Non-governmental organizations are going through an extremely difficult period. Spring and summer of 2003 was especially tough for everybody. Observers say the authorities were “cleansing” the third sector.
That is the reality. The authorities carried out a huge liquidation campaign, closing down the civic society structures, which are far from being numerous in our country. At present courts ruled to close down five organizations. Their names are widely known to the public: the Ratusha (from Hrodna), the Civic Initiatives (Homel), the Varuta Regional Development Agency (Baranavichy), the Kontur Youth Initiatives Center (Vitebsk), and the Youth Christian Social Union. Now Minsk city court is taking a decision on the Legal Assistance to Public human rights organization. Hard to believe that courts are unbiased in evaluating the activity of those NGOs. Obviously, they are just doing what they are told to. They just dance to the tune, having no courage to reject the Justice Ministry’s suits. Certainly, it was not the Ministry of Justice initiating the cleansing. Non-governmental organizations are closed down simultaneously with liquidation the Belarusian National Lyceum, attack on the independent press, and introduction of the brand-new course on State Ideology to all university programs. All those are just elements of a single campaign, which goal is to extirpate freethinking in Belarus. President Lukashenka has personally declared the war, calling it “activation of ideological work in the country”.
Disfavor and animosity of the state authorities towards NGOs is no more a surprise for anybody. Political scientist Sviatlana Navumava was right to the point saying, “either friends or enemies” was the main principle of the state authorities. This principle is a foundation of their relations with non-governmental organizations. They take NGOs as a source of civic activity, uncontrolled, thus dangerous. No wonder the regime perceives NGOs as a hostile element. That is why activists face numerous obstacles in creation of new NGOs; registered NGOs lose their legal status; the regime floods NGOs with check-ups and revisions and limits their possibilities to receive financial support from abroad. The regime has created an extremely unfavorable legislation environment for development of the non-governmental sector. Belarus is the country with the most limited freedom of association in the region. An example of somewhat similar relations between NGOs and authorities could probably be Turkmenistan – other post-Soviet countries of Central Asia have conditions that are more favorable for NGOs.
The authorities tighten the ring round the civic society – every time NGOs risk finding themselves out of the legal field. Presidential Decree # 13 of April 15, 2003 “On some issues of civic legal proceedings” is the vivid example. The Decree simply prohibited NGO members to represent citizens in civic courts. Practically, the Decree works against human rights activists and victims of human rights violations, making it no more possible to appear for the victims in courts. Now this right is given only to professional attorneys.
In spring, the authorities decided that nobody but Lukashenka could be called President in Belarus. All organizations, both commercial and non-governmental, who had “presidents” as their heads, had to switch to “chairpersons” or “directors”.
No one is surprised with quite regular statements of international human rights organizations, which regularly stress flagrant violations of the right to create and participate in associations. Even UN human rights committee expressed its concern about persecution of human rights organizations and violation of the right to association in Belarus in its resolution of April 17, 2003.
Belarus is a member of the United Nations Organization. Belarus has signed the International Pact on Civic and Political Rights. The Belarusian government must consider the opinion of the UN Committee. The reaction of the Belarusian authorities came at once. The Belarusian party immediately replied with …procedures to liquidate the leading NGOs.
Nobody expected such speed and coordination of their actions in different parts of the country. Justice Departments of different regions launched liquidation cases of the influential organizations: the Ratusha (Hrodna), the Civic Initiatives (Homel), and the Varuta (Baranavichy). Simultaneously the Justice Ministry started liquidation of Youth Christian Social Union in the Supreme Court.
The first reaction of civic activists was a shock. After the infamous “re-registration”, it was the first attack of such a scale. Moreover, the liquidation suits were based on completely absurd arguments – everyone realized that any NGO could face such “accusations” any time. However, the civic society could not get out of the battlefield and watch the reprisal against their colleagues with apathy. On 29 April, representatives of NGOs that faced liquidation and the Assembly of NGOs leadership gathered a press conference. They announced the beginning of Our Solidarity campaign. The campaign was to work in several fields: on one hand, it was to ensure qualified legal assistance and civic support for the NGOs, on the other hand, to try to force the authorities into a constructive dialog with the civic society and make them to recall the suits.
In the beginning, the campaign activists divided into optimists and skeptics. The optimists believed it was possible to win the cases in courts and negotiate with the Justice bodies on normalizing relations between non-governmental and state sectors. The skeptics argued, biased and dependent courts would never rule in favor of NGOs. The maximum what the campaign could do was to inform the society about innocence of the NGOs and political motivation of the cases. Judging by events, which followed the discussion, the latter were right. At least, they were closer to reality.
Anyway, soon about two dozen of non-governmental organizations signed a collective appeal to the Justice Minister. They demanded to recall the liquidation suits and participate in the public hearings on the issue. The public hearings took place on May 23. Mikhail Sukhinin, head of Justice Ministry’s Department on NGOs, spoke at the meeting. According to him, simultaneous actions against several leading NGOs were just a coincidence. The meeting was also visited by the Ministry expert Kharyton, mostly known as the odious specialist on liquidation of organizations.
We should point out some practical sense of the hearings. Although the dialog between the sectors turned out to be only a formality, the courts suspended the cases for the period of public hearings. On the other hand, such suspension might have happened because of the visit of OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation. Probably, the authorities did not want the foreign observers see the NGO corpses appearing on their eyes. The very way of the cases suspension manifests a lot. In reply to the Parliament members (even they paid attention to the problem), vice-Minister of Justice Aleh Krawtsow writes: “Homel, Brest, and Hrodna courts have suspended the cases due to the instruction of the Justice Minister”. His words reveal the core of the relations between the courts and the Minister. The Minister gives an order, and courts immediately execute it. And one more interesting detail: The vice-Ministers reply had reached the MPs before the courts signed the decisions to suspend the cases. The courts are simply ruled by orders of one of the case parties. Does anyone still believe in independence and impartiality of Belarusian courts?
Public hearings came to end. The OSCE delegation went home. Probably, the Justice Minister ordered the courts to kill the NGOs. The courts resumed the procedures. I don’t want to dwell on circumstances of each case here. I just want to stress one thing. According to the present interpretation of the legislation, it is possible to close down an organization for a single breach of law. An NGO with a warning certainly has a sword of Damocles hanging over – it might get closed down any moment.
Our Solidarity campaign is still going on. Lawyers of the Independent Society of Legal Research, the Assembly of NGOs, the Viasna lawyers and attorneys took an active part in the court hearings, trying to prove the innocence of the accused NGOs. The lawyers have really done everything possible. The courts turned down most of the claims of the Justice officials. However, the verdict had been made long before the end of the hearings, -- and the NGOs were closed down. The courts could do nothing but liquidate the organizations. They just announced the decision, made neither by them, nor even by the Justice Ministry. Obviously, the decision to liquidate the NGOs was signed by higher officials.
Officials of the Justice Ministry know better than anybody else, it is impossible to stop civic activity by court or administrative measures. Ales Milinkevich, the Ratusha head, and Viktar Karniyenka, head of the Civic Initiatives announced during the court hearings: “No matter what court decision would be, organizations will continue their work”.
Our Solidarity activists did a good job in the informational and international fields. They organized a number of press conferences and met with representatives of the diplomatic corps, accredited in the country. The names of Ratusha, Varuta, and Youth Christian Social Union were voiced in the Capitol Hill. Congressman Christopher Smith mentioned them in his speech. Besides Belarusian Colleagues, dozens of NGOs from Poland, Norway, Slovakia, Serbia and Montenegro expressed their solidarity with the NGOs “in disgrace”. International Helsinki Federation, an umbrella organization for different European countries addressed the Belarusian government with a protest. In August the FIDH, influential organization, accredited by the United Nations, addressed Alexander Lukashenka with an open letter, protesting against persecution of Belarusian human rights organizations and other NGOs.
However, the pressure on NGOs does not decrease. Having dealt with the Youth Christian Social Union, the Varuta, and the Civic Initiatives, the authorities decided to punish the NGOs, which demonstrated solidarity and rendered legal assistance to them. On 15 July, the Independent Society of Legal Research received a warning for violation of their Statute by helping out the Ratusha during their liquidation. The justice bodies give no rest to human rights organizations, overloading the Human Rights Center "Viasna", the Legal Initiative and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee with numerous check-ups.
Simultaneously more and more regional organizations are killed out. In July, the authorities liquidated Youth Initiatives Center Kontur from Vitebsk. Interestingly enough, the authorities needed only one week to deal with the NGO – the court worked with a really unprecedented speed that time.
Liquidation procedures against the Legal Assistance to Public were the next logical step of the authorities. This organization is a good partner of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", participant of many joint projects. The head of the Legal Assistance to Public is known for his work of searching for the missing public figures and helping relatives of the Niamiha stampede victims. By the way, the authorities could find no other formal reason but accuse the NGO of …rendering assistance to victims of human rights violations.
Unfortunately, the Legal Assistance to Public wan not the last victim this summer – for many NGOs liquidation is just the matter of time. Many NGOs are going through numerous check-ups. This time along “regular” check-ups, the authorities have invented new ones. In particular, practically all NGOs received letters from the registration bodies, demanding to provide them with all kinds of data about membership, organizational structures, legal address, reports of activities, as well as samples of letterhead and stamp. Most probably, the information will be used not only for controlling NGOs, but also in preparation of new liquidation cases.
The mass check-ups have already resulted in a series of warnings to many active NGOs: besides the Independent Society of Legal Research, warnings were given to the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Belarusian Organization of Working Women, the Lew Sapeha Foundation, the Union of Poles in Belarus, and the Homel Initiative.
Now all these NGOs are just one step away from the start of liquidation procedures.
It is no secret who is to come to take the place of the destroyed NGOs. On 30 July 2003 the President signed order # 335 “About National State-Pubic Associations”. This act actually legalizes pro-governmental public associations, controlled by the state. Ostensibly, they are to execute the state decisions in certain spheres. The situation is unique: the authorities officially encourage creation of GONGO – governmental non-governmental organizations. The state creates legal conditions for the absolute control over the society.
We expect creation of a big number of organizations, similar to the infamous Belarusian National Union of Youth (merger of former pro-Lukashenka Belarusian Youth Patriotic Union and Belarusian Youth Union). The scheme is worked out. A GONGO looks like an NGO, independent and voluntary, but in reality it is a pseudo-NGO, completely controlled by the state, taking no independent decisions, and serving as an element of the state structures. No doubts (and the Belarusian National Union of Youth is just another prove for that) membership in such organizations would not be voluntary. People will be forced into GONGO: women – into women’s movement, journalists – into Union of Journalists, just as now all school and university students are forced and even blackmailed to join the Belarusian National Union of Youth.
The “cleansing” of NGOs makes no surprise in the present context of the country. NGOs are not the only victims, the authorities use the same approach in “killing” the independent press. The authorities have declared they intend to start the vast control over Internet-resources. The course of Belarusian State Ideology, violently introduced at every state and private university of the country, is especially designed to dupe and brainwash the youth. The state does not need educated young people and competed citizens. Only uneducated people can watch ugly grimaces of dictatorship calmly. That is why the authorities liquidated the National Humanities Lyceum, a school known not only for its high level of education but also for independent views of its students and teachers.
Everything is done for one single purpose – to strengthen the ideological monopoly. Declaration of the single state ideology started the fight against freethinking and human rights in Belarus.
Coordinator of collective defense system for NGOs