In anticipation of the Christmas holiday season, we are continuing our tradition of celebrating some of the most notable items in Belarus’ civil society over the last year. For the fourth straight year, Pact presents its version of the top 10 civic initiatives in order to acknowledge individuals and groups whose enthusiasm, dedication, and communication contributed to positive change in Belarus. While we tried to be as objective as possible, the top 10 list below represents only a portion of developments in Belarus civic space, which has become more vibrant and diverse over the years.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Event of the Year: Open-air Concerts at the Town Hall
For the third consecutive year, Fond of Ideas organized open-air free music concerts in the heart of Minsk on the Freedom Square. This summer, three Saturday jazz evenings (with participation of European stars) and four classical music concerts attracted a record high of more than 70,000 people. The events were funded by local business companies according to the concept of social corporate responsibility and aimed “to change urban space, make Minsk brighter and louder” and closer to European standards with wider civic space.
Advocacy of the Year: Entrepreneurs
During this year, vendors continued to advocate for a workable regulatory environment for small businesses, which came under threat following the Presidential Decree #222, which introduced a complicated procedure of certification of light industry products in accordance with the Customs Union rules. Due to their visibility and consistency, which was achieved through a number of massive events (at least four public forums, the most abundant of which gathered 1,200 participants in February) and protests (in October nearly 500 entrepreneurs went on strike in Polotsk), the entrepreneurs managed to freeze new regulations for one and half years. Perspektiva, a small vendors association headed by Anatoly Shumchanka, articulates the voice of 120,000 individual entrepreneurs and 140,000 hired employees. At the recent forum, Perspektiva proposed an anti-crisis plan to authorities in order to postpone the Decree for another 6 months and create an inter-sectoral working group to resolve the situation. Authorities, including president Lukashenka, reacted to the entrepreneurs’ situation (in March Lukashenka met with entrepreneurs in one of the Minsk malls), however it looks like officials will push for the implementation of new regulations as they believe that the abolition of the Decree will cause negative consequences for the economy.
Civil Society Theme of the Year: Community Development
This year, several programs gave a new impetus to the adoption of local community (and particularly urban) development topics and promotion of community activism. Superheroes School trained 42 activists who implemented a number of visible improvement projects in Minsk communities. After piloting the topic last year, the 2015 Leadership in Local Communities program recruited 30 rural and urban activists for a community development-learning course. The first summer reality-competition of urban projects #RazamMіnsk received 300 applications and rolled out 12 projects implemented without donor funding. The General Plan For Minskers! campaign was highly visible, fostering public discussion of the draft plan for Minsk development, as well as the Minsk Urban Platform urban-oriented projects and events. Moreover, 87 out of 722 initiative applicants are lined up for funding under the UNDP/EU joint Support to Local Development project; 12 out of 60 community proposals were selected for their economic empowerment by New Eurasia.
Breakthrough of the Year: Bologna Process
In May 2015, Belarus joined the Bologna process. The accession to the Bologna process has the potential to affect nearly 400,000 university students in Belarus every year. In 2012, Belarus’ accession to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) was blocked due to the alternative report of the Public Bologna Committee of Belarusian civil society representatives that referred to numerous violations of academic freedom, particularly students and teachers who had been expelled/fired because of their political opinions. This year the Bologna Committee achieved the mandatory condition for Belarus to implement the roadmap for higher education reform in Belarus in accordance with the values, principles and goals of the EHEA. While Pact has chosen the Bologna accession as its Breakthrough of the Year nominee, we would like to give due regard to another important development this year: Belarus’ accession to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which after 8 years of efforts may positively affect over 500,000 disabled Belarusians.
Policy Outreach of the Year: Kastryčnicki Economic Forum (KEF)
In November, Minsk hosted the largest economic conference in Belarus in a decade - the Kastryčnicki Ekanamičny Forum (KEF), organized by the independent think tanks IPM Research Centre, CASE Belarus, and BEROC. The event gathered over 300 high ranking professionals for an open dialogue on economic reforms, reaching out to over 2,5 million Belarusians through conference-related publications. First Deputy Economy Minister of Belarus Alexander Zaborovsky presented the road map of reforms and, while President Lukashenka publicly reacted with criticism and reluctance, the public debate and demand is out there thanks to KEF. Thus, BISS’ surveys demonstrate that the Belarusians, including entrepreneurs and state servants believe in the urgency of economic reforms.
Political Event of the Year: Release of Political Prisoners
On August 22nd, six political prisoners were suddenly released in Belarus: Mikalai Dziadok, Ihar Alinevich, Mikalai Statkevich, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka and Yury Rubtsou. Aliaksandr Lukashenka pardoned them in accordance with the "principles of humanity," in an attempt to normalize relations with the West. Since that time, police have been applying ‘soft practices,’ such as avoiding new politically motivated cases and arrests of organizers and participants of unauthorized protests. However, on December 7th, Belarusian human rights defenders recognize a founder of Platforma NGO, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, as a new political prisoner.
Fundraiser of the Year: Crowdfunding Platforms
Three crowdfunding platforms that attract people’s funding for non-profit ideas emerged in 2015 in Belarus – Talakosht by Talaka.by platform and Ulej/Beehive by Belgasprombank in the spring, as well as MaeSens after upgrading at the end of the year. For the first six months of the platforms’ activity, the projects placed at Ulej collected $30,000; at Talakosht - $17,000; and at MaeSens (which has been working since 2011) - $300,000.
Art Project of the Year: Urban Myths Festival
From September to November 2015, street artists from different countries painted Minsk buildings based on their talks with local activists and modern history as part of the Urban Myths festival, organized by the Signal street art community. Two of the Minsk murals – Man without Identity and Girl in Embroidered Shirt – for the first time in Belarus history place in the top 10 ratings of the best graffiti in the world. The new artistic images caused heated debate between citizens who are irritated with graffiti and those who believe that street art makes Minsk more European.
Innovation of the Year: Online Platforms to Petition Government Agencies
This year’s mechanism to petition authorities and resolve citizens’ concerns moved increasingly online. A Minsk resident Valery Koldachev launched the One-Window-Online website, which enables people to send information about Minsk problems to the relevant state agency and monitor how the issue is resolved. Comfortable City platform founded by the KoshtUrada project helps to create petitions and collect signatures to support them. The most impressive statistics belong to the 115.бел website of the Center for Information Technology of the Minsk municipality – launched on November 1st, the website has already solved about 1,500 issues in the sphere of housing and communal services.
And For Something Completely Different: The First Ever Nobel for Belarus Was not Celebrated by The State and Сaused Debates in Civil Society
This year’s Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, the country’s first Nobel laureate. While officials discreetly congratulated the laureate, who consistently criticizes the authoritarian regimes, ordinary Belarusians, independent media, and CSOs conducted creative flash mobs, organized joint watching of the award ceremony, and intensively covered the event. Aleksievich also came under fire from some of Lukashenka’s opponents for allegedly not doing enough to cultivate Belarusian national identity, as well as not turning the Nobel lecture into a political rally. Yet, over a hundred Belarusians gathered at the airport to greet Svetlana Alexievich as she arrived back home and congratulate her on winning the prestigious award.