Belarusian civil society offers a “new old” strategy of cooperation with the EU
The proposed strategy envisages assistance to the civil society and isolation of the Belarusian authorities and its implementation will entail great difficulties. In autumn the authorities toughened legislation on foreign assistance for civil society allowing for effective neutralization of such assistance, and therefore reducing its effectiveness.
On 7 December an expert forum “Transforming Belarus: Ways Ahead” was held in Brussels with the support of a scientific center “Carnegie Europe”, “Office for a Democratic Belarus” and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.
A Senior Researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs Arkady Moshes formulated the problem the most clearly.
He believes that the policies of the EU and Russia towards Belarus are fully asymmetric, since the EU outlines its policy as an opportunity and Russia as a duty. Given Belarus is a contested zone of influence all players should openly identify their interests in the geopolitical game, as Russia does. The shortcoming of the EU foreign policy towards Belarus is that it has not acknowledged its participation in the game, he said.
Economic experts present at the Forum were unanimous that in November Belarus had received enough funds from Russia to keep going for a short while (at the most favorable conditions, for one and a half years). The pressing issue of survival of the Belarusian economic model will return on the agenda and Belarus will seek for support from abroad again. Therefore, experts emphasized the importance of maintaining of relations with the EU to the possible extent.
However, there were neither new, nor clear proposals about what EU policy towards Belarus should be. Everyone agreed that currently the most effective policy of the EU would be intensification of non-political cooperation, rather than expansion of the economic sanctions, for instance, the EU could improve cooperation with civil society, facilitate removal of visa barriers and provide technical assistance in carrying out reforms that will mitigate the impact of the crisis for the population. Experts also emphasized the importance of the development of a coherent and comprehensive Belarus-EU communication strategy in order to increase public awareness of the benefits of the European choice.
However, in recent months, the Belarusian authorities have adopted a number of legislative amendments, which significantly increase the risk of being persecuted for such cooperation (in particular, a criminal liability has been introduced for violation of the rules of use of foreign technical assistance). In turn, the case of a Human Rights Defender A. Bialiatski demonstrated not only the willingness of the authorities to punish NGO activists severely, but also showed that they can hand out a sentence based on information received from abroad (Bialiatski was found guilty of tax evasion from funds held in his accounts in Lithuania).
Therefore technical assistance to Belarusian non-governmental organizations today is extremely difficult to implement. As well, the timing for the implementation of a communication strategy about the advantages of the European choice for Belarus is also not particularly good. The debt crisis in a number of countries of the Euro zone is actively used by the Belarusian state propaganda as a convincing argument against the “European choice” for Belarus. Finally, previous policy of the EU with regard to Belarus basically coincided with the proposals of the Forum, however it had no visible outcomes.
The Belarusian authorities are attempting to strengthen some elements of the ‘Soviet’ education to ensure the ideological loyalty of new generations to the state. Most likely, one of the major tasks of the educational reform is to prevent growing discontent with the existing education system among the population. The educational reform aims to strengthen centralisation and adjust the system to the needs of the public sector.
In Belarus, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection and the Ministry of Economy would determine the university enrolment figures.
The Belarusian authorities do not seem to have a long-term vision of the educational reform. The education system changes depending on who leads the Education Ministry and has access to President Lukashenka. For instance, former head of pro-government communist party and Education Minister Igor Karpenko reintroduced some "Soviet" elements to the school and strengthened ideological components along with the de-politicisation of the curricula. Current generation of students and youth have not spoken against the authorities, unlike previous generations raised during the Gorbachev thaw and socio-political transformations of the 1990s.
In addition, the Belarusian authorities are attempting to adopt measures aiming to prevent discontent among the population with the Belarusian education system. The authorities are mobilizing those nostalgic for the USSR and propose to return to 5-marks grading system, school uniforms and reduced curriculum. The Belarusian leadership also aims to blur the growing social stratification in society and to relax social tension due to the growing income gap between the richest and poorest.
Should the authorities adopt plans to reduce university enrolment, they would re-certify universities in order to close some of them and would reduce competition from private educational institutions. The Belarusian leadership is attempting to adjust the education system to the needs of the real economy, to reduce pressure on the labour market and to cut government spending on higher education for specialists low in demand by replacing them with graduates of secondary vocational schools requiring less time to train.