In 2012, Belarus saw a certain increase in the number of public associations and civil initiatives mainly owing to those registered outside the country, and non-profit organizations, which act without official registration. The legal framework of the third sector remained constrained, and the law enforcement practice was still based on the presumption of illegitimacy of civil society institutions, especially human rights defenders. Courts were used as a tool of pressure on civil society activists.
The National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum drew public attention by holding debates basically focused on discussing the expediency of civil society involvement in the political life of the country. The March and November conferences of the National Platform adopted a development concept, which expanded the activity area and radicalized the position of the platform. Disagreements expressed by a number of reputable NGOs did not promote civil society consolidation.
The European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarusian Society began in 2012 as a potentially beneficial project from the point of view of EU dialogue with Belarusian political forces, which possessed resources required for a reform (the opposition, civil society and the state). However, the authorities refused to treat civil society as a partner in negotiations. Civil society cannot engage in a full-scale dialogue with the government until political prisoners a released.
- Behind the official picture of the growing number of NGOs is a tendency towards ghettoization, going underground and pushing genuine civil society organizations out of the country;
- Regardless of legislative prerequisites for NGOs’ engagement in social services, the government still ignores the contribution of the third sector;
- The sense of solidarity in the third sector remains poor in many respects due to personal ambitions of its leaders;
- Stronger participation in the political life is a dominant trend in the National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, and the associations, which only regard the national platform as a possibility to communicate, can pull out at any moment.
Third sector in the mirror of government statistics
According to the Ministry of Justice, as of January 1, 2013, the number of registered NGOs in Belarus finally exceeded the number reported in early 1999: 2,477 1 against 2,433. The president prohibited acting on behalf of unregistered associations by the decree issued on January 26, 1999. Many organizations were denied re-registration, which followed the decree in the middle of the 1999s, and the number of nonprofit organizations dropped to 1,537. 2 By August 2002, the number of public associations increased slightly to 1,980, and 268 new organizations joined them by November 2003. The number remained almost the same in the next seven years, 2003 through 2009. It went up again in 2010–2012 (see Table 1).
If the changes in the number of associations and relevant public life events are taken together, it becomes obvious that the third sector is going through very painful adjustments caused by the legal regulation of its activities. The greatest reduction in the number of NGOs was observed during the re-registration in 1999. The campaign on bringing charters into line with the new wording of the law on public associations (2005) was not fatal, but also had a negative impact on the third sector.
An increase in the total number of NGOs in the last three years to a certain degree resulted from the authorities’ policy aimed at formation of pro-governmental NGOs and associations. With regard to areas of activities in recent years (2007, 2009 and 2012), the statistics shows a slight increase in the share of physical culture and sports oriented NGOs (23.5, 23.5 and 25.3%, respectively) and youth associations (6.8, 7.6 and 10%). Fluctuations in the share of other organizations (charitable, artistic, ethnic, women’s, conservationist, historical, and cultural organizations, and those of disabled war veterans and disabled workers) were insignificant. The only category, which showed a significant decrease in the proportion of NGOs, is enlightenment, cultural, recreational and educational organizations (from 13.8% in 2007 to 8.9% in 2012).
In general, the official statistics draws a relatively trouble-free picture of civil society development in the country. But in reality, the authorities create a false civil society, which is only a democracy stage set. 3 True NGOs face serious and sometimes insurmountable problems with registration and re-registration. Their share in the State Registration of Legal Entities and Individual Entrepreneurs (USR) is gradually reducing, and the proportion of organizations, which are either beyond the democratic context or take an apologetic stand towards the government, is going up. These processes are not reflected in the official statistics, though.
The lack of official statistical information about the actual number of NGOs in Belarus is one more serious flaw. Experts say the State Register provides no data on the associations and initiatives, which have to operate without registration, the associations, which more and more often obtain registration as establishments, and more Belarusian organizations and public initiatives registered outside the country but working in Belarus. 4
Legal environment for the third sector
Two groups of indicators can be used to characterize the legal environment created for the third sector: first, the legal regulation (constitutional provisions, laws, bylaws, etc.), and, second, the law enforcement practice.
As concerns the legal regulation, enacting of the law on social services can be outlined as the most significant positive event. Noteworthy are both the essence of the major innovations, such as introduction of state commissioning of social services, and the mechanism for working out a new wording in direct cooperation with NGOs. The law, which came into force on January 1, 2013, allows engaging NGOs in provision of social services and implementation of social projects. Although the law is quite promising in terms of closer partnership between the state and the third sector, activists are concerned about the possibility to sign up a social order given that the competitive selection of candidates is complicated and nontransparent, the NGO’s potential assessment procedure is intricate, and there is a threat of creation of pseudo non-profit organizations for executing an order.
On July 31, 2012, the House of Representatives received the bill On Amendments to Some Laws of the Republic of Belarus on Activities of Political Parties and Other Public Associations, which, unlike the previous one, was neither given publicity at its development stage, nor brought up for public discussion. Experts note that although the bill envisages a certain softening of demands for registration of public associations, it does not abolish the authorization principle and does not eliminate the threat of bureaucratic arbitrariness. 5 Taken as a whole, the bill is not aimed at civil society development.
The Criminal Code of Belarus still has section 193.1 Illegal organization of activities of a public association, religious organization or foundation or participation in their activities. Many public initiatives and organizations, which were unable to obtain official registration, have to operate under the threat of imprisonment for up to two years established by this section. Attempts made by human rights defenders to abolish the odious section, which has no analogue in Europe, have been unsuccessful in the past year. Moreover, in response to the appeal of activists 6 of the public initiatives Right of Belief and STOP 193.1! addressed to government institutions, the Ministry of Justice and the Council of the Republic said they were not entitled to initiate its abolition.
The legal framework for nonprofit organizations does not meet present-day international standards, but disregard of laws in Belarus is even more disturbing. Provisions of the Constitution and laws do not have actualization mechanisms as rules with direct effect. The law enforcement practice remained hostile to civil society institutions, particularly when it comes to human rights NGOs and organizations of democratic orientation. It is still based on the presumption of undesirability of existence of grassroots associations. It is manifested in unlawful denial of registration of organizations and grants, artificial obstacles to statutory goals of organizations, the prohibition on foreign trips of civil society activists, biased fiscal policy, and so on.
The liquidation of the outreach and awareness-raising center Platforma in October 2012 at the suit of the Ministry of Taxation is a vivid example. The organization was engaged in monitoring of due process of law in correctional institutions. It was charged with late filing of tax returns and non-residence at the actual legal address. It was enough for the Minsk Economic Court to liquidate the human rights organization.
Unlawful decisions against NGOs not always hide behind the seemingly plausible explanations. They sometimes are openly scoffing, as it was in the case of the NGO Dobraya Volya (Good Will). Members of the association, which was protecting rights of children, informed the Ministry of Education of violations committed by officials of the ministry in relation to foster families and orphans. The Ministry of Education lodged a complaint to the Ministry of Justice and, on November 26, the Supreme Court suspended activities of the NGO. The Ministry of Justice did not like the capital “V” in the name Dobraya Volya (volya can mean freedom as well), which it said was unlawful, and also the advertising prints on NGO’s envelopes. Harassment did not stop even after the requirements of the Ministry of Justice were met. On January 29, 2013 BelaPAN announced the next inspection of the NGO.
As before, civil activists were often prosecuted for administrative offenses, such as disorderly conduct (section 17.1 of the Administrative Code), or disturbance of mass events (paragraph 23.34 of the Administrative Code), as seen from the monitoring reports of the Legal Information Center (footnote 5). Courts unlawfully treat civic engagement as an offence against the law that discredits the judicial system and demonstrates its servility.
Debates on the extent of consolidation and a common strategy of civil society
Debates on the extent of consolidation and a common civil society strategy in many respects determined the life of the third sector in Belarus in 2012. 7 As in the previous year, the National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum was used for that. Two conferences of the National Platform were held on June 29–30 and November 16. By the time of the first conference, the National Platform united 58 permanent organizations-panelists.
The most heated disputes were caused by the National Platform development concept worked out by the EuroBelarus Consortium. Objections raised by Siarhei Matskevich, member of the Platform’s Interim Coordinating Committee and head of the Assembly of NGOs, concerned prospects of the National Platform should it enter the national political arena, i. e. expansion of its functions outward the Belarus–EU cooperation. Some participants also disagreed with proposals on institutional development of the Platform as a centralized hierarchical structure. Critics of the concept also emphasized that the Platform was not entitled to establish a consolidated position of civil society in its own name, because it would contradict the very essence of the association, which was set up for discussion and communication only to ensure independency of individual members. As a result, the parties decided to get back to the concept next time.
The Conference elected the coordinating committee: Chairman Uladzimir Matskevich (head of the Rada of EuroBelarus international consortium), honorary member Ales Bialatsky (chairman of the Human Rights Centre Viasna), members of the committee Ulad Vialichka (EuroBelarus chairman), Yuras Gubarevich (deputy chairman of the For Freedom movement), Siarhei Drazdouski (coordinator of the Office for the Rights of the Disabled), Pyotr Kuzniatsou (member of the board of the civil initiative Homiel Democratic Forum), Siarhei Matskevich (chairman of the Assembly of NGOs), and Volha Smalianka (director of the Legal Transformation Center). The delegates also listed the organizations recommended for participation in the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum in Stockholm in November 2012.
The debates on the Platform concept for the years 2012-2014 became even more intense at the second conference held in November when its revised variant was discussed. 8 Approved by the majority (two thirds of the voters), this document expanded the Platform priorities by adding domestic policy matters to the scope of European-Belarusian relations. Such reputable institutions as the Assembly of NGOs, Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Salidarnasc, Belarusian Association of Journalists, Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, and some others voted against the concept. In their opinion, it contradicts the statutory goals of their organizations, the memorandum of cooperation between the Platform members signed on October 29, 2011, and takes the Platform outside the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum.
The developers explained that the concept did not provide for participation of civil society in the struggle for power, but only focused on resolution of broader problems in the life of the country. 9 This however did not satisfy the opponents, because no one disputed civil society’s engagement in unconventional forms of politics. On the contrary, the increasing number of unregistered associations and initiatives, opening of online media outlets, and discussions on web forums 10 indicate that a significant part of social-minded people striving for changes in social life come out from the sphere of state legitimacy. Many are not happy about the attempts to build up the National Platform as a centralized organization with permanent membership, the management of which will be able to speak with the government and Europe on its behalf.
The confrontation of opinion is caused by different understanding of what civil society is. Simply defined, the positions of the participants gravitate toward one of two alternatives. The first one considers civil society as an agent of unconventional policy. In this case, the National Platform serves for public determination of goals and objectives, assessment of achieved results, and search for strategies to pressure the government in the interests of social transformations. Advocates of the second one see civil society as the most capable sociopolitical actor (especially after the political opposition’s defeat in the 2011 and 2012 elections). The attempt to instrumentalize the Platform to build up the political capacity of civil society was largely determined by the upcoming parliamentary elections. However, the heated debates on the opportunities and partnership between the Platform and the political opposition have not led to a consolidated position that was obvious during the debates on the National Platform concept.
Development of the national platforms was heatedly discussed not only in Belarusian civil society. It topped the agenda of the IV Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum in Stockholm on 29–30 November 2012 together with few other matters. Yaroslav Bekish was elected national coordinator on Belarus at the Forum.
The civil society engagement in political process is not the only topic for discussion in the democratic community of Belarus. In view of the threat of the EU’s expanded sanctions against Belarus, the Brussels-based Office for a Democratic Belarus made a statement on February 1 calling on to amend the list of persons subject to the sanctions. The Office proposed to cross out university heads, some journalists and officials who have vacated their offices, and Belarusian tycoon Vladimir Peftiev, who the European Union believes to be one of the sponsors of the regime. The Office also suggested expanding the black list, but not all participants seemed to hear it. The major point for reconsidering the list was an opportunity to prevent isolation of Belarus and to promote a reform of higher education and release of political prisoners. 11
The statement triggered a strong reaction. Centers of Belarus’ political emigration urged to tighten sanctions against Belarus. 12 They were seconded by a number of organizations in the country. Some leaders voiced support for cutting the list, even though both sides noted that the Office did not appeal to public opinion.
In fact, behind the disputes over the sanctions is a more substantial issue marked by sharp antithesis: who is capable of effecting changes in Belarus. Either the political opposition in exile or forces inside the country (civil society, the political opposition) have resources for that. As for the opposition, it makes sense to put forth an effort towards negotiation, dialog and, consequently, support for democratic forces in the country. If the chances of success are slim, support for political forces outside Belarus should be focused on. Both sides agree that democratic reforms are highly relevant, but the resources allocation problem, 13 which is not discussed publicly, is still a stumbling block.
The launch of the EU initiative European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarusian Society was announced on March 29, 2012. It is aimed at assistance in preparation of a reform in Belarus with the participation of experts from the European Union, the political opposition, Belarusian civil society, and, possibly, the authorities. Four expert working groups and a steering committee have been formed. Further advancement of the initiative requires not only tangible support from the European Union, but also not less elusive consolidated position of civil society and the opposition. Besides, the problem is that last year the government refused to engage in dialogue with the European Union unless the political opposition and civil society stayed away.
The past year saw a growing alienation between civil society and the state. The authorities did not contribute to civil society development, but erected legal, ideological, bureaucratic and fiscal barriers. The judicial system, which totally depends on the regime, does not guarantee that even the existing laws will be enforced. The state is suspicious about any uncontrolled initiative and pushes public associations out of the legal field that enhances marginalization of the third sector. This is an ambiguous process: freedom from one kind of restrictions and ghettoization, which means other restrictions. The government does not want to see civil society as a partner.
The law on social partnership is one the few positive facts. Disputes within the main discussion area of the third sector – the National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum – concentrates on strategies: either civil society consolidates with the political opposition and comes on the political stage as a full-fledged actor, or distances from the government and acts as a self-organizing community. This leaves the prospect of civil society consolidation open.