Civil Society: From street advocacy to internal financing

Vadim Mozheyko

Summary

In 2019, Belarusian civil society organizations (CSO) achieved some success in advocacy, often thanks to protests. Most organizations do not even try to enter advisory councils, which have a severely limited opportunity to make significant inputs.

Fundraising for CSOs and monetization of their core activities have been showing rapid growth, although the fiscal legislation remains adverse towards the functioning and development of civil society. LGBT topics polarize society and stimulate the evolution of CSOs with opposing views.

Trends:
Street protests and a hunger strikes instead of parliamentary advocacy

The Belarusian authorities expectedly seek to make contacts with discontented citizens orderly and composed. They manage to do this on the grassroots level by addressing somehow or other the appeals filed by members of local communities, and quite effectively resolve utility issues through the 115.bel service (over 1.5 million users, 2.65 million applications granted in 2019).1 No effective tools have been worked out at the level of collective interests. Some actions taken by the authorities in 2019 encouraged civil society organizations and initiatives to act outside the system and, sometimes, to resort to street advocacy methods.

In fact, the House of Representatives has never been a place for parliamentary advocacy in the full sense of the word. The presence of two MPs unaffiliated with the system in the House of the 6th convocation at least marked a dawning of public-state interaction. They could be used as a channel for bringing in bills, make examined bills public, or have a voice on the bills before they have been passed. For instance, Anna Kanopatskaya posted draft budgets on social media. However, in the 2019 parliamentary elections, public activists were not admitted to the parliament or at least registered as candidates, and the president personally criticized the participation of Brest activists in the elections.

The situation with the direct communication between officials and CSOs is similar. In 2019, the authorities invited experts to meetings and task groups from time to time (the Ministry of Labor and the Coalition For Decent Aging; the Ministry of Economy and Kastrychnitsky Economic Forum; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Minsk Dialogue), but only on a selective basis. According to CSO Meter 2019, although public councils that include representatives of CSOs are accommodated by almost all government agencies, there is not a single regulation standard or principle. The selection criteria for CSOs are unclear and most often biased, and the selection procedure is nontransparent. The powers of the advisory councils are scarce, and panel debates do not usually affect high-level decision making. Around 30% of CSOs have presence in such councils, while the rest do not even try to obtain seats there.2

Meanwhile, unconstrained by the system, unregistered CSOs achieve some success in advocacy by means of regular street actions and hunger strikes. Activists of Mother-328 civil initiative went on hunger strike in summer 2019, drawing attention to the prosecution for illegal drug related crimes, which they consider excessive in some cases. In 2019, the parliament amended section 328 of the Criminal Code towards mitigation of the punishment, and Alexander Lukashenko publicly promised presidential clemency to convicts.

The advocacy campaign of the Brest environmental protests was also successful. The IPower battery plant was not put into operation in 2019, the mayor began to meet with groups of local residents, and the president agreed that the protesters’ demands were grounded.

Such successes inspire people to establish this kind of CSOs. For instance, the Fair Verdict initiative was formed in 2019. Very similar to Mothers-328, it united relatives of persons imprisoned for economic crimes. The Youth Bloc that was formed of CSO activists has been advocating matters related to education, military service and mitigation of anti-drug legislation since the autumn of 2019.

Financing: monetization, donations, social business

Following the trend that has been observed since 2018, CSOs continue to diversify sources of financing of their activities, including by building up the domestic financing capacity. It was primarily about the provision of premises and organization of events for other CSOs in 2018, whereas the year 2019 saw three relatively new main fundraising areas, firstly, the monetization of achievements and competencies of third sector CSOs. Some activists reasoned in 2019 that not only donors, but also consumers of certain services were willing to pay. The consultations on obligatory job placements of university graduates, which Christina Richter provided free of charge as part of the Brotherhood of Organizers of Student Self-Government (BOSS) and Youth Labor Rights (YLAR), became a fee-based service of Digital Natives LLC (BYN 70 and over for one-time consultation and BYN 420 for full follow-up support).3

BirdLife Belarus organized a paid lecture of a Georgian scientist for a total of BYN 1,339 (107% of the required amount).4 The Center for Environmental Solutions also held a series of paid lectures on environmental topics, and sold nearly 230 tickets, BYN 10–15 each.

Secondly, CSOs began to collect donations from individuals. According to the survey “Public Organizations and Civil Initiatives: Engagement Capacity”, donations are one of the three most popular forms of community engagement (39%).5

Launched by Ulej crowdfunding platform in March 2019, MolaMola website became an important tool. Unlike crowdfunding, MolaMola does not require remunerating donors or setting deadlines or financial limits for projects, which enables CSOs to raise funds quickly and without bureaucratic delays. MolaMola hosts over 1,500 companies (not only CSOs) that have collected more than BYN 1.25 million.6 MolaMola won the Civil Society Champion Prize in 2019 in the Talaka of the Year nomination.

Petitions.by is another positive example. It not only accepts donations through its website, but also regularly publishes detailed statistics of its expenses in the form of bank statements and interactive infographics.7

Thirdly, CSO activists are trying to launch social business projects that would help other CSOs and themselves perform functions typical of CSOs. Inspired by the Ukrainian Urban Space project, a group of activists founded the Dbaju city project, a social restaurant and event venue. Revenues will go to non-profit city projects and initiatives. The founders of the project (350 people who will invest USD 1,000 each) will decide on support addressees.8

The example of Prague inspired Olga Gorbunova, former head of Radislava NGO, to open the NORM café-club, which will create jobs for women, victims of domestic violence, and 50% of the profits will be donated to shelters for such women and their children.9

Regretfully, Belarus financial legislation remains adverse towards CSOs, limiting access to funding.10

From “gay lobbying” accusations to the trial for homophobic extremism

In 2019, the polarization of society with respect to violation of gender and LGBT rights led to the strengthening of engaged CSOs and pushed this point up on the socio-political agenda. This concerns both liberal and illiberal CSOs and activists.

Thanks to the media attention and appeals at international venues, the ‘March, Baby’ advocacy campaign achieved a meeting with the foreign minister and support from one of the new MPs for the law against domestic violence. Co-founder of the campaign Svetlana Gatalskaya shared the Civil Society Champion Prize in the Public Leader of the Year nomination in 2019.

LGBT organizations effectively cooperate with each other, including on a joint action strategy, which reinforces horizontal ties and facilitates new regional LGBT initiatives. The New Regions initiative (Mogilev) won a RADA award in the Youth Initiative for Local Community Development nomination.

Our Home CSO launched the Tg House campaign to combat stigmatization and discrimination of transgender people in Belarus.

The trial of Vecherny Mogilev newspaper, the most homophobic periodical in Belarus, which was accused of extremism, was quite characteristic in this regard. Although a guilty verdict was not reached, the expert examination of the extremist nature of the newspaper’s articles and the very fact of Belarus’ first trial of the kind is very inspiring for the LGBT community.11

The trial also encouraged activists that uphold opposite views. During the trial, Vecherny Mogilev was actively supported by non-liberal Open Hearts NGO, opponents of the LGBT community, abortions and in vitro fertilization (primarily Christian communities). Similar public statements were made by head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz.

During the parliamentary campaign, Belarusian politicians either refrained from talking about LGBT issues, or stated their negative attitude. When in conflict with the PEN Center in autumn 2019, Pavel Severinets accused the organization of “gay lobbying.” the only openly pro-Russian parliamentary candidate Elvira Mirsalimova got in the spotlight after she vented her fury on gay people on Odnoklassniki. She was supported by many. A large number of commentators welcomed her pronounced homophobic position.

Conclusion

Since official communication channels are unavailable, Belarusian CSOs are looking for alternative ways to convey their agenda to the authorities, achieving local successes (Mothers-328, Brest activists), which inspire the others to step up advocacy efforts (Youth Bloc, Fair Verdict). This trend is likely to continue in 2020, but attempts to politicize such efforts will be suppressed by the government.

Belarusian CSOs face numerous difficulties when trying to obtain international assistance. Therefore, they have to find alternative sources to finance their activities, including through monetization, donations and social businesses. Since legislation in this area will hardly be liberalized, and funding is always needed, CSOs will continue developing these and new tools in 2020. Information technologies will facilitate this process, while the economic stagnation in Belarus will impede it.

CSOs of both supporters and opponents of the LGBT and gender agenda were actively expanding in 2019. The Vecherny Mogilev trial showed that despite the president’s homophobic rhetoric, the state is not willing either to share the position of radical opponents of the LGBT community, or condemn them for hatred in the media. Such CSOs will try to enlist and expand public support in 2020 and achieve real or symbolic support of the state, which will inevitably lead to conflicts between the organizations.