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Challenging the Weaknesses of Belarusian Civil Society

In the West, the thinking about Belarus and its active civil society, is still heavily burdened by many stereotypes and preconceptions. This is the result of the country’s isolation and oppressive political regime.

June 26, 2013 - Giacomo Manca - Articles and Commentary



On June 14th and 15th 2013 the second meeting of the Belarusian Civil Society Communication Platform organised by two prominent institutions, the Council of Europe and the Casimir Pułaski Foundation, took place in Warsaw. The involvement of a Polish think-thank in this event, and its setting in Poland’s capital, shows the role that Poland plays as a facilitator in a very complicated dialogue which characterises civil society in Belarus. Indeed, civil activists in Belarus, despite sharing the same goal, are both divided and lack the skills and opportunities that western NGOs have in shaping political debates.

However, to say that the Belarusian civil society is at a standstill would be a big mistake. Many new initiatives are being undertaken and the popularity of NGOs has, in the last few years, been on the rise; although there is a lack of unity among them. Ironically, while European integration is said to be the sole issue that Belarusian opposition groups tend to agree on, the European Union, itself, seems pretty helpless in dealing with the people of the continent’s last dictatorship.

The Council of Europe, the co-organiser of the Warsaw event, is one of the few international organisation present in Belarus. Together with the 47 Council of Europe member states, the Holy See and Kazakhstan, Belarus is in fact a signatory of the European Cultural Convention. In addition, since 2009, the Council of Europe has had a physical presence in Belarus with an information office at the Belarusian State University in Minsk, whose goal is to promote cooperation between Belarus and the Council of Europe, as well as to raise awareness of the fundamental values, legal instruments, achievements, policies and activities of the Council of Europe among Belarusian institutions and organisations.

Belarus in Europe, Belarus and Europe

All these unquestionably noble moves do not give enough ground for a satisfactory answer to the question on Belarus’s further integration with Europe. Many still ask where Belarus is going and what kind of cooperation it seeks. These questions are still hard to answer, even by analysts specialising in Belarus’s relations with the EU and other western institutions, as the Lukashenka-ruled Belarus has been consistently showing a rather ambivalent and calculated attitude towards the West. Hence, its integration with the Russian-led Customs Union shows a greater commitment towards Russia.

Numerous examples prove Belarus’s lack of commitment to western values. The topic of the abolition of the death penalty, a condition for full membership in the Council of Europe is one of these examples. The long-term goal of the abolition is pursued at the moment through the request of a moratorium. Should the death penalty moratorium be rejected, it would show how deeply unwilling to compromise the Lukashenka government really is. It is often very difficult to say to what extent the Belarusian authorities are interested in a dialogue with the EU, which, quite justifiably, is getting more and more tired of the sanctions that did not bring the results they had been expected to bring.

At the same time, can we say that Belarus would agree to make some small steps provided Europe becomes more flexible? The subtle signals from Belarusian civil society, which could be heard at the Warsaw meeting, suggest that this might be the case, although there is not enough certainty today. What is certain is that the Lukashenka government wants to remain independent, from both Brussels and Moscow. No official statement outwardly shows any will of the Belarusian authorities to bring Belarus closer to Europe, neither is there any official policy of integration. The Eurasian vector is developing quickly to attach Belarus to the East. While the Belarusian authorities are not demonstrating the values in line with European standards.

Still, the majority of Belarusian society looks in both directions. On the one hand, they want to have a European standard of living and quality of life, while, on the other hand, by still keeping strong links with Russia they remain deeply stuck in the East. This dual orientation might be somewhat overseen because the Belarusian authorities are quick to point out that pro-European sentiments are rather a minority. The activities of civil society in Belarus, however, would indicate otherwise and have led many to compare today’s Belarus with Poland of the 1980s: even though it wasn’t westernised, it had a vivid civil society and a strong interest in European values.

Without a doubt, the more Belarusians get involved in pro-European organisations, the closer Europe, and its values, will get to its society. Good examples include programmes for young Belarusians to study abroad and study tours for professionals.

Some Belarusian activists believe that the discussion around the abolishment of capital punishment should not overshadow the issue of political imprisonment, which is the main and real threat to their work, health and lives. When discussing the request of the death penalty moratorium, many participants at the Warsaw meeting pointed out the possibility that the dictator might turn this into a yet another weapon if he, for example, proposes a national referendum, i.e. something which in the West we like to recognise as one of the key instruments of a democratic system.

This concern seems justified in the light of the results of the last referendum on this topic which was carried out in 1996 and resulted in 80 per cent of Belarusians voting against abolishment. Recent opinion polls reveal that there hasn’t been much of a change and the majority of society is still against the decision to cancel capital punishment. With this brought to light, the question was asked what would the European Council do, should Lukashenka decide to “consult” his own society on this matter? Would it mean a bitter defeat for the Council of Europe and everyone who calls for the abolition of the death penalty?

Social Media: A new core of civil society?

When talking about the situation in Belarus one cannot omit the issue of freedom of speech. Many activists and journalists known for their criticism of the Lukashenka regime are susceptible to imprisonment. What is much less known, however, is the limited recognition by Lukashenka of the power of the internet. Consequently, with less control from the regime, it has become the primary environment for communication and opinion exchange among activists.

According to Andrzej Poczobut, a well-known Belarusian blogger and journalist working for Gazeta Wyborcza, the increase of the number of internet users is a good sign for Belarusian society. The number of computers is constantly growing, and four million Belarusian citizens are internet users (nearly half the population, according to the most recent census data of 9,503,807 inhabitants). In 2012, 350,000 Belarusians had a Facebook account (nearing 500,000 now). The independent website Charter97, which provides information on Belarus, reports on having 100,000 visitors per week. Clearly, the internet is not something we would call a niche in Belarus; it is more correct to see it as a mass phenomenon.

The authorities are rightly worried that this increase in the number of internet users could result in a greater mobilisation of people. To counteract it, Lukashenka has tried to build, in vain, a pro-regime social portal. Just like previous attempts, this was also a failure. What’s more important, however, is the fact that the internet is now becoming more and more a representative mirror of society, although this view is not shared by everybody. Some bloggers illustratively pointed out that a great number of the four million internet users are, in fact, grandmothers using Skype to connect with their grandchildren, or people checking the weather forecast, or teenagers chatting on social networks. Unfortunately, only very few use the internet to actively participate in civil society.

According to one Belarusian blogger, what is important is not how many people in Belarus read information about Europe, but rather who, in Europe, reads information coming out of Belarus. “If prime ministers and decision makers read what you write, you are an efficient blogger,” he says. As far at the Belarus’s intellectual elites are concerned, even though many of them read opposition websites and independent blogs, they haven’t got any influence on policy-making because of the way power is structured in the country.

Another problem that is linked to the weak involvement of Belarusian society in internet-based activism is the lack of societal unity. Many activists note that Belarusians still refuse to get together to face a common public challenge. Once the society itself is ready for a change, the internet will facilitate it, just like in 2012 when people organised themselves to clean up after a snowstorm.

Experience from other countries shows that what unites people and leads to a political change is a common identity. And this is what Belarus seems to lack even though some organisations are making strong efforts to build the awareness of their history and culture among Belarusians. For example, Budzma Belarusami (Let’s be Belarusian!) calls for the Belarusian people to participate in “talk shows” organised in the different provinces, and promotes cultural projects to increase self-awareness among Belarusians. Other organisations with a similar focus on building national culture are developing at the grassroots level. Not an easy task, given the limited funding opportunities.

Overall, Belarusian civil society remains weak and divided. It is also not yet fully prepared to use the tools it has at its disposal such as the internet and setting up networks of civil society groups. More than anything, it lacks coordination and strength. Many NGOs are afraid and unwilling to promote their activities and for this reason they work below their potential. A better coordination of the work of different groups is the mission of the consortium EuroBelarus which tries to build a strategy of common action for civil society to increase awareness and its involvement in politics. This and many other organisations look with hope at the technical and financial support of the Council of Europe which is crucial for reaching that most dreamt about turning point in the development of Belarusian society.

The pictures are taken from the short film Budzma Belarusami (2011) by Yulia Ruditskaya, which shows the history of Belarus from the creation of the world up until 1991.

Giacomo Manca is an intern at New Eastern Europe. Currently, he is studying for a MA in International Relations at the University of Bologna.

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