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WEBCAST | Belarus’s Emerging Civil Society in the Time of COVID-19

Date & Time

Jun. 8, 2020
1:00pm – 2:15pm ET




For over two decades, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko shielded his country from change and fostered a quasi-Soviet economy and society. But even as his pressure never eased, Belarus has developed social and cultural movements that have gained traction in the human rights sphere as well as in the coronavirus relief effort. The possibility of profound political change is premature but Lukashenko, a self-professed “COVID-dissident,” has alienated some of his staunchest supporters by prioritizing his politics over his country's struggles. Katsiaryna Šmacina, Franak Viačorka, Vytis Jurkonis, and Maxim Trudolyubov discussed the emerging civil society in Belarus in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Selected Quotes

Kateryna Shmatsina
"The COVID crisis is underlining existing problems in Belarusian domestic politics and Belarusian foreign policy... Belarusian civil society took charge of dealing with the COVID crisis instead of the government in the current circumstances and it means that there are a bunch of crowdfunding initiatives, there are groups of volunteers who deliver necessary supplies such as masks to health workers and there are activists who help people who are homeless or otherwise in need in these times, because, as you might have heard and this was in the news... the Belarusian president said that there is no such thing as COVID, that it's not a big deal and we can just play hockey and relax and at the same time there are a bunch of people in need and very little response, including financial support, to people in need."

"About 30% of women said that their financial position and their financial situation significantly decreased in the past few months but only 1% of them have received some support from the state that would help them to deal with this financial situation. At the same time... there are a bunch of cases where women faced with a situation where an employer tries to reduce or deteriorate their working conditions and then tries to offer much worse remuneration to replace contract conditions... In Belarus, we effectively don't have functioning labor unions or a clear mechanism to protect those rights."

Franak Viacorka
"All this anger, all this frustration with Lukashenko's regime, was accelerated by COVID and the lack of proper response by Lukashenko. And now we have one of the highest rates of COVID in Central and Eastern Europe and we still don't have major recognition in Belarus of COVID as a major problem."

"I think a majority of people took preventative measures and stayed home. I think young people who are on the internet watching independent media self-quarantined and that was the first sign of emerging civil society... When Lukashenko, on one hand, said you have to go to church, go to schools and universities, on the other hand private businesses and high-tech businesses told their workers to stay home."

"We have 15 registered presidential candidates. If we had this conversation a few months ago I'd say this election would be one of the most boring in our history, now I must say this campaign will be one of the most interesting ones... I was as surprised as many other analysts of Belarus of this development. I couldn't imagine so many people joining the initiated group of candidates." 

Vytas Jurkonis
"What we are witnessing now is a phenomenal example of civil society in Belarus and its strength. Dozens of civil initiatives, even, I heard, up to 100... shows that under very unfavorable conditions for civil society, it could do much more than the high-ranking officials. I think this is the key message for the West... What Belarusian civil society is signaling, is that it was underestimated for so many years."

"What I'm concerned the most is that this phenomenal story we are witnessing around COVID-19 in Belarus is going to be overshadowed by the elections... and I would like to believe that this incredible performance by civil society will not be forgotten because of one thing or another, I think the West will be focusing on civil society much more... I truly believe that's one of the few windows for opportunity, if not the only one, for sustainable change in Belarus."

Hosted By

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more

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