Civil Society: Total purge and retained public trust
In 2021, Belarusian civil society organizations (CSOs) faced a total indiscriminate repression on the part of the authorities. Apparently, it was not the presence of CSOs on the list of untrustworthy entities (which is enough for liquidation), but the absence of trustworthy ones there. For many CSOs, relocation was a forced solution that presented them with new challenges.
The authorities tried to reseed the scorched field of CSOs with organizations they fully control. It is likely that their representatives will be given seats in the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly as ‘delegated from civil society’. However, sociological research shows that Belarusians still trust the CSOs that are not controlled by the government.
- Demolition of the legal framework for the existence of uncontrolled CSOs in Belarus;
- Non-public activities of the few CSOs, which have escaped repressions and remained in Belarus;
- Relocation of most CSOs and activists to another jurisdictions as a new challenge and new opportunities for interaction;
- Activation of GONGOs, the state-controlled pseudo NGOs that imitate CSOs, being often affiliated with Moscow;
- Retained public support and trust despite adverse environment, in which CSOs have to operate.
All-around repression: civil society purges in all segments
Most Belarusian civil society organizations were forced to stop legal activities in the spring of 2021. In April, Alexander Lukashenko ordered to “whip into line” the CSOs and foundations that are not controlled by the authorities, which, he said, was “a matter of principle”. Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei unambiguously stated that if the EU sanctions got tougher, civil society in Belarus “would cease to exist”.
Lukashenko developed the idea in May, saying that GONGOs (see below) were also demanding the elimination of CSOs. “Political scientists, our supporters, MPs and others, are already pointing fingers at us, saying “You must clean up society. We see what has been happening”, he said.1
According to Lawtrend, this statement was followed by the forced liquidation of 384 CSOs,2 while 273 decided to dissolve voluntary.3 The “comb-out” hit CSOs of all legal forms (public associations, institutions, foundations, etc.) and focus areas (sports clubs, freemason’s lodges, automobile fans, think tanks, honorary consul societies and animal protection groups, song and dance ensembles, and clubs of philosophy enthusiasts). The indiscriminate reprisals also affected the CSOs that had not been active for a long time.
It seems that it was not the presence of the CSOs on the list of untrustworthy entities, but their absence on the list of trustworthy ones, which was enough grounds for liquidation. Lukashenko said in December that the liquidated CSOs “would never be reinstated”.
Several waves of searches, confiscations, account blockages, interrogations and arrests (and later prison sentences) of CSO representatives, including of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the independent trade union of the radio-electronic industry, and Polish diaspora organizations, took place across the country. The leadership of the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Sergei Drozdovsky, Oleg Grablevsky), environmentalists (Irina Sukhiy, Natalia Gerasimova), analysts (Valeria Kostyugova, Tatiana Kuzina, Vladimir Matskevich), artists (Pavel Belous, Ales Pushkin) and feminist activists (Olga Gorbunova, Daria Tsarik) were detained.
Human rights defenders, including Viasna Human Rights Center and its regional branches, Human Constanta, the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Center for Legal Transformation Lawtrend, and Legal Initiative, were also subjected to targeted persecution. All Viasna leaders and many activists and volunteers, who stayed in Belarus, were taken into custody. Head of Viasna Gomel branch Leonid Sudalenko was sentenced to three years in prison. By the end of 2021, no registered or, at least, publicly working human rights organizations was left in Belarus.
Criminal cases were initiated against representatives of BY_help and BYSOL solidarity foundations, whose work was interpreted as “financing of activities of an extremist group”. The foundations were declared extremist like many other public initiatives and media outlets. Many websites of the liquidated CSOs were blocked in the territory of Belarus.
The list of the organizations that can rent premises at reduced rates was shortened twice (in March and December). The requirements for CSOs’ reporting were expanded: they must now specify all events held during the year, indicating the purposes and contents of the events, and listing all the participants, including bloggers, journalists and social media moderators.
Relocation and new challenges
Given the overall environment, it comes as no surprise that many CSO members chose relocation over arrest (or had to flee the country once they had been released from custody, thus remaining under the threat of further prosecution). Diasporas of Belarusian activists became massive in Vilnius, Warsaw, Berlin, Tbilisi, and pre-war Kyiv. Offline CSO events are now held there in a teleconference or other formats. Relocation has made it possible to preserve the human capital of CSOs to a large extent, though, certainly, not in full.
Those who chose relocation, however, lost much of the contact with their target groups in Belarus and the social engagement capacity. CSOs most often fail to recruit or engage representatives of new local initiatives, neighborhood groups of Telegram chat communities, which emerged in 2020. Their capabilities for renewal and strengthening remain unrealized. The authorities have always been reluctant to communicate with CSOs, and now all contacts have been discontinued, so there is no space left for advocacy.
Most surveyed4 CSOs point at the impossibility of long-term planning and project implementation in the constantly changing environment, hence the increasing apathy and burnout among the employees and activists. The risks associated with external support required for continued operations have grown manifold, while funding from domestic sources has decreased. For many CSOs, the planning horizon has narrowed to mere survival in the medium term.
Nevertheless, despite the repression, there are still CSOs and individual activists in Belarus, who have not been officially de-registered and continue their activities. Fearing prison terms, active CSOs thus avoid publicity in every possible way, which negatively affects their visibility and ability to contact their target groups. Many CSOs have become faceless, and people are afraid of civic engagement (often even after relocation).
The solidarity foundations that were set up after the 2020 events (BYSOL, BYPOL, medical and sports solidarity foundations, the Belarusian Rada of Culture) adapt to the new conditions, and continue helping their target audiences. In 2021, the foundations were building partnerships, including institutional ties with old CSOs, and finding new niches.
GONGOs: blossoming before regimentation
While seeking to destroy civil society, the government simultaneously attempted to imitate it, by launching or activating pseudo-NGOs, i. e. GONGOs (Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations). Unlike real CSOs, they act strictly in line with government policy and interests of the authorities, and never criticize the powers that be (except for unimportant occasions).
GONGOs actively comment on ongoing events for the state media, creating the illusion of an alternative or expert opinion, and participate in various events organized by the authorities for propaganda purposes.
Close ties with Moscow are typical of Belarusian GONGOs. They regularly have interviews with the Russian media (including Sputnik Belarus); go to Moscow for talk shows, cooperate with Russian experts, who are directly represented in Belarusian GONGOs, and partner with Russian institutions.
In turn, the state supports such GONGOs by providing benefits, premises and immunity from prosecution. Their representatives are invited to official events attended by Lukashenko and other officials, including the so-called “Big Talk with the President” on August 9, 2021, which was meant to mark the end of the year of protests.
Belarusian Znanie (“Knowledge”) Society positions itself as a GONGO. It is registered as a republican state-public association, and traces its history back to the Soviet times. Vadim Gigin, who previously worked in state universities and media, took on leadership of the Society in September 2021. He admits that the organization was revived on Lukashenko’s initiative for propaganda purposes. “It had not been much visible in the information and public space, so the president set the task to make the organization an instrument for conveying relevant social, political, historical, cultural and other information to the nation,” he said.5 Former MP Valery Borodenya, who used to participate in talk shows hosted by Gigin, became Gigin’s deputy. The regional branches of Znanie are headed by rectors of local state universities. In November, Lukashenko granted Znanie privileges and provided free offices all over the country.6
In October 2021, Dmitry Belyakov, the pro-government and pro-Russian activist, registered the informational and educational institution Systemic Human Rights Center. Despite the name, it focused on supporting the state position on the migration crisis, which was artificially provoked at the Belarus – EU border, rather than human rights defense in Belarus. Guised as a human rights activist, he handed out several packs of flu medicines to the migrants and gave several interviews to state media reporters. Belyakov accused international health care organizations and European countries of “flagrantly cynical attitude to human life.”7
The GONGOs that imitate research and analytical centers are also getting active. Pro-government public speaker Alexei Dermant heads the so-called “Northern Eurasia Center for Continental Integration Studies and Development”. Another pro-government speaker Piotr Petrovsky is its member. Other experts of the Center are Russians. Actual Concept, which is similar to the above GONGO, does not even have a website, but allows pro-government public figure Alexander Shpakovsky calling himself the director of the Center.
Shpakovsky is also a member of the expert council of the Minsk Dialogue initiative, the leaders of which Yevgeny Preygerman and Denis Melyantsov were also invited to the Big Talk with the President on August 9, 2021. The Minsk Dialogue team traveled to Moscow in December to establish the Russian-Belarusian Expert Dialogue together with the Institute for International Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Preygerman explicitly calls the authorities of Belarus and Russia the beneficiaries of the venue. “Its goal is to create a permanent format to work in the interests of both the Foreign Ministries and the Union State”, he said.8
The significance and far-reaching meaning of this rise of GONGOs is underlined by the draft amendments to the Constitution promulgated in the last days of 2021. The All-Belarusian People’s Assembly will be given the status of a new body of supreme power in Belarus. Before that, in October, Lukashenko announced a legislative stipulation for interpreting civil society as GONGOs. “Time has come to adopt a law and spell out that our civil society is not NGOs, NPOs, or other trash, but that we have trade unions, the BRYU [Belarusian Republican Youth Union], and organizations of veterans and women”, Lukashenko said, noting that representatives of GONGOs will be delegated to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, while CSO representatives will certainly not be admitted. “We will hold discussions with MPs and experts, and determine of whom this civil society will consist. And then we will determine how to form a pool of delegates to the Assembly from this civil society. There will be no terrorist cells, which envenom our lives, in civil society”, said Lukashenko.9
Retention of public support
Despite this adverse environment, Belarusian CSOs still enjoy public support. According to Chatham House Belarus surveys,10 among all Belarusian public institutions (including political entities and state administration agencies), only those uncontrolled by the state have a positive index of trust (the trust/distrust difference) exceeding the statistical error: non-governmental media – 17%; independent human rights organizations and independent trade unions – 15% each; the Orthodox Church – 5%. Other institutions with a positive trust index are the “administration of my enterprise” (2%) and the army (1%). The official trade unions and state-controlled mass media have negative trust indices (-22% and -43%, respectively).
In 2021, Belarusian civil society organizations faced repression on an unprecedented scale, which results from the state’s aspiration to purge civil society, and replace CSOs with controlled GONGOs. Repressions have undoubtedly severely undermined the organizational capacity of CSOs, forcing them to focus on survival (and many activists to survive physically behind bars).
However, a priori, GONGOs cannot achieve public trust comparable with the original CSOs, at least, because the target audience of such institutions is not society, but the state.
CSOs will have to adapt to the new conditions, and, in many cases, to operate from abroad. The reformatting of the sector will occur as a result of government action, but not according to the government’s scenario. There will be growing demand for cooperation networking, both because of the similarity of objectives, and because of the relocation of previously distant CSOs to the same localities.