Some NGOs stopped their activities
28 September 2020 | Tatsiana Hendel, Green Belarus
Some Belarusian public organizations stopped their activities. But not all of them: APB-BirdLife Belarus (APB) and “Bahna” continue normal operation, while others minimise or restructure their activities.
The current social and political situation in Belarus has confronted public organizations with many questions: how to carry on operations? how to negotiate with the authorities? how to express an active civic stance? The Green Portal spoke with some of the NGO representatives and found out what is happening within the organizations.
“Volunteers are not enthusiastic, to put it mildly”
“The Minsk Cycling Community has now practically ceased all contacts with the authorities,” says Yauhen Haruzhy, chair of the board of the Minsk Cycling Community.
“The post-election events in our country left no one with the strength or desire to interact with the authorities. This is not an official decision of our organization, it just happened by itself. We have retained contacts at the level of individual government officials, but this is not at all the level of interaction that we had before.
“Also, the MCC is one of the organizations that signed an open letter demanding the recognition of election fraud and calling to end violence and punish those responsible for it.
Since our demands are not being met, we are reluctant to continue cooperation.
“As for organizing events, only one staff member continues to work with us and volunteers are not too enthusiastic about engaging in such projects, to put it mildly. Therefore, the Community’s current activities are limited to work with the Ministry of Construction and Architecture on the reviewing of technical standards. We keep pursuing this activity while we have available specialists and an opportunity to do so.
“We are not looking far ahead yet. We used to have several ideas related to urban projects, but everything is put on hold now. Firstly, due to interaction with the city’s authorities, which is controversial at the moment. Secondly, because these ideas require crowdfunding, which, although technically possible, will not be well-timed and is unlikely to be successful. Obviously, all entertainment events have also been scrapped as irrelevant. We can say that we are in limbo.”
“The country is mired in legal default”
Part of the Minsk Urban Platform is relocating to Kiev. Some of the team members are already there, while the others are about to move.
“It is important for our team to stay safe not only physically but also mentally, because the NGO sector in Belarus is very prone to anxiety, extreme fatigue and burnout,” said Lizaveta Shalai, director and coordinator of projects at the Minsk Urban Platform.
“We relocated in advance with the aim to avoid persecution. The last straw for us was the detention of Irina Sukhy from Ecohome, the subsequent trial and persecution of other activists.
“That Monday, many of us lost all doubt that the country was mired in legal default. It is clear that in a situation where the law works in one direction only, we can hardly protect ourselves, even when there are no violations of the law on our behalf.
“Considering that even before the elections we visited the ideology department to “get acquainted” with the administration of one of the city districts and even started discussing joint projects, now we are very wary of interaction with government agencies. One project is currently being registered with the Department for Humanitarian Activities of the Presidential Office. And we do not know how it will end and whether the project will be implemented.
The next day after our relocation, we learned that unknown people came to our [Minsk] office. They could not get in, as one part of the team was on vacation, and the other working from home, that is, the office was simply closed.
“Since they could not get through to the director’s office, they contacted our accountant via the Viber messenger and sent her a photo of the request to provide a report on foreign donations. I contacted the sender as an authorized person and the situation became even more bizarre. We asked for an official request, as we work and plan to continue working within the legal framework. But I was urged to visit the Partizanski district police office so that I would “receive the request in person” in order to speed up the process and, of course, to get acquainted.
“I asked once again to send the documents by mail. We are ready to provide the report, but we want to remain in the legal field. So far there is no official request, the message sender does not give their name, the photo of the request shows that it had been issued to another organization and my message remains unread despite the alleged urgency.
“At the moment, we are discussing how to turn around our projects according to the current situation in the country. In early 2020 no one expected the COVID pandemic. The scenario of protests following the elections is almost unpredictable and any action by an NGO can in one way or another be “connected” to the organization or coordination of rallies (as it happened with the Centre for Promotion of Women’s Rights – Her Rights).
“The urban field has changed a lot during the protests; people began to feel responsible for their city. Now it is very important to talk about how a high-quality urban environment is built, but we should avoid transmitting the annoying information noise.
“We are very concerned about the lives of people, cities and our country and express our great solidarity with the victims. In terms of work, our team is still examining the demand, looking for new ways to interact with audiences and hoping for a stop of persecutions in the NGO sector. After all, NGOs are a communication bridge between people and the state, a kind of mediator in the field of solving social problems.”
“We are glad that people are actively expressing their pro-democratic stance”
Volha Yanchuk, Secretary General of the Young Women’s Christian Association of Belarus (YWCA), says that although the organisation does not promote itself as a provider of psychological assistance to victims of violence during rallies, they do counsel people.
“But first of all, we are not abandoning our target category – women in situations of violence. We are still receiving calls for help but unfortunately, many women have now begun to belittle their problems even more saying: What kind of problems I have in comparison to what is happening in the country.
“We have put our activities on hold. To date, we continue work on only one slow-paced project, we keep monitoring social networks and the website, all the rest is on standby.
It is not yet clear what to do next. This pause is already so long that we are getting pessimistic about the possibility of further work.
“Therefore, we are not making any fateful decisions for the organization. We are not developing and, however sad it sounds, we are regressing. Without opportunities to implement projects and interact with donors, we are losing motivation. The pandemic and difficult social and political situation in Belarus have put us in a position of uncertainty. We are overwhelmed with emotions now.
“Of course, we are concerned about our volunteers, about all girls and women who care and show their active pro-democratic stance. The activity of Belarusian women has become more visible now, but it is also being punished harder. We are glad that more people have begun to speak up openly and to manifest themselves as active citizens. This is the positive side that we are aware of and we very much hope that when the situation changes, even more people will begin to realize what civic activism, help and solidarity are.”
“We will continue to engage in wildlife conservation”
Kanstantsin Chykalau, chair of the non-profit “Bahna” says that their work has stalled both physically and emotionally. But since there are project obligations, they have to be fulfilled.
“It has become difficult to do any work with government agencies. On the one hand, there is nothing to talk about when people are being beaten, maimed and disappear… Personally for me, from a point of view of humanism, the priorities have changed, and I try to help my friends or victims whenever possible. But on the other hand, work needs to be done, as it is important to finalize the project by the end of the year.
We have some new projects but it is impossible to start them under these circumstances. I hope that the government will listen to the demands of the people, workers, NGOs, and all this will soon be over.
“Since the government has such problems with law, it is difficult and even inappropriate to make any agreements with the government bodies now. Obviously, environmental protection is a completely different area but officials must listen to people. It seems to me that Belarusians are now more concerned about political problems than environmental ones, so it becomes harder to inform the public about the importance of wildlife. It is difficult to do our usual business and neglect the fact that civilians are being abused.
“Everyone has their own views and motivations and we do not discourage anyone from helping people. However, our organization has been engaged in the conservation of wildlife and will continue to do so, although now it is a more difficult task. Over the last month, we have been mostly working on improving the legislation.”
Aliaksandr Vincheuski, director of APB-BirdLife Belarus, about the need to fulfill project obligations:
Our charter does not imply any participation of our organization in the political issues in the country.
“In private, any members and volunteers of our organization are free to engage in any activity, including defending their political views. On the part of the APB, nothing has changed in the interaction with the authorities. We have obligations towards our sponsors and we carry out our activities as before.”