Systemic change still far off, but ‘space is opening up’ for civil society improvements in Belarus, panel says

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Systemic change still far off, but ‘space is opening up’ for civil society improvements in Belarus, panel says

Belarusian civic activists and policy analysts speak at Pact's office in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 10, 2015.


Although significant challenges remain, civil society improvements are taking place in Belarus, according to a panel of experts who spoke Sept. 1o in Washington, D.C.

They described the changes as fragile but important, as many civic activities happening in the country today were unimaginable as recently as a few years ago.

The event was part of a weeklong visit to the United States by a delegation of Belarusian civic activists and policy analysts who briefed U.S. stakeholders on what is taking place in the country. Hosted by Pact for the sixth consecutive year, the delegation was sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The panel discussion covered recent social, political and economic developments in Belarus, a post-Soviet country of about 10 million people that ranks low in nearly all measures of democracy, essentially functioning as an authoritarian regime.

“The government’s approach to governance has not changed. It continues to oppose systemic changes,” said Balazs Jarabik, who heads Pact’s efforts to improve civil society, citizen participation and press freedoms in Belarus. “But its attitude toward business and civil society has been shifting.”

Belarus’ most prominent pollster, Oleg Manaev, presented recent survey results showing that most Belarusians believe the country’s economy is in crisis and that people in the West live better than they do. Even so, Manaev said, support for President Alexander Lukashenko is growing, in part because of events in neighboring Ukraine.

Yauheni Preiherman, a Minsk-based policy analyst, agreed that the conflict in Ukraine has had a major impact on Belarus. He cited Lukashenko’s key campaign message, which has shifted from the importance of ensuring stability in Belarus to the importance of protecting the country’s sovereignty.

The Ukraine crisis has added to Belarus’ severe economic problems, he said, with falling oil prices and Russia’s economic decline also playing a part.

Preiherman warned against interpreting recent positive signs as indications of a bigger, systematic shift. He said Belarus’ leaders are trying to get through upcoming elections – slated for October – with as little tumult as possible, so analysts should wait until the vote has passed to gauge governance improvements. The August release of six Belarusian political prisoners should be understood in this context, he said.

Vasili Kukharchyk, Pact’s deputy director for Belarus programs, discussed Pact’s Future Search initiative, which has been bringing together Belarusian civil society representatives and activists since 2006 to explore the state of their efforts and produce a report with recommendations for organizations working to increase citizen engagement and freedoms.

The latest Future Search report, released this month, notes that despite the 2010 government crackdown and ensuing repressions, Belarusian civil society has seen improvements, mostly because of new kinds of activism and citizen involvement.

He said one of the biggest factors preventing faster progress remains people’s widespread distrust of civil society organizations and of one another. He noted that in a recent poll, nearly 70 percent of Belarusians said they don’t trust each other.

“No one really trusts anyone but themselves,” Kukharchyk said, “so it is difficult for people and groups to work together.”

The government remains adept at swiftly shutting down what it doesn’t like, he added, and civil society organizations are still unsure whether it is best to work with or against authorities to try to make improvements.

Among the recommendations from the new Future Search report: Civil society organizations should focus on in-country activities; get more ordinary Belarusians involved; communicate openly with one another to foster trust and cooperation among activists; govern themselves democratically to set an example; raise funds locally to the extent possible to avoid heavy dependence on large Western donors; and measure their progress based on real successes, rather than on intangibles such as how many policies they’ve adopted.

Local activists agreed. Civil society organizations need to be creative and work together, said Nadzeya Ilkevich, who heads an organization in Minsk that implements cultural development projects.

Natallia Kutsan discussed the work of the five-year-old civil society organization that she leads. Called Fond of Ideas, it is the first local group to promote corporate social responsibility in Belarus. Among other things, Fond of Ideas has partnered with private businesses to host outdoor concerts and art exhibits attended by hundreds of thousands of Belarusians.

“Much of what’s going on now did not exist a few years ago,” Jarabik said. “Space is opening up for civil society in Belarus.”

Jarabik called the developments “welcome change what should neither be exaggerated nor underestimated.”

“It should encouraged and assist us to make larger and more sustainable improvements,” he said. 

 

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