‘In Belarus, it’s dangerous to be human’ How civil society organizations became the Lukashenko regime’s latest target
In late July, the Belarusian authorities shut down 50 nonprofit organizations simultaneously, targeting human rights activists, as well as environmental, educational, and cultural groups. Dozens of other organizations are facing liquidation, but their members continue working despite police raids and criminal cases. Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) has openly accused human rights defenders, journalists, and environmentalists of organizing opposition protests — and even boasted to Vladimir Putin that his regime has started “actively” targeting civil society organizations and independent media. Meduza looks into why the Belarusian authorities are still carrying out large-scale repressions, despite the fact that there haven’t been mass protests in Belarus for some time now.
“We’ve started working very actively on all non-profits, NGOs, and so-called Western news media,” Alexander Lukashenko said during a meeting with Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on July 13. “These disgusting one and a half thousand NGOs. What they’re doing is clear. They’re financed from outside. And we all thought: oh well, this is a democracy, let’s talk, cooperate. And these are the results.”
The next day, Belarusian law enforcement carried out more than 50 raids on the homes and offices of human rights activists and NGO employees. Then, on July 23, dozens of organizations were simultaneously liquidated — among them were rights groups, as well as environmental, cultural, and educational organizations, including the “Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities.” The authorities didn’t give a reason for the liquidations.
By law, the authorities couldn’t shut down all of these organizations immediately. Those registered as “institutions” could be liquidated based on a corresponding decision from the registration authority, but the Justice Ministry had to appeal to the courts to shut down “public associations.”
One such organization is the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). In conversation with Meduza, BAJ deputy chair Barys Haretski underscored that the crackdown wasn’t unexpected. “They’re showing that there shouldn’t be any non-governmental activity in the country,” he said.
Haretski explained that over the past year, 480 journalists have been arrested in Belarus on various pretenses (including for covering opposition protests). Many of them were fined or jailed on misdemeanor charges. The persecution of journalists is ongoing even now — moreover, it’s become even more severe. According to the BAJ, there are currently 27 journalists and media managers imprisoned in Belarus. They’re being held in pre-trial detention centers or have already been convicted and are serving out prison sentences.
“Our organization has also been hit with repressions. In February , the authorities carried out raids on our office and the apartments of many employees, including my own. In July there was a second raid — we don’t know what about. They sealed our office, but they didn’t even officially inform us on what basis,” Haretski said.
Immediately after the police raid, the Justice Ministry asked the journalists’ association for documents that were inside the sealed office space. Unable to access their office, the organization couldn’t provide the paperwork — the Justice Ministry accused the BAJ of failing to fulfil its requirements.
Haretski believes there’s basically no hope that the organization won’t be shut down. But he added that the association continues to assist journalists. He said that there are media workers who need help — legal assistance or psychological support — “almost every day.” The BAJ also helps journalists who have decided to leave Belarus with paperwork.
That said, it’s becoming more and more difficult to protect reporters due to the authorities’ harsher attitude towards the news media. “Before, we had contacts in the Interior Ministry. If a journalist was detained, we got in contact, went to the station, and freed [them]. If you spoke to the security officials appropriately, explained that this is a journalist, confirmed his status, then very often he was released,” Haretski recalled.
If the BAJ loses its official status, the organization will also no longer be able to make formal appeals to various government agencies. In the past, such appeals could help — for example, human rights activists successfully lobbied to obtain medical assistance for journalists who came down with the coronavirus while in pre-trial detention.
The wave of police raids also hit human rights activists from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC), which was established in 1995. “In the last year Belarus has faced unprecedented pressure on any activity that’s alternative to the government. After the protests were suppressed, the repressions focused on journalists, civil society structures, and human rights defenders,” explained BHC head Aleh Hulak.
Now, the BHC — like many other organizations — is under threat of closure. The Justice Ministry has issued it a warning. That said, Hulak believes that the majority of Belarusian human rights activists have long been prepared for being deprived of their official status — and will continue working without it.
As an example, Hulak cited the most well-known rights organization in the country — the Human Rights Center “Viasna” (Spring), which lost its government registration back in 2003 due to its involvement in monitoring the 2001 presidential elections.
After the raids in July, several Viasna employees ended up in pre-trial detention — including the organization’s founder and director Ales Bialiatski (a former prisoner of conscience who spent three years behind bars in the early 2010s). The Viasna activists were arrested in connection with a criminal case opened on charges of tax evasion and “organizing and financing group actions that grossly violate public order.”
Nevertheless, Viasna has continued its work. Since the beginning of the anti-Lukashenko protests in August 2020, the center’s employees have maintained lists of detainees, helped relatives deliver care packages to prisoners, and organized aid for those injured by the security forces. And as the authorities destroyed independent media, it was Viasna that provided detailed coverage of the trials of oppositionists.
In conversation with Meduza, Viasna activist Natallia Satsunkevich underscored that Belarusian human rights defenders have long been accustomed to working under pressure from the authorities. For this very reason, many NGOs have already registered abroad or even work unofficially — under threat of misdemeanor or criminal charges. According to Satsunkevich, this will continue after the authorities’ latest attack.
Natallia Satsunkevich became involved in human rights activism in 2015. A biologist by training, she was forced to resign from her job at the Academy of Sciences after monitoring the 2015 presidential vote. In February 2021, law enforcement raided Satsunkevich’s home. She was abroad at the time (and remains outside of Belarus now), so her mother was forced to deal with the security forces.
“She said that they seized her personal laptop, her savings, and cash. I was very angry. When I think about it, I’m very sorry and to a certain extent ashamed that my mom had to face this because of me,” Satsunkevich told Meduza.
The Viasna activist described the current situation surrounding NGOs as “the natural spiralling of repressions in Belarus.”
“The authorities are doing everything possible to ensure that the largest possible number of active people leave the country. In Belarus, it’s dangerous to just be human. Any pursuit of being part of civil society is suppressed. You don’t have to be an activist to be subjected to criminal charges,” she stressed.
Anna Dapshevichyute was also forced to flee Belarus. She’s the head of “RADA” — an organization that has been defending the rights of Belarusian youth and developing educational programs in the country for more than 30 years. The security forces raided Dapshevichyute’s home in the fall of 2020 and in July 2021, RADA received notice of its liquidation.
“Everything bad that could have happened is already happening,” Dapshevichyute told Meduza.
‘Civil society will cease to exist’
On July 30, Alexander Lukashenko announced that the authorities had identified 185 “destructive” NGOs in Belarus, which pose a potential threat to national security.
“Behind each structure there are tens and hundreds of activists, thousands of people who have fallen under their influence,” Lukashenko said. The Belarusian dictator claimed that “foreign coordinators” had supposedly “recruited and trained personnel,” who allegedly went on to organize the opposition protests in Belarus in August 2020. “We know who selected the potential leaders of the opposition movement, created their image, and financed their activity,” he proclaimed.
According to political scientist Artyom Shraibman, there’s a simple explanation for this attack on NGOs — there’s simply nothing left in Belarus that can still be defeated.
“Success in the pogrom against enemies is now very important for Belarus’s security forces. They need to show their significance and repressive agility, and the best way to do this is to find enemies to clean up,” Shraibman explained.
He also thinks that the Belarusian authorities see the persecution of human rights activists as a kind of response to Western sanctions. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei spoke about this directly, promising that “civil society will cease to exist” if Western countries don’t soften their position on Belarus.
“Since Lukashenko, like Putin, regards NGOs as agents of Western influence, he thinks their punishment is justified. The fact that these are often just charitable, environmental, or educational organizations doesn’t matter,” Shraibman concludes. “The actions of the authorities are no surprise. In today’s Belarus, the only question is whose turn it is, and not who they’re coming for.”
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart