By Moritz Borchardt
From a western point of view, Belarus, the Belarusian state and its citizenry are not in good shape in the second decade of the 21st century. The country’s leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is widely considered to be Europe’s last tyrant, and the relationship with its long-time partner Russia has been strained and tried on several occasions since the beginning of the millennium and what is left of its civil society is struggling with the state as much as it is with sowing the seeds for future pro-democratic developments. (Silitski, p. 25)
Especially in regard to the development of democratic citizenship – and thus an emotional sense of belonging and ownership of a home country – Belarus is facing challenges unlike most contemporary states. Throughout the history of what is now called Belarus, there scarcely was a political entity that was sovereign from foreign dominance; coming out of the middle ages, the vast majority of the country was part of the Grand-Duchy of Lithuania, later it was union with the Polish Commonwealth and then succeeding that, Russia. Only during two brief windows of time did an independent, democratic Belarus exist. The first of which was the Byelorusian Peoples’ Republic of 1918 that was ‘integrated’ into Bolshevik forces only one year later and then part of the USSR until 1990. The next window of opportunity then revealed itself just after the fall of and independence from the Soviet Union. Only in the four years between the beginning of its independence and Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s success in the 1994 elections, was there a chance for democratic values to freely develop. (Matskevich et al., p. 18f.)
For political change to begin from within any one society, it is a presupposition that a sense of belonging to, ownership of and responsibility for it has been developed in that society. Here, the concept of rights – at the core of it, Human Rights1 – becomes important as only through a consciousness and awareness of positive and negative rights, independent from the system or government active at any given point in time, societal change can happen. While this change scarcely happens entirely without external influences, no matter how big the resources invested into the solution of any kind of problem, the aspect of a cultural readiness to implement change is still a necessity for its success. This readiness however is usually based in previous experiences with higher degrees of freedom, an education about it and / or the sense of a common cultural identity as a nation, ethnic group or cultural space. As authors such as Matskevich et al. (2009) write, citizenship in the 21st century, especially among young people, is being understood mostly as a socio-political attribute independent from any specific country. (Matskevich et al., p. 14) As such, the repeated creation and re-creation of an independent Belarusian identity outside state-run structures is paramount for a piecemeal opening of its society. However, while there is no evidence to suggest that the Lukashenka regime is following policies actively limiting core Human Rights such as the right to life, ownership or access to public education for its citizens in general, its more conservative approaches towards non-state education and media are known and oft reported on. (Sahm, p. 52)
The argument may be made that Lukashenka’s repressiveness against low-tier activism can be seen as a consequence of his own quick ascension in the Belarusian political field from an outsider to his success in the country’s only truly competitive election of 1994 and a highly personalized authoritarian rule within only a few years. (Gel’man, p. 167 ff.) Especially with regard to civil society actors and the development of a civil society independent from state ideologies, the current regime has proven a strong hand and keen eye on such developments. Any demonstration of political opinions dissenting from the government’s is followed by repressive actions from the authorities. This was evidenced by the harsh reactions to demonstrations against electoral irregularities in the follow-up to the presidential elections of 2006 and 2010, in the aftermath of which several former presidential candidates who were backed by civil society such as Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Alyaksandr Kazulin and several others were being taken into custody and sentenced to imprisonment. (Council of Europe) The 2006 and 2010 demonstrations were backed by broad civil-society attempts to mobilize a Belarusian public that is aware of and in disagreement with injustice committed by its government. Yet with all their efforts and suffering, the force and decisiveness of the government’s reaction left no doubt about the prospects of further attempts at public civil dissent in the short term. (Melyantsou, p. 48 f) Following 2006, Lukashenka’s rule has remained virtually unchallenged and civil society activism been forced even further into political ineffectiveness and extra-legality.(Silitski, p. 31) Furthermore, official registration of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has come to a halt for the most part and free communication channels have been systematically shut down. (Sahm, p. 52)
With both a governing regime repressing any activism that might potentially lead to a weakening of its position in society and a population lacking both sentiment for and a sense of ownership of their society, it is little surprising that in 2008 Tatsiana Vadalazkaya, the curator of the Flying University, found that a representative sample of the Belarusian population understood and defined its citizenship in a predominantly passive way through ascribed attributes such as ‘territory’ and ‘status’, ‘rights and duties’ toward their home country and feelings such as ‘love’, but considerably less so through attributes indicating a more mutual, two–way relationship such as ‘activism’. (Vadalazhkaya, p. 87) In addition to this, she also found that while a majority of her sample defined themselves strongly as Belarusian, the socio-political importance and the day-to-day influence between citizen and state are considered to be low. (Vadalazhkaya, p. 74 f)
Consequently, societal change that is induced and fostered from within Belarus seems as far-fetched as it would be for Alyaksandr Lukashenka to lessen his grip on the Belarusian civil society out of the goodness of his heart.
Following this, the development and strengthening of Belarusian civil liberties, society and education today is largely dependent on external actors, be it directly through the provision of grants for bi-and multi-national civil society projects by international actors or through the formulation of conditions for international aid and cooperation with the Belarusian government. One major reaction of the Belarusian government to this has been the creation of government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) and a pro-state reconstruction of civil society which has led to a considerable rise in the official reach of non-governmental activities, from 4.7% of Belarusian citizens in 1999 to 11% in 2008. (Sahm p. 55) However, while these state-side efforts to effectively undermine independent civil society and actively compete with it for foreign funding have to be seen as potentially threatening to the sustainability of independent NGOs, authors such as Astrid Sahm point out that in the past, participation of local authorities in EU projects have positively influenced their policy style towards openness, innovation and cooperation with civil society actors, giving rise to hopes for positive future developments on a local level. (Sahm, p. 57)
In conclusion, the situation of civil liberties and independent civil society actors has to be considered grim with a Belarusian leadership not indicating an easing up on them any time soon. However, no matter the chances of broad-scale change in the short-term, the consciousness for civil liberties on a broader scale needs time, especially in societies with a lack of broad-scale exposure to them such as Belarus, but so do most current approaches towards effective change. With phenomena such as the rise of information communication technologies in the last 20 years (with growing access to it in Belarus (Khrapavitski, p. 38)) and its free availability of information, there are more and more internationally funded civic education programs such as the Flying University2, or the Belarus-originated European Humanities University in Vilnius. (EHU) This, combined with the chance of originally government-organized NGOs moving towards actual civic education piece by piece, suggests that not all seems lost from a long-term perspective. (Matskevich et al, p. 59 f) After all, it is always darkest before the dawn.
1 As understood by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights
Moritz Borchardt is graduate student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt, GER. Being a native German from Lower Saxony, Moritz spent his pre-MPP years at the universities of Erfurt, Vilnius and Jena, graduating with a degree in Governmental Studies in 2011. Having a weakness for old school hats and civil society, he is interested in those areas where personal development is positively or negatively affected on a larger scale (i.e. Impacts/challenges of digital media, suppression of civil society) and structural shifts in societies writ large. He is currently writing his master’s thesis on the self-perception of contemporary Belarusian civil society actors.
Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly: Recommendation 1745 (2006); 2006; available online under: http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewHTML.asp?FileID=7653&Language=EN (last logged: 06/09/2013) (Council of Europe)
European Humanities University: About, Vilnius 2013, available under: http://www.ehu.lt/en/about (last logged: 06/09/2013) (EHU)
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*This Article is based on the original work made for the Lecture “Human Rights”, which is part of the Master’s Curriculum at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt, Germany
*Cover image ‘Free Belarus now ‘ by English PEN