Photo: archer10(Dennis) (CC-SA)
Many Soviet values still remain in Belarus. Active volunteering contracts the power of the state - it empowers people and brings them together to think independently. 

In democratic countries volunteering is rarely thought of as a 'freedom'. As governments across Europe rely more on the third sector, volunteering can be seen as a burden, weighed down by the responsibility of filling the gaps in the state's provision for healthcare, the arts, and education. In Belarus, volunteering takes on a whole new meaning.

E&M recently met a man called Pavel, whose surname we cannot use for security reasons. As a journalist and translator in his native Belarus, he has experienced first-hand the brutality that awaits those who challenge President Lukashenko’s regime, as in the case of the post-election protests in December 2010. In the midst of our discussion of excessive bureaucracy and the lack of funding in the third sector across Europe, he simply pointed out, "the opportunity to volunteer is a luxury in Belarus."

NGOs have difficulty in staying "legal"

Article 35 of the republic's constitution proclaims that everyone has the right to freedom of association. However, whilst the constitution and corresponding laws can give the impression of complying with the European Convention on Human Rights, the creation and running of voluntary organisations are also governed by presidential decrees, which have greater legal force than laws. These ordinances from Lukashenko himself are often significant deviations; a presidential decree in January 1999, for example, established a much stricter way of registering volunteers than that required by law, and meant that existing organisations had to re-register. In practice this resulted in hundreds of groups being unable to continue their work, and many more never starting at all.

From the forced liquidation of several dozens of organisations in the spring of 2003 to the further complication of the registration procedure in May 2009, it has become progressively harder to establish or maintain a 'legal' volunteer group. For over a decade now, the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus (BELNGO) has been monitoring the condition of civic society in the country and has collected hundreds of examples of the barriers facing activists and volunteers. Their account makes for a disheartening read. One unit of a political association in the city of Hrodna, for instance, was denied registration in 2009 because the documents it submitted were "printed in the 'wrong' font." BELNGO says that the legislation covering these refusals is "formulated so vaguely" that the Ministry of Justice can deny "practically anyone … with ridiculous reasons."

Local associations can be suspended or shut down if they carry out their activities beyond a designated area; national organisations must have at least 50 founders, ten from each region; residential buildings cannot be used as the offices or headquarters for voluntary activities; the list of restrictions goes on. But the devastating blow for individual volunteers came in 2005 when a new addition to the Criminal Code made participation in the activities of unregistered organisations punishable by imprisonment for up to two years. Many volunteers received threatening letters from prosecutors warning that they would be arrested if they continued to be involved in such 'illegal' activities.

One unit of a political association in the city of Hrodna was denied registration in 2009 because the documents it submitted were "printed in the 'wrong' font."

Danger: volunteering empowers people

In images of last December's post-election rally and subsequent unrest in Minsk, a statue of Lenin towers over the rows of riot police and democracy campaigners. The message is clear; Soviet values are still very much part of the system in Belarus, and as Pavel pointed out, communist states rely on isolating their citizens to maintain power. Volunteering contradicts this, empowering people and bringing them together.

Photo: JacobRuff (CC)
Threats from the government does not deter volunteers; with help from volunteers across Europe, there is hope for Belarus.

The criminalisation of unregistered organisations encourages isolation by making different groups afraid to help each other. For instance, an association called Young Front was shut down when one of its founders was accused of carrying out activities on behalf of an unregistered organisation. But BELNGO is still keen to encourage cooperation between volunteers. The largest association of citizen initiatives in the country, BELNGO consists of 270 member groups, which united in 1997 for "the joint promotion of their rights" and the "formation of civic society in Belarus."

"Activists learn to think critically, act responsibly and be creative. That's what Belarusian authorities don't like in [the] NGO movement," said Daria Vashkevich, BELNGO's international coordinator, explaining why volunteering is seen as such a threat by the government.

However, Lukashenko's resistance to civic involvement in community life has failed to deter some Belarusians. Despite the banning of, in Daria's words, "any activities which somehow contradict state ideology," volunteers and NGOs continue to promote democratic values, particularly amongst young people.

There is hope from across Europe

Notwithstanding the geographical limits in place, some networks manage to exist.

Fialta, a youth education centre founded in 1995, is one of the oldest NGOs in Belarus. It emphasises the importance of working with volunteers from across Europe to give Belarusians "a chance to encounter plurality at home" and providing "role models for local young people in terms of voluntarism, solidarity and tolerance."

The Belarusian Association of UNESCO Clubs is also a good example, with 58 different units working across different regions to "educate children in active citizenship." Again the key factor is partnership with volunteers from other European countries; support from the European Voluntary Service and the cultural exchange that these projects provide are vital.

The United Nations Development Programme estimates that there are more than 2000 NGOs in Belarus, and one of its most important achievements is the creation of an information portal for all these groups (www.NGO.by). It is hoped that communication between organisations – both within the country and across Europe – can help make the development of civil society in Belarus a reality.