Zagranica Group is an association of non-governmental organizations operating outside of Poland It prepared a report on activities carried out by Polish NGOs and funded by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The report presents the difficult conditions anyone faces working with our eastern neighbor.
The authors of the publication titled “Poland’s development assistance in Belarus. Difficulties in the implementation of projects financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2011” sent their questionnaire to 30 Polish organizations operating in Belarus. Responses came from only 11 of them, and it is on the basis of this small group the report was prepared. Another equally important fact is that the study focused on year 2011, when the Polish Foreign Ministry’s was PLN 42 million. Such large funds were spent on activities in Belarus due to the post-election situation in the country. The presidential elections in December 2010 ended in victory of Alexander Lukashenko and resulted in increasing repressions against political opposition as well as representatives of the third sector.
The seriousness of internal situation in the country and deterioration of relations with the EU complicated work of non-governmental organizations. Even before that time, many Belarusian NGOs could not register themselves and had to act illegally. The great example of consequences is the story of Ales Bialiatski, whose unregistered activities in the sphere of human rights protection was investigated by the Belarusian service helped by Lithuanian and Polish officials.
Signals sent by Belarusian authorities are clear: independent NGO activities with the support of Western countries may lead straight to prison. In such partisan conditions, international cooperation looks like a very difficult task. In the report authored by Zagranica Group, one of interviewed organization defines the problem: “Projects for Belarus should not assume development. In the current political climate of continuous repression (closing offices, confiscation of equipment, arrests, etc.), they should focus rather on maintaining existing structures and interpersonal contacts than on development … The main aim should be to strengthen the knowledge and skills of partners (soft effects), but not the development of the organizations themselves“.
What are the specific challenges faced by organizations working in Belarus? They begin with a search for a partner organization. Right now the scattered Belarusian third sector is very small. Few organizations have registration and regular working groups. Those operating are in high demand among Polish NGOs, since having a Belarusian partner is a prerequisite for enrolment in projects financed by Polish FM. Another obstacle apperas in the process of organizing activities. Preparations should be made with caution, and in the current conditions even renting a room or advertising any activity in Belarus can become a serious problem.
Next, there are problems with crossing the border. The 8 out of 11 organizations participating in the study organized by Group Zagranica experienced visa problems. The visa issue regards both sides of the border. Polish activists are often denied visas to Belarus. Polish Consulates perhaps do not block the entry to Poland for Belarusians, but make it much more complicated. The list of sins of Polish consulates is long. The report lists the main problems that affect projects not only in Belarus, but in Eastern Europe in general: “insufficiency of electronic registration system, required documents, denied provision of free visas, even to the applicants aged 23 – 24 years (despite the rules in Schengen Borders Code), infrequent provision of long-term visas for regular participants and partners, mistrust and lack of cooperation towards Polish non-governmental organizations and a lack of phone contact with a consulate.
All the organizational problems are the reasons that the majority of projects implemented by Polish-Belarusian tandems are located in Poland and with the participation of mainly their Polish side. Just have a look at the projects implemented thanks to funds of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012. First of all, they were much fewer than in the key key 2011 – only 26. Furthermore, 18 projects on the list are the activities undertaken in the framework of the “Joint Action Polish – Belarus 2012” programme. Mostly, they are educational trips or joint cultural events, most of which took place in Poland. This selection shows the caution of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, afraid to invest in activities that can be cancelled with one word from Belarusian officials.
Activities in the framework of the “Joint Action Polish – Belarus 2012” are essentially apolitical – artistic and design exchanges, meetings of librarians, Belarusian Cinema Festival in Warsaw, etc. This does not mean that the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not finance projects that seek to improve the current political situation in Belarus. Funds for pro-democracy activities are mainly used by Belarusian opposition, members of which fled and settled in Warsaw after the presidential election in 2010. For example, Charter 97, Solidarity with Belarus Information Office of Yulia Slutskaya or Belarusian House in Warsaw, who bring together several factions of the Belarusian opposition. Their current year activities were financed within the ministerial competition “Polish aid 2012”. The stay of this rather big group of activists in Warsaw shows the degree of repression, which active, opposing the regime Belarusians face in their country. The last group, operating in Belarus, consists of very experienced Polish organizations, which, thanks to their long experience, know how to work in Belarus, even in very difficult conditions. They work quietly and without unnecessary publicity.
The report of Group Zagranica indicates the problem without a solution. Inspired by the authors of the report, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs should simplify the process of issuing visas for Belarusians participating in NGOs’ projects. The emphasis should be placed on the security of Belarusian partners to avoid compromising, as in the case of sending PIT (financial reports) to Belarus in ministerial envelopes. It is also necessary to meet halfway Belarusian organizations when requiring financial records, preparation of which is often very difficult in Belarus. But even progressive steps of the Foreign Ministry of Poland will not change the climate, which mostly depends on Belarusian officials’ willingness. As long as any activity of Polish NGOs is considered hostile by authorities in Minsk, Belarus remains the place “where only eagles dare” to work.
Translated by MA