Belarusians should formulate positive messages: Belarus is not “entering” Europe but “returning” to Europe
Two five-hour workshops were held as part of the Vilnius Session of this year’s Minsk Forum, inviting the participants to discuss pressing issues related to the current situation in and around Belarus.
The first group, facilitated by Jakob Wöllenstein from KAS Belarus, discussed how to keep Belarus in the focus of the international community amid the Russian war against Ukraine.
The participants of this group were mostly exiled Belarusians, representing human rights organisations, political groups and NGOs. The workshop was held in English.
The group started by breaking down the question and taking a closer look at why international target groups should or could dedicate their attention to Belarus and its problems. After that, a final discussion was held about opportunities and recommendations.
Breaking down the question: (results of discussions)
- Who is “international”?
Governments and government-financed organisations:
- Decision makers (governments etc);
- International organizations (UN, Interpol…);
- International donors
- International civil society (organisations);
- Broader public in Western countries;
- Multinational businesses;
- Foreign national business
- What should the “agenda” be?
- Talk about human rights violations, political prisoners, repressions – but not only about “negative” things.
- Belarusians should formulate positive messages: Belarus is not “entering” but “returning” to Europe; national identity, connected to choice not to (want to) live in a dictatorship: democracy, freedom, peaceful protests; strong engagement from civil society; successes despite dire circumstances.
- Belarus is a country in state of permanent terror from the Moscow-backed regime; Lack of joint message from Belarusians;
- Negative agenda puts people off;
- Belarus seen only in connection with or relative to other countries (Russia, Ukraine): needs to be reframed to keep focus on Belarus and preserve an exclusive focus on Belarus
- Topics that concern people in exile are mainly visa issues and questions of legal status.
What are the own goals of the Belarusian civil society:
- A Belarus without the regime:
- Prevention of recognition of the regime; continued delegitimisation of it;
- Prevention of normalisation of the regime, countering the manipulative “out-of-the-box” narrative used by the regime to re-engage with the West (e.g., the environmental track);
- Maintain pressure on the regime; mitigate abuse of international organisations and mechanisms by the regime;
- End to terror and repressions in Belarus, liberation of political prisoners;
- Making Belarus “internationally sane”, make it stop being a threat to its European neighbours, including Ukraine
- Active international solidarity and support to the Belarusian:
- civil society,
- democratic political forces (strong resources for foreign affairs, recognition of the legitimacy of the representatives of democratic Belarus),
- regular people,
- victims of repressions, political prisoners.
- What do we mean by “Belarus”?
There are two representations of Belarus out there and two types of dividing lines separating them:
- Geographically: inside the country vs. in exile and in diaspora;
- the regime vs. “the new Belarus”
- Russian factor: Belarus under (de-facto?) occupation?
- “Grey zone” of GONGOs / non-political civil society;
- Time-line: Pre-2020 or “revolutionary” Belarus
Having the two types: is that good or bad? Not allowing Belarus to be “divided” vs. not allowing the regime to “capture” the full perception Belarus.
The group actively discussed the question of how Belarus should be seen and be presented:
- Should the civil society be “careful” towards the regime or ensure total resistance to the regime?
- Should Belarus be viewed as a country that is on the side of Russia in its war against Ukraine or should the regime be “it’s just the regime”;
Is there one Belarus or two Belaruses? There was no consensus on this.
The second part of the workshop focused on the question, why the international target groups should / could care about Belarus.
Which of the target groups’ interests could be used by Belarusians and other actors to keep Belarus on the international agenda?
- International governments, decision makers, international organisations
|Countries with a significant Belarusian diaspora / neighbours of Belarus||Other key countries (Germany, USA, etc.) and supranational bodies / international organisations (EU, UN, etc.)|
|– Intrinsic interest to solve security threats from regime (migrant crisis)|
– Avoid Belarusian army entering the war
– Regional stability
– Environmental security (Bialowieza, Astravets)
– Exiled Belarusians engaging in local lobbyism directed at problem solving (e.g. visa issues)
– Countries where Belarusians have a status of national minority (like Czech Republic): governments are responsible for serving the interests of their citizens of Belarusian origin
-Keep a sovereign Belarus independent from Russia
– Respect for rights of their minorities in Belarus (ethnic, linguistic and religious)
– Economy, transit.
|– Security, stability, independence of Belarus|
– The public in these countries supports human rights and democracy.
– Ensure moral integrity (or its perception internationally, by own electorate, etc.)
– Avoid: losses, abuses (incl. propaganda), reputational losses
– Input / expertise from democratic civil society needed in order to tell which organizations are GONGOs
– Avoid “precedents” that could get out of hand (certain types of “recognition”)
– Food security (Belarusian fertilizers)?
– Upholding international principles
|International donor organisations|
|– Have an agenda to help with humanitarian, ecological, social issues (support programmes) |
– Want their money to be spend effectively;
B) Civil society and general public, as well as media
- Why should they care?
- Regional security (incl. movement, tourism)
- Business ties
- Educational communities
- Topics that civic groups deal with: environment (Astravets), human rights, etc.
- National / shared heritage (national, ethnic, religious…)
- When do they (our target groups of interest) care?
- Moments of crises: border crisis (ab)using migrants, Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus, Wagner mercenaries in Belarus
- How can their attention be attracted?
- Work with relevant international NGOs (cooperate with partners who have resources, reputation, contacts, outreach, attention): influencers, national minority status
- Events: cultural, educational (festivals, awards, exhibitions…)
The group came to the consensus that Belarus needs something similar to an enhanced “brand management strategy” – whereas the term “brand management”, as coming from marketing language, was highly disputed by some members of the group.
Storytelling about Belarus should be tailored to specific audiences:
- What to connect to? Historic experiences; Culture and Attitudes; Interests
- Extraordinary / exotic topics: stories, faces, events
- What’s attractive / what’s frightening or threatening
In the final round of discussion, the group brainstormed around the question: Who can do what, when, with whom, and with what kind of resources?
- Networking (p2p, o2o)
- Using existing forums and places to present Belarus there more strongly
- EaP CS Forum
- Security conferences
- Network events of political parties
- “Unusual” formats:
- Annual convention of religious groups (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish)
- Book fairs
- Festivals (culture, science, etc.)
- Women rights conventions, civil society climate summits
- Any other relevant events
- Cultural and sports events and venues: Museums, galleries, cinemas, etc.
- Get across the messages from people (or groups, like families of political prisoners, professional groups, yard groups) inside Belarus, make their voices heard (directly or indirectly)
- Document and provide reliable information about the situation in the country (to be shared with target groups like decision makers)
- Build new alliances
- Identify potential “multipliers” of goals and ideals of democratic Belarus; think about their interest to attract their attention (influencers, public figures, actors, artists, sportsmen …)
- (Workers) unions
- Parliamentary groups
- Partners from countries in similar positions
- Global alliances on specific (or universal) topics (networks, e.g. on domestic violence)
- Know your own interests and goals!
- Stay true to your values
- Put yourself in the shoes of your target group (what do they care about?)
- Research and use existing formats, structures, resources, moments, platforms, channels – creatively
- Adapt your messaging to your audience / target group
- Cooperate! Build alliances
The workshop group was aware that the results of these discussions are in no way final, and that there will be a lot more attention to be put to these questions in the future, if “keeping Belarus on the international agenda” is to be successful and beneficial.