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Between repression and democratic conviction: Perspectives for the Belarusian civil society


What are the future prospects for the democratic movement in Belarus and in exile? As part of the VisiBYlity project, we held a discussion with German and Belarusian experts at the Heinrich Böll Foundation on 29 April 2024.

Since 2020, Belarusian civil society has had little room for maneuver. Both, in the country itself and in the Belarusian diaspora, democratic forces and civil society actors face various challenges. At the second public debate of the IEP project 'VisiBYlity for Belarusian democratic actors', the current state of Belarusian civil society and its prospects were discussed.

Human rights activist Olga Smolianko pointed out the alarming reality of Belarusian civil society and its simultaneous resilience in the face of ongoing repression. Accordingly, independent NGOs have developed adaptation strategies to overcome the restrictions imposed by the state and continue their work under adverse conditions.

Alena Aharelisheva, gender expert and fellow of the VisiBYlity project, provided insight into the changing landscape of women's activism in Belarus. What is noticeable is an increasing shift towards deinstitutionalization and actions by individual activists after 2020. In the face of escalating repression, activists are using dynamic strategies to continue their activities.

Astrid Sahm, guest researcher for Eastern Europe and Eurasia at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, highlighted the broader geopolitical context of events in Belarus by tracing the historical development of Belarusian politics. The authoritarian Belarusian regime has long been a unique and isolated example in Europe, but is now actively forming alliances with other authoritarian regimes. This desire for recognition and support from other non-democratic governments is a new phenomenon and raises serious concerns.

Monika Lenhard, Head of the Department for Russia, Belarus, CIS at the Federal Foreign Office, spoke about Germany's position towards the Belarusian regime. Diplomatic signals and EU programs to support political prisoners are particularly important at the moment. While official diplomatic relations are largely limited to technical arrangements, important efforts to support democratic forces in Belarus continue.

The panelists also discussed the role of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and acknowledged her indispensable role as a representative of a democratic Belarus abroad. At the same time, their influence within Belarus is severely limited given the ongoing repression. The planned holding of elections within the Belarusian diaspora is even more important in order to provide legitimacy for the Coordination Council and promote democratic change in Belarus.

Two background papers on the challenges facing Belarusian civil society by Olga Smolianko and Alena Aharelyshevas served as a basis for discussion. The first sheds light on the reality of state repression. The second paper focuses on the role and resilience of Belarusian women.

Link to the background papers

Event photos

Team & authors

About the VisiBYlity for Belarusian democratic actors project: Capacity building, advocacy and research for more attention for the Belarusian diaspora in the German and European public: these are the core contents of VisiBYlity.

Image copyright: IEP