Vilnius – Warsaw – Brussels – Berlin:
The general context of 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.
In 2023, Minsk Forum successfully took place in four capitals of Europe: Vilnius, Warsaw, Brussels and Berlin. For the 21st time the representatives of Belarusian civil society gathered in different places around the continent, to discuss current challenges and the ways to address them. The general context of 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.
Due to the ongoing repressions in Belarus, this year it was decided to focus on the practical potential of the Forum. Thus, the new format included four working sessions / workshops, with the possibility of having Belarusian, Russian, and English as working languages. During the workshops, the participants were invited into think tank settings to work out suggestions on vibrant issues in their area of expertise.
was introduced in Vilnius and Warsaw. In September and October accordingly the representatives of the civil society met to discuss such topics as
- “Belarusian identity in the 21st century”
- “Keeping Belarus on the agenda”
- “Belarus and Russia’s war against Ukraine”
- “Gender and queer rights aspects in the Belarusian context”.
Anastasiya Khamiankova (Imaguru Startup HUB) and Jakob Wöllenstein (KAS Belarus) facilitated the working process in Vilnius, Kamil Kłysiński (Centre for Eastern Studies) and Julia Mickiewicz (Fem Group of the Coordination Council) joined as facilitators in Warsaw. Reports on the workshops’ outcomes are available on our website, both in English and German.
took place in November, in the premises of the Mission of Democratic Belarus. During the first part of the day collective work was facilitated by Palina Brodik (Free Belarus Center), and the final meeting with Parliamentarians was moderated by Alena Aharelysheva (Fem Group of the Coordination Council).
Participants focused on civil society, media, gender, politics, and culture. They emphasized the need to overcome the split between Belarusians inside and outside the country and highlighted the cultural component of civil society as essential for its implementation within Belarus. The media group discussed strategies to overcome competition, address funding issues, and engage with Big Tech. The meeting with European parliamentarians emphasized the need to position Belarus as an independent country, not a vestige of the Soviet Union, urging the EU to recognize Belarus’s potential for democratic transformation.
Belarusians living across the globe gathered to discuss pressing challenges which Belarusian civil society is facing under the dictatorship of Lukashenka and the hybrid occupation of the country. The meeting, held at Europäische Akademie Berlin, adopted a format inspired by the history of the Catholic church’s conclave. Aleś Čajčyc (German-Belarusian Society) and Ina Valitskaya (RAZAM e.V.) facilitated the work during these three days in December.
The exchanges among participants, drawn from a variety of backgrounds and professional domains, presented both challenges and fruitful outcomes. Numerous individuals shared their personal experiences and opinions, underscoring the imperative for open and honest dialogue concerning these crucial issues. Regarding the facilitation methods different techniques were employed, for example:
- design-thinking, encouraging participants to step into the shoes of their target audience or beneficiaries;
- breaking down the question in the group;
- breaking down the topic in different working groups;
- brainstorming sessions, silent debates;
- world cafe.
When speaking about Belarus in 2023, one must acknowledge today’s representations of the county, which include two types of dividing lines separating them:
- Geographical: inside the country vs. in exile and in diaspora;
- Political: the regime vs. “the new Belarus”.
Though it makes concrete planning of actions more complicated, understanding this fragmentation of society is necessary for detailed analysis of the current socio-economic and political situation. And on the question which with every year after 2020 becomes more obvious, – Is there one Belarus or two Belaruses? – there was no consensus.
under the theme “Raising the Belarusian Voice in Europe”, marked the culmination of a series of events following working sessions in Vilnius and Warsaw and meetings with European parliamentarians in Brussels. Despite the challenges posed by the Lukashenko regime, the Forum emphasized the commitment to maintaining the Minsk Forum’s identity and returning to Belarus in the future.
Various panels addressed critical issues, including political developments, economic conditions, and the role of civil society. Discussions highlighted the need for international collaboration to support political prisoners, counteract information warfare, and preserve Belarusian culture. The conference underscored Germany’s ongoing support for Belarusians striving for a free and independent Belarus integrated into Europe. The detailed report can be found on < our website >, and the video streams are available on our youtube-channel.
The most relevant parts of the democratic Belarusian context today:
- Though according to Chatham House research most Belarusians do not support Russian military aggression or Lukashenka’s regime, Belarusians abroad might be struggling to convince foreign authorities in their protest against either the regime or the war in Ukraine;
- Post-2020 Belarusian democratic forces gained their legitimacy, and now it might be the time for structural development and European integration efforts;
- There is a need of step-by-step strategy for resolution “In support of a democratic Belarus in the European family” implementation;
During the meetings in Berlin the problem of political prisoners was considered one of the most urgent ones. Their number is only growing, and currently at least 1,484 political prisoners are being held in Belarusian prisons in appalling conditions. It should be considered a humanitarian catastrophe in the center of Europe.
1) Problem of the release of political prisoners
One of the significant problems in the release of political prisoners is that there is still no special group in the EU working on this issue. Political prisoners in the context of Belarus should be considered as hostages of the regime. Among the propositions of participants were:
- divide of political prisoners according to different lists (humanitarian, etc.) for step-by-step release (a certain European country can undertake moderation);
- “shuttle diplomacy” with personal guarantees (Merkel – Khodorkovsky example);
- introduction and removal of sanctions, the “carrot and sticks” system;
- involvement of diaspora, NGO, media company;
- exchange of hostages / prisoners between Belarus and other countries;
- a call to action for civil society, democratic structures, and EU countries to initiate the development and adoption of a resolution in the European Parliament focusing on the support of political prisoners. This resolution would include key demands:
a) Demands for release: Immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners who have been unjustly detained for their activism and dissent.
b) Improving detention conditions: Advocating for improved conditions of detention, addressing issues related to human rights violations, and ensuring prisoners’ access to fair legal proceedings.
c) Future and release conversations: Initiate dialogues about the future of political prisoners and the potential for their release, ensuring that their rights are respected and upheld.
2) Support and rehabilitation of political prisoners at large
It is necessary to problematize the rehabilitation of former political prisoners, since the release of them doesn’t only mean a victory, but also certain challenges ahead. Today, according to the data of the social policy representative of the United Transitional Cabinet, we already have about 1,400 “former” political prisoners. The number of existing rehabilitation and resocialization programs will soon be insufficient.
An important matter in this regard is the expansion of guidelines on how to support political prisoners from abroad. The necessary information should be adapted for different European countries, e.g. Solidarity without borders: a guide on supporting political prisoners from abroad.
Though the situation of former political prisoners who remain in Belarus and who have gone abroad should be considered separately, as their needs are different, for both former political prisoners in Belarus and outside the country medical, psychological and financial help is an absolute necessity. Also, after release, people need legal advice, employment or study, which can be a problem in Belarus. The situation with mentoring for political prisoners, which is difficult to implement domestically, is very difficult. It is necessary to systematize support for political prisoners who have been released (with or without serving their sentence).
The topic was mainly discussed during the workshop session in Warsaw, though it was impossible to avoid the topic during other Minsk Forum events. The main ideas proposed by the participants are:
- There is a need for a Belarus-centric agenda in public discourse, highlighting the hybrid occupation of Belarus by Russia and advocating for a nuanced differentiation of responsibility.
- The key message should be that Belarus is not an aggressor state; Belarusian civil society should be separated from the Lukashenka’s regime in media narratives. Public discourse should consistently use wording that distinguishes between these entities. It is essential for Belarusians, when assessing the role of Belarus in the present war, to balance self-criticism with appeals to the historical experiences of other nations facing authoritarian regimes. Belarusian mass media should also emphasise public manifestations of solidarity of the Belarusian people with Ukraine.
- Individual and targeted sanctions on regime officials should be introduced. The imposition of sanctions requires taking into account a large number of factors in order not to isolate Belarus and complicate the life of the «ordinary citizens» of the country.
- Long-term and stable financial support for Belarusian civil initiatives abroad, recognizing the challenges faced by Belarusians who have left the country, should be implemented.
The key take-aways on the topic of civil society during the events of Minsk Forum XXI:
- There is a 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.
- One of the fundamental ideas, brought up during Minsk Forum XXI is that the change in Belarus will most likely commence from within the country itself. Despite the challenges and oppression, thousands of activists continue their struggle against the authoritarian regime within Belarus.
- There is a need for systematic and flexible support to be provided to unregistered NGOs and democratic activist groups within Belarus.
- There is a need to establish an institution to aggregate the needs of socially vulnerable groups in Belarus.
should be non-negotiable components of Belarus’s path toward democracy and human rights. Concerted effort should be directed by Belarusian society, democratic forces, and independent media to elevate these issues to their rightful place on the agenda. Recommendations regarding potential methods and tools for reshaping the prevailing status quo:
- In conferences such as the Minsk Forum that pertain to the themes of the future of Belarus and transformative democratic changes within it, it is deemed imperative to incorporate gender as an imminent value and a feminist perspective as a common framework across various domains, including politics, social issues, national revival, culture, ecology, economics, and others. There also should be a gender balance in the composition of the participants.
- More extensive discussion on the broader human rights agenda, encompassing the rights of gender and other minority groups, is advocated for among political figures, representatives of civil society, and within the media.
- In the media, it is recommended to present more positive instances that counter arguments such as “now is not the time.” Moreover, media personalities and opinion leaders who are willing to challenge gender and sexist stereotypes should be invited.
- It is of paramount importance to adopt an inclusive, compassionate, and unified approach among democratic Belarusian politicians.
The question of Belarusian identity in the 21st century, in times of discrimination and criminalisation of the Belarusian language in the country, and the spread of Russian colonial power is of crucial importance. Currently, over 140 cultural figures are imprisoned, with sentences of up to 9 years each. The realm of culture is distinctly targeted in Belarus’s internal policy, marked by severe repression. 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.
Two main areas of thought, participants paid their attention to:
- Discrimination of the Belarusian language and culture within Belarus, and the ways to preserve it;
- Belarusian nation-building and identity: how culture and mindset can be revitalized in Belarus, and preserved abroad.
Two key messages for Belarusian culture media-representation formulated during Minsk Forum XXI are:
- “Protect Belarusian – protect European”: by helping Belarus European countries are preventing the spread of “Russian world”;
- Belarus is not “entering” Europe but “returning” to Europe: Belarusians should formulate positive messages.
Results of the work include following ideas / propositions:
- the emphasis on solving the problems of Belarusians as a whole, rather than focusing solely on individual activist agendas;
- innovative ideas, including content formats both for Belarusians inside the country and living abroad; they should promote Belarusian culture, history, and achievements while avoiding political topics;
- the diversification of financial and decision-making, there is a huge demand inside and outside the country, as well as online;
- reappropriating the traditional festivals for wider distribution (e.g. Dažynki);
- creating Belarusian-language educational content for children;
- leveraging media space to promote the Belarusian narrative;
- preserving Belarusian identity among those abroad;
- supporting cultural experts and creators;
- working on diversified and stable funding, as well as the institutionalization of Belarusian culture.
During the meetings in four European cities the representatives of civil society actively discussed how Belarus should be seen and be presented through Belarusian and international media-channels. Keeping Belarus on the international agenda is even harder during the Russian-Ukrainian war, Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other catastrophes of today. Nevertheless, among the possible solutions are exploring target groups, their interests, and strategies for international attention, emphasizing tailored storytelling and brand management. Recommendations to the media outlets include creative engagement formats, networking, and building alliances.
Emphasizing the importance of combating propaganda and promoting Belarusians’ own agenda, participants of Minsk Forum XXI suggested the following as important steps towards media stability:
- creating and maintaining Belarusian-centric discourse;
- creating and supporting initiatives to inform Belarus in different countries (on site);
- supporting grassroots media-initiatives, both inside and outside the country;
- creating entertaining and / or non-politisiced content;
- studying Belarusian media consumption;
- launching a Board of Trustees in media;
- supporting Belarusian Center for Strategic Communications, which is being under development by the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, namely the Representation on National Revival;
- supporting educational programs for journalists and other media-workers;
- working on stable funding for media;
- formulating 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;
- lobbying for the interests of Belarusian independent media in BigTech.
During Minsk Forum XXI some Belarusians came to the consensus that Belarus needs something similar to an enhanced “brand management strategy”, though the term “brand management”, as coming from marketing language, can be highly disputed. Storytelling about Belarus should also be tailored to specific audiences.
On the website you may also find the working papers of Dr. Hanna Vasilevich (“Belarus in the context of the war in Ukraine – discussion paper”), and Anatol Fedarau (“On the problem of political prisoners and the ways of its solution”).