Questions and requests from Belarusian organisations to Members of the European Parliament.
24. Oct. – Brussels: Questions / Petita
Organisation: Free Belarus Center
Background: Starting from September 2022, Belarusian authorities have been undertaking multiple actions that may indirectly indicate the preparation to their full-fledged participation in the Russian war against Ukraine. In case of mass and overt mobilization in Belarus, migration crisis will exacerbate greatly. Belarusians, in particular male population, will try to flee massively both to EU countries and Central Asia/Caucasus in order to avoid conscription.
- Current difficulties in receiving visas at the territory of Belarus decrease the chances for quick emergency evacuation to EU countries.
- Potential visa bans from EU and high airplane costs to Central Asia/Caucasus will make many people trapped.
- Dispatch of Belarusian troops of any quantity will critically worsen the attitude towards Belarusian political migrants and refugees, stimulate xenophobia and discrimination.
- The increase of male Belarusian migrants may lead to social tension, financial burden and overwhelming workload of migration services in receiving countries, especially being added to the Russian migrants in the developing countries of Central Asia/Caucasus.
- Accelerate the issue of humanitarian visas on the territory of Belarus.
- Ensure coherent EU policy avoiding visa bans.
- Ensure the delivery of a coherent public message separating pro-democracy activists and the de-facto occupation regime of Lukashenko/Putin.
- Consider supporting the countries of Central Asia/Caucasus in case of a critical increase of migrants.
- European policy-makers must first of all accept that the political processes in Eastern Europe are strongly interwoven.
- The outcome of the war against Ukraine will set the course for developments in the region and in Europe as a whole for decades to come. Everything must therefore be done for Ukrainian victory in the sense of restoring the borders of 1991 and securing territorial integrity in the long term. The logic is clear: Ukrainian victory could be the end for Putin and Lukashenka and would be a prerequisite for the emergence of a new, democratic Belarus.
- Europe must take a firm stand against the idea of “Russian spheres of influence”. We must learn to see the Eastern European nations (including Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, etc.) as an integral part of Europe, with their own interests and opportunities. Any strategic action regarding Belarus must promote Belarusian independence while limiting Russia’s ability to control the country. This includes enforcing the withdrawal of Russian troops from Belarus.
- Policy measures must be thought of and also implemented in a regional context. One example is the economic sanctions against the Lukashenka regime of 2020 and 2021: while they restricted the financial possibilities of regime-relevant industries, they also facilitated economic takeovers by Russian actors. Only (additional) sanctions against Russia in 2022 made the sanctions against Belarus more effective and paused the takeover tendencies. Therefore, the sanctions policy against the Lukashenka regime must always be designed in coordination with the corresponding sanctions policy against Russia.
- Cooperation with the Belarusian democratic structures, first and foremost with the United Transitional Cabinet of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, should be given strategic priority at government level, up to and including recognition of the Cabinet as the only legitimate Belarusian government in exile. The cabinet must be included in all negotiations relevant to Belarus.
- Since direct support and promotion of civil society in the country itself is almost impossible, cooperation with Belarusian exile and diaspora structures must be further intensified. NGOs forced into exile as well as newly established NGOs should be given easier access to funding if their work serves the development of a democratic and independent new Belarus.
Organisation: A Country to live in Foundation
- There are a lot of teachers in Lithuania and Poland who were forced to leave Belarus, but unfortunately it’s impossible for most of them to continue their work in the profession.
- There are a lot of children from Belarus in Lithuania and Poland who have difficulties adjusting the educational system in a language they don’t speak neither understand.
We believe that schools for Belarussian children can resolve both of these problems. It will give the teachers and the school children from Belarus an opportunity to adapt to the new surroundings.
Organisation: Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS)
Background: The sphere of education in Belarus is becoming a field of conscientious war for the understanding of the world and the identity of Belarusians.
On the part of Western countries, dominates the policy of isolating the education system of Belarus from the educational spaces of the developed European countries of the world.
The most obvious symptoms:
• at the secondary school level (ISCED 1-3): unilateral exclusion of Belarus from the International Program for the Assessment of Educational Achievement in Schools (PISA);
• at the level of vocational education (ISCED 4-5): exclusion of Belarus unilaterally from the youth professional movement WorldSkills International and WorldSkills Belarus;
• At the level of higher education (ISCED 6-8): the Bologna Process Monitoring Group (BFUG) has suspended the representation of Belarus in the EHEA.
At the same time, Russia is dominated by the tendency to assimilate the education system of Belarus into the educational space of the Russian Federation. The most obvious symptoms:
• expansion of Russian scientific and educational institutions and representative offices in the Republic of Belarus;
• initiation of the withdrawal of the Republic of Belarus from the Bologna Process following the example of the Russian Federation (see the statement of the Deputy Head of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation D. Afanasiev dated 06.06.2022);
• non-alternative financial support of the Russian Federation for the education system of the Republic of Belarus.
In this situation, the main recipients (victims) of sanctions are students (children, students) and teachers, and the beneficiaries of the benefits are the authorities of the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation, who are vitally interested in isolation of sociaity.
Questions: Does Brussels see this as a problem? Are alternative ways of working with the Belarusian society at the educational level being discussed as acceptable? If there are such options, which ones?
Recommendations/Ideas and proposals:
- the strategy of “separating official Belarus and civil society” is to keep prohibitions and sanctions against official state representatives, but at the same time form a civil representation of Belarus in international structures and institutions.
- For example, at the level of higher education, a ban on official representation in the Bologna process can be maintained, but at the same time, a civil representation of Belarus in the Bologna process can be formed (through civil activists and independent experts of the Public Bologna Committee). Similar measures can be taken at the vocational (ISCED 4-5) and secondary (ISCED 6-8) levels.
- a strategy for the development of «an online educational network structure» that could become an alternative to the official state education system: given the strict control within the country, it makes sense not to concentrate efforts in one direction and place (for example, on the basis of some one institution, as is currently happening with European Humanities University), but to create and support several fairly autonomous educational projects and initiatives – this will significantly complicate the destruction or blocking of projects by the Belarusian authorities inside the country.
Organisation: Press Club Belarus /Belarus in Focus Information Office
Background: Facing an unprecedented scale of repressions since 2020, which was intensified by the involvement of the Belarusian government in the war in Ukraine, the independent Belarusian media sector continues to operate, develop and demonstrate resilience. The trust to the independent media and content producers in Belarus remains high (circa 30%); it is one of the key factors behind the Belarusians’ unwillingness to support the war, in stark contrast to the Russian society, where Russian independent media reach is very limited. The war in Ukraine was a disruptive factor for Belarusian independent media workers who went into exile in Kyiv, who became secondary refugees in the EU states.
Recommendations/Ideas and proposals:
- Recognise the needs of the Belarusian independent media sector as separate from Russian and Ukrainian with its own unique stance, influence and needs, including the need to continue the production of Belarusian content for Belarusians (rather than enabling Russian media to cover Belarus).
- Support the work on elaborating long-term strategies and solutions for the Belarusian independent Media sector.
- Support infrastructural solutions for mid-term exile operations. Facilitate negotiations with big tech on solutions for news dissemination of independent media and blocking content of state propaganda operators.
- Support in visa/legalisation, e.g. encouragement of Member States or Schengen members to introduce special types of visas for media workers alike with Business Harbour for IT specialists.
Organisation: Belarusian Youth Hub in Warsaw
Background:Since 2020, we have recorded a significant increase in the number of young people leaving Belarus for political reasons. First of all, these are applicants or students of Belarusian universities who have decided not to continue their studies in Belarus or who have been expelled for their political views.
There is a special scholarship program of the Government of Poland named after K. Kalinowski, which allows such students to continue their studies in Poland for free and receive a scholarship. However, due to bureaucratic problems with documents, people who have passed verification and become program scholarship holders cannot receive a European education. People who had to leave Belarus, fearing for their life and health, cannot go to their country to obtain the documents necessary for recruitment.
- Polish governmental universities require attestant (matura), apostile and CT certificates (tests that candidates take in Belarus).
- The long-term problem is the adaptation of Belarusian students in Europe, especially those who went to the university as part of the Kalinowski scholarship program.
- A solution is needed for adult foreigners who do not have secondary education, without which they cannot participate in recruitment for studies or post-secondary schools.
- The solution would be to abolish the obligation to have an apostille or introduce a different procedure for confirming such documents. Instead of attaching CT certificates, universities can conduct additional entrance exams, an interview or a test in order to obtain points in the recruitment process.
- Systematic support is needed for organizations involved in the adaptation of Belarusian students in Europe. It is also possible to create an adaptation program that includes language courses, psychological assistance, an educational consultant and integration activities.
- It is necessary to create an opportunity for adults without a certificate to take final exams, as well as take language courses to prepare for these exams.
Organisation: European Radio for Belarus
Background: After the 2020 elections, independent Belarusian media don’t have the possibility to work inside Belarus. 31 journalists are now in prison, others were forced to leave the country due to the threat of arrest and criminal prosecution. Independent news sites are blocked by the Ministry of Information of Belarus. The situation is not improving — on the contrary, repressions are growing.
After the war in Ukraine started, Russian media began to find themselves in a similar situation. We see how they announce plans to work with the Belarusian audience. In our opinion, supporting this does not make sense and will do more harm than good: Russian media do not understand Belarusian agenda and in any case will include Belarus in the Russian context. Which contradicts the goals of strengthening the Belarusian sovereignty, independence, formulating and developing the Belarusian national identity.
Today Belarusian media are solving several problems:
1. Save independent journalism as a public institution. We are working to ensure that our employees, deprived of the right to a profession, do not move to other professions to survive.
2. Expand the audience. Maintain access to the audience from which we are “cut off” by the authorities of Belarus and Russia.
3. Keep the audience on the news agenda. News about war and repression upsets people, there is a tendency to reject it. However, if people fall out of the agenda, they become depoliticized, which leads to the preservation of the Lukashenka’s regime. We are entering new platforms, looking for new formats for presenting news.
4. Produce content. It is hard for journalists to work from exile, it is hard to keep in touch with those who remain in Belarus. Nevertheless, it succeeds, but we spend a lot of effort on it.
5. Opposition to Belarusian and Russian propaganda. Since 2020, state propaganda has become smarter and more sophisticated. We are working to predict and debunk narratives before they are implemented, and to ridicule absurd propaganda lies.
6. Uniting the citizens of Belarus around common values, which are the Belarusian language, culture, democracy, opposition to military aggression in the region.
Also, Belarusian media and media organisations have joined in the work on the “road map” — a development strategy for the next 2-3 years. In our opinion, such a document is necessary: it will allow different newsrooms to coordinate their actions, and donor organisations to better understand what they support, the logic of spending funds.
At the moment, we don’t see any prerequisites for the Belarusian media to return to a normal existence within Belarus in the next 2-3 years. In this regard, we have the following questions for you:
What do you proceed from in matters of support for Belarusian media? What is your strategy, what is the specific plan?
Can Belarusian organisations or coalitions of them become implementers of large media support programs similar to EED?
How do you assess the results achieved by the Belarusian media with the support of the European Commission in 2022?