Belarus and NGOs: How the authorities dismantled civil society

Charitable, women's, environmental, educational, historical, sports and human rights organizations - both newly formed and established "veteran" ones that started their work in the nineties - have been shut down in huge numbers.

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Photo: Huw Evans picture agency
Photo: Huw Evans picture agency
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

Women still call the former employees of the safe house "Radislava".

Victims of domestic violence are calling to ask for help from an organization that no longer exists.

Across the country, hundreds of hospitalized orphans are no longer in the care of babysitters.

Funding for the project dried up when the government shut down the media crowdfunding platform Imena, its main source of income.

The Office for Disability Rights used to support 1.400 people a year - it has now been "outlawed".

And the list is endless.

As part of the crackdown on protests in 2020, Belarusian security forces managed to quell mass demonstrations organized over the results of a presidential election widely believed to have been rigged.

In 2021, the authorities expanded their attacks on independent media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

At that time, Alexander Lukashenko, the country's president, made the incredible accusation that the entire civil society was being financed from abroad in order to "organize a coup d'état and a rebellion".

Since then, a huge number of non-governmental organizations that worked in Belarus have been systematically shut down.

Human rights defenders recorded the cessation of work of more than 1.280 organizations.

Charitable, women's, environmental, educational, historical, sports and human rights organizations - both newly formed and established "veteran" ones that started their work in the nineties - have been shut down in huge numbers.

Escape from an abusive husband

"The women could not believe until the very end... no one was evicted until the last day. The two women had nowhere to go," says Vera (we changed her name), a former employee at the "Radislava" shelter.

This NGO, which worked for 20 years, became the target of police raids and arrests in January 2022.

It was eventually shut down by the government.

According to the former management, "Radislava" worked without state funding.

There were private donations, "crowdfunding" campaigns and help from foreign donors and Belarusian companies.

Starting with shelters in the form of apartments, the organization then built a safe house for 30 women and children, and planned a new one with space for 50.

Since 2018, the shelter has helped more than 500 women; they lived in the house from a few days to half a year, during which time they met with lawyers and psychologists.

In 2018, Radislava, along with a large number of other NGOs, advocated the adoption of a law against domestic violence, but after harsh criticism from Alexander Lukashenko, the bill was rejected.

Not only did it directly help those in dire need, but the organization also trained local police stations, doctors, psychologists and sociologists.

Their brochures could be found in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and health centers.

Some government websites still offer a safe house phone number, but no one answers it these days.

On November 2021, 2020, Olga Gorbunova, the leader of Radislava, was arrested after she was identified in a video from the XNUMX protest.

At the same time, the ex-husband of one of the guests of the safe house filed a lawsuit against the organization.

The man claimed that they forced the guests to go to protest meetings and that in the basement of the house there were printed stickers and sewn flags of white-red-white colors (the colors of the opposition movement).

None of that was true, says Olga, but the accusations were enough for the authorities to shut down Radislava.


Several other non-governmental organizations fighting domestic violence were also forcibly closed.

They also include "Gender Perspectives", an organization that launched and ran a national helpline for victims of domestic violence.

The phone line is no longer there, but the number is still displayed on several government websites.

"Nothing is left, everything is destroyed. We are back in the nineties," says Olga.

"Women have no one else to call, to get advice or legal help, they have nowhere to hide."

She spent six months in a detention center and received a three-year house arrest sentence with severe movement restrictions.

After that, she managed to escape from Belarus and in the meantime became the representative for social affairs in the United Transitional Cabinet of Svetlana Tihanovskaya, who is widely believed to have won the elections in 2020 and now practically leads the alternative Belarusian government in exile.

Domestic violence is one of the areas in which Olga continues to work.

She claims that recently this problem has worsened, but that the statistics about it are hidden.

"The government does not have enough people to work on domestic violence.

"Everyone now applies political repression, to identify 'offenders' according to politically motivated accusations," she explains.

She recently launched a petition demanding access to domestic violence statistics.

But it was denied with the explanation that it is "strictly confidential since it is classified information".

"Women can't safely get divorced anymore because they can't safely go to the police."

"The police immediately question their reliability as victims," ​​says former shelter employee Vera.

She adds that people are afraid of being accused of participating in protests and then prefer not to turn to the authorities for help.

The state has a service for women affected by domestic violence - so-called "crisis rooms".

According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, there are 137 of them, with 429 beds.

According to official statistics, 2020 victims of domestic violence passed through them in 384, and 2021 in 340.

During that time, the "Radislave" shelters were always full: in 2020, there were 90 people in them.

The figures from 2021 did not survive the closure of the organization.

As representatives of Radislava explain, there is no privacy in crisis rooms, the duration of stay is limited, and state specialists are not qualified to work with women who are victims of violence.

Marina (whose real name we were asked not to reveal) received a lot of help from the safe house.

After her divorce, stalking, threats and intimidation of her children became an integral part of her everyday life - until she found the phone number of "Radislave" on the Internet.

"If it wasn't for 'Radislava', I wouldn't have been able to save my children's mental health. I would not be able to deprive my ex-husband of parental rights, because the legal process is too long. I'm not sure how it would end."

Marina turned to the authorities, asking for a restraining order against her ex-husband, but she could not get it.

She was hiding in a rented apartment, but he quickly found her.

The shelter was the only safe place.

"Addresses of state crisis rooms are available on the Internet.

“Can you tell me how the crisis room is going to help me if he's waiting for me right around the corner?” she asks.

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'Bandits and foreign agents'

“We're going to cut off all the scoundrels you've funded. It bothers you that we destroyed all your structures, NGOs and others."

That's what Alexander Lukashenko said in an interview with the BBC in November 2021.

In various speeches over the past few years, he has called NGOs "bandits and foreign agents," "traitors," and "pests to the state," claiming they "organized a coup d'état and rebellion" and openly calling what happened to them in the meantime " cleaning operation".

As of 2021, more than 1.280 NGOs in Belarus are either closed or have completely suspended their activities.

This data was collected by Lo-trend, which is itself in the process of ceasing operations in Belarus and instead operates mainly from Georgia.

The list of organizations that have been closed just keeps growing - a few go out of business every week.

The exact number of NGOs that worked in Belarus is a matter of speculation.

The information on the website under the "civil society" section was updated as of January 1, 2021.

Before the "cleansing" began, there were 3.021 public associations, 25 trade unions and about 400 charitable organizations.

But many non-governmental organizations are registered as institutions, and statistics for them are not available, explains Olga Smoljanko, head of Lo-trend.

"We estimate that about 25 percent of them have disappeared... We assume that there were about 5.000-6.000 non-governmental organizations in Belarus, but this figure is completely unofficial," says Olga Smolyanko.

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The former leader of Radislava, Olga Gorbunova, is categorical in her assessment.

"This is scorched earth politics. If we were talking about an active sector of civil society that promotes human rights and raises very difficult, painful questions for the country, it would be a completely different story. In my opinion, the vast majority of real organizations have been liquidated."

Alexander Lukashenko stated several times that "in Belarus, a country with 9.25 million inhabitants, there are too many non-governmental organizations working."

But figures from the European Center for Non-Profit Law (ECNL) show just the opposite.

According to SCO Meter, that number is 3.5 non-governmental organizations per 10.000 inhabitants.

This makes Belarus the country with the lowest number of non-governmental organizations of all Eastern Partnership countries.

According to ECNL, the country ranks behind Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova and Georgia.

In Ukraine, this figure is 4.5 times higher, in Moldova 12.5 times.

And all these calculations were made on the basis of figures from 2020, before the mass shutdown of non-governmental organizations began.

According to indices that determine the sustainability of civil society (among them the one calculated by the US Agency for International Development (USAID)), Belarus received poor marks year after year.

This is, among other things, due to the scarce legal framework, the limited capacity of non-governmental organizations for representation and service provision and, crucially, the lack of access to financing.

'Going into survival mode'

Those non-governmental organizations that still work in the country are afraid to advertise.

We managed to talk to representatives of two such organizations.

Both asked us to hide not only their names, but also the names of their organizations and even the areas in which they work, for fear of reprisals from the authorities.

Aleksandar (not his real name) says that the lack of funds is a huge problem for non-governmental organizations.

His organization receives nothing from the state and receives donations from individuals and companies.

But now it became more and more difficult.

"Companies are afraid. They openly ask - you are not on the black list?", says Aleksandar.

His organization has barely managed to raise funds for its annual budget, but it can no longer rely on foreign aid or payments from ordinary Belarusians, who have been leaving the country en masse in recent years.

"Foreign aid used to be crucial, but now I just don't even consider it. Honestly, I don't want to draw attention to myself. I don't want any trouble."

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Yevgenij (also not his real name) says that non-governmental organizations are exposed to audits, they are inspected again and again with increasing frequency.

"We have to learn to live in this situation now and here. This is like a ballet through a minefield. If we can fight for some breathing space for ourselves... we do. But even then, only if we're lucky," he says.

There are other problems as well.

There are fewer and fewer volunteers - people leave or start taking care of themselves more.

Both NGOs have promotional problems: without crowdfunding platforms and independent media, they are left with only social networks.

But even that is not the solution.

Aleksandar says that his organization often "thinks a hundred times" before approaching an influencer.

"Some bloggers represent political views, they belong to this or that political camp," he adds.

'Ten Years of Self-Deception'

Analysts have two possible answers to the question of why the authorities attacked the non-governmental sector.

"I think they really believe that non-governmental organizations were the cause of the 2020 protests.

"This aggression occurred precisely because they are afraid that it will happen again. And indeed, there were walks even by people with disabilities, and many of them," says Darija Carik, a specialist in philanthropy and social investment.

"But it was a revolution of democratic values. If you take as an example any sector where there was wealth - medical, IT - they were all protesting, because they were saying, 'I'm fine, but there's something wrong with the country and I want it to get better'."

"The last 10 years have been a time of self-delusion for Belarusians... The delusion that you can represent a sector in a country that doesn't even recognize that it exists," she adds.

"When there is a spiral of repression, the media and civil society organizations are the first to become targets. Because they are not only helpers of society, but they form public opinion, they point out problems, they express an alternative attitude," adds Olga Smoljanko.

The effect of repression will accumulate and will certainly be visible in society, she believes.

"Civil society organizations often work in areas where the state does not want them. They promote people's problems that the state has never noticed. Now that those organizations are closed, there are holes.

"The consequences will be obvious in a few years, but it can already be said that a large number of vulnerable groups are left without adequate support from non-governmental organizations."

That effect will become clearer to many Belarusians much sooner than they thought.

As a result of the official "cleansing operation", independent observers claim that there is now no registered independent human rights organization in Belarus.

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