Civil Society: From crisis to development in a different environment

Yury Chausov

Summary

In 2016, the development of civil society organizations (CSO) took place in an environment of previously observed trends that were external to the non-governmental sector: the reorientation of donor policies on cooperation with state entities that had a continued, though largely formal nature of warming relations along the line ‘state – CSOs’.

A tendency to improve self-awareness of the civil sector, which is recorded in the CSO sustainability index prepared by USAID, continued: experts recorded progress in all parameters, except for the legal environment. Overall assessment of the sustainability of the civil society had also improved (for a second year in a row), while since 2008 the improvement was 0.5 points, which showed significant improvement in the index methodology. 1 However, neither in law nor on the level of law enforcement any positive changes were recorded, which would allow to consider the improvement of self-awareness of Belarusian CSOs as something institutionally proved.

Trends:
The conditions for the development of the civil sector

Legal conditions for the creation of new CSOs in Belarus remain adverse both in law and in practice. The law bans NGOs without state registration and specifies criminal responsibility for it.

The procedure of registration of NGOs and funds remains complex and burdensome (financially as well) in comparison with other countries in the OSCE region and commercial organizations. However, even the implementation of this procedure does not guarantee a positive outcome: registration bodies consider this issue as something political rather than legal and register only those organizations whose existence is recognized by the state as appropriate. In particular, during the year, the following NGOs were denied registration: the Center for gender studies “Ruzha”, “Youth of Revival”, “Peace Initiatives and Solutions”, the Committee for entrepreneurship support “Solidarity”, “Gender Partnership”, the Movement of solidarity “Razam” and others.

According to the Ministry of Justice 2 2,731 NGOs (221 of which are international and 730 are national) and 172 funds (16 of which are international, 6 are national) had the status of registered organizations in Belarus as of January 1, 2017. In 2016, 116 new NGOs (2 international and 17 national) and 16 new funds (including 1 international and 1 national) were registered (Table 1).

Compared to 2015, the total number of registered NGOs increased by 2.5% (from 2665 to 2731). The number of registered funds increased by 4.9% (from 164 to 172). Among the NGOs that are created in the country, many are sport organizations – in total there are 745 NGOs like that in Belarus. Despite the unfavorable conditions for the registration of funds and NGOs, this segment of CSO has demonstrated a steady tendency to growth since the end of the 2000s.

  January 1, 2008 January 1, 2009 January 1, 2010 January 1, 2011 January 1, 2012 January 1, 2013 January 1, 2014 January 1, 2015 January 1, 2016 January 1, 2017
NGOs
The number of newly registered NGOs (at the end of the previous year) 94 94 134 118 111 70 86 106 116
The total number of NGOs registered in the country as of the indicated date 2255 2221 2225 2325 2402 2477 2521 2596 2665 2731
Funds
The number of newly registered funds (at the end of the previous year) 9 9 8 14 21 22 11 11 11 16
The total number of funds registered in the country as of the indicated date 64 75 84 99 119 139 145 155 164 172
Table 1. The increase in the number of NGOs and funds in Belarus, 2008–2017

In most cases, newly created CSOs are registered in the form of an institution. However, only few of them state the norms of collegial governance, transparency and accountability in their statutes. As a result, the pattern of dominance of institutions carries a long-term threat to the sustainability and health of the Belarusian public sector.

The legal framework for CSOs

In 2016, there were no significant changes in the framework of the legislation regulating the activities of CSOs. A number of innovations or legal acts drafts affected certain activities of CSOs: creative unions and cultural organizations (the Code of Culture entered into force on 3 February 2017), CSOs for informal education (the new edition of the Education Code that is under discussion), CSOs for the protection of animals (the Law of the Republic of Belarus On treatment of animals was prepared for the adoption by the Parliament in 2017).

The main relevant legislative change for CSOs was Decree No. 5 On foreign grant aid that came into force on 4 March 2016. The Decree was aimed at improving the position of government organizations as beneficiaries, but it created additional difficulties for CSOs in connection with the gaps of regulation and the inconsistent practice of the Department on Humanitarian Activity in terms of interpretation of the provisions of the Decree when processing foreign grants. Only a few problems, gaps and inconsistencies in the interpretations were solved in the course of practical work and explanation. At the end of 2016 the Department of Humanitarian Activity acknowledged the imperfection of the new Decree and initiated a discussion with the CSOs interested in its adjustment.

In 2016 under the Commission on International Technical Cooperation affiliated with the Council of Ministers the Coordination Council started its work with the participation of representatives of state bodies, facilities support donors and the non-governmental sector. This advisory body, established on a tripartite basis, has a great potential in terms of reconciling the interests of key stakeholders. In December, at the meeting of its working group, it was decided to involve the public in the discussion of the draft of the passport of the National Program on International Technical Assistance until 2020. This four-year program is a list of projects with budgets that Belarus would like to finance at the expense of foreign donors and international organizations.

Crowdfunding, social entrepreneurship and public order

The political thaw in relations between Minsk and the West led to a change in donor strategies of the main sources of foreign aid to Belarus. Despite the increased size of aid provided to Belarus (also mentioned by the European Union), 3 financial flows underwent restructuring in favor of government agencies and institutions (universities, loyal and state-controlled CSOs, including the ones created especially for simulating public participation in the implementation of projects, especially at the local level).

Some CSOs started to adapt to this state of affairs in a traditional way, changing their tactics of fundraising in the foreign market or by redirecting its focus on cooperation projects with the authorities. Some CSOs (especially smaller organizations and new start-ups) reoriented the tactics of financial search in Belarus: in 2016, a boom in crowdfunding projects continued. The scale of the projects funded by the Belarusians is expanding: among the projects that are supported at crowdfunding platforms are activities of traditional organizations, publishing projects (books, movies, cartoons), educational seminars, social startups, raising of funds to send athletes to international competitions. Unlike in previous years, charity ceased to dominate the donations.

It is too early to state that money raised in Belarus by means of crowdfunding can be comparable with the sums of the facilities support or foreign aid: for the majority of CSOs they are the main sources of funding. But for projects that develop specific products with a clearly stated public demand crowdfunding has become a new and promising alternative.

The development of social entrepreneurship became less visible to the society but important to the sector itself. For quite some time, Belarusian non-governmental initiatives had started to commercialize their work, trying to gain certain sustainability of their products and services: dissemination of national symbols and products with national elements became the sphere of activities not only for craftspeople, but also for specialized organizations that can exist in the form of CSOs and commercial enterprises. In 2016, this process evolved incrementally.

A boom of social entrepreneurship is out of question, but the topic is significant for the sector. It is possible to say that in 2016, social entrepreneurship began to gain institutional and theoretical framework.

The enthusiasm for crowdfunding and prospects of social entrepreneurship is in contrast with some disappointment in state social order, which began to be implemented in Belarus in 2012. Hopes that the appearance of the mechanism of competitive distribution of state funds among CSOs in the Belarusian legislation would radically change the structure of financing of at least social CSOs did not come true. In reality this mechanism is available only to a few organizations with a CV politically spotless for the authorities, which are able to fulfill complex requirements for recipients of a state order.

The number of contracts of the social order is growing, but in 2016 as in 2015 most contracts were drawn with only one organization, namely the Belarusian Red Cross Society and its regional offices. However, some CSOs rely on the expansion of state social order to new spheres, in particular to the fight against socially significant diseases. 4

These directions of attracting internal funding can be considered as examples of the effectiveness of different strategies to change the infrastructure of public sector support. The changes that were achieved through legislative reform, clearly demonstrate less efficiency (and less importance to the community) compared to those implemented through the creation of new communication tools, approaches and tactics without governmental intervention, although taking into account the existing political and legal realities.

The search for effective solutions: in pursuit of public attention

The need to build activities based on an income from domestic sources did not affect the growth of the number of CSOs based on membership: an NGO remains a less popular form in comparison to institutions. This is due to a more simple procedure for the registration of institutions and greater opportunities for obtaining material resources at the expense of the provision of services to target groups. Some CSOs legalize their activities in the form of commercial organizations engaged in social entrepreneurship, conditions of their work are better than those of CSOs’.

In 2016, CSOs demonstrated flexibility in seeking opportunities for effective actions to make use of the opportunities that were opened in a changed geopolitical situation. The government moved from a policy of total rejection of social initiatives and, even demonstrated openness to cooperation in some areas, including such sensitive areas as the protection of human rights. Such cooperation often left the impression of formal interaction, while there were no real, useful results.

The trend of ‘soft Belarusization’ positively received by the state continues. It was originated by the civil society and became the main feature of the cultural policy of the state in 2016 having spread along a variety of spheres.

More organizations and initiatives with a gender perspective appear, aimed at promoting the rights of women and their visibility in all spheres of the society. Several women's organizations adopted the methods of direct action, which is new for the feminist movement in Belarus.

For environmental organizations the most striking event was the conflict with the Catholic Church regarding the felling of trees in the Katouka Park, where a Church building was planned to be built. The “green” won the battle: the government cancelled the decision on allocation of land for construction, and proposed an alternative site where there was no need to fell trees.

In the civil society there is a marked increase of activities and events aimed at attracting attention of media and the public to certain issues and organizations (and organizers), but not at achieving real results and changes in society. 5 In this regard, the lifting of the taboo on the participation of experts and activists of independent organizations in state-run television programs can be regarded as something important and many CSOs consider it a valuable achievement.

For human rights organizations the main event of 2016 was the adoption of the Interdepartmental plan on the implementation of the recommendations adopted by the Republic of Belarus on completion of the second cycle of the universal periodic review at the UN Council on human rights, and recommendations addressed to the Republic of Belarus by the treaty bodies on human rights for 2016–2019. The fact of the adoption of the plan was received by the human rights community as positive, but in their joint statement 6 Belarusian human rights CSOs mentioned that out of 22 topics on which the coalition of human rights organizations of Belarus had submitted their proposals to the Interdepartmental plan only some suggestions for 17 topics were partially taken into account. Human rights activists point out the lack of events on implementation of recommendations in such important areas of human rights as freedom of speech and association, religious freedom and socio-economic rights in the Interdepartmental plan as a significant disadvantage.

Human rights CSOs, using monitoring techniques and watch dog tactics, struggling with problems of violation of freedom of speech, assembly and association, focusing on the presence of political prisoners 7 in the country, try to find new directions and approaches. They turned to the issues of discrimination and social rights (especially in connection with Decree No. 3 On prevention of social dependency which was painfully perceived by the society). The Belarusian Helsinki Committee began to develop the topic of Human Rights and Business. 8

Conclusion

In 2017, the existing trends are expected to continue in the CSO sector associated with the adjustment to existing conditions: the economic crisis combined with the warming in the relations between Minsk and the West created a new reality that appear to be long-term. In turn, the government will not take drastic steps to change the conditions for CSOs or will make partial advances, preferring to promote a dialogue and cooperation on procedural questions, rather than creating an institutional framework and take on additional commitments for real reform. This will be facilitated by the absence of important election campaigns in 2017. Local elections to be held in early 2018, will not be an important event for CSOs that prefer to achieve their political goals by methods that are not related to electoral campaigns.

In general, the CSO sector aims at promoting the already announced initiatives, and it will also respond to the most controversial and unpopular actions of the authorities in the socio-economic sphere.