In their presentations, participants oriented themselves based on the work conducted during the two previous Minsk Forum workshops this year (in Vilnius and Warsaw) and their own expertise and work experience. The conference took place on 5 and 6 November 2023.
The general context of the Minsk Forum in 2023 can be briefly outlined as follows: The first shock of political migration and repression is over, and civil society is facing the challenge not only of balancing the situation but also of developing further. Skills of communication and democratic discussion are crucial issues for today’s Belarus civil society. While acknowledged to be complicated, they are undoubtedly helpful for the democratic future of the county. Despite the disagreements among the democratic forces of Belarus, primarily in their structure and means of achieving the goal, the main thing is the ultimate goal on which everyone must agree.
During the Minsk Forum XXI session in Brussels, brainstorming and workshop sessions were facilitated by Palina Brodik (Free Belarus Center), and the final meeting with Parliamentarians was moderated by Alena Aharelysheva (Fem Group of the Coordination Council). The Brussels session was held at the premises of the Mission of Democratic Belarus, established in March 2023, which has since become the space for cultural events, political meetings, and exhibitions. The Mission, headed by Vladzimir Astapenka, a former diplomat who left the Belarusian Foreign Ministry in protest against repression, aims to help bring Belarus back to Europe and lobby its democratic interests in the European Parliament. The People’s Embassies of Belarus are an important tool of foreign politics, especially in times of repression and political emigration from the country.
In their presentations, participants of Minsk Forum XXI oriented themselves based on the work conducted during the two previous Minsk Forum workshops this year (in Vilnius and Warsaw) and their own expertise and work experience. The presentations covered the topics of gender, media, culture, politics, and civil society. During the meeting in Brussels, not only Belarusian but also Ukrainian, Russian, and pan-European perspectives were discussed. Key points formulated during the day:
- We need to acknowledge the political agency of civil society and different contexts from which it comes.
- The split between people inside and outside the country should be overcome, as they are parts of the same chain and shouldn’t be separated. Democratic Belarusians inside and outside the country share the same aim and goal.
- The cultural component of civil society is essential, with cultural projects becoming more tangible for implementing civil society inside the country.
- The problem of mobility became even more obvious with the restriction of travel and humanitarian visas in Poland and Lithuania for Belarusians. The promotion of the New Belarus passport is crucial for the community.
- Politicians should make a clear distinction between Belarusian civil society and Russian opposition; otherwise, attempts to unite them only reinforce the Russian imperialistic narrative.
- Independent media are more united than ever. However, there is a need to overcome competition and start uniting to create new media products.
- More independent news outlets and social media channels are banned by the Belarusian regime. Due to blocked media websites and repressive laws, independent Belarusian media do not always reach their audience inside the country. There is a need to develop a further work plan in this context, including growing the audience inside Belarus by reaching neutral, non-politicized audiences.
- It is necessary to have a dialogue with Big Tech, which does not understand the Belarusian context and gives out pro-government propaganda sources on a search query about news from Belarus. Lobbying for the interests of Belarusian independent media in BigTech is crucial.
- A Belarusocentric discourse is needed, as well as decolonization and liberation from Russian influence. This includes particular support for publications in the Belarusian language to counter linguistic discrimination and the language’s vulnerable status.
- Pressing problems include interrupted funding that does not allow development, training of young personnel for Belarusian media in exile, and starting media products for countries as main directions of exile. Launching a Board of Trustees in media is also essential.
- The importance and necessity of gender optics for a wide range of issues in today’s Belarus were emphasized. As a conclusion, there is a need to support and expand programs aimed at gender equality and the rights of the LGBT+ community.
- The role of major tech platforms and their inaction, along with the dominance of pro-state narratives in search engines, were recognized as problems that need to be addressed.
- There is a need for rapprochement with the Ukrainian government and mutual understanding. “The Crimea Platform” is one of the channels/directions on which Belarusian democratic forces should work.
- Culture is seen as a main tool for national identity building, image shifting, and diplomatic influence (cultural diplomacy). Belarusian culture is threatened by Russian colonization, and putting it in one line with Russian opposition only harms it.
- There is a necessity to separate Belarusian culture into a separate direction of work and not let it exist only as a part of civil society. Contemporary artists have a clear demand to create not only protest art, but it is more difficult to find funding for such non-political projects.
- More than 140 cultural figures are now behind bars, with sentences of up to 9 years per person. Culture is a separate, strictly repressive direction in the internal policy of Belarus. Therefore, the reduction of budgets from donors, caused by the remark about the lack of visibility of how cultural activities affect life in the country, is especially felt in this sphere.
- The diversification of financial and decision-making is necessary. There is a huge demand inside and outside the country, as well as online. Diverse funding opportunities such as Core and infrastructure support for existing and new wave organizations, more subgranting and granting programs (including outside and inside) focused on smaller beneficiaries, like Creative Europe and other EU programs for Belarusians, are essential.
- Considering the diversity of pro-democratic cultural initiatives and institutions, advanced education and professional opportunities, and exchange programs for managers, producers, and artists are needed. Diversification of the EU contact group (on cultural issues) and widening the network of Belarusian cultural stakeholders in order to have a bigger picture are necessary.
- A positive trend in the cultural life of the community is associations among artists and institutionalization as a tool for Belarusians to be perceived not only as victims of the regime but as active subjects with whom one can deal, invite somewhere, and make joint projects. Examples include the Belarusian Independent Film Academy and the Belarusian Independent Photographic Association.
The brainstorming session provoked comments and mutual invitations, with participants eager to cooperate with each other. An important remark was also made: Belarusians should not just wait for actors of democratic forces. It is important to realize that each of them is an ambassador of Belarus in their working and life sphere.
Guests of the session included I. Fedotenkov (European Commission), A. Kubilius (European Parliament), J. Olekas (European Parliament), R. Stanionis (European Parliament), A. Widlaszewska (European Commission). Some of the Parliamentarians’ comments included the necessity to formulate the Belarusian way into the EU, to come up with a draft of an agreement between democratic Belarus and the European Commission. Since the hatred for Putin’s government is what unites activists from Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, a proposal to join forces was made. The lack of an EU strategy towards Belarus was also recognized. Belarusian democratic forces should firstly convince the EU/West that Belarus can become a democratic country. Secondly, they should come up with the strategy for the EU and how/what they can invest in it.
One of the general outcomes of the Brussels session with European parliamentarians was yet another realization of the importance to claim Belarus as not a region and not a vestige of the Soviet Union. Belarus is an independent country, and it should not be put in the same basket with Russia/post-Soviet space every time. Belarus is a geographical part of Europe, and that’s what we should start from.