The regime's 2003 campaign to liquidate the most active NGOs in Belarus is the third such campaign since President Lukashenka's consolidation of power. In each of the successive waves, the regime employed specific tactics in order to achieve the desired results, but nonetheless after each of them, there was a rise in the activity of democratic NGOs, and a marked improvement in their internal development. The regime failed to foresee that its drastic and illegal actions would produce such undesired results.
The first wave which started in 1997, was directed against organizations the regime viewed as the most threatening to its rule. The Belarusian Soros Fund which had provided the greatest financial support toward the creation of a civil society, was the regime's first victim. Its Executive Director was deported, and after criminal proceedings were initiated against it, the organization terminated its activity in Belarus. In order to further frighten the whole NGO movement, the regime started criminal prosecution against the charitable organization Children of Chernobyl, and against the East-West Center of Strategic Initiatives.
However, instead of the peaceful acquiescence, the regime faced resistance through the formation in February 1997 of the Assembly of Pro-Democratic Belarusian Non-Governmental Associations. The Assembly grouped together organizations interested in maintaining Belarus?s independence, in supporting democratic market reforms, in encouraging respect for human rights , and promoting integration of Belarus into the European community of free nations. Within a year the number of Assembly members grew from 250 to 500, and by 1998 the Assembly was active in all regions of the country. Such growth confirmed the fact that the NGO leadership had realized, that in order to defend their independent status, they needed to coordinate their activities.
The second and even more forceful wave of repression against the NGOs began in January 1999 with Lukashenka's signing of the infamous Presidential Decree No.2. The decree called for re-registration of all NGOs, of political parties, and of the labor unions. A Commission was formed within the Presidential Administration in violation of the Constitution to deal with all new registrations and re-registrations. The organizations which failed the re-registration process were forbidden by this decree from continuing their activity. The Republic of Belarus thus joined the ranks of the undemocratic states, where permission is required in order to form civic organizations, as opposed to the democracies, where newly established organizations need only to inform the authorities of their existence. The banning of unregistered organizations, or their ability to function, is a violation of the citizens' right to organize and to form associations, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The NGO Assembly reacted to the decree by starting a campaign in support of NGOs: S.O.S. Third Sector. It followed an earlier 1996 Slovakian example against an authoritarian regime. The S.O.S. campaign in Belarus consisted of three basic elements. The most important, was the legal assistance provided to the provincial NGOs, in particular, in their registration and re-registration processes. To that end, the Assembly Executive Bureau published a guidebook and helped to organize thirty regional visits by teams of lawyers. Informing foreign human rights groups of the situation in Belarus, and asking them to write protest letters directed to the Presidential Administration, was the second aspect of the S.O.S. campaign. Finally, the lawyers connected with various Assembly organizations, and primarily those from the Independent Society of Legal Research, assisted in initiating court cases in defense of various NGOs, regardless of their affiliation, against illegal actions taken by the authorities.
The results of this campaign soon became evident. While the total number of NGOs fell from 2500 to 1300, the most active NGOs were saved, and the regime stopped short of initiating massive repressions against unregistered NGOs. By the end of 1999, the Assembly numbered 700 members, of which one third, while not officially registered, were nevertheless, quite active. In the end, the democratic organizations, having survived the pressure, had worked out effective mechanisms of interactive solidarity, strengthened their ties with their foreign partners, and became better prepared to participate in various common projects.
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The third wave of official repression against Belarusian NGOs began in April of 2003. Simultaneous court actions were started against four large and influential organizations. These were the Agency for Regional Development "Varuta" of Baranavichy, the Oblast Civic Association "Ratusha" of Horadnia, the Oblast Civic Association "Civic Initiatives" of Homiel, and the "Christian Social Union of Youth". They were followed by court actions against the "Legal Assistance to the Populace", the "Independent Society of Legal Research", the Human Rights Center "Viasna", the "Association of Young Entrepreneurs", the Republic-wide Charitable Civic Association " The Helping Hand", and a number of others. The Ministry of Justice also called for the liquidation of the Republic-wide Civic Association "Women?s reply", and the Civic Association "Belarusian Foundation Cassiopea".
If one were to add to these the closing of the Center "Viezha" from Brest, and of the following youth organizations: "Hart" of Homiel, "Kontur" of Viciebsk, "The Association of Belarusian Students", "The Youth Information Center", "The AHP Youth", and the loss of an official status by the largest youth organization "Malady Front", which were accomplished just prior to 2003, the conclusion that a new wave of repressions against the NGOs has taken place, is inescapable.
There is a similarity between the repressions of the first and the third waves. They were both directed against the most effective NGOs, and particularly against those that in 1997 opposed the regime during the so-called ?Constitutional Referendum", and those that opposed the fraudulent presidential re-election of Lukashenka in 2001. The regime was using the services of the Justice Ministry and the subservient courts to exact its revenge on its opponents. However, in the 2003 third wave, the regime?s actions were, by comparison, ridiculously absurd.
For example, the previously mentioned "Varuta" was liquidated for having used in its name the word ?organization?, rather than the officially approved ?association?. "Ratusha" was liquidated for publishing without a special license, costing approximately $1,500, a prohibitive sum for a Belarusian non-profit NGO. The Youth Christian Social Union was liquidated for accepting members from an unregistered organization and for adding to its name the words ?Young Democrats. The use of unapproved stationery was the reason for liquidating the "Civic Initiatives".
Politically motivated revenge was clearly the reason for liquidating the "Legal Assistance to the Populace", and the Human Rights Center "Viasna". Among their alleged crimes was the participation of the first in court cases dealing with the disappeared political figures, and the second, "Viasna", for helping to organize independent observers during the last presidential election. A classical example of political revenge was the closing of the Independent Center of Legal Research. Its lawyers were particularly active in helping the NGOs to register and to re-register in 1999. The revenge came four years later. For defending the Horadnia based "Ratusha", the Minsk registered lawyers? group was charged with 'practicing outside of their territory'. Additional ?compromising material? were their articles in an unregistered publication, where they gave advice on how to prepare for 'financial inspections'. These articles were viewed by the judges 'as creating obstacles for governmental bodies in conducting inspections'.
Alongside the widespread official liquidation of authentic NGOs, came decree calling for the formation of GoNGO (Governmental Non-Governmental Organization). President Lukashenka signed in August 2003 Decree No. 335 on the formation of "The State-Civic Associations of the Republic" that will 'perform tasks important to the State?, while being funded by the Government. The pro-Presidential "Belarusian Republic?s Youth Union?, the Pioneers, the official Journalists' Union fall into this category, as well as various other remnants of former Soviet civic organizations. The formation of such state-civic organizations is now viewed in the world as a trademark of totalitarian or authoritarian political systems. The 57th U.N. General Assembly considered the formation of Governmental NGOs as damaging to the establishment of truly non-Governmental organizations.
The current anti-NGO campaign has adopted a tactic of issuing administrative warnings to a broad range of NGOs. Since the receipt of two or more warnings for minor infractions can result in an automatic liquidation, many NGOs exist under a suspension threat, which tends to paralyze their activity. The Ministry of Justice issued 121 written warnings in 2002 to political parties and NGOs. The number issued in 2003 will undoubtedly be much greater.
Finally, when new organizations are founded by persons known for their oppositional, or simply civic activity, the authorities refuse to register them. Such was the fate of the Association of Civic Organizations "Asambleja" (The Assembly) last October.
The combination of the above mentioned tactics, i.e. liquidations, formal warnings and the refusal to register, can be used at an appropriate time to block the activity of the most effective organizations by making them subject to criminal prosecution as 'un-registered entities'. For instance, such an appropriate time could be prior to a contemplated referendum that would extend the President's term in office. All these actions by the government can be viewed as ingredients of an undeclared war against the NGOs.
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On 29 April, 2003 at a meeting of members of the Assembly of Belarusian Democratic NGOs it was decided to start a campaign named Our Solidarity. An initiative group was formed, composed of major Minsk and regional NGOs. The declared goals of the campaign were the demonstration of solidarity with NGOs threatened with liquidation, and the counseling of other NGOs on how to avoid forced liquidation.
One of the first actions undertaken by Our Solidarity was the organization in May, 2003 of open public hearings dealing with the NGO problem. Representatives of the authorities and interested citizens were invited to attend the hearings. As might have been expected, the government was only minimally represented. The head of the Department of Civic Associations at the Justice Ministry M. Sukhinin came with a related official. They defended the Ministry actions, including the inspections, as being strictly in accordance with the current laws, and not at all in response to political orders of the Presidential Administration, as claimed by the NGO representatives. Nonetheless, the public hearings demonstrated once again to the NGOs the degree of subservience by the governmental officials and institutions to the President, even if such orders are against the law and in violation of the Constitution.
Whereas in 1999 the S.O.S. campaign focused on providing legal consultations to the greatest possible number of NGOs, Our Solidarity campaign chose as its main activity defending the affected NGOs in court. Thus, while realizing the futility of mounting a defense in a court system that lacks any measure of independence, the courtroom defenses served as a demonstration of the degree of solidarity and mutual support within the NGO community. Our Solidarity also took the following steps this summer by informing foreign governments and NGOs about the repressions taking place in Belarus: Twenty organization leaders signed a declaration addressed to foreign Parliamentarians, fourteen NGOs addressed a protest note to the President of Belarus, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education against the closing of the National Humanities Lyceum. This protest note was also sent to the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights, and other international bodies. Thus the defense of the Lyceum, combined with the defense of the rights of NGOs, became a common protest movement against human rights violations in Belarus.
The development of a strategy on how the officially liquidated or unregistered NGOs could continue to function, became an important task of Our Solidarity. At a round table gathering in October, a view commonly expressed was that the democratic NGOs should be able to operate, regardless of their registration status, just as the so-called informal organizations had operated during the final years of the Soviet Union. An alternative solution to the existing NGO situation was a greater engagement of international organizations in Belarus, as well as the adoption of different types of organizational structures. The goal would be an improved organizational development of democratic NGOs and new ways of cooperation between them, rather than their devolution into informal groupings.
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Our Solidarity campaign in reaction to the Third Wave of repressions against democratic NGOs calls for the following conclusions:
1. The view of those Belarusian analysts and politicians, who considered any cooperation between the authentic NGOs and the current one man rule as impossible, has been confirmed. This, however, does not preclude the possibility of their dealing with some governmental bodies and some officials, in order to weaken Lukashenka's personalized regime.
2. The view expressed by Columbia University professor Giovanni Sartori, that all attempts to democratize the society at the grass roots level are useless, without the state itself undergoing democratization, is particularly applicable to Belarus today. In other words, all organized civic activity is under threat of demise, until such time as the country's rule becomes democratic.
3. The self-preservation and growth of independent organizations calls for their politicization, not in the struggle for power, but rather in gaining influence in the society. In order to fulfill their missions, they need to take part in the country's all around movement toward democracy.
The author was the Chairman of the Executive Bureau of the Assembly of Belarusian Democratic NGOs in 1997-1999.
The number of registered NGOs, according to official data as of 1 January 2003, was as follows: 241 International Civic Associations, 810 Republic-wide, 1,234 regional, as well as 26 Unions of Civic Associations.
The number of organizations that have joined the Association of Civic Organizations "Asambleja", according to its published data, is nearing 600.
Uladzimier Rouda has a PhD in political science and is currently the Executive Director of the Informational and Analytical Center for NGOs.
This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 15, No 4
Copyright 2003 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.
7 january 2004
Author: Uladzimir Rouda