CIVICUS speaks with Anastasiya Vasilchuk of Viasna about the escalating repression and criminalisation of civil society in Belarus.
Founded in 1996, Viasna (‘Spring’ in Belarusian) is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) based in Minsk, the capital, with regional organisations in most Belarusian cities and around 200 members throughout the country. Its main goal is to promote respect for human rights and contribute to the development of civic society in Belarus.
What is the current situation of civil society activists and organisations in Belarus?
At the moment, the work of activists and CSOs in Belarus is practically paralysed. Those activists who remain in Belarus and try to remain active are at great risk. Volunteer activists who are not members of any CSO are being detained and charged administratively and even criminally for any form of activity, including sending parcels to political prisoners and organising solidarity meetings, and are tried under phony charges such as reposting ‘extremist materials’ found on their phones or ‘disobeying’ police officers.
Members of CSOs who have remained in Belarus are being persecuted on the basis of article 193-1 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits activities on behalf of organisations that are unregistered or have been deprived of registration. Since 2021, about 1,180 CSOS have been liquidated or are in the process of liquidation. All human rights organisations have already been deprived of registration, so it is impossible for them to work legally inside Belarus.
In order to keep functioning, most human rights CSOs, Viasna included, have been forced to leave Belarus and continue their work from abroad. Almost all meetings and legal consultations with people who have been subjected to repression are now taking place online. The regional branches of our organisation have also only been able to continue working from abroad, collecting information on repression in their regions through local volunteers who put themselves in harm’s way every day, as well as through open-source investigation techniques, which employees had to learn fast after being forcibly relocated.
Generally speaking, displacement has brought many challenges for civil society. We’ve had to search for extra funding, in light of the usually higher costs of living in host countries. We’ve had to rethink our work processes, which were previously based mainly on direct personal communication with victims of human rights violations, and shift them online. And we’ve had to focus on maintaining the visibility and significance of our activities in the eyes of victims of human rights violations in Belarus.
Despite the ongoing crackdown on dissent, Viasna and other human rights CSOs continue to document human rights violations, which are occurring on a huge scale and on a daily basis in Belarus, to make them visible and try to elicit a reaction from the international community.
How are Belarusian CSOs supporting activists under threat?
Viasna is working for persecuted activists to be recognised as political prisoners and providing further assistance to them, as well as to other victims of repression. We collect information about people detained for political motives all over the country, and alongside other CSOs that are part of our human rights coalition we highlight their cases as political prisoners and provide comprehensive support to them and their families, including providing free legal advice, sending them care packages and leading advocacy campaigns for their release. Right now, we are also looking for resources and opportunities to help political prisoners who are being released and are in need of material, psychological and medical support.
Other CSOs provide other forms of support to political prisoners and repressed activists, depending on their area of work. For example, women’s human rights organisations provide support to female political prisoners, while independent trade unions, which have also been forced to leave the country, provide assistance to their arrested colleagues. There are also specialised funds and initiatives that provide medical and psychological support to victims of repression.
What have been the impacts of Russia’s war on Ukraine on Belarusian civil society?
In the present context we can identify several impacts. Immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine, many Belarusian CSOs jointly condemned the Russian aggression and demonstrated their solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and some CSOs provided humanitarian assistance. The outbreak of war actualised the problem of Russian political influence in Belarus and highlighted the fact that Belarus is exposed to a potential military threat from Russia, which has become a key area of concern for some CSOs.
Particularly in the first months of the war, the attitude of some international actors towards Belarusian CSOs changed due to the pro-Russian position of the Belarusian illegitimate authorities, and the problem of the severe political repression ongoing in Belarus began to fade into the background. The ongoing war has meant that Belarusian CSOs have had to make additional efforts to make sure their voice is heard, reminding the outside world that there is more to Belarus than the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus also has a pro-democracy civil society that opposes the war and advocates for democratic reforms.
What further support does Belarusian civil society need from the international community?
Belarusian civil society, including Viasna, has continued to receive financial and informational support from international allies. However, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine some major donors, who had helped ensure stable long-term funding for civil society, reduced or completely stopped their assistance to Belarusian civil society. We are therefore in much need of long-term, stable financial assistance.
Regarding informational support, we are currently actively working to expand the network of international actors interested in the human rights situation in Belarus. Informational support is a key element for raising awareness of systemic human rights violations in Belarus.
Civic space in Belarus is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Viasna through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @Viasna on Twitter.