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When do the Belarusian authorities compromise with civil society?

On 21 July, residents of the Minsk district of Asmalouka finally succeeded in halting the planned demolition of their neighbourhood. Since 2014, the authorities have been planning to tear down a historic district of Minsk. However, local residents and...

On 21 July, residents of the Minsk district of Asmalouka finally succeeded in halting the planned demolition of their neighbourhood. Since 2014, the authorities have been planning to tear down a historic district of Minsk. However, local residents and activists started a campaign to prevent the demolition and were able to temporarily freeze the process.

Every now and then, by making concessions to protest-minded citizens, the state gives the impression that it is willing to compromise, creating an illusion that the government listens to the people. Local initiatives addressing economic or cultural problems especially are more likely to receive a green light from the authorities.

The story of Asmalouka

Many consider the Minsk district of Asmalouka to be unique and historic. The area was built from 1940-50 for the Belarusian military elite. Asmalouka is a place with unique architecture, replete with stately two-storey houses.

Asmalouka. Photo: TUT.by

As art critic Sergey Hareuski told Nasha Niva: ‘Asmalouka is the only place where this kind of building comprises a whole neighbourhood. The fact that this quarter has survived in its entirety, the only example in the whole former Soviet Union, is in itself important.’

Discussion of demolishing Asmalouka began in 2014. The authorities proposed tearing down the houses to construct new buildings in their place. However, the process was postponed due to lack of funds from investors. In 2017, the question was mooted again and the local authorities raised the issue of Asmalouka for public discussion.

The Asmalouka campaign

The authorities’ position triggered residents to protest the reconstruction plan. In addition to talks with the authorities, citizens created a petition and sent it to the Administration of the Central district of Minsk. To date, more than 7,000 people have signed the petition. Interestingly enough, there is also a rival petition to reconstruct Asmalouka.

Matolka at public hearings. Photo: nn.by

In mid-July, residents of Asmalouka and other districts of Minsk gathered to discuss their next steps in the struggle against the reconstruction project. In addition to petitions, residents managed to collect more than 8,000 signatures during meetings. The purpose of the latest meeting was to nominate representatives of the Asmalouka district to participate in discussions about  reconstruction.

Belarusian blogger Anatoly Matolka became one of the participants of the Asmalouka protection campaign, even managing to secure a meeting with representatives of the government. As a result, the authorities stated that the demolition Asmalouka was still only under consideration. The campaign still seeks to secure historical-cultural status for the neighbourhood.

Local victories and blacklists

For now, the reconstruction of Asmalouka has been suspended. However, local residents and activists consider the results of their campaigns a success. A similar story took place in 2014, when the government presented a plan to build a road through Sevastopol Park. Residents of the area appealed to various authorities to reverse the government’s decision and save the park. As a result, the authorities revised the decision and left the park untouched.

On 14 August, residents of Minsk started a petition to create a ‘park named after the first president of the Republic of Belarus’. This unusual idea emerged when the authorities proposed constructing high-rise buildings in a green space.

Citizens at public hearings on 16 August. Source: realt.onliner.by

Today, locals are struggling with another large-scale construction project, involving more than 50 buildings in the area of Partyzanski Avenue. A public hearing on 16 August, organized by local authorities, broke down due to lack of space for all the participants.

Such incidents remain relatively common. However, the authorities and investors still have the final word, especially when it comes to economically important large-scale projects.

For example, the public hearing on the construction of the nuclear power plant did not get very far. The scale of the project made listening to the public unfeasible for the authorities. As a result, they covered up accidents, including the death of several workers.

Public hearings were also unable to stop the construction of the Belarusian-Chinese industrial park. According to activists, the park has a strongly negative environmental impact. Despite the active participation of the environmental NGOs Ecadom and Green Network, the Council of Ministers approved the construction project.

When do the authorities compromise?

Belarusian protestors enjoy only limited success when it comes to pressing socio-economic problems. Protests against the social-parasite decree have shown that the Belarusian authorities still do not hesitate to employ repressive measures against vocal citizens. Anarchist groups, journalists,  and students all fell victim to suppression when protests against the so-called decree number three were dispersed.

It seems that the authorities are willing to compromise when campaigns pose little threat to the regime. Thus, protesting construction projects has recently become a form of civic participation. Here, the authorities seem to be willing to meet protestors halfway. However, this is certainly not the case for large-scale and economically important projects such as the Belarusian NPP. 

Asmalouka is an encouraging example of a local advocacy campaign. However, it still remains rare for the authorities make concessions to public initiatives in Belarus. Large-scale public campaigns often involve the participation of political and social activists: the regime perceives such campaigns as a threat to stability and their power.

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Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik is an analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre and MA student at Stockholm University.
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