The situation in Belarus

Belarus is feel­ing the polit­ic­al impact of Moscow’s aggress­ive policy towards neigh­bour­ing states with which it shares a Soviet his­tory:

Sup­por­ted by an alli­ance with the Rus­si­an Ortho­dox Church, the Krem­lin is pro­mot­ing a concept of state­hood and nation based on the “val­ues of Rus­si­an cul­ture” (“Russki Mir”) and on pride in the mil­it­ary vic­tory, achieved at enorm­ous sac­ri­fice, over Hitler’s Ger­many. The nation­al con­scious­ness finds vis­ible and emotive expres­sion every year in the marches of the “Immor­tal Regi­ment” on Vic­tory Day, the 9th of May.

The shared exper­i­ence of fight­ing the Great Pat­ri­ot­ic War fought as part of the Soviet Uni­on still res­on­ates quite pos­it­ively across large swathes of the Belarus­i­an pop­u­la­tion.

Rus­sia wields a power­ful influ­ence on and in Belarus, an influ­ence that stems from its pos­i­tion as the most import­ant eco­nom­ic part­ner in the Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Uni­on and the abil­ity to grant favour­able terms for loans. How­ever Rus­sia is also able, even at crit­ic­al moments, to exert influ­ence by way of the fun­da­ment­ally pro-Rus­sia sen­ti­ments of large parts of the pop­u­la­tion. This polit­ic­al option that Moscow has is ever-present for Lukashen­ko, his appar­at­us and for the people in Belarus.

By emphas­ising Belarus­i­an his­tory and the Belarus­i­an lan­guage – Belarus­i­an is rarely heard in the cit­ies or in the State admin­is­tra­tion, and sounds more awk­ward than not on the lips of Lukashen­ko though it is the nat­ive lan­guage and the com­monly spoken in the flat coun­tryside – the Belarus lead­er­ship is attempt­ing to cre­ate a sense of nation­al iden­tity which, it hopes, will give rise, both object­ively and in terms of sub­ject­ive per­cep­tion, to an aware­ness of a sep­ar­ate nation­al iden­tity that is anchored in their people’s polit­ic­al think­ing and actions, as well as their minds, by cre­at­ing the sense of being dif­fer­ent from oth­ers.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about cre­at­ing an inde­pend­ent Belarus­i­an uni­ver­sity in Minsk, with Belarus­i­an as the prin­ciple lan­guage of instruc­tion and research. In view of the estrange­ment of the formerly Belarus­i­an EHU (European Human­it­ies Uni­ver­sity), now based in exile in Lithuania where it is still being fun­ded by the EU, the aim in found­ing a new uni­ver­sity is the form­a­tion of an aware­ness of the Belarus­i­an cul­ture and state­hood. Its suc­cess depends on wheth­er the Lukashen­ko regime chooses to tol­er­ate it and the pro­vi­sion of suf­fi­cient fund­ing. The choice of fac­ulties to form at the uni­ver­sity will be of no less sig­ni­fic­ance.

At present, Belarus­i­an is the lan­guage of instruc­tion for 13 per­cent of all pupils (2012: 17 per­cent; 2007: 21 per­cent). The degree to which the cur­rent emphas­is on the Belarus­i­an lan­guage will influ­ence these fig­ures remains to be seen.

A fur­ther shift in the dis­course on nation­al and lin­guist­ic iden­tity and, in con­nec­tion with that, on state autonomy/​ inde­pend­ence of the coun­try from Rus­sia, was a note­worthy devel­op­ment in 2017. The top­ic was increas­ingly taken up by the gov­ern­ment and the Pres­id­ent him­self, in con­trast to earli­er years, when dis­cus­sion of this issue was led by inde­pend­ent civil soci­ety, which is crit­ic­al of the regime.

In the sum­mer of 2017, Makei, the Belarus­i­an for­eign min­is­ter, appealed to all Belarus­i­ans to unite in view of the intern­al and extern­al chal­lenges the coun­try is facing, at the Con­gress of Belarus­i­ans of the World – which brings people from the Belarus­i­an dia­spora (ca. 3.5 mil­lion in total) togeth­er every four years. On anoth­er occa­sion, Lukashen­ko him­self emphas­ized the his­tor­ic­al ties between Belarus and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – a clear break with the pre­vi­ous nation­al nar­rat­ive, which was pre­dic­ated solely on the com­mun­ist past and the Great Pat­ri­ot­ic War.

In the interest of Belarus­i­an inde­pend­ence, which the policy object­ives of the Krem­lin lead­er­ship and the related dis­in­form­a­tion cam­paigns have fun­da­ment­ally called into ques­tion, the European Uni­on invited the Belarus­i­an pres­id­ent, Alex­an­der Lukashen­ko, to the East­ern Part­ner­ship sum­mit in Brus­sels in Novem­ber 2017 for the first time – des­pite the absence of sub­stan­tial improve­ment in the human rights situ­ation in the coun­try. Sup­ple­ment­ing this ini­ti­at­ive was a podi­um dis­cus­sion held in Tallinn in Octo­ber. This took the form of a dia­logue among rep­res­ent­at­ives of the Belarus­i­an gov­ern­ment and the European Uni­on, chaired and mod­er­ated by the Civil Soci­ety For­um of the East­ern Part­ner­ship.

Joint Belarus­i­an-Rus­si­an mil­it­ary man­oeuvres, part of a four year cycle of exer­cises and referred to as “Zapad 2017”, were held, largely in Belarus, in Septem­ber of 2017. In terms of per­son­nel and weaponry, these man­oeuvres were on a scale that far exceeded that which the OSCE had been noti­fied to expect. Some incid­ents and demon­stra­tions against these man­oeuvres took place. Belarus had invited OSCE observ­ers, but they were barred from access to the Rus­si­an facil­it­ies. While parts of the pop­u­la­tion feared that the Rus­si­an troops might be per­man­ently sta­tioned in Belarus rather than return­ing to their home bar­racks, these fears were not real­ized.

The neg­at­ive trends with respect to the eco­nom­ic and social situ­ation of the pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ue. Note­worthy in this respect were the demon­stra­tions against the sep­ar­ate tax on non-registered unem­ployed per­sons announced by the gov­ern­ment. Though it tol­er­ated the unre­gistered demon­stra­tions at first, the sys­tem cracked down hard on them in the end. Through admin­is­trat­ive sanc­tions (mon­et­ary fines, short terms of impris­on­ment) emer­ging flash-points were stamped out imme­di­ately, without open­ing the author­it­ies to accus­a­tions of cre­at­ing new polit­ic­al pris­on­ers, i.e. without cre­at­ing mar­tyrs. This approach was also designed to avoid giv­ing the Rus­si­an side an excuse to inter­vene, overtly or cov­ertly, and as a vis­ible demon­stra­tion of the regime’s abil­ity to take action in the area of secur­ity.

In Octo­ber 2017, under the influ­ence of the demon­stra­tions, Lukashen­ko recog­nised per decree sev­er­al eco­nom­ic activ­it­ies engaged in by indi­vidu­al per­sons that had had an inform­al status until then – one year after the first 18 freel­ance activ­it­ies, e.g. shoe or watch repair, tail­or­ing, hairdress­ing, had been exemp­ted from the oblig­a­tion to register as a self-employed sole trader. The sole traders must pay in advance a monthly tax set by the loc­al author­it­ies on the basis of orders received in the pri­or year. They do not have to doc­u­ment their account­ing or sub­mit an annu­al tax declar­a­tion. Products man­u­fac­tured by sole traders can now be mar­keted over the Inter­net in addi­tion to oth­er chan­nels. Offi­cial Belarus­i­an stat­ist­ics assume that the inform­al sec­tor accounts for 20 per­cent of the mar­ket. Against its own will, the regime has incor­por­ated part of the inform­al sec­tor into the reg­u­lat­ory frame­work.

The pop­u­la­tion attempts to eke out a liv­ing through autonom­ous eco­nom­ic activ­ity and by tak­ing up work abroad.

Belarus’ IT sec­tor, which is largely inde­pend­ent of the State, oper­ates primar­ily for the European mar­ket and for North Amer­ica, as is also the case in the Ukraine and the Balt­ic repub­lics. Growth rates in the sec­tor are impress­ive. Without recourse to polit­ic­al res­ist­ance or soci­et­al net­work­ing, the pop­u­la­tion is cre­at­ing scope for eco­nom­ic free­dom and to some extent social free­dom – though this is restric­ted by the arbit­rary deni­al of applic­a­tions to register pub­lic asso­ci­ations.

The inde­pend­ent cul­tur­al scene is vibrant and gives the impres­sion of autonomy.

2. Belarus and the Eastern Partnership – bilateral relations with Belarus

Belarus – An integral part of Europe

The asso­ci­ation “Menschen­rechte in Belarus e.V.” calls on the European insti­tu­tions and the Gov­ern­ments of EU mem­ber states and also on com­pan­ies and non-gov­ern­ment­al organ­isa­tions to intensi­fy their engage­ment in Belarus and to rein­force the con­vic­tion of country’s pop­u­la­tion that this East European coun­try, too, is part of Europe and will receive sup­port from and by Europe, both in its struggle for its inde­pend­ence and in its intern­al renew­al.

The Lukashen­ko regime’s atti­tude towards the European approaches of reform is one of rejec­tion, as is that of its power­ful neigh­bour to the east, the Rus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion, which seeks to use the Euras­i­an Uni­on to con­sol­id­ate and advance Russia’s key role in East­ern Europe and oth­er parts of the former Soviet Uni­on.

In shap­ing their rela­tions, the European Uni­on and its mem­bers states are guided by the joint policy adop­ted at the East­ern Part­ner­ship sum­mits, and which is cur­rently dir­ec­ted towards devel­op­ing dif­fer­en­ti­ated coun­try-spe­cif­ic pro­grammes. A com­mon for­um has emerged in that of the “civil soci­et­ies”, which pro­mote the exchange of ideas and per­spect­ives for activ­at­ing civil soci­ety ini­ti­at­ives, inde­pend­ently of the state insti­tu­tions.

The European Com­mis­sion has also exten­ded the sup­port for small and medi­um-sized private-sec­tor enter­prises (SME sec­tor) in Belarus provided by the European Bank for Recon­struc­tion and Devel­op­ment (EBRD) by anoth­er four years, until 2021. The EBRD has been involved in Belarus with­in the frame­work of the East­ern Part­ner­ship since 2012, primar­ily through the pro­vi­sion of advising ser­vices of inde­pend­ent loc­al and inter­na­tion­al experts. Between 2012 and 2016 more than 250 busi­nesses received assist­ance aimed at increas­ing pro­ductiv­ity, includ­ing through the pro­vi­sion of loans, res­ult­ing in the cre­ation of 1500 new jobs. The EBRD’s SME pro­gramme is expec­ted to take up anoth­er 200 busi­nesses from Belarus’ regions by the end of 2021.

Against the back­drop of the height­en­ing ten­sion between Rus­sia and Belarus, the European Uni­on acknow­ledges Belarus’ efforts to secure sup­port for the country’s inde­pend­ence and autonomy as a nation at the inter­na­tion­al level. With­in the frame­work of the East­ern Part­ner­ship, the European Uni­on decided in Octo­ber 2017 to invite dir­ectly, for the first time, the country’s pres­id­ent to attend the sum­mit con­fer­ence of the heads of state and gov­ern­ment of all East­ern Part­ner­ship and European Uni­on states. No such invit­a­tion had ever been issued before due to the lack of demo­crat­ic legit­im­acy of the Belarus­i­an pres­id­ent. This con­sti­tutes a shift in the pri­or­it­ies in the EU’s rela­tion­ship to Belarus. It should also be seen as a sig­nal to Moscow.

Problematic areas

The so far unsuc­cess­ful nego­ti­ations on the intro­duc­tion of a visa-free regime are a cloud over rela­tions to Belarus, as vis-à-vis the Coun­cil of Europe, is Belarus’ insist­ence on cap­it­al pun­ish­ment and its applic­a­tion. The European Union’s sus­pen­sion of the rat­i­fic­a­tion pro­ced­ure for the “Part­ner­ship and Cooper­a­tion Agree­ment”, nego­ti­ations over which had already been con­cluded, in the autumn of 1996, in the wake of the form­a­tion of Lukashenko’s author­it­ari­an regime, has impeded com­merce and change in European-Belarus­i­an rela­tions and the pos­sib­il­it­ies of the World Bank and the European Invest­ment Bank. The rules of the state-run eco­nomy and the absence of an inde­pend­ent judi­ciary impede for­eign invest­ment and tech­no­logy trans­fer, indis­pens­able pre­con­di­tions for mak­ing the Belarus­i­an eco­nomy inter­na­tion­ally com­pet­it­ive. Mem­ber­ship in the Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Uni­on can­not com­pensate for these dis­ad­vant­ages.

The exist­ing bilat­er­al con­tacts at the offi­cial level and with­in the frame­work of bilat­er­al civil soci­ety for­ums – such as the Minsk For­um of the Ger­man-Belarus­i­an Soci­ety, which now takes place at nearly reg­u­lar inter­vals – can con­trib­ute per­haps to relax­ing the tense atmo­sphere in the rela­tion­ship but can­not be expec­ted to do more than that.

The European Uni­on is now also sup­port­ing non-state ini­ti­at­ives to bene­fit non-state act­ors, loc­al author­it­ies and civil soci­ety – to help pro­mote a shift away from the closed-minded (i.e. Soviet or state-author­it­ari­an) notions of soci­ety towards those of an open soci­ety with respons­ib­il­ity and of the people and cit­izens in the eco­nom­ic and social spheres. Rep­res­ent­at­ives of the Belarus­i­an state mon­it­or all such pro­jects.

Development potential of the universities

The European Uni­on also con­tin­ues to fund the European Human­it­ies Uni­ver­sity (EHU), which is registered in Lithuani­an exile. The EU funds are now admin­istered by the Swedish Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment Cooper­a­tion Agency (SIDA), due to con­sid­er­able mis­con­duct in the man­age­ment of the EHU that came to light in the past. How­ever the European Uni­on has not attemp­ted to influ­ence the aca­dem­ic struc­ture of the uni­ver­sity or its teach­ing and research goals – a dis­ad­vant­age, which is res­ult­ing in the stag­na­tion of reform or even back­slid­ing due to a lack of innov­a­tion and ini­ti­at­ive at this insti­tu­tion and oth­ers in the trans­ition zone. One hears terms like “semb­lance of demo­cracy” and there is talk of the res­tor­a­tion of author­it­ari­an polit­ic­al and uni­ver­sity con­di­tions. The EHU no longer has any back­ing in the demo­crat­ic­ally ori­ented civil soci­ety of Belarus.

This prob­lem can also be seen in the con­text of the attempt on the part of Belarus­i­an side to cre­ate the pos­sib­il­ity of acquir­ing aca­dem­ic free­dom through the inclu­sion of Belarus­i­an state uni­ver­sit­ies on a tri­al basis in the Bologna pro­cess: two years later, there is no sign of a lib­er­al­iz­a­tion of the rigid Belarus­i­an state sys­tem of con­trol over their own uni­ver­sit­ies.

One can­not avoid men­tion­ing the exist­ence of author­it­ari­an con­di­tions in polit­ics and at uni­ver­sit­ies in cent­ral and east­ern European coun­tries that are mem­bers of the European Uni­on.

Ber­lin, Decem­ber 2017

The Board

Dr. Hans-Georg Wieck
Stefanie Schif­fer
Chris­toph Beck­er
Stephan Maleri­us