The Lukashenko regime has dominated every aspect of Belarusian political life for decades. Any real opposition figures that might emerge are soon forced abroad. Public demonstrations against the government are quickly dispersed and their participants jailed. In such a restrictive environment, the only non-governmental organizations that manage to survive are either very small or very skilled at disguising their activities. The only organizations in Belarus that can receive funding from the state must be outwardly supportive of the current administration.
Belarusian authorities continue to do everything in their power to fully supplant true civil society groups with these pro-government imitations, but they have never been entirely successful. Since October 2011, the operation of foreign NGOs in Belarus has been officially restricted by a set of limiting legislative amendments.
On the other hand, it would be disingenuous to say there has been any “real” civil society in Belarus, and the few organizations that do exist have typically followed a predictable pattern of behavior. They repeat the same cliches to no one in particular, attend the same circuit of conferences and seminars, and receive just enough in Western grants to guarantee their continued existence. Most people in Belarus, myself included, stopped taking them seriously long ago, believing they were just another black hole for international organizations to dump money into. As it turned out, this could not have been further from the truth. If every cloud has a silver lining, then for Belarus, coronavirus has provided an opening for civil society to blossom after years of slow and laborious tending. All those years of outside investment into Belarusian civil society seems to be finally paying off. Civil society groups in Belarus now have a chance to demonstrate how they have prepared themselves for this opportunity to show the world what they are really capable of, albeit in a form their funders likely never would have imagined. On one day last week, for example, 1,000 demonstrators got together in the Belarusian capital Minsk to oppose another term for President Alyaksandr Lukshenko in one of the biggest protests in the country’s history.
Belarus remains one of the last countries on Earth to dismiss the threat of coronavirus. President Lukashenko is certain that not a single person in the country has died from the disease. In his words, all those deceased had other illnesses that were the true cause of death, while talk of a pandemic is merely ‘hysteria.’ All the while, the country is increasingly buckling under the strain of thousands of cases, with ill-protected doctors on the frontlines barely holding things together.
In the midst of this, the government has essentially declined to address the problem. Into its place has stepped that oft-maligned civil society, which most people had written off years ago. But now they have shown they were only written off because they didn’t have a chance to spread their wings. In most countries around the world, civil society groups take over where government agencies stop. They seek to solve problems that governments cannot. In authoritarian countries like Belarus, however, there is no non-governmental space to operate in. Politics suck up all the air, and civil society is forced to operate in a very small space on the edges of society. This has been the case in Belarus for nearly three decades. What we are seeing now, however, is the government abdicating its responsibility to address the spread of coronavirus, freeing up a political space for civil society to occupy. And occupy it they have, and in a most admirable way. Almost every day, they accomplish another remarkable feat without breaking a sweat, in a rhythm that has come to seem natural.
One example is the media nonprofit ‘Imena’ (‘Names’). Under normal circumstances, Imena’s main activities are collecting financial aid for vulnerable groups and raising awareness of social issues. In the current crisis, they have refocused their efforts. Now they collect protective equipment for social workers, the elderly, and teachers, and help hospitals to recruit volunteers.
Another group is the new #ByCovid19 initiative. This movement, established by experienced activists, is coordinating donations to medical facilities via their simple yet effective website. Doctors and physicians can request the supplies they need and where they need them, while individuals can volunteer to deliver supplies, help make homemade masks, donate money, and do a range of other services. The group has already collected over 300,000 rubles (more than $120,000).
In this same vein is the longstanding ‘Tell the Truth’ (Говори правду) movement. Tell the Truth has been organizing PPE assembly across the country and delivering free meals to doctors working in Minsk, Gomel, Rechitsa and Mozyr. They’ve also pushed back against the authorities: One petition to introduce a national quarantine has gathered over 18,000 signatures so far, while another calls for more honest government data on the epidemic and for doctors to be able to speak freely on the matter without fear of retribution. It’s really quite incredible that such a movement is required in order for medical personnel to avoid losing their jobs in a time like this, but such is the absurdity of the situation surrounding COVID-19 in Belarus.
All of the above are genuine grassroots campaigns, not just a bit of PR to satisfy donors. And these are just a fraction of the citizen initiatives being organized across Belarus.
To everyone’s surprise, Belarus’s civil society - after 26 years of persecution and authoritarian rule - has risen to the occasion. The professionalism and adaptiveness displayed by many of these organizations in responding to the pandemic, in the absence of government action, compares favorably to their counterparts in liberal Western societies.
This did not appear out of thin air. It was the result of years of slow progress, during which local activists and organizations like NDI, NED, IRI, USAID, Amnesty International honed their skills, made connections, and learned to work effectively with one another. For a long time, it seemed to many like just another waste of money, grant funding disappearing without results. But when push came to shove, and Belarus’s civil society found itself faced with COVID-19, the country’s greatest challenge in a generation, it rose admirably and effectively.