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Some Call It Belarus – Civil Society On The Grindstone

[In today’s episode of Some call it Belarus, we take a look at the independent sphere in Belarus, the framework it is existing in and the opportunities and challenges for the actors in it.]

Season I Episode V – The state of the Belarusian Independent Sphere

With Belarus entering the European Eastern Partnership Agreement in 2008 and a multitude of state-based and non-state based programmes and donor institutions, the possibilities for Belarusian activists and initiatives to obtain international financing, even with regard to an adaptation by the Belarusian legal system to outlaw such practices, are numerous and diverse, making foreign fundraising one of the core elements to any activism. However, funding opportunities inside Belarus are scarce to non-existent, leading to a de-facto dependency on foreign donors. However, this provision of opportunities leads to a strong influence of changing program priorities and guidelines of the multiplicity of funding programs and focuses of donor organizations that shift on varying short term time-scales, where Belarusian actors are in need of longer-term financing to provide for sustainable activism with lasting effects.

Thus, the general level of activism is dependent on the aforementioned possibilities for funding from international sources, however this alternative political sphere has been described by Tatsiana Vadalzhkaya as “not completely destroyed” and has been sustained since the countries’ shift towards personalized authoritarian rule in the mid-1990s.

While the activists / independent sphere has been kept apart from the rest of society through political repression, even given a more than appropriate amount of activism has been documented by multitudes of resources, another core element of successful activism is visibility to the other parts of society. Through leaflets, brochures and books (both in Russian and English) and funded through international programs, the civic sphere in Belarus has a basic level of material provided, however with limited means of distribution in public, the reach of these printed materials outside the sphere itself has to be seen as limited. Following this and with traditional independent media being consistently pressured, if still existent at all, the opportunities posed by digital media have become a more and more important channel for political opponents to the Belarusian government.

With this in mind – given available German and English sources – critical voices like Pjotr Kuzniatsou (see: here) bemoaning a lack of competent use of digital media for the purposes of civil society activism can be seen in line with a general lack of political thought and discussion in the Belarusian online sphere as observed earlier by Krivotlap and the wider Belarusian public, that before the Crimean Crisis had not been politicized in many years . The threat of government persecution of independent bloggers, censorship of websites by initiatives and surveillance of online activities reaching as far as detaining administrators from social media groups has, however, been a constant in recent years (Freedomhouse 2013).

Unity and Ability to perceive Problems relevant to the Society writ large

When approaching any attempt to societal change from a point of potential impact, it is vital for any change intended by the change actor to be met by an aligning demand for change within the society writ large as well as having a coordinated approach on how to bring about the intended change.

Having been under pressure from the personalized presidential government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka for a total of 20 years (as of 2014), several generations of political opposition, independent activists and thinkers have participated in the attempt to open up Belarus for alternative narratives and – in most cases – closer cooperation with the European Union through different means. However, it is this difference of narrative of the history and present of Belarus – and thus Belarusianness – that has divided independent, European Belarusians from the more traditional pro-Russian understanding of Belarus leading to a disconnect between the two (Beckus). Recent polls by IISEPS (available here) show the approval rating of 3,6% of the political opposition, as of May 2014 a total of 15,5 % of the surveyed would participate in EuroMaidan-like protests against the government in Belarus, with 10,7% willing to participate on the side of the government and 65,3% not interested in actively joining either side.

In a recent study (available here) by the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies on ‘What Belarusian Civil Society thinks on reforms’, Belarusian civil society promoted a political reform of the existing system with 57.7% over other sectors of reform. The people surveyed were not decided on whether Belarusian civil society actors is yet ready to take responsibility for reforms in the country and – while the current modes of cooperation between government are perceived as lacking at best – they agree with 88.1% that any effort to reforming the country should be done by all national and international actors together, in coordinated action.

Similarly, even given the decades long struggle against Lukashenka, the landscape of activists and political opposition has remained highly diverse and divided. This can be seen in a high variety of political opinions from inside the different actors, promoting actions and approaches from change through activism to focuses on a more indirect, piecemeal change of processes, from small scale co-operations with the government to a negligence of that possibility (as showcased here). Managing to agree on only two oppositional candidates for the presidential elections in 2006, the Belarusian political parties and activists have fielded 9 oppositional candidates in 2010 (seven of which were imprisoned following the December 19th 2010 demonstrations and three having been sentenced to 5 or more years in prison by the authorities) and in the precursor to the 2015 elections tensions about the choice of candidate (-s) among the pro-Western opposition have been running high in meetings in July 2014 (see: here).

Formulated Strategy and Conscious Vision

From what source material is available in English, a majority of actors in the Belarusian independent sphere follow decidedly pro-European politics, values and understandings of citizenship, aimed at or even based on the implementation of stronger ties with the European Union. However, a more in-depth analysis of the self-descriptions and mission statements of the various research institutes, NGOs, political parties and initiatives in Russian and Belarusian as well as made interviews with individual leadership is needed for a more detailed framing and evaluation of visions and theoretical backgrounds. Dealing with a very high diversity among the independent political actors, ranging from politically ‘green’ initiatives involved with the implementation of waste disposal in cooperation with the WTO, to the official parties opposing the Lukashenka government and independent research institutes and think tanks existing in Belarus – every attempt to evaluate the conscious vision of the civil society and political opposition as one agent in the framework of this paper has to be deemed superficial at best. However, a number of non-state research institutes such as the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, the Centre for European Integration, or the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies is allowed to exist in the country aiming to negate the lack of available, independently compiled, data on Belarus. These datasets and the work of think tanks as well as international co-operations and analysts, and their academic and theoretical discourse based on them have provided non-state actors in Belarus with valuable theoretical reflection and data to base their activities on.

In the light of the above analysis, the Belarusian independent sphere is put between a rock and a hard place. Dependent on foreign actors for funding and with trouble finding a unified voice and approach, even academic and analytical prowess can all but provide data and insights to be used in better days to come.

Next week: Episode 6 – Crimea and Beyond

Quoted literature:

Beckus, Nelly (2010). Struggle over Identity: The Official and the Alternative “Belarusianness”, Budapest: Central European University Press (available here)

Krivotlap, Alexei (2008). Live journal and a local newspaper in the 2007 elections context in: Political Sphere, English Issue #11/2008, Minsk: Palytika

Vadalazhskaya, Tatsiana (2012). The struggle against dissent in the labour and employment sphere. The employment ban: a new phenomenon on the old foundations, in: Matskevich Uladzimir (Ed.). Desovietization in the context of Belarusan society’s transformation, Vilnius

Picture credits: English PENAndrew Spratley


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