Vilnius: the New Mecca for Belarusian Shoppers and Activists
On weekends, Vilnius looks like a Belarusian city.
Cars with Belarusian registration plates, crowds of Belarusians carrying shopping bags, even bus schedules to Belarus from big shopping centres. In 2012, according to the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism, 400,000 Belarusian guests visited Lithuania.
In politics, Lithuania maintains a critical position against Lukashenka's regime. A significant number of offices of foreign foundations and organisations which work with Belarusian civil society are located in Vilnius.
In 2012 the goods turnover between Lithuania and Belarus broke all records. In comparison with the previous year, it grew by 8% and reached $2,3bn. Moreover, Lithuania has the positive balance. Belarusians come to Lithuania more and more often, not only for shopping but also to spend a weekend there.
Lithuania, somewhat paradoxically, remains one of the few countries which profits from Belarus' isolation. Thanks to the protectionist practises of the Belarusian regime, it has become much cheaper for Belarusians to pay for visas and transportation expenses, and to buy many goods in Lithuania, than at home.
The official Vilnius wants the status quo in Belarus' policies to change, but it will not pursue any changes at the expense of its economic benefits. In fact, the current situation in Belarus supports Lithuania’s interests.
Who Earns Belarusian Money in Lithuania?
Lithuanian shopping centres remain the key destination point for many Belarusians. Most Belarusians visit centres like Akropolis and Ozas during the weekends. These shopping centres hold major advertising campaigns in Belarusian cities. According to a study conducted by the advertising agency AD Hunters Baltics, Belarusians bring 10-15% of Vilnius retail shopping income. In some shopping centres, this number has even reached 30%.
Lithuanian supermarkets owners even try to hire personnel that can speak Russian to their Belarusian clients. Clients can drop about $450-600 in one visit to these Lithuanian shops. Belarusian visitors buy everything – clothes, food, household equipment, goods for children and cosmetics. Some even come to Lithuania to change the tires on their cars. All this is cheaper than it is in Belarus. In addition, visitors return the VAT on the border.
Belarusians often call the Vilnius airport “Minsk-3”. According the director of the Vilnius airport air service department Edvinas Levaškevičius, 240-250 Belarusians use the services of the Vilnius airport daily, and the total number of Belarusian clientele reaches about 10% of all passengers of the airport.
This large intake at the Vilnius airport is a result of the Belarusian authorities’ protectionism. The Belarusian authorities protect the domestic air company “Belavia” and keeps low-price airlines away from the Belarusian market. Belarus does not belong to the EU–US Open Skies Agreement either which makes it complicated to open new routes and to lower ticket prices.
Hotels, cafes, restaurants, tourist and real estate agencies stay natural beneficiaries of the Belarusian visitors’ financing. Although most Belarusians visit Lithuania to shop, some of them go to Lithuania on holidays as well.
The Capital of Belarusian Civil Society
It often seems that Vilnius is the capital of contemporary Belarusian civil society. Belarusian NGOs and several foreign foundations have more offices here than in Minsk. When Belarusian authorities refuse to register organizations in Belarus, activists often go to Lithuania and incorporate their NGOs there.
Most American foundations and organisations working with Belarus also chose Vilnius for their offices. Among the most influential are International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. A major German Foundation, Konrad Adenauer, is also operating from Vilnius. Most of the aforementioned organisations are not able to operate legally in Belarus and consequently stay in Vilnius, just 30 km away from the Belarusian border.
Plenty of Belarusian civil society organisations, including the international consortium EuroBelarus and representatives of the Belarusian opposition work from Vilnius. Belarusian Human Rights House in Exile, also working from Vilnius, continues to impress with its ongoing activities.The House hosts almost year-round human rights schools, continuously attracting a large number of active youth.
One of the most important institutions for Belarus in Vilnius remains the European Humanities University. Belarusian authorities closed EHU in 2004, but thanks to Western aid the university resumed its activities in Vilnius in 2005. Well-known Belarusian public figures and journalists lecture at the university, including Siarhei Chareuski, Ales Lahvinets and Viktar Martsinovich.
In addition, Vilnius hosts numerous seminars, trainings and conferences for Belarusians. As a result a significant share of money directed to help Belarus lands in Vilnius.
Mutually Beneficial Cooperation
The Lithuanian authorities provide statistical data that the trade turnover between the two countries in 2012 made up around $2.3bn. $1.4bn can be accounted for by Lithuanian exports and $875m – for Belarusian exports. The goods turnover increased by 8% throughout the year.
Alongside this, the goods turnover does not include everything; for example, stores paying for Lithuanian port services. Last year, Lukashenka threatened to use Russian ports instead of Lithuanian ports but this threat remained merely words.
The Belarusian-Lithuanian cooperation is beneficial for both sides. It leads to a situation where Lithuania conducts a two-track policy with regards to Belarus. On the one hand, it supports the opposition and the civil society. On the other hand, it closely cooperates with the regime in the economic sphere. Some even call this hypocrisy.
In fact, Lithuania has become a hostage of its economic benefits and its ability to act on its obligation to react to the human rights violations.
The Future of the Belarusian-Lithuanian Relations
Belarus and Lithuania will have to live with each other regardless of their political regimes. Their cooperation covers not just transit and big business, but also shopping centres, markets, airports, and accomodation. Belarusian and Lithuanian small businessmen strengthen their ties to one another and bring in profits for both countries.
Most likely bilateral relations that are “walking on one leg” – the economy – will continue. Relations at the higher echelons of politics will remain cold for a long time to come. Increasing contacts between people may facilitate changes in Belarus and economic benefits for Lithuania. That is why the decrease in visa fees and simplification of the visa procedures remains one of the few things that the European Union can do to help Belarusian society.
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The civil society organised numerous educational opportunities and events for Belarusians. Among them was the meeting with Štefan Füle, the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, who talked about the role of the civil society in the dialogue with Brussels.
The state-run Public Administration Academy organised the training conference on the ‘Social Responsibility of Entrepreneurship’. Number of experts from the non-profit organisations participated in the event.
Civil Society Campaigns and Activities
Tell the Truth! launches a new strategy. The movement Tell the Truth! is launching a Civil Agreement on Change strategy that is aimed at creating a "change agenda" based on the interests of a "new majority". The movement is ready to unite local leaders and help them become politicians the authorities cannot ignore. The movement also announced its decision to withdraw for the time being from all talks about the nomination of a single presidential contender to represent opposition forces in the 2015 election.
On 21 February the International Mother Language Day was held in Belarus. BelaPAN made infographics, which shows that in 2012-2013, the Belarusian language learning is used only by 11.4% pre-school children, 16.4% school pupils, and 0.2% higher education students. This day, sculptor Henik Loika who staged a picket in support of the Belarusian language, was sentenced to five days of administrative arrest.
Historical board game Rebels. The Rebels is the first Belarusian board game in which one can immerse oneself in the atmosphere of 1863 and become a famous historical figure or a simple Belarusian and influence the historical events. The game involves from 6 to 20 people. The initiative to create the game belongs to the Grodno young poet Anton Jankowski and a designer Nastassia Lukashkova.
Meeting with Füle. On 20 February in Brussels, the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle met with eight representatives of Belarusian civil society, the coordinators of the European Dialogue on Modernisation with Belarusian society. Commissioner Füle stressed the importance of support to civil society in Belarus as a matter of priority for the EU.
Ponimanie and SOS-Kinderdorf’s joint project. On 25 February the first working meeting of a new joint project of Hermann Gmeiner’s Fund, Belarusian Fund SOS Children’s Villages and the INGO “Ponimanie” took place. The project Safe Families for Children Suffered from Violence or Neglect is aimed at ensuring secure family environment and eradicating violence towards children and at professional advancement of specialists who work in the sphere of prevention of child abuse and neglect.
Educational Courses and Trainings
BAJ education courses. Belarusian Association of Journalists invites to a number of its education courses – COOL’ture (cultural) analyst to create cultural texts in various genres; Creating Video from A to Z: the video for photojournalists to prepare photojournalists to work with video; and Investigative Journalism for professional journalists.
Call for students. Centre for Student Initiatives Development announces call for ideas from students who want to realize their projects in the following areas: the rights and interests of students, the development of the student self-government, the issues of students, the quality of education. The deadline for applications is 5 March 2013.
The Academy of the First-2013 invited for participation representatives of Belarusian CSOs and initiatives. The long term education course consists of five trainings, home tasks, and educational projects. The purpose of the Academy is to prepare democratic youth leaders who will take an active part in the life of their organisations and communities. The meeting took place on 28 February in Minsk.
Call for applications for the Week of Sustainable Development 2013. The call for proposals invites to participate in the Week of Sustainable Development, to be held on 20-28 April 2013. This year slogan is Partnership in Action. The organisers of the Week are Minsk International Educational Center, Support Program for Belarus and non-profit institution New Eurasia. The Week invites to cooperation national and local governments, CSOs, businesses associations, international organisations and diplomatic missions.
Expert meeting on higher education. On 12 February an in-country expert meeting dedicated to the post-soviet states' experience in adoption the Bologna principles in higher education took place in Minsk. Belarusian experts had a chance to meet Taras Finikov, a former Ukrainian Deputy-Minister for Education and Science. The Minsk-based Office for European Expertise and Communication was among the organisers of the event.
Environmental School for Trainers. On 8-10 March the School of environmental activist focused on training of young trainers of green movement is to be launched. The course is designed for proactive people, CSOs' members who have experience of civil activities and ready to provide training and educational programs in the field of environmental protection.
EESC announces training. East European Studies Centre announces a professional development opportunity for young Belarusian researchers under the Belarus Research Council initiative. 20 selected analysts from Belarus will attend a training in May 2013 in Vilnius.
Civil Society and Art
Life After Prison. The new book by publicist Aliaksandr Tamkovich Life After Prison will be presented on February 26. The book consists of 27 articles, which tell about what happened in the lives of the participants of the tragic events of 19 December 2010, who served short prison terms for participating in the so-called “riots”.
Simple Words documentary. A new documentary film Simple Words was made for the International Mother Language Day, 21 February. The non-profit project tells about young Belarusians who speak Belarusian every day. The authors of the film note that the entire budget went to a cocktail of strawberry, blue pen and phone calls to municipal services.
Art-journalist School. A non-profit institution Art-Siadziba launched a short term School of Art journalist for young, active and creative people to learn working in the field of journalism. Thus, Art-Siadziba plans to form a team, which is to become the editorial team of the portal Art Siadziba Online. According the belngo.info newsletter
Festival of Central European literature Shengenka. The First Festival of Central European Literature Shengenka will take place in March, at the Minsk Gallery Ў. The Festival gives an opportunity to get acquainted with the literary and philosophical works of Central Europe. The project initiator is Laboratory of Science and Art Translation, co-organizers are the campaign Budzma Belarusians! and the Association of Belarusian Writers.
Visor Raised award. On 22 February, the special jury is to announce the winner of the Yury Zakharanka annual memorial award With Visor Raised. This year, for the first time ever the prize is awarded to a female human rights defender, Raisa Mikhailouskaya. The ceremony is held during the evening of memory of former Interior Minister, missing politician, Yury Zakharanka.
SYMPA at the state-run conference. On 26 February at the Presidential Academy of Management, a scientific and practical training conference Social Responsibility of Entrepreneurship' took place. Experts BIPART/ SYMPA Natalia Ryabova and Vladimir Kovalkin made a report Ethics in the Public Service. The conference was attended by members of the Parliament, researchers of the scientific, educational and social institutions, a group of SYMPA experts and trainees, etc.
Sixth World Congress of Belarusians. The World Association of Belarusians Batskaushczyna (Homeland) invites to the 6th World Congress of Belarusians, aimed to promote the unity of the nation, the strengthening of ties between the Belarusians from different countries, as well as help in solving common issues. The 6th Congress titled The Belarusian nation and globalization: challenges and opportunities will be held on 23-24 July in Minsk.
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.