BELARUS: Civil society persisting under pressure An interview with Valiantsin Stefanovich, Human Rights Center Viasna
Belarusian NGOs have been under increasingly strict watch of the state since 2003. Many have been liquidated, and still others have been forced to shut their doors because of smothering restrictions on their funding and registration. Authorities have also used taxation and auditing policies and raised rents arbitrarily or terminated rental contracts to stifle the operation of NGOs. NGOs and their leaders have been victims of arrests, threats and intimidation and even disappearances.
The Belarusian Human Rights Center 'Viasna' has been one of the most vocal critics of government policy and human rights abuses. The centre was founded in 1996 to help people arrested during mass protest actions of the democratic opposition in Belarus. Because of its work, Viasna was liquidated in 2003, but continues to operate without registration. In the past month, Viasna offices have been vandalised and shot at in attempts to silence the organisation. In an interview with CIVICUS' Civil Society Watch programme, Valiantsin Stefanovich, a lawyer with Viasna, describes the restrictive environment for civil society in Belarus.
Civil Society Watch: President Lukashenka has issued a series of decrees over the past five years imposing strict registration requirements on NGOs, limiting foreign aid to NGOs, and restricting legal aid. How have these decrees affected non-governmental organisations in Belarus?
Valiantsin Stefanovich: Undoubtedly, the restrictions imposed by the Belarusian regime on NGOs exert an adverse impact on their activities. Since 2003, the Belarusian authorities have been waging a war against NGOs. Almost all active public organisations have been shut down: youth associations, human rights groups and regional resource centers. Today, most of them have to work as unregistered, underground groups. Registering a new NGO or legally obtaining foreign aid is impossible. The new law 'On Public Associations' adopted this year did not change the situation. In fact, it merely comprised the earlier presidential decrees that discriminate against NGOs. The law was adopted before civil society could evaluate it - so it ignores civil society’s interests. Since 1999, the Minister of Justice has decided whether an NGO should be registered on the basis of a recommendation provided by a special Republican Committee for Registration (Re-registration) of Public Associations, whose members are appointed by President Lukashenka.
Apart from using decrees, how else has the government restricted NGOs?
Apart from the mentioned presidential decrees and the law 'On Public Associations,' NGOs have been substantially restricted by numerous instructions and regulations adopted by the Ministry of Justice which has unlimited functions of controlling NGOs. This may sound strange, but in Belarus an NGO may lose its registration because some of the internal minutes of meetings feature a shorter version of the association’s name, or because a word in the association’s seal uses a lower-case letter where it should instead be a capital letter. Numerous governmental authorities, from the Ministry of Justice down to taxation agencies, have the right to conduct regular and extraordinary audits of NGO activity. Often, such audits result in the liquidation of a NGO in court. Requirements that a NGO has to meet with respect to the location of its official legal address are very difficult to satisfy. NGOs are not allowed to establish their offices in privately-owned apartments or houses, they must always be non-residential premises, most of which are owned by state agencies or state-controlled companies.
How have NGOs in Belarus responded to these restrictions? What actions have they taken?
Naturally, NGOs in Belarus have attempted to withstand the pressures exerted by the authorities. The Assembly of Non-Governmental Democratic Organisations of Belarus, which unites more than a hundred NGOs, conducted a campaign called 'Our Solidarity' in 2003 and 2004. This campaign included conferences on the effective legislation, actions in support of liquidated NGOs, etc. In 2003, representatives of several dozen liquidated NGOs staged a picket at the Justice Ministry, demanding that the campaign of repression against NGOs be stopped. However, it certainly is very difficult to talk to someone who will not listen. The NGOs did not manage to stop the wave of repression against civil society in the country. One of the recent actions was staged by the Viasna members who, during the court hearing on the liquidation of Viasna, sat down on the floor and refused to leave the premises. Later, all of them were arrested by the police and forced out of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus. That was an action of despair.
Over the past three months, the government has closed 80% of local offices of the three major parties, jailed activists and levied massive fines against the few remaining independent media. Considering this, what is the atmosphere among civil society in Belarus?
After it was all but eliminated in 2003 and 2004, the civil sector of Belarus continues to function. Organisations work illegally, without official registration. Now many NGOs in the country are focused on the future elections of the President of the Republic of Belarus. NGOs are going to stage a variety of campaigns, ranging from counter-agitation to election observation. As a human rights organisation, we see our role in the prompt provision of the necessary assistance to the victims of the reprisals, who, as our previous experience shows, will be many next year.
Why has the government become increasingly hostile towards civil society?
The reason the government has been so hostile toward civil society can only be explained by a desire to have absolute control over the people of the country. Since 1996, Lukashenka has been fighting against freedom. In 2001-2004, this struggle reached its height: official, compulsory and single state ideology was introduced. The government not only liquidated independent NGOs, but works of art, books and rock groups are being censured. The last free educational establishments, which included Belarusian Humanities Lyceum and European Humanities Universities, were liquidated, and finally almost all of independent NGOs were shut down. In place of them, we have so-called “governmental NGOs” like BRSM (a mass state-controlled youth organisation, successor to the Soviet Komsomol), unions of war veterans and official trade unions. All of them are financed by the state and serve the needs of the current regime. A neo-Soviet political regime has been created in the country.
How has Viasna been affected by government restrictions and harassment, both in the past and currently?
Undoubtedly, Viasna has been affected by the loss of the legal status. In many aspects the activity of the organisation has become more closed, more private. Some lines of activity cannot be pursued, such as the nomination of election observers and conduct of educational programs. However, we continue functioning in this environment. We conduct educational programmes outside the country – in Ukraine or Lithuania. However, what should be noted is that despite the loss of its legal status, Viasna remains one of the most active and prominent human rights organisations in Belarus. Viasna attaches a lot of importance to work with international human rights structures, such as UN Committees and European structures. Viasna is a FIDH member, which has been assisting our operations in many ways.
How is Viasna able to continue functioning in an environment that is increasingly harsh towards civil society?
It should be noted that given all the problems in the country, we continue to be able to function actively. We are able to distribute human rights information among the people of the country through the unregistered newspaper “Right to Freedom” which has quite a large circulation. We are also able to distribute information through the Internet. Our offices are in seventeen cities of the country, with lawyers in each of them. People know us and come to us, though we do not advertise ourselves. Despite everything, Belarus today is not the USSR. And we hope it will never become the USSR. This period will pass and Belarus will take its place in the world’s family of free nations.
The situation of civil society in Belarus has been highlighted by numerous international human rights organisations. How else can international organisations assist Belarusian civil society?
The distribution of information about what is happening in Belarus is one of the important areas of activities of international organisations. We believe that international organisations conducting actions in support of specific people would be very efficient. For example, actions staged by Amnesty International in support of political prisoners and the families of the disappeared politicians, or similar actions. And certainly, international organisations have the ability to provide financial and other assistance to the NGOs in Belarus.
What are your thoughts on the future of civil society in Belarus?
The future of Belarus directly depends on the country's current political regime. We are convinced that the golden age of the Belarusian third sector is still to come, because it is after political regime changes and democracy is restored that the NGOs in Belarus will have to do real work, aimed at bringing about changes in society, helping society and transforming the neo-Soviet system into a free society.
For more information on the Human Rights Center Viasna, visit http://www.spring96.org/