent media became a focus of government persecution. During the year, over 100 fines were imposed on reporters – an all-time record. In August, a wave of searches of Belarusian major independent media’s newsrooms and detentions took place under the so-called BelTA case – a criminal investigation into alleged unauthorized access to paid services of the government-owned BelTA news agency.
While 14 of the 15 accused journalists have been cleared of criminal charges having paid at least $35,000 in fines, the TUT.BY editor-in-chief is still under criminal investigation. Early in the year, an opposition website Charter97.org was blocked in Belarus.
’Never Before’ of the Year: Belarus Government Reports before the UN Human Rights Committee
Belarusian authorities presented a country report at the 124th session of the UN Human Rights Committee in October, in Geneva. The government last reported over 20 years ago despite the fact that Belarus is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and is obliged to periodically submit reports on the implementation of the Covenant. Belarusian human rights coalition prepared an alternative report.
Research of the Year: Supporters of Market Economy More Than Doubled Over 10 Years
Half of the Belarusian society stands for partial or full market economy, according to the study that examined the values of Belarusians in 2018. Belarusians believe that the main task of the state is “to give an opportunity to earn money”. Thus, over the past 10 years, the number of people who share the principles of a market economy has doubled – a major shift in Belarusians’ mindset towards paternalistic society? The study was commissioned by the IPM Research Center on the eve of Kastryčnicki Economic Forum, KEF.
And Now For Something Completely Different of the Year: Stepping on the Same Rake?
500,000 Belarusians are in the “social parasites” database. This is a list of the “freeloaders” or those who are not employed in the Belarusian economy, composed in early December to correspond the president’s decree #1 On Employment. Recall that the previously cancelled decree #3, imposing a “social parasite tax”, caused mass protests in 2017 across the country when tax authorities delivered “happiness letters” to 470,000 adult Belarusians. Lesson not learned!
10 most-read stories on Belarus Digest published in 2018
In 2018 Belarus Digest readers particularly interested in our articles on Belarus visa issues, security as well as the relations of Belarus and Russia.
Belarus Digest team wishes its readers a healthy, productive and happy new year!
Here we compiled our top 10 most read stories published in 2018.
On 26 December, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka signed a new decree on a 10-days visa-free entry regime for foreigners. It expands upon last year’s decree on a 5-day visa-free entrance to the Augustow zone in the Hrodna region. The changes are in tandem with a February 2017 decree, which grants tourists a Belarus-wide, five-day visa provided they fly into Minsk airport.
The new visa-free rules are valid from 2018 and allow citizens of 77 countries to spend 10 days without a visa in the Hrodna and Brest regions. No changes have been made for those who enter without a visa into Minsk airport, and as such can still only spend five days in Belarus, but are able to travel anywhere in the country.
The current visa-free regime appears to be a logical continuation of the process of visa liberalisation, which has been taking place within the country. However, the territorial and administrative restrictions on visa-free travel to Belarus still create inconveniences for tourists. Concerns of the KGB and the Internal Affairs Ministry create additional obstacles for the implementation for simpler and longer visa-free regimes.
On 26 February, Thai police arrested Belarusian model Nastya Rybka (Anastasiya Vashukevich) and her Belarus-born “sex coach” Alex Lesley (Alexander Kirillov) on charges of arranging “sex-training” courses in Thailand without work permits.
Prior to this, Rybka and Lesley sparked a major sex-scandal in Russia involving oligarch Oleg Deripaska and the Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko. Rybka subsequently claimed to be in possession of secret recordings proving Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and requested US asylum.
While Russians have paid between $600 to $1500 for Lesley’s seduction classes in Moscow, Belarusians eagerly splash similar amounts of money on “sex training” courses and consultations with parapsychologists.
Belarusian astrologers, bioenergy consultants, and “sex coaches” vigorously advertise themselves on the internet. The general decline in levels of education, as well as the demographic gender imbalance, have created a perfect breeding ground for the appearance of numerous occult practitioners and self-proclaimed “sex experts” in Belarus.
In a speech to the Belarusian parliament, Alexander Lukashenka expressed dissatisfaction with Belarusian airlines. The president questioned the absence of low-cost flights in Belarus and Belarusians’ extensive use of Vilnius, Warsaw and Kiev airports. This issue – discussed by Belarusians for several years – has been problematised by Lukashenka for the first time.
Companies such as Ryanair and Wizzair find it unprofitable to fly to Minsk airport, and so Belarusians choose to travel to airports in neighbouring countries.
According to the administration of Belavia, the Belarusian national carrier, it would be detrimental for their business to welcome cheap flights to the country. As a result, Belarusians choose between Lithuanian, Ukrainian or Polish airports – or seek out rare Belavia online sales.
On 25th January 2018, top Belarusian media outlet TUT.BY compiled a portrait of the average Belarusian citizen. The media outlet used a combination of recent data from the National Statistical Committee of Belarus, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations. Apparently, the average Belarusian citizen is a 42-and-a-half-year old woman with higher education. She speaks Russian, votes for Lukashenka, and consumes 64 kg of potatoes per year.
At the same time, the recent statistical data on the Belarusian population raises a number of concerns. Belarus comprises an ageing nation with astonishing gender imbalances. While Belarusian women face difficulties in finding a marriage partner, Belarusian men fervently consume alcohol.
The diet of Belarusian citizens still lacks fruit and vegetables, and their salary ranks among the least competitive in the region. Permanent stress eventually take its toll in the form of heart disease.
Only 13% of pupils in Belarus study in the Belarusian language. The authorities, therefore, aroused great public interest with a recent promise to establish Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens in each district in Minsk.
At present, the near impossibility of receiving pre-school education in the Belarusian language concerns some parents. Others cling on to even the slightest possibility of ensuring their children’s education in the Belarusian language. Yet others wonder why the question arises at all – thinking that it would be better to teach students English or Chinese.
The rapid disappearance of the Belarusian language from the education sector (from 19% in the 2010/2011 academic year to 13% in 2017/2018) paradoxically coincided with the increasing popularity of various kinds of Belarusian cultural initiatives and projects.
On 20 March 2018, Metropolitan Pavel (also known as Georgy Ponomarev) – the Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslaŭje, and Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus – stated his wish to organize the visit of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Minsk. He scheduled the visit to follow on the heels of Pope Francis’s visit to Vilnius.
Some see this as the latest in a series of efforts by Russia to provoke religious conflict in Belarus. Russia’s actions earlier this year can be seen in the same light.
Speaking in Brussels on 1 June, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei warned that a proposed US military base in Poland would trigger a response in the region. Moreover, if tensions grow, as a result, the Belarusian government could soon play host to a Russian military base.
On the same day, while visiting border guards in the south of the country, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka sounded a different note. He would prefer Ukraine to join NATO than see it taken over by nationalism and turn into “a bandit state” where a war of “everyone against everyone” rages.
The Belarusian government has held this ambiguous position for decades. As NATO enlarged towards Belarusian borders, Minsk constantly adjusted its rhetoric and engaged in cautious yet increasing cooperation with the alliance. The “NATO ghost”, however, remained a major theme in Belarus’s relations with Russia.
8. Skyrocketing economic growth and weak regional development – a digest of the Belarusian economy by Aleh Mazol from Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)
On 16 March 2018, the official statistical body of Belarus Belstat has announced that GDP growth in the first two months of the year has accelerated.
Meantime, the weak regional development cast doubt on the sustainability of Belarusian economic growth in the future. Decreasing population number, lack of investment, and depressed business climate accompanied by low average wages play here a crucial role.
Finally, on 20 March 2018, the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka has announced plans for the establishment of a new ministry – The Ministry of Digital Economy. The digital transformation of the economy needs authorized governance.
9. Opinion: Cannabis Reform in Belarus? by Michael Dorman
On 17 February 2018, a group of young Belarusians holding a banner reading ‘Legalize Belarus’ gathered on Independence Avenue in the heart of Minsk. The group was campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana in Belarus, a proposition that, at least for now, seems unlikely to attract support from the public or government officials.
The perception of cannabis use in Belarus has been largely shaped by Soviet-era misinformation and anti-cannabis propaganda disseminated by the Lukashenka government. Adding to the stigma of cannabis use is the fact that Belarus has some of the harshest drug laws in Europe and its penal code makes no distinction between the categories of drugs.
On 6-8 April, Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe will visit Belarus. Wei’s combined visit to Russia and Belarus, his first foreign trip since taking up the post, demonstrates recognition that Minsk gives the highest priority to its partnership with Beijing.
The Belarusian authorities have chosen orientation towards Beijing as a fundamental dogma in foreign policy. Belarus pursues this policy despite contradictory effects of the alliance with China. The Belarusian government hopes that it will get a better place in the sun in a future world shaped by China. For the time being it tries to reap some smaller benefits from Beijing to restructure its industry, find new loans and rearm.