"Only Developed Civil Society Can Drive Change" - Report on Belarus by Ales Bialiatski

Ales Bialiatski at CEU; Photo: CEU/Daniel Vegel

“The fate of a civil activist is to be imprisoned in Belarus,” said Ales Bialiatski, vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights, in his talk at CEU on May 11. Hosted by CEU’s Center for EU Enlargement Studies (CENS), the event was part of the Frontiers of Democracy series.

The lecture, entitled Human rights in Belarus: Has Minsk changed?, examined the changing role of Belarus, often referred as "Europe's last dictatorship” with the participation of Miklos Haraszti, United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus and director of research on human rights at CENS, Director of CENS Peter Balazs, and CEU’s Provost and Pro-Rector Liviu Matei.

In their opening remarks Matei and Balazs explained the rising significance of Belarus as that of a country “stalled in totalitarianism” yet a “reference for potential peace arrangement” in Ukraine. Belarus was the first dictatorship after the fall of communism not the last, Haraszti added. President Lukashenka gained popularity in the early ‘90s and was democratically elected in 1994. He then swapped democratic rule for an authoritative style of government, and thus Belarus became the “model of elective dictatorship, turning later even elections into mockery,” he explained.

 Bialiatski, who founded the Viasna Human Rights Centre of Belarus in 1996 to provide financial and legal assistance to political prisoners and their families, was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison on trumped-up criminal charges in 2011. Thanks to an international campaign, he was released a year early. “It’s the normal fate of a civil activist to be imprisoned in Belarus,” he says, “what’s not normal is an early release.” In the past 20 years, more than 200 activists were tried and sentenced for criminal offences. Currently, there are six political prisoners in Belarus who have already spent five years behind bars. Leading up to the general elections in November 2015, authorities use the possibility of imprisonment of activists as a deterrent.

Lukashenka’s Belarus might be the first post-Soviet dictatorship in Europe, but it is not the only one, Bialiatski notes. There are 100 political prisoners in custody in Azerbaijan compared to the six in Belarus. In 2003, when nearly 4000 civil society organizations were liquidated in Belarus, Azeri human rights activists wore t-shirts demanding “Freedom to Ales Bialiatski” at demonstrations, he recalls. “Now is my turn to wear a t-shirt that says “Freedom for my Azeri colleagues.” 

Bialiatski finds the changing borders within Europe and Russia’s revanchist politics worrying. Five years ago in Belarus, human rights were under attack. “Now we have to fear for the independence of the country.” An outsider might think that nothing has changed in Belarus in the past 50 years, as streets still bear the names of Lenin and Marx. If one goes deeper, they will see changes happening, he says.

The system in Belarus has not changed, Bialiatski says in response to the title of the event. Lukashenka is trying to exploit the tensions created by Russian interventions in the region to secure his rule both domestically and internationally, by presenting his oppression of human rights as the only guarantee of stability.

Belarusian society is divided in its visions. Older generations still have Soviet values, they crave strong leadership and do not understand the concept of democracy. Younger generations have different ideas but cannot realize them in a state-controlled environment. “We understand that steps need to be taken, but no one can tell the future." What happens after a revolution? Only a normally developed civil society can bring about meaningful change, he believes. “We’re building such a society, but no one knows when the change will come.”

 The report was first published on CEU's website.