Transformation of Belarus is a marathon, not a sprint
Belarusians have surprised the world on many occasions since August 2020. No one would have dreamt that hundreds of thousands of people would be protesting on the streets of the capital Minsk for months. However, as a result of intimidation, torture, and the general tiredness of protesters the number of people on the streets is likely to decline. The question is whether the protest energy will evaporate or be directed at other activities.
According to Max Borgetsov, head of the Coordination Council which unites prominent representatives of the opposition and civil society, it is the economy, not street protests, that will change the situation in Belarus. It will take a while for the economy to bite, but in any event, replacing Lukashenka is the first — but not the only — step towards the transformation of the country.
Promises of quick changes will lead to disappointment, as they have done many times before. Except for a brief period in the early 1990s, Belarusians have had no experience of voting in free and fair elections and using democratic institutions. Belarusian society is highly atomized, and many active people move abroad to avoid repression or in search of a better life.
A new approach should supplement the symbolism of shaming and sanctions with real effectiveness. Helping Belarusians stay in the country, reviving horizontal links in the Belarusian society, working on alternative visions on Belarus as well as involving credible foreign mediators could serve as important elements of Belarus’ transformation.
Helping active Belarusians to stay in the country
The Belarusian authorities put a lot of effort into exiling those whom they consider dangerous, particularly protest leaders. Svetlana Tsikahouskaya, the most popular oppositional presidential candidate was forced to leave, alongside scores of prominent opposition activists. Exiling people makes the regime’s task easier — there is no need to imprison or waste other resources to stop their activism.
It is right that other countries, particularly Poland and Lithuania, help the victims of repression who leave Belarus. For example, the Kalinowski Scholarship funded by Poland helps young Belarusians study at Polish universities. The Lithuanian government, meanwhile, supports the European Humanities University. However, helping active Belarusians to stay in Belarus is equally or even more important than helping those who have left. What happens inside Belarus matters the most for change to be realised.
In addition to offering scholarships for Belarusians to study abroad, similar opportunities should be created for them to stay in Belarus. Teachers, scholars, and artists could benefit from even small scale but long-term support in the form of stipends, fellowships, research or other collaboration programmes. For example, for many years the Open Society Foundations have supported young Belarusians educated abroad to return to teach at Belarusian universities.
Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine recently rolled out programmes to help Belarusian IT specialists relocate to these countries. Thousands have already left or will do so soon. But many of them would rather stay in Belarus and try to transform the country from within. Instead of tempting them to relocate, more opportunities should be created for them to stay inside Belarus and work from there remotely. Belarusian IT specialists have played a central role in creating online platforms for crowdfunding, elections, and greater self-organization of civil society. Max Bogretsov, a leading figure of the Coordination Council based in Belarus, is an IT specialist who decided to return to Belarus from the United States to engage in politics.
Reviving civil society through strengthening horizontal links
A quarter of a century of Lukashenka’s rule has devastated the Belarusian political and civil society landscape. It is nearly impossible to register a political party in Belarus. Registering an NGO pursuing conduct not approved by the authorities can be equally challenging. Acting on behalf of an unorganized body may result in criminal charges. As a result, Belarusian society is highly atomized, particularly when it comes to groups that can articulate political demands.
The emergence of local groups of protesters through the Telegram online messenger service since the August presidential election offers a promise of re-creating a civil society texture in Belarus. Hundreds of new groups have emerged, which not only go to protests together but self-organize in other ways. This includes inviting musicians to perform and politicians to speak, and helping victims of police brutality or political persecution.
If these group could expand their activities to elect their own leadership to resolve local matters or negotiate with the authorities, that could be an important step towards creating a stronger civil society in Belarus. In neighbouring Russia, for example, local housing cooperatives nominated and supported candidates for local legislative bodies.
The influx of hundreds of thousands of new people into the protest movement has made clear not only the lack of legitimacy of President Lukashenka’s regime but also the potential of people to self-organize. For example, fundraising campaign BY_help raised over USD 2m within days from Belarusians based in Belarus and from the diaspora. Other fundraising campaigns supported the victims of police brutality, helped people who have lost their jobs, journalists and local initiatives.
However, most of these fundraising campaigns like currently lack a solid institutional structure to process and effectively distribute the money raised. Large sums of money raised are paid to compensate fines imposed by the authorities to the state budget rather than to support new projects and initiatives. With some help, such fundraising campaigns like dugnad idrettslag could be turned into sustainable “budgets of civil society”. Reliance on Belarusian domestic funds may also help to de-bureaucratize financial aid and strengthen the sustainability of the transformation process.
These fundraising initiatives would also benefit from diversifying their activities, improving their management and accountability mechanisms, cybersecurity using a service similar to Sapphire and hiring staff for long-term operation.
Working on alternative visions of Belarus
Belarusians need to formulate a better understanding of how the country could develop. The West can offer visa-free travel and promise financial aid in the future, but most of the work on alternative scenarios should be done by Belarusians themselves. Most people in Belarus have a vague idea about building a rule of law environment and a society based on political pluralism.
It is, therefore, not surprising that conspiracy theories thrive on social networks, with people accusing each other of being puppets of Russia, the United States or Lukashenka. The majority seems to agree that Lukashenka did not win in the 2020 presidential elections. But there is no consensus among Belarusians on whether Belarus should be neutral, side with the West or Russia, whether the Belarusian language should be the only official language or about the role of the state in the economy.
Creating a culture of respectful debate is not easy in an authoritarian environment but a discussion of different options for Belarus in the future should begin now, rather than after Lukashenka is gone.
In those processes, the role of political think tanks and media is crucial. Starved of funding, independent analytical centres are largely ignored by the Belarusian authorities and the West and are struggling to make any long-term plans. Supporting think tanks, helping them to work with disillusioned former government officials, formulate and communicate alternative visions of Belarus could create a fertile ground for future social and political transformation.
The role of foreign powers: between intervention and mediation
Foreign powers need to find a balance between trying to support certain political forces in the country and mediating between them.
While the West makes symbolic gestures to support 2020 presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanoskaya and other opposition figures, Russia’s support of Lukashenka in different forms (from loans to sending propaganda and security services teams to Belarus) is more tacit and effective. It appears that the West should learn how to better balance symbolic gestures which look good on TV and effective tacit support.
At the end of August, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to involve the regional intergovernmental body the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as a mediator between the Belarusian authorities and the opposition. According to Macron, Putin passed this proposal to Lukashenka, but he rejected it. Lukashenka does not want to legitimize the opposition by sitting with them at the same OSCE table. Meanwhile, Russia hopes to be the only mediator, despite clearly having sided with the current regime.
Involving true foreign mediators in internal dialogue, such as the OSCE, could help overcome the current stalemate and prevent further bloodshed. However, at the moment the Belarusian regime is counting on clinging on to power using force. At the same time, Russia is pushing for constitutional reform in Belarus hoping to give more prominence to other pro-Russian groups in the country. It appears that constitutional reform will happen soon, as several new pro-Russian and pro-Lukashenka groups are getting ready to officially become parties.
However, in a country with weak rule of law, constitutions are little more than a façade shielding lawlessness. When the Soviet Union adopted its new constitution in 1936, it was one of the most progressive in the world. It guaranteed freedom of conscience, speech, press, assembly and rallies, as well as universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot. That constitution failed to prevent the Soviet state from murdering and imprisoning millions of people for their political views. Although Lukashenka and Putin are not getting ready to follow in Stalin’s footsteps, their understanding of the role of the constitution comes from the Soviet tradition.
A new approach: from symbolism to real effectiveness
The conventional approaches to Belarus based on largely symbolic gestures need re-examination. New approaches should in the first place focus on creating the texture of Belarusian civil society inside the country, facilitating its self-reliance and long-term resilience. The ultimate goal should be transformation rather than collapse.
The key features of such an approach could include:
- Strengthening and institutionalizing self-organisation mechanisms such as crowdfunding platforms (including their effectiveness and accountability) and communities in micro districts of Belarusian cities.
- Creating new programmes for Belarusians not only to stay abroad but also to remain in Belarus, such as fellowships, grants, and long-term joint projects with foreign partners.
- Creating viable exit strategies for law enforcement personnel not directly implicated in gross human rights violations through retraining programmes.
- Stepping up efforts to create platforms for political dialogue inside Belarus, engaging various parts of the Belarusian society and state.
- Reputable international organisations such as the OSCE could play an important role in preventing further bloodshed in Belarus and in peacefully resolving the crisis.
- Long-term programmes to facilitate the development of alternative visions of Belarus through capacity building of think tanks, analytical centres, NGOs, whistle-blowers, human rights organizations, traditional and investigative journalism.
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Why the West fails to make a difference in Belarus
Over two months have passed since the beginning of the largest peaceful protests in Belarusian history. The protesters show little willingness to give up and the authorities continue to rely on violence and intimidation, despite calls from the West to stop. Several people have been killed, thousands arrested or tortured in police detention. Many have left the country.
Belarusian state media continues to repeat that Western states direct and fund the protests. But in reality, the West has almost no influence on what is happening in Belarus.
European and American policy-makers are resorting to traditional instruments of pressure which on many occasions in the past proved ineffective. They express “deep concern” and repeatedly ask the authorities to stop the violence, but these calls fall on deaf ears. The sanctions that the West imposes do not bite, and much of the scarce funding allocated for Belarusian civil society stays in the West.
This is the first of two articles reassessing the traditional Western response to human rights violations in Belarus. This article will critically analyze the existing models of support, while the second article will propose changes to make it more effective.
Shaming the authorities will not work
Long before the 9 August presidential elections, the Belarusian authorities adopted a strategy to decapitate protests. Forcing leaders to leave the country became the preferred method of disconnecting them from the protesters. The authorities reserved imprisonment for those who refused to leave. Leaders of traditional opposition groups such as Mikola Statkievich and Pavel Seviatynets found themselves in prison well before elections took place.
Some of the new leaders who emerged in 2020, such as would-be election candidate Viktar Babaryka and his campaign manager Maria Kolesnikova, did not want to leave and also ended up in prison. But most of the leaders of the 2020 presidential election campaign and post-election protests, including opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, prominent member of the opposition Co-0rdination Council Paval Latushka, and scores of others, were forced to leave the country.
Surprisingly, the decapitation of the protests has failed to reduce the number of people coming out to the streets.
With so many leaders abroad it is only natural that they devote much of their attention to lobbying European politicians. Tsikhanouskaya regularly meets top European politicians, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emanuel Macron, and EU officials. Others engage in similar activities trying to energize decision-makers and donors in the West.
Although these activities are important, many have a symbolic rather than practical meaning for the situation inside Belarus. European politicians have almost no leverage over Belarus. They remain interested in the situation in the country, yet are unwilling to allocate significant resources to tackle it. Instead, they stick to traditional instruments, which have been shown to be ineffective in the past.
Most of the time, however, European politicians simply express “deep concern”, shaming President Alexander Lukashenka, calling on him to resign or release political prisoners, and otherwise shaming the Belarusian authorities. However, while the crackdown against peaceful protestors looks shameful in the eyes of western observers, Lukashenka and his cronies consider it a demonstration of their strength. If shaming has no effect, what else can Western leaders do?
Sanctions – a cheap but weak instrument
In theory, sanctions can help punish the perpetrators of human rights violations, deter others from engaging in them, and send a signal of solidarity to the oppressed. Sanctions are also cheap to impose because they do not require any allocation of funds. All these factors have often made them a preferred instrument of pressure for the West.
However, despite the pubic attention which sanctions generate, they usually miss their targets. For example, the United Kingdom and Canada two weeks ago sanctioned several individuals, including Lukashenka himself. They prohibited them from traveling to the United Kingdom and Canada and from using banks in these countries. But those who understand how the Belarusian political system works know that Lukashenka and his close associates are extremely unlikely to have bank accounts in these countries, let alone in their own names. Even if they had them, these accounts would have been closed a long time ago because of the likelihood of sanctions. They are equally unlikely to travel to the United Kingdom or Canada.
The United Kingdom and Canada demonstrated their solidarity with the protesters, two months after the protests started. But instead of punishing the targeted individuals, they may in fact have elevated them in the eyes of Lukashenka and made them even more loyal to the regime. Sanctions should remain a policy instrument, but their effect will remain largely symbolic.
Moreover, states may waste a significant amount of energy introducing sanctions that have only symbolic meaning. For example, Cyprus, an EU member state, for many weeks blocked a sanctions package against Belarus, apparently for reasons that have nothing to do with Belarus.
Currently, the West is not even considering crippling economic sanctions against sectors of the Belarusian economy. This is apparently because of their indiscriminate effect on the Belarusian people, those whom they are meant to protect. Moreover, Tsikhanouskaya and most in the opposition speak against such sanctions.
Overall, the West has no appetite for more serious sanctions. Today, the number of people sanctioned by the European Union is much lower (45 individuals) than it was in after the post-election crackdown in 2010 (75 individuals). This, despite the fact that in 2010, the crackdown against protests was weaker than in 2020 and the authorities did not kill any protesters. The repressions-sanctions-rapprochement cycle has become a familiar feature of EU-Belarus relations. It helps to send the message of disapproval and is cheap, but not really effective.
Supporting civil society – but how?
Supporting civil society seems like another obvious policy tool to support Belarusians. Despite their limited availability and scale, grants and joint projects with Western counterparts play an important role and constitute a vital lifeline for many NGOs.
However, such projects are usually short-term and the volume of support for civil society in Belarus remains minuscule. For example, in August 2020 the European Union committed to spending an additional EUR 53m to support the Belarusian people. However, of this amount, only EUR 2m was allocated to assist the victims of repression and 1m to support civil society and independent media. Most of the sum (EUR 50m) was allocated to the Belarusian state to help fight the coronavirus, which the Belarusian leadership does not regard as a serious problem.
Much of the existing support will reach traditional civil society actors (NGOs, activists, media, political parties) who certainly need and deserve it. However, this support is very unlikely to reach previously apolitical people who joined the 2020 protests and in doing so have changed the situation in the country.
These people simply do not have the right connections and skills to access Western support, with its rigid application and reporting requirements. Even if they apply and succeed, they may have to wait for months before a decision is made to allocate a modest amount.
Moreover, much of Belarusian civil society support will stay outside of Belarus. The largest donor-funded organizations such as Polish-based Belsat TV channel and the Lithuania-based European Humanities University are outside Belarus. These organizations have a greater capacity to absorb the money and to report in accordance with Western expectations.
In addition, most support for Belarusian civil society remains short-term (often for one year or less) and even if a certain initiative or politician becomes successful, this usually does not last long. These initiatives remain financially unsustainable because of the lack of long-term programmes supporting them. On the other hand, some organisations receiving long-term funding to little effect. For example, the European Humanities University for many years has been consuming significant amounts of Western support with no meaningful impact on the situation in Belarus.
To sum up, the conventional methods of pressure and support have failed to produce any meaningful change in Belarus in the past. The unprecedented situation in the country now requires new approaches, which may prove to be more effective. A new paradigm should focus primarily on strengthening the solidarity and self-reliance of Belarusians inside the country, rather than attempts to weaken the regime from the outside in the absence of real instruments to achieve it. Belarus Digest will discuss new approaches in another article.
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