Overall situation and state of civil society
In 2017-2019, the environment for Belarusian civil society developed in line with trends which had taken shape in previous years. The Heritage Index of Economic Freedom 2019 ranked Belarus 42nd among 44 countries in Europe, with an overall score well below regional and world averages. According to a 2019 Pact poll, only 3.2% of Belarusians reported participating in CSO activities in the previous year (including volunteering and charitable donations).
In the area of legal regulation and the building of institutional mechanisms for cooperation between the state and CSOs, recent years have seen a continuation of the trend to move away from confrontation and to favor cooperation. However when there were cases of increased protest activity, this has led to crackdowns targeting CSOs that were involved in the organization of protests or that participated in them.
At the same time, improved relations between Minsk and Western capitals has eased the intensity of some repressive practices towards civil society. For example, it has led to a mitigation of state authorities’ negative rhetoric towards civil society, a partial abandonment of the most severe restrictions, and the development of platforms for dialogue between civil society and the state at the local and international levels. These developments were considered by many CSOs as evidence that the environment for civil society was improving. In 2018 the Belarus government submitted a state report to the UN Human Rights Committee for the first time in 20 years. However, the engagement of CSOs in the process of preparing the report was negligible, despite attempts by human rights CSOs to start a dialogue.
Despite these hopeful signs, the majority of recent legislative amendments have not been positive, and some directly threaten CSOs. In 2018 and 2019 a reinterpretation of existing law led to a de-facto ban on CSOs using private houses as their legal address. In May 2018 the authorities announced the abolition of Article 1931 of the Criminal Code, which punishes individuals who conduct activities on behalf of an unregistered CSO. The change will come into force in July 2019. This is a positive move, but the ban on activities by unregistered CSOs themselves remains in place. A violation of this provision will now be punished with an administrative fine, imposed by the police or the Ministry of Justice. Civil society is concerned that administrative punishments against activists from unregistered CSOs will be used much more often than the tougher criminal sanctions of Article 1931.
The new Law on Normative Legal Acts, signed in July 2018, has not expanded opportunities for CSOs to participate in political decision-making. Nor has it increased their ability to access to information about draft normative legal acts. In autumn 2018 it was learned that the government had resumed work, after a five year break, preparing draft amendments to the Law on Public Associations and the Law on Political Parties. These amendments are of concern to civil society because they will affect reporting issues, amongst other things.
New CSO registrations remain low. In 2018, there were only 94 new public associations registered, though a number of unreasonable refusals were also recorded. As of July 1, 2018, there were 28 trade unions, 2,907 public associations (227 international, 770 republican and 1,910 local ones) and 207 foundations in Belarus. There were also hundred private institutions that meet the criteria of CSOs.
The improvement in the relations between the West and Belarus has resulted in changes to donors’ approaches and policies regarding the support of CSOs. There is now more focus on encouraging CSO cooperation with state and state-affiliated actors, and an overall decrease of funding for Belarusian CSOs in general. Due to these changes, many CSOs have ramped up efforts to diversify their funding sources, looking more towards internal sources and exploring electronic means of fundraising (including crowdfunding) and social entrepreneurship. In many cases, the financial sustainability of CSOs is harmed not by state regulatory or controlling bodies, but by the practices of private banks. These practices include those based on international recommendations on measures to combat money-laundering and financing of terrorism, such as the Financial Action Task Force framework. Recommendations from the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) are also used.
In CAF World Giving Index – 2018 Belarus dropped to 121st place, down from 117th place in 2017 and in 100th place in 2016.
In June 2018 the Parliament adopted amendments to the Law on Mass Events, introducing a notification procedure for assemblies held at areas designated as protest zones by local authorities. However, these zones are typically located far from city centers, and are not within sight and sound of protesters’ targets and potential audiences. Moreover, it is still necessary to request permission 15 days in advance to hold an assembly outside of these protest zones. Representatives of a wide range of human rights organizations were engaged in discussions of these amendments. Freedom of assembly deteriorated further in January 2019 when the government introduced a large mandatory fee for organizing peaceful assemblies and marches. Moreover, in recent years the authorities have begun imposing fines on legal entities (including CSOs) for violating the procedure required to secure permission for holding meetings; individuals have long been subjected to fines for this.
The most hopeful example of positive changes in the environment for CSOs came in 2018, with the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Belarusian Democratic Republic in Minsk and elsewhere. Celebrations took place in a relatively free manner. But this trend did not continue in 2019: only a limited number of peaceful assemblies were held, thanks in part to the new government requirement of payment of “police services for meetings”.
The toughest and most obvious recent example of repression was the 2017-18 criminal prosecutions of the director of the BelaPAN news agency and REP Trade Union leaders, who were charged with tax evasion for funds received from abroad. The so-called “Belta case,” which started in summer 2018, was unprecedented in its scope, as it affected dozens of editorial staff and journalists, representing various media and websites who were suspected and subjected to investigative procedures (including interrogations, searches in flats and offices, detentions, seizures of storage media, etc.).
The case sparked a national discussion on restrictions on the media and freedom of expression. However, these discussions failed to lead to improvements. To the contrary, in July 2018 a new law entered into force requiring mandatory de-anonymization of Internet users and commentators on websites. There have also been numerous cases of questionable administrative prosecution for dissemination of “extremist materials.”
The database of administrative prosecutions shows a significant spike in the number of cases of politically motivated persecution in the second half of 2018, especially cases in which fines were used as administrative sanctions. There was growth in the total number of cases filed, the number of people sanctioned and the total number of administrative fines imposed.