Belarus’ civil society fights for a future in Europe

Belarus remains one of the biggest challenges for the EU’s foreign policy. While progress has been slow, promoting democracy in the country is vital.

Every functioning democracy requires a healthy civil society to keep its government in check. This is exactly why civil society has been in the crosshairs of Alexander Lukashenko, the autocrat who has ruled Belarus for nearly three decades. 

The disputed presidential election in 2020 and the mass protests that followed resulted in increasing repressions of activists and civil society organisations (CSOs). The European Union imposed sanctions on Belarus due to the illegitimate election, prompting Lukashenko to withdraw the country from the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative in June 2021 – a forum aiming to promote closer ties between the EU and Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

The situation only worsened after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.  

According to human rights centre Viasna, there are 1,496 political prisoners in Belarus as of May 2023, many of them students. Following acts of sabotage against Russian supply lines going through Belarus, the government imposed the death penalty for what it deemed “high treason”. 

On May 3, a court in Belarus convicted a dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, and sentenced him to eight years in prison. Protasevich was arrested after being pulled off a commercial flight that was diverted to the country in May 2021.

Civil society in exile 

Tony Lashden, a Belarusian LGBTQ+ and women’s human rights defender, tells Emerging Europe that “as many of the Belarusian civil society organisations were forced into exile, activists [have] continued their work with the Belarusian communities from Europe.” 

Most civil society leaders and opposition figures have done so from neighbouring Poland and Lithuania, or Georgia, with the support of local civil society groups. And since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, their work has not been limited to Belarus. 

Lashden stresses that Belarusian CSOs support Ukraine in a variety of ways, including direct aid, evacuation, and advocacy. 

“I’d say that the connections are maintained by pro-active participation in local political and cultural processes and spreading information about the situation in Belarus,” she adds. 

“When it comes to activists who are still in the country, I’d say that the connection with Europe is still there on the level of values and principles of work. It’s not possible to travel freely outside of Belarus anymore, and people are very limited in how they can outreach to communities in Europe directly.” 

Lashden states that Western policy makers have largely failed to realise the trauma Belarusian civil society has endured these past years. 

“We are operating in a context where decades of work were demolished, and a generation of activists suffered through the humiliating and dehumanising experience of imprisonment, forced migration, arrests and state persecution.” 

In her view, most of the support for political prisoners from the 2020 protests came from Belarusians themselves. 

“I personally see very little support to those who were on the front line of democratic processes in 2020: political prisoners, especially women political prisoners, haven’t received sufficient support in the EU.” 

One way for the EU to support Belarusians would be to offer help to vulnerable communities. 

“After the massive liquidation of CSOs in Belarus, many people who are living in the country face immense difficulties in access to social services. Gender-based violence in the country has reached terrifying levels, people with disabilities don’t have access to proper social support, LGBTQ+ people are deprived of mental health support and live on the margins of poverty,” says Lashden. 

The legal status of Belarusians living in the EU is another important topic. Many Belarusians live in the EU without permanent residence, their status being dependent on the political will of their host country. 

“Belarusians in exile need comprehensive social support and rehabilitation. Many people had experienced imprisonment and torture and that has heavily affected their physical and mental well-being. By recognising the specific status of Belarusian political migrants and those who opposed the regime, the EU can provide a safer environment for people to re-start their lives,” Lashden adds. 

Youth at the forefront 

Lukashenko’s decision to leave the EaP was strategic. The initiative was part of the EU’s arsenal of foreign policy instruments to support democracy in the country, especially through support for civil society. 

In conversation with Emerging Europe, the chairperson of the Belarusian National Youth Council (RADA), Margo Vorykhava, emphasises, “the importance of continuing to support the people of the region who are fighting for their rights and liberties, and remaining committed to promoting democratic reforms, good governance, and economic development”. 

For Vorykhava, the actions of Lukashenko do not undermine the achievements of the EaP, nor should Belarus’ civil society give up on its objectives. 

“We, as RADA, are dedicating our efforts to maintaining and strengthening partnerships with other countries in the region who share our values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law,” she says, noting that RADA will continue to engage with civil society for the creation of a free and democratic Belarus. 

Vorykhava wishes to send a strong message of support to those who are fighting for their rights and liberties, and intends to hold the Belarusian government accountable for their violation of human rights in the country.

The bridge to Europe 

The young Belarusians who have had to flee their home have made the most of their situation, building networks across Europe. RADA is one of the many Belarusians CSOs working from abroad to promote democracy in the country. 

The EU for its part also continues to offer young Belarusians opportunities to expand their network. Belarusian civil society leaders regularly attend conferences ad engage with their EU counterparts. 

The Young European Ambassadors Initiative (YEAs) by EU Neighbours EAST is one such example. The European Commision programme aims to build links between youth in the EaP countries and the EU. 

Maria Pia Napoletano, YEAs EU Coordinator, tells Emerging Europe that the initiative, “keeps supporting youth from Belarus, both in Belarus and abroad”. Belarusian YEAs develop activities for their peers to increase youth participation, learn about EU-funded opportunities and create meaningful discussion about the importance of a strong civil society. 

“We want to tell stories from brave Belarusian youth and create awareness about the history, culture and traditions of the country. We are looking forward to welcoming more youth from Belarus into the network and working with them and supporting them in making their voices heard,” she adds. 

As part of their efforts to support young Belarusians, YEAs organised a conference for Belarusian youth in April 2023 in Warsaw, focusing on civil society organisations and Belarusian language and culture. Many other European organisations have joined the network to support youth in the region. 

Belarus remains one of the biggest challenges for the EU’s foreign policy. While progress has been slow, promoting democracy in the country is vital. Civil society will be at the core of this democratic transition and the EU will have to support it if it wishes to see a free Belarus.

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