Minsk Forum ХХ
In 2022, four Belarus-oriented meetings were successfully held as part of Minsk Forum XX:
In July, a discussion on civil society, business, and education in exile was organised in Lithuania.
In September, geopolitics and new competition systems were discussed in Poland.
In October, the focus of discussions was on EU-Belarus relations at an event in Belgium.
The final meeting in Germany highlighted the country’s role in the current war, the economic situation in Belarus, and the self-identity of Belarusians.
The forum participants included people from politics, economy, civil society, activism and media from Belarus, Germany and other EU countries.
Despite the specific subject matter of each meeting, some topics flowed smoothly from one discussion to another, regardless of the formal title of a panel or roundtable discussion. It is only coefficiently, rather than separately, that the different events define the current sociopolitical situation in Belarus. The issues discussed at the Forum’s events ranged from the Nobel Prize awarded to Ales Bialiatski to the threat of nuclear war to the mysterious death of the former Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei to the life-threatening health condition of Maria Kalesnikava to the possibility of military mobilisation in Belarus and difficulties with getting visas and opening bank accounts faced be Belarusians abroad.
Most of the videos from the Forum are available on the german-belarusian society’s YouTube channel.
Repressions against dissidents continue
According to the Viasna Human Rights Centre, as of 23 December 2022, 1440 people are recognised as political prisoners in Belarus. This repression is an attempt by Lukashenka and his team to keep power and terrorise those who resist the regime. (see author’s note 1)
During the Minsk Forum in Berlin Dr. Nils Schmid, MdB SPD, Member of the German Parliament, shattered the common illusion about political prisoners and the possibility of their immediate release in exchange for some bonuses for Lukashenka: “Political prisoners in Belarus are not a bargaining tool anymore. Today, we cannot enter into a dialogue with Lukashenka because of his support for Russia in the war”. Despite the obvious annoyance, if not a disappointment, that this statement may cause for many Belarusians, one cannot deny the practical effect of these words, namely, that it has now become clear that one is left to one’s own resources. The need to develop networks of solidarity and mutual support, to find new ways to keep political prisoners at the centre of attention is obvious to many people who are concerned about Belarus. (see author’s note 2)
Civil society in ruins
As the repressions of the last two and a half years have shown, the Belarusan state still perceives civil society organizations (CSOs) as enemies, rather than allies. CSOs are forcibly shut down — as of late November 2022, according to the monitoring conducted by Lawtrend and the Office of European Expertise and Communication operating in exile, some 700 non-commercial organisations are in the process of forced liquidation, including due to petitions for forced liquidation filed with courts, or forcibly removed from the Unified State Register of Legal Entities and Individual Entrepreneurs. (see author’s note 3)
However, some people do not share the opinion that Belarusan civil society inside Belarus has been completely destroyed. Thus, during the Vilnius event of the Minsk Forum, the leader of the Honest People initiative group, Alena Zhyvaglod, disagreed with the mainstream rhetoric about the complete extinction of Belarusian civil society inside the country and pointed out the following important problems in its activity:
- Lack of communication with the authorities that still show no interest in solving simple everyday issues;
- Lack of financial transparency in internal operations;
- Difficulty in scaling up due to increasing risks (communities exist internally, while organisations operate externally).
Be that as it may, there is no practical difference between both framings for ordinary residents of Belarus — whether CSOs are “completely” or “almost completely” destroyed, they still have nowhere to go in situations of domestic violence, rights violations, or even to report injured birds or pitted roads.
Economics: “Bad, but much
better than expected”
The topic of economic relations and development was one of the key topics at the July meeting of the Minsk Forum in Vilnius and the December meeting in Berlin. The discussions were touching upon both the economic situation in Belarus and the difficulties of business in exile.
As for the situation inside Belarus, according to the statements of Robert Kirchner, Senior Advisor and Deputy Team Leader at the German Economic Team, stagnation is obvious: the GDP dropped by 4.7%, just like in the 1990s. The only two productive sectors at the moment are agriculture and the IT industry. The growth in the latter has significantly slowed down and is not comparable to the pre-2020 numbers. Belarus is hopelessly losing — or has already lost — its IT-country status. The price freeze imposed by Lukashenka certainly has its short-term positive effect, but it is not a long-term solution: store shelves are empty and exports only increase with Russia.
Other qualitative trends, according to the analysis of Dr Lev Lvovskiy, Research Fellow in BEROC, are as follows:
- The state attempts to introduce and increase mini-taxes — for example, for picking mushrooms, collecting data, or crossing the border. At the same time, there is no increase in the general big taxes — Lukashenka tries to avoid it as much as he can.
- Economic policy is characterised by instability — people do not feel optimistic about the future, and they do not buy things. Business people are sceptical: they observe high inflation and are not sure about tomorrow, because the rules of the game are constantly changing and the prospective regulations of the National Bank, banks that give loans, and other major financial operators are not clear.
- The oil business, which faced a critical situation back in April-May, has somewhat recovered, most likely due to the support of Russia. Potash is only exported to China. At the same time, according to opinion polls — and this is what Dr Lvovskiy considers an unexpected result — people say that they are fine with the current economic situation because they expected a complete collapse, but the failure was only partial.
The IT sector, the strongest in the country, became such not least due to minimal government intervention in its activities. However, it did not last long. According to the figures provided by Dr Lev Lvovskiy, about 11,000 IT specialists left the country last year, which amounts to about 7-10% of the total number of those employed in this sphere.
Tania Marinich, the founder and CEO at Imaguru Startup Hub, considers that the most common problems faced by startups in relocation are: regularisation of stay (visas, stay permits for family members, medical insurance); reputation: partners refuse to cooperate with Belarusian nationals, opening a bank account is problematic, access to acceleration programs is denied, etc.; and building new ecosystems. It is also important to note that different countries created different conditions for the development of relocated Belarusian IT businesses: for example, Poland provides the most favourable conditions and, according to expert estimates, hosted about 80% of the total number of relocated companies, while Germany is only happy to accept top-qualified specialists with high salaries — the economy is not interested in “middles” and “juniors”.
Speaking about economic analysis and projections, it is important to note that the Belarusian state conceals a huge part of information. Researchers do not possess the whole set of data, their initial data set is limited in many respects. The only thing we can say for sure is that the state tries to feed positive news to the population and convince people that the situation is controlled, stable and even improving.
Russia’s military aggression
and its impact on Belarus
Putin’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine has undoubtedly affected Belarus’ position in the international arena. During the Brussels meetings Petras Auštrevičius from Renew Europe Group said, that previously, Lukashenka’s aggression was mostly “domestic” and manifested in repressions against his own citizens, but in the last year, it has expanded to the neighbouring countries — Ukraine, bombed from the Belarusian territory, and Poland, invaded by migrants who are used by Lukashenka as a hybrid weapon.
The EU is certainly responding to what is happening with sanctions packages. During the Minsk Forum event in Berlin Yulia Miadzvetskaya, a doctoral researcher at the University of Tübingen, called the last package of sanctions a “sanctions mini-revolution”. The listing criteria have recently been updated, and the EU finally began to include those who support Russian aggression. While noting the positive effect of these sanctions in terms of putting economic pressure on the regime, Ms Miadzvetskaya believes that the EU will have to work hard to calibrate the sanctions to distinguish between ordinary Belarusian citizens who are primarily affected by the sanctions and those who permanently support and have close business affiliations with the authoritarian regime. Differentiation between sanctions against Belarus and Russia is also a must, as many of them are now overlapping.
By enabling Russia to launch its missiles against Ukraine from Belarusian territory, Lukashenka is dragging the country into war and making it an even bigger pariah on the world political scene, which only aggravates the deplorable state of the economy that is struggling to survive — largely thanks to the monetary injections from Russia and preferential prices of energy resources. Should Ukraine win the war, all possibilities for the current government of Belarus to somewhat improve its political image will vanish — the country is likely to face an even bigger crisis. Many people have already chosen to leave, and researchers say the reasons for this departure are a mix of politics and economy.
Tsikhanouskaya’s Cabinet and other structures of democratic Belarus
Discussions about the creation of the Cabinet of Ministers did not subside during the first meeting of the Minsk Forum in Vilnius in July this year and were connected, among other things, with the II Forum of the Democratic Forces of Belarus held by the Tsepkalo family, which preceded the Tsikhanouskaya conference. It is easy to get confused by many conferences, especially if one does not follow the development of the Belarusan democratic society and is only aware of their existence. (see author’s note 4) The holding of these two conferences highlighted the existence of at least two opposing camps. “Everyone is discussing public figures rather than meanings — it sounds scary”, Ms Zhyvaglod stated in Vilnius. Andrej Stryzhak supported Zhyvaglod’s point on the need to unite based on ideas, rather than adherence to public figures: “We are now at a point where we can either split up and have things go back to the usual way or come to an agreement”. To the question of Jakob Wöllenstein, head of the Belarus office of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, who moderated the panel, as to what prevents members of the opposition from reaching a consensus, Stryzhak replied that it is not the lack of communication or the need to create new communication platforms, but rather the lack of interaction and the common value base that can unite Belarusians and civil society. (see author’s note 5)
During the Brussels meetings of the Minsk Forum, Andrius Kubilius, a member of the European Parliament and Christian Democrat, shared his vision of how Belarusian democratic forces could work more effectively to achieve qualitative changes. He suggested looking at the crisis as an opportunity because the victory of Ukraine in this war can bring drastic positive changes to the whole region. He believes it is natural that the focus of attention has shifted from Belarus to other parts of the world and suggests accepting it as a given, instead of complaining or being offended that Belarus now gets little attention in the European political arena. The parliamentarian also expressed doubts that the Belarusian opposition will be able to overthrow Lukashenka in the short term but urged it to promote two political messages: to unambiguously articulate and show full support to the Ukrainian people in the war against imperial Russia and to make it clear that after the victory of democratic forces, Belarus will take the path of European integration, following the example of Georgia and Moldova.
Summing up, 2022 marked a new turn in the political crisis in Belarus. How events will develop in the future depends, first of all, on the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine, rather than on Lukashenka’s actions or the solidarity of the Belarusan democratic forces that oppose him. The operation of civil society organisations inside the country has become almost impossible — any activity carries the potential danger of harsh repression. The onset of economic collapse has been restrained by Russia’s injections into the Belarusian economy, but it is unclear how long this will last. Lukashenka is not sending Belarusian troops to Ukraine due to the low popularity of this war among the population — Belarusians do not want to fight, but there is a possibility that he will do so if Putin insists.
Germany continues to assist the Belarusian struggle for democracy in various ways: democratic forces and civil society structures receive support for their activities, the German Embassy still works in Minsk and provides an opportunity to apply for visas — both humanitarian and Schengen ones; German embassies in other non-European countries readily accept applications for humanitarian visas from Belarusians. However, one should not count on more: the German government does not intend to negotiate the release of political prisoners with Lukashenka, and entry on employment visas will not be facilitated shortly either, not least because of the large influx of refugees from Ukraine who also want to take vacant jobs.
As for the efforts of the Belarusian democratic forces, the EU in general and Germany in particular, in return for their financial support, expect a clearer political agenda, where an important part is assigned to supporting Ukraine’s fight against imperial Russia. However, due to the ever-present internal conflicts, as well as the inability to directly influence the daily life of Belarusians who live inside the country, there is a risk that these forces will lose much of their support among the population and become marginalised — therefore, the whole hard-won road to freedom will have to start from scratch one day.
Explanatory notes from the author
- The reasons why people end up in prison vary. One can be arrested for professional activities, following undesirable Internet channels, leaving an insulting emoji in a comment, “liking” or sharing media articles, a “wrong” pattern on socks, or white and red ribbons in the hair… Some of these cases seem ridiculous if we disregard the monstrous conditions in which prisoners are held: psychological pressure, lack of medical care, correspondence bans, confinement in punishment cells, and deprivation of walks and care packages. It is probably easier to get into prison now than at any other time in the modern history of Belarus, which is why many people decide to leave Belarus, including those who have done so preventively. Some people have already finished their sentences passed in 2020 and are released, such as the ex-prisoners in the “student case”. Some choose to “escape” the home confinement restrictions and continue their lives as free people abroad — like Volha Harbunova, the former head of a shelter for female survivors of domestic violence. Others received huge sentences of 10, 15, or 20 years of imprisonment, and while previously the public discourse was dominated by statements that “political prisoners won’t stay in prison that long”, scepticism has now set it regarding this issue. Will they, after all?
- Human rights defenders, including Nobel laureate Ales Bialiatski, are still held in pre-trial detention facilities and prisons in Belarus. The list of extremist organisations, media outlets, chats or even social media pages keeps growing — the state retaliates violently, even for unwanted likes or subscriptions. CSO activity inside the country is brutally suppressed. This regards both holding huge human rights festivals or promoting LGBTIQ+ freedoms and simple money transfers to support the activities of action groups that the Belarusian regime condemns, such as BYPOL, BYSOL, or the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Therefore, the organisations have mostly moved abroad — to Lithuania, Poland, Georgia, and other countries.
- Independent media continue to cover different aspects of political prisoners’ life (and, unfortunately, death); civic activists come up with various creative projects, such as Politzek or Palitvyazynka; rehabilitation programs emerge for former political prisoners, among other things. Despite all these measures, it is worth admitting that the range for possible action is quite narrow, and the number of prisoners is constantly growing, as is the exhaustion of those who provide such support. It is increasingly common to hear that the best way to take care of your loved ones is to leave Belarus.
- Several significant events happened in 2022, with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her team at the centre. Thus, as early as February 24, Ms Tsikhanouskaya announced the need to create a Transitional Cabinet as the National Authority of Belarus in connection with Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine and the threat to the national security of Belarus. The main goals of this collective executive body were to be as follows:
- Protecting the independence and sovereignty of Belarus, representing the national interests of Belarus, and carrying out the de facto de-occupation of Belarus;
- Restoring constitutional legality and the rule of law;
- Designing and implementing measures to stop illegal retention of power, ensuring the transit of power from dictatorship to democracy, and creating conditions for fair and free elections;
- Developing and implementing the decisions necessary to achieve democratic changes in Belarus.
The direct lineup of this body was listed at the “New Belarus” conference, which was held on August 8 in Vilnius. The main criticism directed against the Transitional Cabinet, or, put differently, the main theme of the discussions unfolding around the Cabinet, was the disproportionate gender composition of the Cabinet and the strengthening of the militarist agenda and the departure from the discourse of peaceful non-violent protest that was primarily promoted by the National Defense and Security Representative Valery Sakhashchyk.
- The idea of reorganising the Coordination Council, perhaps, aimed at analysing and developing — if not creating — the very interaction and value base. The Council was formed on 20 August 2020 at the initiative of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to facilitate the process of overcoming the political crisis and ensuring concert in society. On 9 August 2022, at the “New Belarus” conference in Vilnius, the Coordination Council decided to reorganise its activities within the New Configuration of Democratic Forces, and this autumn, it called for applications for a new Council. As of 22 December 2022, the results of this reorganisation are not publicly available.