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Civil Society in Europe’s Last Dictatorship

Belarus is more well-known for its long-lasting dictatorship than for its respect for democracy and fundamental freedoms. The reputation of Belarus may cause many to question the mere existence of civil society in such a difficult context. Yet many civil society organizations are present in Belarus, working every day to overcome the restrictions and repressions imposed by the authoritarian regime.

A flourishing civil society is often seen as a sign of a healthy democratic society. Freedom of peaceful assembly and association tend to be closely linked to freedom of expression and represent the foundation of democracy. These freedoms are also at the core of civil society activities as they promote political participation and political debate; by enabling citizens to voice their opinions, engage in cultural activities or volunteer their time towards a project or cause.  A healthy civil society acts as a counter-balance to state power that can hold government into account. It provides short-term support in various areas, but also carries long-term transformative change through its contribution to policy-making. The authoritarian regime led by President Lukashenka which has been governing Belarus for over two decades is well aware of the symbolic and practical power of civil society, hence the repression being implemented.

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Belarusian law is notoriously harsh towards civil society organizations (CSOs). According to Belarusian law, all non-governmental organizations must be registered with the authorities to be granted permission to operate. A long and harrowing administrative procedure awaits any group applying for the said permission. CSOs are subject to stringent requirements and regulations which can be used by the authorities to justify the rejection of applications for registration or the liquidation of pre-existing organizations because of their constant supervision.

CSOs are required to hold a business address as they are prohibited to be located in residential premises. This is especially problematic as it causes additional costs for CSOs and finding a public premise may be compromised by the refusal of owners under the pressure of the government. State control also extends to funding, limiting funding possibilities on a national level and prohibiting certain forms of foreign funding. Activities of civil society organizations are closely monitored, especially educational activities. In addition, the Law on Mass Events imposes harsh restrictions which infringe on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and requires the permission of local authorities for any sort of public gathering.

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Needless to say, the relations between the government and actors of civil society are highly strained. The latter can often be subjected to sanctions, harassment, investigations and prosecutions. Activists are exposed to violence and police brutality during protests, as was the case during the mass protests that followed the 2010 elections, during which dozens were brutalized and arrested.

Considering the reputation of Belarus as “Europe’s last dictatorship”, many assume Belarus has no real civil society. This would be a great mistake, as there are many CSOs working every day to overcome the challenging political context in which they find themselves. A prominent example of the liveliness of Belarusian civil society is found in the protests that erupted in 2017 against the so-called “Social Parasite Tax”. Formerly known as Decree 3, the law introduced a high tax on those working less than six months per year. The protests that started in Minsk snowballed into a nation-wide wave of protests, defying the laws on unauthorized demonstrations. Soon enough, thousands of Belarusian citizens were taking to the streets, in the largest protests since 2010 following the reelection of President Lukashenka. Although some political messages eventually started to emanate from the marching crowds, the protests were largely organized through the use of social media, and without the support of coordinated operations from the opposition as claimed by the government.

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In 2016, the release of political prisoners initiated by President Lukashenka prompted the EU to lift most of its sanctions against Belarus. This resulted in a shift in the Belarusian government’s way of handling protests and opposition which meant that although hundreds were arrested and detained during the 2017 protests, only about a hundred protestors faced having to serve time in prison. If this could be applauded by some as a sign of softening from the government, the reality is more sinister. This new approach simply highlights President Lukashenka’s mastering of the right dose of repression. Too much repression could threaten Belarusian rapprochement with the West and the EU, too little could engender further aspiration for change and will for action. And although the Belarusian government has strong strategic interests in strengthening its ties with the EU, it certainly isn’t willing to allow any space for reform or to let go of its stance on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In Belarus the fight for reform and change is an uphill battle and it seems rather fair to believe that any substantial political shift can only happen upon removal from power of President Lukashenka. Nevertheless, the protests against the social parasite tax eventually succeeded, leading the government to abandon the decree and announce the refunding of those who had already paid the heavy tax. These protests prove the will for change that inhabits the heart of Belarus and prove that change can come from the people, that there is a form of power in a crowd of Belarusian citizens uniting to march together.

As a member of the group who recently traveled to Minsk this spring for UPF’s Belarus exchange project, it seems that Belarusian civil society is, if not well, most definitely alive and greatly active. Our visit in Minsk allowed us to meet a great number of young activists, passionate about their work, pouring every resource they have into their organizations. From the employees of the League of Youth Voluntary Service working towards the promotion of volunteerism and civic engagement among the youth; to the volunteers of the Human Library Belarus creating and cultivating dialogue between citizens; to the students at BSA (Belarusian Students’ Association) fighting for the rights of students all over the country. Despite the challenging political context which creates numerous obstacles for CSOs, Belarusian civil society remains determined to operate and shape society with enthusiasm and skillfulness, slowly progressing on the difficult road to change.

Alexandra Toussaint

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