The three largest state-sponsored and state-controlled NGOs – Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FTUB), Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU) and Belaja Rus (‘White Russia’) – met the recent changes in the national socio-economic policy with great suspicion. This is primarily about the tightened monetary policy and sharply reduced social obligations. The NGOs were unable to lobby more favorable decisions.
All three NGOs made an attempted to adjust their activities to more or less comply with the policy provisionally called “soft Belarusization” and “liberalization”, but those attempts were limited and unstable.
New NGOs, the pro-government nature of which is not that obvious, are playing an increasingly bigger role in the socio-political life of the country. They can imitate a relatively developed civil society in Belarus, while the FTUB, BRYU and Belaja Rus are gradually losing this function.
- The leading pro-government NGOs are unable to adapt to ongoing socio-political and economic changes;
- The FTUB, BRYU and Belaja Rus, which used to play the role of civil society substitutes, are losing their relevance as new NGOs are taking the stage.
On this side of the tax on ‘social parasitism’
In 2016, amid the growing social and economic crisis, the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus showed a total inability to function as a pro-government public association meant to monitor the situation at enterprises and extinguish possible discontent. The traditional annual meeting between President Alexander Lukashenko and FTUB Chairman Mikhail Orda took place on October 24. Both agreed that the social and economic standing of workers was going down, but did not voice any proposals on how to protect their rights. Lukashenko only said that the existing problems must not be resolved through layoffs. 1
Orda tried to criticize the tough monetary policy and a gradual retreat from the general zero unemployment principle, but he was not heard. Instead, he was tasked to reduce the FTUB staff in line with the 2017 government machinery optimization campaign. 2
Orda’s speech at the 5th All-Belarusian People’s Assembly held June 27 in Minsk was also vapid. The Union leader managed to articulate only two intelligible proposals: to provide preferential banking support to enterprises and to expand retraining and professional development programs. These measures certainly require budgetary funding that makes the FTUB one of the obvious opponents of the current tightened monetary policy. Apparently, the FTUB’s pecuniary interests are directly affected by the alarming unemployment rate and wage cuts. However, the Federation is not entitled to directly criticize the official policy.
On July 13, 2016, after the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, the FTUB Presidium issued the resolution ‘On the Package of Measures to Implement the Main Provisions of the Socio-Economic Development Program of the Republic of Belarus for 2016–2020 in the FTUB System.’ Like the overall majority of Belarusian policy documents, this program is of low quality and lacks progressive ideas. Its main message concerns the inadmissibility of an increase in layoffs. Although the authors every time refer to the skillfully constructed term “socially responsible restructuring”, the FTUB failed to make any clear proposals, not to mention effective measures to put these to practice.
The FTUB retained its traditional role as one of the legitimators of the electoral policy during the September parliamentary elections, and nominated over 9,000 union members to election commissions and 5,000 observers.
Internationally, the FTUB also, as always, failed to achieve any tangible results. For example, the issue of compulsory labor in Belarus was expectedly raised at the 105th session of the International Labor Organization on May 30 – June 11 in Geneva in connection with presidential decree No. 3 ‘On the Prevention of Social Parasitism.’ Despite the attempts of Belarusian official delegations (including the FTUB delegation) to justify this decree, and the calls for the abolition of decree No. 9 ‘On Further Steps to Develop the Woodworking Industry’, the ILO demanded to bring the Belarusian legislation into compliance with the norms prohibiting forced labor. This largely degraded all previous successes, in particular, the non-inclusion of Belarus in the ILO special paragraph as a country where the rights of workers and trade unions were grossly violated in 2015 for the first time in several years.
Belarusian Republican Youth Union: National colors over the old set of propaganda clichés
As in previous years, the state-controlled NGO Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU) tried to demonstrate its adaptability to the changing conditions. The promotion of national symbols was one of the main trends in the Union’s activities in 2016. The media called this process ‘soft Belarusization.’ On July 2, the BRYU, Ministry of Culture and Minsk City Executive Committee even held a Vyshyvanka Day (the day of the traditional shirt in embroidered national style) in the center of Minsk. It is hard to imagine such an event a year before. However, given the extremely limited nature of this soft Belarusization, and that the country’s leadership has no idea where it all should lead, the BRYU is unlikely to make further steps in this direction.
During the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, when the ‘embroidered campaign’ was in full swing, BRYU First Secretary Andrei Belyakov did not say a word about it. His speech was based on standard Soviet clichés, and the topic of patriotism reduced to the memory of the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945 and the postulate that young people should stay in the home country “not being free of it.”
He spoke about civil-patriotic education, but did not propose any innovations in other areas, such as online activities, culture and recreation, the volunteer movement, or organization of students’ teams. Given the situation in the economy, we can assume that the year 2017 will be even more difficult in all these domains.
The role of the BRYU remained traditional when it came to the follow-up support for elections. The Union delegated around 6,200 observers, thus contributing to the legitimization of the parliamentary elections.
The chronic problem of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union is that it is still dependent on public funding. The organization planned to achieve self-sufficiency by 2011, and then this term was postponed till 2013. Presidential decree No.6 of January 13, 2016 extended the budgetary financing of the BRYU to 2016–2017.
In December, the organization was strongly hit by personnel reshuffles in the Presidential Administration. Patron and curator of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union Igor Buzovsky was dismissed from office of deputy chief of staff. Moreover, during the restructuring in 2017, the position of presidential assistant for ideology was abolished, and Vsevolod Yanchevsky (the actual creator of the Union) was transferred to the position of High Technologies Park director.
So, although the BRYU is the most active of all three NGOs mentioned here (at least from the point of view of the specificity of its target audience), there were no significant transformations in its activities in 2016. To a lesser degree than the FTUB, the Belarusian Republican Youth Union opposes the current tightening of the monetary policy, because its financial standing does not directly depend on wages and the overall employment situation.
It is noteworthy that the BRYU is the only one among the three organizations that tries to join what is called ‘soft Belarusization’ and ‘liberalization’ campaigns. However, the vagueness of these processes, like the very Soviet nature of the Union, did not make it possible to considerably influence the sentiment of the part of society that welcomed this turn (albeit indecisive) in domestic policy.
Belaja Rus: on the margins of socio-political life
The NGO Belaja Rus is an absolute outsider among the three NGOs in question in terms of the adaptation to the changing conditions in the country and the involvement in political processes. It was not mentioned a single time on the agenda of President Lukashenko and his Administration throughout 2016, which is a peculiar indicator of the NGO’s insignificance. Moreover, although Belaja Rus Chairman Alexander Radkov was among the delegates to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, he did not take the floor unlike Mikhail Orda or Andrei Belyakov.
Radkov’s speech at a session of the Republican Council of Belaja Rus on January 28, 2017 testifies the pointlessness of the existence of the organization and its marginal status in the social and political life of the country. In fact, Belaja Rus had nothing to report in 2016. It cannot be said that the organization does not realize this and does not try to make a change. The organization has made and continues to make attempts to position itself as a centrist force capable of uniting the ruling class and population groups, which manifest skepticism towards it (of course, under the primacy of the powers that be).
During the preparation for the 2016 parliamentary elections, Belaja Rus proposed limited liberal amendments to the electoral legislation, and tried to act as an intermediary between the authorities and the OSCE. Nevertheless, during the elections, the leadership of the country preferred to traditionally use Belaja Rus as a source of loyal and obedient members of election commissions and observers. The elections did not bring significant changes for Belaja Rus: the House of Representatives of the 2012 convocation numbered 67 members of the organization (out of 110). Their number in the new parliament increased by one.
The NGO still has no chance to become a political party. Its chairman Radkov had to speak about that more than once in 2016.
From year to year, the role and importance of the three largest state-sponsored and state-controlled NGOs in the socio-political life of the country is steadily declining. This happens not only because of the gradual (yet very slow) changes in Belarusian society, which becomes less Soviet in the course of time, but also because society and the government do not need such organizations as much as they used to. As the social contract is in decline, the government prefers to use other methods of political and social control. Another significant factor, which in many respects determines the declining importance of the FTUB, BRYU and Belaja Rus, is that new public associations somehow associated with the authorities have been popping up all over in the past few years.
Under the new conditions, their top priority is not so much to adapt to the ongoing changes (the economic recession, lay-offs in state-run enterprises and organizations, and a growing indignation at the state authorities and organizations associated with them), but to fit in to meet the new requirements set by the government, i. e. to offer effective ways to control the nation.