What follows is an account of a round of interviews organized by UNDP and UNV Belarus and held in Minsk on 27, 28 and 29 July 2015. The interviews were meant to get Future Makers Global in sync with the way Belarusian institutional actors and their main stakeholders think about employment, social cohesion and data for accountability; they also attempted to scope grassroots constructive initiatives in the country, and to forge stronger ties with them. The interviews were run by myself and @Mikhail_Volchak, as well as several people within UNDP Belarus.
Policy priorities and trends
Belarus is characterised by an unusually rigid regulatory environment. Citizen initiative is restricted on several levels.
- At the legislation level, any assembly must be authorised; any citizen organisation must be registered. Acting in the name of an unregistered organisation is a criminal offence. However, the government more often than not chooses not to strictly enforce such legislation (more information).
- At the administrative level, NGOs and organised citizens and activists experience complex, long-winded authorisation procedures that severely limit their effectiveness. While this is fairly common in the region, a specificity of Belarus is an authorisation procedure for projects on top of that in place for organisation. Each individual project supported by international cooperation funding needs to be registered; many such procedures are reportedly pushed up to the council of ministers, and they can take up to 18 months to complete.
- Decision making becomes much faster and more effective when the President's administration gets involved.
The youth portfolio is managed by the Ministry of Education, with the exception of the youth employment issue that falls under the competence of the Ministry of Labour.
The Ministry of Education sees youth as “the engine of society”. It presides over young people’s participation; this is done in two main ways.
One is by working closely with the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, a very large organisation (membership was estimated at around 120,000 in 2003) that enjoys close support by the state and the President. The BRYU’s main purpose is to promote patriotism among the Belarusian youth; it seems to operate in a continuity with the Belarusian branch of Komsomol during the Soviet age (Wikipedia). Children starting at 7 can join a Pioneer movement (sort of pre-BRYU), which declares over 500,000 members.
The other way is to promote a Public Student’s Community Youth Council (for students) and a Public Youth Council (for non-students aged 14 to 31). These are advisory bodies consisting of young people, who provide input to the youth policy framework (which gets updated yearly). The members of youth councils are chosen by appointment; in the one representing students, one student is chosen for each of the 54 higher education facilities.
Additional ways for the Ministry to engage with young people include social media (V-Kontakte in particular); the practice of simply asking government officials for a meeting, reportedly fairly common in Belarus; and a small grants program, open to all the 216 registered youth organisations.
According to the government official we interviewed, there is no “youth emergency” in Belarus. Unemployment does not appear to be a problem: the reported youth unemployment rate is around 12% (source: World Bank). All graduates are given a 2-year work contract upon graduation. The Belarusian government does not acknowledge a problem of employability of young people, though it admits to “quality mismatch” between the labor market and the education facilities. Neither does disengagement of youth from society at large: according to the Ministry of education, young people are “very active”.
The Ministry of Education is currently introducing a peer-to-peer approach into extra-curricular activities in schools. Youth may get together one-times per week to teach each other virtually in any subject/area of interest. This is supervised by a coordination committee with representatives of the Ministry and NGOs. The coordination committee could be a point of entry for learning-oriented activities in the joint programme.
Volunteerism is very common and highly institutionalised in Belarus. People we interviewed referred to the practice of subbotnik, a tradition inherited by the Soviet Union: on designated days, people go out to clean the streets of garbage and perform other community services.
We are advised that possible points of entry into partnership with Belarusian institutions could be:
- the Minister of Education, Mikhail Zhurakou, who has the reputation of an innovator.
- The deputy head of the presidential administration, Igor Buzhovshky. He is in charge of ideology, and recently issued a very official op-head suggesting that "he youth's energy should be channeled towards constructive purposes".
- UNICEF's Child-Friendly Cities program, that has built partnerships with government officials for 7 years and is now active in 25 cities in Belarus.
News from the grassroots
Despite a difficult situation, the Belarusian civil society is lively and seems to be both willing and able to be constructive. We have met two types of NGOs: one is focused on human rights; the other on technology, the environment or culture and the arts. The former type does not enjoy much latitude or opportunities for action; the latter type, however, is tolerated and can even be viewed sympathetically by the authorities.
A particularly interesting cluster of grassroots activities is the one stemming from Belarus’s healthy hacker scene. Like Ukraine, the country inherited a tradition of good programmers from Soviet times, and has reused it to launch highly successful ICT companies that do, mostly, subcontracting work for established Western corporations like Google and Microsoft. The largest and most famous one is called EPAM; there are also some gaming companies (source). As a result of this concentration of expertise and other factors, Belarus is a leading country in some important open source projects, notably OpenStreetMap. Several companies (including mobile telco Velcom support the voluntary efforts of their employees to develop open source software and open data, and there is a culture of different ICT-based grassroots initiatives helping each other, often through participating in hackathons. The main open data website for Belarus, opendata.by, is community-built.
About ten years ago, some hackers involved in the local Linux User Groups became interested in bicycling; having spare time and disposable income, they were able to launch a highly successful cycling movement, that has spawned its own NGOs (like Minsk Cycling Community) and its own community services (like Minsk Bike Kitchen).
The more established NGOs reportedly do not collaborate much with each other. On the other hand, we have seen examples of collaboration across the less established ones. An important hub in this sense is Talaka, a crowdsourcing-crowdfunding platform for social projects. Unlike its Western counterparts like Kickstarter, Talaka is very community-oriented, and it it not uncommon for Belarusian activists to browse projects on the Talaka platform in search of something they can help with.
Thanks to the initiative of a local entrepreneur, Alexander Astrashevsky, a street in suburban Minsk called Kastryčnickaja (“October Street”: openstreetmap) is becoming a creative cluster, with an open space for art- and technology initiatives called Cech (http://cech.by), an art gallery, several cafes and bars and a yoga school. Astrashevsky acts as the “main tenant”, renting the building from the state-owned company that owns it, and then subrents to local up-and-coming initiatives. We have unconfirmed news that the City of Minsk has plans to turn this emergent node of hipster culture into a full-fledged creative cluster.