by Aoife Spengeman, former ISIS Europe staff
ISIS attended the Briefing on The Soviet Legacy Problem or Why Belarus Resists Europeanisation, hosted and organised by the Heinrich-Böll Foundation. The briefing was chaired by Claude Weinber, Director Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union. The speakers included Uladzimir Matskevich, Head of Interim Coordination Committee of the Belarusian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum; Andrei Yahorau, political analyst, Director of the Centre for European Transformation (CET); and Tatiana Poshevalova, expert in civil society development, Programme Manager of the International Consortium EuroBelarus.
Uladzimir Matskevich highlighted that since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Europe has embarked upon a process of democratisation that Belarus never became part of. The Soviet legacy remained dominant in the political culture of the country and underlines its political regime. Engaging Belarus in the democratisation process is a challenge to the EU Neighbourhood Policy, considering the so far ineffectiveness of the EU programmes currently in place. The Belarusian government has, despite encouraging relations between the EU and Belarus, chosen Soviet conservation. He underlined, however, despite such incongruence, the mutual importance of EU-Belarus policy coordination and that EU sanctions can be effective in enhancing this recognition.
Andrei Yahorau elaborated on the need for coordination of EU and Belarusian policies through dialogue. He commented on the effectiveness of the economic sanctions method that the EU currently uses as a means to promote democratisation. He underlined that what is really needed is an expansion of support to civil society. Civil society currently has a limited culture of opposition to the government regime. If economic sanctions are implemented, they should have a strong symbolic meaning attached to them that resonates to civil society. As an example, the cancellation of the World Hockey Championships in Belarus by the EU caught the attention of civil society.
Tatiana Poshevalova elaborated on the idea of inspiring a civil society movement in favour of democratisation and progress away from the Soviet legacy. Recently there has been evidence of a growing support and mobility for political change. She suggested that the EU needs to develop long-term programmes such as a programme on media policy, which will develop people’s understanding of democracy across society. She noted that these programmes need to be integrated and coordinated with civil society in order to sustain effectiveness. She also pointed out that the promotion of civil society organisations should only happen if those organisations are fully independent from the government. As an example, recently, a Public Bologna committee was created in Belarus by students, teachers and independent experts to promote the Bologna Declaration, which was supported by the Belarusian government. However, considering that the government doesn’t preserve academic freedoms and constantly violates students’ rights, civil society doesn’t support accession to Bologna process currently. The Public Bologna committee, therefore, managed with the help of EU member states to block government intention to involve itself in European Higher Education Area.
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