Much progress still to be made, but Belarus is opening up internally and externally, panel says

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Much progress still to be made, but Belarus is opening up internally and externally, panel says

Although it is subtle, meaningful change is taking place in Belarus as the post-Soviet country becomes less isolated, moves closer to the West while balancing its ties with Russia, and opens widening space for civil society, according to a panel of experts who spoke Dec. 7 in Washington, D.C.

Progress has been slow and many challenges remain, the panelists acknowledged, but they described the current environment in Belarus as promising and unprecedented.

The event was part of a weeklong visit to Washington by a delegation of Belarusian civic activists and policy analysts who briefed U.S. stakeholders on trends in the country. Hosted by Pact for the seventh time since 2010, the delegation was sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Pact implements USAID’s main civil society project in Belarus.  

The panel discussion covered recent social, political and economic developments in Belarus, which has a population of about 9.5 million and has long been described as Europe’s last dictatorship. The panelists said that description no longer applies, although that image of the country is not completely gone. This is one reasons why such delegation visits, which offer balanced, evidence-based views on developments in Belarus, are critical.

In giving an overview of recent changes in Belarus, Vasili Kukharchyk, Pact’s country director there, said Belarus is coming out of isolation, repositioning itself as a key player in regional security, slowly transitioning to a market economy and opening space for civil society.

“Over the last five years, we’re seeing a whole new type of civil society,” Kukharchyk said.

The developments come as Russia works to reassure influence in Belarus and amid uncertainty regarding American development assistance funding for Belarus.

Yauheni Preiherman, director of the Minsk Dialogue Track-2 initiative and chairman of the board of the Liberal Club analytical society in Minsk, said it is the situation in Ukraine, which borders Belarus, that has brought high-ranking Americans to Belarus for the first time in years, to discuss regional security.

Preiherman described the crisis in Ukraine – its ongoing war with Russia and Russia’s annexation of Crimea – as a “game changer” for Belarus. When Russia annexed Crimea, Preiherman said, the old rules of regional security that had been in place since the Budapest Memorandum went out the window, causing Belarus to become more concerned about maintaining its sovereignty and borders. This increased Belarus’s interest in building ties with countries such as the United States and Britain while remaining close to Russia – a strategy known as hedging.

Improving its effectiveness and implementing redistributive policies that benefit its population are another tactic the Belarusian government is using to ensure its sovereignty. But Minsk still has a long way to go in meeting public needs, and still needs international assistance, Preiherman said.

In addition to geopolitics and regional security, the economy has also been a trigger for improvements in Belarus, panelists said.

Dr. Kateryna Bornukova, academic director of the Belarus Economic Research and Outreach Center, discussed Belarus’s slow shift to a market economy and away from overwhelming dominance by state-owned enterprises. As the government has worked to liberalize conditions for the private sector, it has grown, Bornukova said. It now makes up about 47 percent of employment and is generating more in taxes and exports than ever before, although it continues to compete with the state-owned sector for resources such as capital and workers.

Discussing economic challenges facing Belarus, Bornukova named slow growth and continued dependence on Russia.

As Belarus’s economy has shifted from entitlement to enterprise, so have people’s mindsets, Bornukova said. Over the past decade, she noted, the share of Belarusians who say they are pro-market has doubled.

This changing social contract will spark further change, Kukharchyk said. When Belarusians were used to getting most things for free, this fostered paternalistic attitudes and reduced civic engagement and participation. As the private sector gradually liberalizes and the government provides less and less, citizens will learn that they, too, must take new ownership over their lives and become more active, Kukharchyk said.

Svetlana Zinkevich, director of the Office for European Expertise and Communications, one of Belarus’s most visible civil society organizations, said the environment for CSOs remains restrictive. All initiatives still must register with the government, and some civil society groups have been unable to do so for years for political reasons. Procedures for registering foreign aid remain arbitrary, and some civil society priorities, such as LGBT rights, remain taboo for the government.

Still, civil society is changing remarkably, Zinkevich said. As recently as a few years ago, it was comprised essentially of a small number of groups talking mostly to each other, she said. Today, there are many new faces and lots of new energy, much more is taking place at the grassroots and village level, groups are much more constituency-focused, and civil society is talking about a wider range of topics and using many new tools, namely tech and online tools.

“The nature of participation is very different,” Zinkevich said. 

A significant challenge facing civil society in Belarus today is to stay relevant as the country gradually transforms, Kukharchyk said. It is no longer sufficient for civil society to merely be against the government; they must truly put something of value on the table for their constituencies and stakeholders.

For this reason, and to take full advantage of the new energy in civil society in Belarus, it is critical that Western partners support Belarusian civil society, ensuring groups can grow, build capacity and be sustainable, said Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, who provided comments on the panelists’ discussion. Katz said changes in Belarus’s technology sector and economy have set the stage for more U.S.-Belarus engagement that should be leveraged to widen the conversation between the two countries beyond human rights.

The delegation’s visit to Washington also included a roundtable at the Wilson Center and briefings at USAID, the State Department, CEPA, the Biden Center, the RAND Corporation and on Capitol Hill.

Additionally, Pact disseminated several fresh analytical products during the visit, including the 8th Belarus Reality Check Non-Paper. A new polling memo on civic engagement in Belarus and the 2018 Kastrycnicki Economic Forum report will be made available shortly.

 

Photos by Adam Fritz.

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