Women’s Day in Belarus: Celebrating the Real Heroes
On 8 March, Belarusians celebrate International Women’s Day. In the tradition of the Soviet Union, there is no special day for lovers such as Valentine’s Day, but men and women have separate holidays. This is the time to look at the relations between men and women in Belarus. Although both are equal in front of the law, in reality, women are not as equal as men.
23 February is Men’s Day, the Day of the Defenders of the Motherland, as it is called. This day is celebrated in the honour of the first victory of the Soviet Army near Pskow in 1918. Nowadays, 23 February is a day when all men feel like war heroes who defend their country and their families.
On their special day, men get shaving creme and socks as a gift from their wives, sisters and mothers. Women prepare cakes and food. On the day before 23 February, the department stores look like they are for women-only. The department for men’s socks and toiletries are crowded with women buying presents for their beloved ones.
In return, women have their special day on 8 March, International Women’s Day. Here again, they prepare food, and their sons, husbands and brothers give them flowers, chocolate and household devices as presents.
Gender holidays as remnant of the Soviet past
Traditionally, these gender holidays are celebrated at work. Women prepare a party for their male colleagues, and men make up poems praising their female co-workers. Some companies have real competitions on which gender prepares the best party.
However, the gender holidays seem to be more and more a remnant of the Soviet past. According to opinion surveys, for the young generation of Belarusians, 8 March is just a day off (this is an example of positive discrimination: Women’s Day is a day off while 23 February is not). Only history students know that 8 March became the International Women’s Day to commemorate the role of women during the 1917 Russian revolution.
Some people in Belarus also prefer to celebrate the day of Belarusian Military Glory on 8 September instead of 23 February. This day refers to the victory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s troops over the army of the Moscow principality in the battle on 8 September 1514 near the town of Orsha. This victory prevented Muscovite forces from occupying the territory of Belarus. Celebrating this holiday regularly leads to a deterioration in Russia-Belarus relations.
Women's rights in Belarus
No matter whether you celebrate Women’s day or not, it is still a day to have a look at the situation of gender equality in Belarus. Article 22 of the Belarusian Constitution states that all citizen are equal before the law. Belarus signed the optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. However, there is no separate law on gender equality in the country, and there are no quotas established for women’s participation in elections, employment, etc. in the legislation.
Belarusian law protects the physical integrity of women to a relatively high degree. However, violence against women, in particular sexual violence such as rape, sexually motivated murder, sexual harassment and trafficking in women, remains a significant problem. According to a survey conducted in 2004 by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), one-third of Belarusian women have suffered domestic violence.
Even if Belarusian women are not beaten by their husbands, life is still hard for them, as Belarus is a country with a traditional paternalistic scheme of male and female roles. While most women work full-time, they also bear the basic load of housework. After their working days, they come home and cook, clean the flat and do the laundry.
Belarusian women, as every foreigner who has been invited to a Belarusian family knows, are exceptional: they always have several dishes readily prepared, even if they do not expect any visitors. If they have guests, or a holiday, the hospitality is legendary, and they will not stop cooking until the table is fully loaded with food. At the same time, Belarusian women manage to take care of themselves and are reportedly good-looking.
Importance of paternal role in raising children is underestimated
It is part of the traditional role-understanding that women stay at home looking after the children. Despite the Belarusian law providing for “parental leave” three years after the birth of a child, in 2010 only 2,000 fathers used it. According to the United Nations Population Fund, Belarusians underestimate in society the importance of paternity, a fact that led to a decrease in the influence of men raising children.
In Sweden and Germany, the same possibility of parental leave exists. However, in those countries, the state explicitly encourages fathers to profit from the occasion and stay at home. In Germany, for instance, the sum of payments last for only 14 months, and the payments can be received only if the fathers stay at home with their children at least two months of this time.
This shows that not only in Belarus but also Western countries have a long way to go towards true gender equality in child care. In contrast to Germany and Sweden, Belarus does not do anything to encourage fathers to stay with their children for some time.
A recent article in Nasha Niva weekly on the subject of child care underlines this problem: “Papas will not be forced to work as Mamas”. The fact remains that most mothers have to stay at home because women work in lower-pay jobs. Women are often paid less, even if they do the same work as men do.
It is a pity that Belarusian young fathers are deprived of the possibility to spend more time with their children. In Belarus, it is unusual for a father to attend the antenatal classes or to be present at the birth of their children. Men who want still want to do so have to explain themselves when talking to others and are made fun of by their male friends.
Belarusian men can be great fathers; they have a lot to give to their children. It would be good for the future generation of Belarusians if the men were enabled by the society to assume their natural role in the upbringing of their offspring. That could be the best present for mothers on the Women's Day.
How Not to Be Cheated by Belarus Authorities
The incumbent Belarusian government has a long record of deceptive behaviour in its foreign relations. Both its major trading partners – Russia and the European Union – have more than once seen official Minsk let them down on its commitments and promises. These promises included political liberalisation, introduction of single currency with Russia, recognition of Abkhasia and South Ossetia and many more.
The words of the Belarusian authorities are taken with distrust and suspicion not only in Belarus but even more so abroad. When it comes to contractual obligations Belarus' counterparts prefer to be on the safe side of the road and double check that the Belarusian regime will not have a chance to deceive them again. The safeguards which Russia is now taking when ion its new loans to Belarus is a vivid illustration of that.
Bad Reputation Is Easy to Earn
With the European Union the deception mostly occurred in the political realm. In the already distant year of 1999 the Belarusian president made a public commitment at the OSCE summit in Istanbul to organise an all-national round-table with the opposition. Upon his arrival back home he threw the reached agreements in the garbage.
In 2008 Belarusian authorities promised during the behind-the-scenes negotiations with EU diplomats to allow a number of opposition figures enter parliament in exchange for a de facto recognition of the parliamentary elections. When the de facto recognition was about to happen, not a single representative of the opposition got a seat.
The history of deceptions in relations with Russia is far richer. One can name multiple commitments and promises that the Belarusian government failed to fulfil in the framework of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. To name just a few: single currency with Russia, unhampered Russian exports, fair (unsubsidised) Belarusian exports or free access to privatisation for Russian business.
And, perhaps, the biggest blow to the Russian interests was non-recognition of independence of Abkhasia and South Ossetia. According to the outgoing president of Russia Dmitry Medvedev, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian-Georgian War in August 2008 Lukashenka solemnly promised that Belarus would quickly recognise the two breakaway provinces. But this has not happened even now, four years later.
As a consequence, the level of trust in foreign states' undertakings with Belarus is now at its absolute low. But while the European Union is still trying to find proper methods in dealing with the unreliable counterpart amid the ongoing diplomatic row, Russia is using concrete instruments to make sure that the Belarusian authorities will not dupe it again.
For instance, every new instalment of Russian loans for the chronically ill Belarusian economy is now strictly conditioned on the fulfilment of contractual obligations. The Russians adjust the mechanisms of loan administration to minimise opportunities of cheating.
The EurAsEC Loan: the Case of Strict Conditionality
At the end of June 2011, amidst the heyday of the financial crisis, the Belarusian government managed to negotiate a $3 billion loan from the Russia-controlled Anti-Crisis Fund of the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC). But it was agreed that the whole sum would be transferred in several instalments. According to the Letter of Intent that Belarus signed last June, each instalment has strict conditions attached to it.
It became evident that the Russia-dominated Anti-Crisis Fund was serious about its conditions already when it came to the second instalment. Initially, it was scheduled for the end of October. But because the Belarusian authorities were delaying a number of macroeconomic decisions promised in the Letter of Intent (for example, a sufficient increase of the interest rate) the second instalment arrived only on 30 December and after those decisions were made.
The same is now the case with the third instalment of $440 million. According to the Letter of Intent, it should have been transferred by 28 February 2012. However, in 2011 Belarus failed to fulfil a condition – to limit discounted lending under state programmes. The Anti-Crisis Fund deems it to be a considerable violation of the contract as extensive financing of state programmes leads to deficits of the balance of payments.
Therefore, the Fund now demands that the government complies with its commitments and that monetary and budget policies are more conservative. And, unlike in previous years there is now a general feeling that Belarus will not do away with promises only and will have to fulfil all its commitments.
The Nuclear Power Plant Loan: the Case of Direct Loan Administration
It was announced at the end of last November that Russia would provide $10 billion loan for the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus. The loan will also come in several instalments. And it will not be transferred directly into the Belarusian government’s account. Instead, the money will first go to the Russian Vneshekonombank, which will make all payments in accordance with the intergovernmental loan contract.
Belvneshekonombank, Vneshekonombank’s daughter bank in Belarus, was appointed as the bank-agent of the Belarusian government under the loan contract. It will facilitate all banking operations needed to receive, serve and return the money.
Thus, through the system of Vneshekonombank the Russian side will fully control the use of the loaned money and make sure that it is used in accordance with the contract. This deprives the Belarusian authorities of freedom to manipulate with the funds.
Following the Russian Suit
The Russian authorities have learned their lesson of how to avoid being cheated when dealing with Belarus. They no longer expect a fair game on the part of Lukashenka. Instead, they develop a strict policy of incentives based on the weaknesses of the Belarusian economy. This narrows Minsk's manoeuvring space and steadily streamlines the behaviour of the Belarusian regime as the Russians want it.
The Statement at the Conclusion of the latest IMF mission to Belarus released on 5 March shows that the IMF is also following the Russian suit in judging the Belarusian government exclusively by its policies and not sheer promises. This is, indeed, the only way to deal with a deviant partner.
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk