Civil Society Under Increasing Pressure in Belarus

4 February 2004

Civil society is under increasing pressure in Belarus. In 2003 alone, Belarusian authorities closed down 51 non-governmental, not-for-profit organizations (NGOs). Justice Minister Viktar Halavanau reported on 29 January that his ministry conducted inspections of more than 800 NGOs last year, resulting in the judicial liquidation of 51 of them.

The Ministry has previously denied that the ongoing campaign of closures is a deliberate purge, but insists that it is acting purposefully to enforce the law on the third sector. Many of the terminated NGOs, however, were among the most conspicuous defenders of human rights and civil society in Belarus, including such organizations as Legal Assistance to the Population, Vyasna Human Rights Center, the Center for Youth Initiatives Kontur, the Association of Young Entrepreneurs, Minsk-based Women’s Response, Gomel-based Civic Initiative, Cassiopeia Belarusian Foundation, Grodno-based resource center Ratusha, Union of Belarusian Students, and others. Liquidation has often been based on technical legal grounds, such as using incorrect seals and letterhead, using printing equipment without official permission, and failing to register regional branches.

Most recently, the Minsk City Court ordered the liquidation of the Independent Society for Legal Research (ISLR). Since 1996, ISLR has provided legal assistance to NGOs and has conducted research and analysis in the field of freedom of association. Elena Tonkacheva is the Chair of ISLR’s Board. She has prepared a response to the liquidation of ISLR, which follows.

Information based partially on reports of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Prague, Czech Republic.

On January 29, 2004 based on the charges brought by the Ministry of Justice, the Minsk city Court ruled out to shut down a non-governmental organization Independent Society for Legal Research (ISLR). ISLR was liquidated because of its members’ participation in trials involving different NGOs. Starting in 1996 ISLR has been rendering informational and legal assistance to other non-governmental organizations, as well as conducting analytical work and research in the field of the freedom of association.

Response to the liquidation of a non-governmental organization Independent Society for Legal Research

© Liquidation of non-governmental organizations
is a means of maintaining the power - a means that is highly questionable.

Associations of citizens regardless of whether they are NGOs, trade unions, political parties or initiative groups primarily serve as tools of self-organization of civil society, without which democratization of state is impossible. It was probably based on this understanding that the Constitution of Belarus of 1994 guaranteed the freedom of association to everyone (Article 36) and the Law “On Non-governmental Organizations”, also enacted in 1994, set forth the right of citizens to freely establish NGOs.

Systematic deterioration of legal regulation of the freedom of association showed first signs in 1999, in anticipation of two electoral campaigns - 2000 parliamentary campaign and 2001 presidential campaign. Later it became obvious (and also known from several so-called “closed” documents) that NGO “clean-up” was one of the “standing activities” of administrative preparations for the elections.

If we recall how it was done back in 1999, we would be able to draw very clear parallels with what is going on now.

On January 26, 1999 the president signed Decree #2 “On Certain Means of Improvement of Activities of Political Parties, Trade Unions and other Non-Governmental Organizations” (hereafter “Decree #2”), which announced re-registration of all NGOs in the country and completely modified the process of registration. Thus, before the Decree #2 entered into force the registration of NGOs was a sole prerogative of the Ministry of Justice. However, the new procedure provided for the establishment of a special Registration and Re-registration Commission with undefined powers, closed sessions and extremely irregular meetings. Quite interestingly, according to the Decree #2, the Commission had to be composed of representatives of each law enforcement agency (Police, KGB, Security Council), several ministers (including a ministers of information and a minister of justice) and, finally, two chairpersons of permanent parliamentary commissions. Also, first in the whole NIS region, the Decree #2 prohibited activities of unregistered associations (later, similar provisions were adopted in Turkmenistan and other countries).

Judging by the correspondence with governmental agencies we can make a conclusion that such “means” was employed by the executive branch to counterbalance activities of radical right-wing groups like “Krai”(Country), “Belyi Legion” (White Legion) and “RNE”(Russian National Union). In April 2002, speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Justice deputy Minister Mr. V.Kalugin said that “activities of these organizations escalate social and political tension and are of extremist and illegal manner. We know for fact that there have been contacts between radical politicized groups and representatives of foreign circles, which causes destabilizing influence on domestic processes. Registration and administrative liability are aimed at prevention of activities of mainly such groups” (citation is taken from a written response of the Ministry of Justice to the ISLR’s petition regarding violations of the freedom of association). Mr. A. Mary skin, deputy chairman of the Constitutional Court provided additional justification of changes in the NGO law: “Restrictions, established by the state are related to the existence of unregistered groups, including sects, activities of which can lead to serious violations of rights of other people and moral standards as well as to extremist activities”. Besides, he noted that “since the Commission works as a panel it eliminates arbitrariness of individual officials” (citation is taken from a written response of the Constitutional Court to the ISLR’s petition regarding violations of the freedom of association. April, 2002).

The next “threat” was eliminated by Decree #8 “On Certain Means of Improvement of the Procedure of Receiving and Using Foreign Gratuitous Aid” enacted in March 2001. This document prohibited organizations from using the money they receive from foreign sources before such use was approved by the state. Besides, the Decree #8 granted the president the right to allocate tax benefits and privileges.

Let’s take a look at what was happening with the third sector at that time. Re-registration of political parties, trade unions and other non-governmental organizations went on from February to October 1999. Roughly a half of 2502 NGOs was re-registered. Only 1537 NGOs submitted their documents to the Ministry of Justice because the rest could not even meet the new requirements. 211 NGOs were denied re-registration. Statistics, however, do not show how many out of those not registered were actually right-wing, or extremist, or sects.

Most of the organizations had to continue their activities without the status of legal entity. At the same time, a great number of projects implemented by NGOs were suspended because now those NGOs had to register their grants and receive state “approval”, and only then proceed with implementation of projects. Moreover, domestic taxes were not included in most of the project budgets, and arbitrary allocation of tax benefits made it impossible to implement numerous projects. Just like that, the work of many active NGOs was temporarily paralyzed. Finally, NGOs had to find other ways to secure funding and did so, primarily, by implementing public education and human rights monitoring projects. Implementation of such projects made NGOs very vulnerable and subject to ongoing harassment on the part of the government.

So, what happened in 2003, just a year-and-a-half before parliamentary elections 2004 and presidential elections 2006?

Starting in spring, the Ministry of Justice has been bringing charges to shut down NGOs all over the country. In most cases the charges were based on such minor violations like inaccurate file keeping or use of the seal. Simultaneously, the majority of existing organizations received written requests for detailed and complete information on their activities, including precise information on NGO members and almost every event held. It is important to understand that any refusal to provide or incomplete provision of the information requested was treated as violation of law and lead to imposition of sanctions by the Ministry of Justice. At the same time, the government launched nation-wide “regular” inspections of human rights groups and NGOs that were actively engaged in previous elections. As a result, starting in summer, the government, one by one, shut down the oldest, most active and most influential organizations that had good ties with population.

Such course of action taken by the Ministry of Justice triggered heavy criticism from human rights organizations and international community. Issues of NGO harassment were emphasized in statements of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and in the Resolution of the UN Human Rights Commission. These measures, however, caused no viable results nor did they help to improve the situation.

On December 10, 2003, on the day of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, several influential Belarusian NGOs requested resignation of Minister of Justice Golovanov from office (www.belarusfree.org - December 2003).

What organizations became subject to liquidation before others? Resource centers, human rights organizations and NGOs that participated in coalitions and withstood elimination of associations. The list of closed organizations includes Youth Christian-Social Union, Grodno-based resource center Ratusha, Gomel-based Civic Initiative, Youth Center Kontur, Minsk-based Women’s Response, Belarusian Foundation Kaseopea, Lutskevichi Brothers Foundation, Association of Young Entrepreneurs, Union of Belarusian Students, Youth Information Center and many others. It is worth mentioning separately the liquidation of such human rights organizations as Human Rights Center Viasna, Legal Assistance to the Population and Independent Society for Legal Research. As of today, not a single organization succeeded in defending its right to the freedom of association in court.

On January 23, 2004 the panel of the Ministry of Justice discussed the results achieved by the Ministry in 2003 and objectives for the strengthening of legal order in 2004. Mr. Golovanov announced statistics of the Ministry’s activities carried out in 2003 to ensure the freedom of association in Belarus. He said that “in the past year we tightened the control over NGO activities. 81 NGOs were subject to our expanded inspections. As a result of those inspections the Ministry of Justice issued 810 written warnings to the governing bodies of those NGOs, which is 6 times more than in 2002. Fifty one organizations have been shut down by court decisions based on charges brought by the Ministry” (National Internet portal of the Republic of Belarus with reference to BELTA, January 2004).

Yet, one more time statistics do not answer a whole range of questions. For example, what was the necessary cause for the executive branch to intensify its controlling functions? Moreover, according to information we have, the number of NGOs that ceased their activities in 2003 is significantly, yes significantly, higher than the number of NGOs liquidated by the government through trials. In most cases the organizations were forced to make a decision on self-dissolution as a result of upcoming or underwent inspections.

I would like to separately discuss processes that are now occurring in the third sector. In the quickly worsening conditions NGOs, as never before, are showing ability to engage in coordinated activities. Our Solidarity campaign was kicked off past summer as a response to actions of the executive branch. Campaign participants sent petitions to the Ministry of Justice and held public hearings in order to establish a dialogue that would standardize the application of NGO law by the government. A series of seminars and roundtables held in the framework of the campaign was targeting the elaboration of strategies for NGO activities in the crisis situation. A systematic monitoring of violations of the right to the freedom of association is conducted as part of the campaign. Besides, the public and international community are regularly informed on the situation with the freedom of association in Belarus.

In May 2003, Marek Nowicki from Warsaw-based Helsinki Human Rights Foundation said: “Who knows, maybe what the Belarusian government does rights now prohibiting NGOs to work legally is the best thing that the government has ever done for civil society development in Belarus”.

Maybe it is! We do hope that we have enough strength, skills and stamina to learn how to operate and continue working in these conditions. At least no one is going to give up the right to self-actualization, or the right to have a professional and civic profession, and no one will sacrifice the defense public interests or the desire to live in a democratic and rule-of-law Belarus.

Elena Tonkacheva,
Chairperson of the Board,
Independent Society for Legal Research
Minsk, January 29, 2004
tonkacheva@infonet.by