Belarus 2009: standstill and dynamics simultaneously

For the Belarusian third sector 2009 was rich on events. Opposite in its ideological directions, authoritarian tendencies went hand in hand with a liberal thaw. Which one of these directions was most noticeable and influential on a general socio-economic field of the country?

President of the Belarusian HRH Barys Zvozskau, vice-chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists Andrei Aliaksandrau and head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee Aleh Hulak shared their vision of 2009 and made forecasts for 2010.

Barys Zvozskau: “No ground for optimism yet”

As a president of the Belarusian HRH which results and outcomes of 2009 would you point out? Were there any significant changes in the work of HRH and in general on the Belarusian political landscape?

Speaking in general, I would say that this year was not an easy one. It was not easy for Belarus and as a consequence for us as well. There were many changes. I am talking about the legislation primarily. And, obviously, it had its upshots on our work.  

What specific changes do you mean?

In practical terms the official Belarusian authorities does not make any moves towards democratisation. Primarily, I mean Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code. This article still exists, and it really distinguishes us as a country in the region for there is no such atrocity anywhere else. Here the state violates rights of an individual. Just imagine this: in some small city people would like to make an association of Persian Cat Lovers to exchange their experiences, to arrange events and whatnot. People simply like these cats! But there are unable to officially register at the moment. And the state puts this love for animals in the same category as murders and robberies making ordinary citizens criminals. And all because of this despicable article.

More, very recently there was this very big news about abductions of youth activists. All experts and human rights defenders have very big doubts as to law enforcement agencies were not responsible for it. Nevertheless, we can not say anything concrete about these cases. However, it is not the most important aspect. What is the most disturbing is that the state does not investigate these claims of abduction! It appears that the state cannot guarantee the security of its citizens.

I would also mention dactyloscopy. When previously this particular procedure was required for all special servicemen, for instance police officers, it was understandable. But now finger printing is compulsory for all men between ages of 18 to 27 [the age of compulsory military conscription in Belarus]. And it is not a small number of people. This fact alarms HR defenders.  

That is why there is not much ground for optimism. The HR defenders work in Belarus does not get any easier. On contrary, there is more and more work.

Does it mean that Human Rights House became a more popular and needed place?

I would say so. It is, incidentally, a positive outcome of 2009. This year we organised quite a number of conferences, seminars, meetings. I would say that our institution, Human Rights House, is getting more known and popular. It is a positive tendency. Throughout this year more than 2000 people have visited HRH as participants of conferences and other special events. We are known, people and organisations would like to cooperate with us. Of course, we are a special case for we are not in Belarus but in other country. That is why Belarusian citizens cannot directly contact us. And those who come have visa problems. It is a painful question as a visa cost of 60 euros is not a small one and it is unresolved yet.

Andrei Aliaksandrau: “Work in independent mass media will be more difficult”

What main outcomes of 2009 would you point out in regards to the Belarusian mass media situation?

First of all, I would mention a new Law on Mass Media, which was enacted in 2009. This law changed certain very important aspects of journalists’ work in Belarus. According to independent experts, the law significantly limits journalists’ rights and the freedom of expression in general. And now Belarusian journalists have to work in these harsh conditions.

As far as I am informed, there are plans to introduce yet another piece of legislation aimed at regulation the Internet sphere. There is no a specific presidential decree yet but it is expected any day now. It is a common practice in our country to make very significant legislative changes during a holiday season so that a large part of the society does not pay close attention to it.

Is it possible to control the Internet sphere?

To control Internet it self is rather difficult as it is very spontaneous. However, it is possible to regulate individuals who work with it. And the new law, if it is implemented, will be directed specifically at individuals. That is why a new wave of repressions is a possibility. However, it is difficult to say for sure now.

Were there any positive moments in 2009? Were there any?

Yes, there are some. However, they are not connected with country’s internal policy but rather with foreign. I would point out that certain publications, which had been forced into the underground, returned in more or less free distribution. But, again, it is largely temporarily. And nobody will be able to say what would happen later.

Nevertheless, how do you envision next year? Are you willing to make any forecasts?

First, I would mention the Internet law once again. If it is signed, and I would expect it to happen, one should not expect any improvements with the freedom of expression in Belarus. The situation will be stricter. Second, Aleh Praliaskouski was appointed as a new minister of information. This person repeatedly demonstrated his authoritarian and largely ideology motivated believes. Especially it is relevant when we are expecting two election campaigns in 2010. And I think that given the upcoming elections it will be more difficult for independent media to work. But the most important fact is that regardless of any difficulties there are still people in Belarus who are willing to work for truth and remain professional.   

Aleh Hulak: “People fear less”

How 2009 was for the Belarusian human rights defenders?

Overall, I would say that 2009 did not give us any positive tendencies. Numerous organisations, Belarusian Helsinki Committee included, were not officially registered. Also Article 193.1, we and other international organisations are campaigning for its abolition, still continues to exist. More, I personally was very worried about the abductions of youth activists. The authorities still ignore these problems. However, there is an interesting moment here: we did not move much towards democratic principles; 2009 brought a lot of moving around without actual progress forward, no significant changes. However, factually this year was very dynamic and rich on happenings. There were so many events in the socio-political landscape of the country. It is rather difficult to remember everything!

Could we talk about awakening of the society?

I think so. There are many factors at work here. The fact that in 2009 the Belarusian authorities stirred towards liberalisation, regardless that it was not a real one, gave some positive results. For instance, political prisoners were released. And the liberalisation itself means that the authorities accepted European values, human rights as well. What gives me optimism is that people fear less now. Perhaps, they are just tired of being scared. I think that it is the best result of 2009!

What do you expect in 2010?

There will be a great deal of work. 2010 will be full of political events and first of all it is due to election campaigns. The society will be activated on all levels and HR defenders will be a part of it. We expect rich on events and, perhaps, a difficult year.

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