Sanctions on Belarus
Amid continuing United States (U.S.) and European Union (EU) sanctions on Belarus, border officials reported that four
 people have died on the Poland-Belarus border from hypothermia and exhaustion. Polish authorities have been severely restricting the arrival of immigrants. They have been sending people back from the border, leading many to camp out in the dense forests bordering Belarus.

Lukashenko: Reason for the Sanctions

The EU and the U.S. placed numerous economic sanctions on Belarus in response to Belarus President Lukashenko’s threatening political tactics. Lukashenko’s administration grounded a Ryanair flight containing a prominent activist from the opposition and detained numerous journalists critiquing Lukashenko. The Belarus government arrested 35,000 protesters and is holding 626 dissidents as political prisoners. These actions underline a long-term trend that Lukashenko’s actions violate key democratic ideals, as well as implications that he is unfit for leadership or that he won his 2020 election on fraudulent grounds.

Poland’s national government has also indicated that Lukashenko’s administration is responsible for flying in Middle Eastern refugees and pushing them to attempt illegally crossing the Poland-Belarus border. There have been 8,000 attempts during 2021, more than 3,500 attempts in August 2021 and more than 4,000 attempts in the first three weeks of September 2021. Polish authorities do not have enough resources to handle this influx and the over 1,400 in Polish detention centers. In response to these actions, Poland’s permanent representative at the EU, Andrzej Sados, has indicated Poland’s support for heightened sanctions. 

Sanctions’ Heavy Burden on Belarus

Sanctions on Belarus include rigid restrictions on military and surveillance technology, potassium-based fertilizer and petrol/petrol-based products. Bilateral trade between the EU and Belarus increased by 45% in the last 10 years, with 18.1% of Belarus’s goods trade stemming from the EU. Almost 25% of these exports were petroleum or potassium-based fertilizer so sanctions on these items put a heavy burden on the economy.

The U.S. and the EU also sanctioned Belarus’ cigarette industry that contributes significantly to European cigarette smuggling.  For example, over 90% of the cigarettes smuggled into Lithuania in 2020 came from Belarus.

Thirdly, the U.S. EU sanctions on Belarus include sanctions on politically active business leaders and sports entities. Canada joined the U.S. and the EU to sanction oligarch Nikolai Vorobei. The U.S. sanctioned the Belarus National Olympic Committee because Lukashenko’s son controls it.

Sanctions Threaten Belarus’ Success Combatting Poverty

With an economy so dependent on state-owned agricultural or industrial companies and their exports to the rest of Europe, the remarkable progress Belarus has made in lowering its poverty rate is at risk. Between 2000 and 2013, the poverty rate in Belarus fell by 60%. Economists have warned for the last decade that Belarus’ economy depends far too much on the exportation of a few goods. Further, the drop in poverty has not correlated with a rise in living standards. Lastly, the Belarusian rouble has also fallen by more than 30% against the euro since the beginning of 2021. 

The sanctions threaten Belarus’ economic gains, along with Belarus’ dependence on Russia, its largest trading partner. The loss of Russia’s oil and gas subsidies could devastate Belarus.

New Government, New Tech Sector, New Hope

The U.S. and EU sanctions, Lukashenko’s suppression of dissent, the border deaths and Russia’s stranglehold each jeopardize Belarus’ future. A change of leadership is the first step toward positive change. As Klaus-Jürgen Gern from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy said, “But without change, the economy will probably stagnate and decline in relative terms over the next decade because the incentives — like modernization and new investment — won’t be in place.”

Also, a new technology sector is emerging in Minsk. There are more than 450 new tech startups that are not beholden to Moscow. This is a glimmer of hope for Belarus to modernize and relieve itself from harsh leadership and crippling sanctions.

– Shruti Patankar
Photo: Flickr

Programming Industry in BelarusThe growth of the programming industry in Belarus, dubbed as the IT sector, took the country’s economy by storm. It helped the country reduce its “brain drain,” a phenomenon defined by the emigration of professionals from their home country to a nation that provides better pay and opportunities. Belarus’ IT sector exports grew from $218 million in 2010 to over $700 million in 2015. This amazing turnaround raises some key questions. Namely, why did the programming industry in Belarus blossom, and how has it benefited the country?

Origin of the Programming Industry

The growth of the programming industry is built on the Soviet Union’s strong educational focus on science and technology. Under the Soviet Union in the late 20th century, schools often focused on teaching students science and technology because they lack ideological barriers. These fields needed no censoring to fit the ideas promoted by the Soviet Union. This prioritization remains, and students in Belarus tend to choose technical specializations over those in the social sciences. For example, nearly 4,000 young Belarusians graduate each year with IT-related degrees. The size of the local tech talent can be explained by state policies supporting the IT industry’s growth.

The combination of direct subsidies and tax cuts allows 1,000 tech companies to have their offices in Belarus. Of these, the 50 largest employ between 100 and 7,000 employees each. In 2005, the Belarus government sponsored the construction of the High Tech Park, a tax and legal regime designed to develop the IT sector. Since then, it’s become an incubator for various tech companies due to its preferential tax regime and the resulting lower operational costs that companies incur. The government’s investment in the sector and fiscal benefits helped it grow tremendously in the past decade.

Benefits of the IT sector

While the IT sector only represented a 1% share in the gross value added to the economy in 2014, its benefits span beyond the industry itself. With Belarus’ 2015 average salary stagnating at $350 per month, the IT sector’s average salary of $1,600 attracted many people to the industry. This incentivized many individuals to remain in Belarus rather than moving abroad. As a result, the IT sector reduces brain drain as educated professionals stay in the country and help grow its industry.

Furthermore, the increased salaries not only enabled workers in the IT sector to better support their own families but also increased investment in research and development and Belarus’ education system. Of the 460 organizations orchestrating research and development activities, 74 resulted in university laboratories. Tech companies began providing direct investment in the Belarusian education system, accounting for 10.4% of total research and development staff in the country. Their contribution ensures that there is an ample supply of computer science graduates.

An Exciting Future

The growth of the Belarusian programming industry in the last decade brought about significant economic growth. This dramatically increased the population’s opportunities for pursuing computer science and unlocked the possibility of a larger salary. Now, IT workers better support their families and make a greater contribution to the economy by staying in Belarus. With the education system’s continued investment in turning out graduates with science and technology degrees, the booming programming industry in Belarus promises amazing results.

– Max Sidorovitch
Photo: Flickr

Elderly Poverty in Belarus
As it spends around $5 billion yearly on pensions, Belarus, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, has seen a significant reduction in elderly poverty in the past two decades. Experts estimate at least a 25% reduction in elderly poverty in Belarus since 2002. Pension programs in Belarus contribute to lower rates of elderly poverty in the country.

Pension Programs in Belarus

Belarus has various social pension programs, including veteran and survivor pensions. However, the program with the most recipients is the old-age pension. The direct transfer of wealth through the old-age pension began in 1990, with men 60 and older and women 55 and older becoming eligible for pensions. The average pension is $150 per month. If the elder served in a war, has a disability, has more than five children or earned an above-average income, the elder must meet fewer qualifying conditions, but will still receive no more than around $300 a month.

In 2019, 5% of the Belarusian population lived under the poverty line. Elders, or people 50 and older, represent 20% of Belarusians and are roughly 3% less likely to fall into poverty than the general population. Elders remain vulnerable to falling into poverty, and many continue working past retirement age. Nonetheless, Belarus has achieved overall success in combating elderly poverty in recent decades.

Economic Growth Despite the Financial Crisis of 2009

During the years leading up to the 2009 financial crisis, Belarus began outperforming the Europe and Central Asia (ECA) region in terms of the $5/day poverty metric. In 2001, Belarus’s $5/day poverty rate was roughly the same as the ECA average. However, by 2009, Belarus had a significantly lower $5/day poverty rate than the ECA average.

Furthermore, between 2006 and 2011, Belarus’s rate of growth of expenditures in the bottom 40% of the population was 9% per year, the highest rate in Europe. Most European countries registered negative expenditure for the bottom 40% of incomes as they were recovering from the financial crisis. Belarus’ superior economic growth resulted largely from favorable energy pricing from its neighbor Russia and the resulting strong trade relations between the two countries.

Strong, reliable economic growth led to the expansion of sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture and enabled high levels of employment. Manufacturing and agriculture exports increased by 85% and 90% respectively from 2001 to 2008, with average wages increasing 10%. Therefore, the state budget grew and the funds set aside for pensions grew as well. Growing sectors offered increased employment opportunities for capable elders. As pensions and employment rose, elderly poverty dropped.

Growth in Both Urban and Rural Areas

From 2003 to 2008, the majority of elderly poverty reduction in Belarus occurred in urban areas such as the capital city, Minsk. However, from 2008 to 2015, the greatest change occurred in rural areas, which saw a 75% reduction in poverty between 2003 and 2014 while poverty decreased by 54% in cities.

Rising Demand for Pensions

With the country’s economy on a positive trajectory for more than two decades and the poverty rate falling, the average elder in Belarus receives a $150 monthly pension. In addition, increased exports spurred growth in agriculture and manufacturing, which provided job opportunities for elders seeking to increase their income during retirement. While the country is currently recovering from the 2014 recession, strong growth must persist in order to maintain low rates of elderly poverty as Belarus’ population is aging and the demand for pensions will continue to rise.

Max Sidorovitch
Photo: Unsplash

Civil Strife in Belarus
Belarus, meaning “White Ruthenia” or “White Russia” alternatively, has housed many different cultures and peoples across its history. With a population of just under 9.5 million people, however, the nation certainly has the population, as well as the various important resources necessary to develop the society, population and accompanying hard and soft infrastructure of the country in the post-Soviet Era. Its capital city, Minsk, is both the largest city in the nation, as well as one of the most historically rich cities in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, civil strife in Belarus is a significant problem and relates to President Alexander Lukashenko as well as poverty.

About Belarus

Belarus has an economy that refines great quantities of Russian oil and produces petroleum, yet has rich natural resources like peat, clay, dolomite, sand, chalk, salt and potassium deposits as well; during Soviet times, it was an economically advanced region within the greater USSR and had one of the highest standards of living within that collective. These resources should have given the small nation a leg up moving forward, serving as a potential model of success post-Soviet dissolution for its neighbors.

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s however, this did not come to pass. Additionally, while the country has ostensibly contained outright poverty in the time since, the reality remains that the nation continues to endure as one of the poorest countries in Europe. Accordingly, civil strife, in the form of demonstrations and civil disobedience, continues to grow as Belarus, as a whole, feels the discomfort and burden of over 25 years of authoritarian restrainment.

There is, unsurprisingly, a stagnancy of progress in the countryside, and unrest within the cities, as the economic and social potentials for each remain difficult to attain. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is the one thread that links all of these issues together.

Civil Strife in Belarus Under President Alexander Lukashenko

Since Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, the parliament has experienced diminishment as a relevant national structure of power on numerous occasions, most notably in 1996. However, the Lukashenko administration has continued this type of behavior in successive decades too, culminating with the most recent Presidential election of August 2020 and the fallout from the alleged government-sponsored voter fraud. This invigorated national protests within the nation and would lead to the subsequent international incident featuring the now-infamous Ryanair flight and its most famous passenger, Belarusian anti-Lukashenko activist, Roman Protasevich. Yet, while the E.U. has sanctioned Lukashenko and his government upwards of four times in just the last 20 years alone for violating human rights in one way or another, positive domestic change remains difficult to find. On the occasions that protests have occurred, like in the aftermath of the aforementioned election, the authorities quickly took care of it, Soviet-style.

Poverty in Belarus

It is quite true that, compared to the poverty statistics of Belarus 20 years ago, the Lukashenko government has allegedly, and, if statistically accurate, drastically diminished the suffering of people through an enlarged public sector that includes many of the industrial innovations of the nation. The reduction of the national poverty from 41.9% of the population in 2000 to just 5% by 2019 is absolutely a massive jump to be sure. Yet, it remains true that Belarus is more of a translucent than a transparent nation, and that beyond any facade that its President or administration would like to portray, there are both deep nuances, as well as suffering that is feeding the push back against Premier Lukashenko.

To this point, the region around the city of Minsk, as well as the regions or oblasts of Grodno and Gomel have poverty rates much higher than the city of Minsk itself or Brest and its surrounding area. However, the Mahiliou or Mogilev region to the southeast of Minsk remains the poorest of them all however with a recorded 31% of people living in poverty. Within some of these regions, estimates have determined that poverty persists at a rate of one for every five citizens. All of this indicates that while swaths of the population are now above the poverty line due, in major part, to work in the public sector and other industrial innovations of the country, there are still masses whose cities, fields and country towns remain economically depressed, politically unheard and practically disconnected.

Solutions to Help Belarus Move Forward

With the aforementioned political, economic and social repression of the past 25 years, former Foreign and Defense Minister of Lithuania Linas Linkevicius raised a reasonable point when he stated that “….Lukashenko is ready to sacrifice everything, even the remnants of his country’s independence and sovereignty, to preserve his position. Partly also because, like all dictators, he has serious concerns about his own security after leaving….” To make the aforementioned quote as clear for the international community as possible, Lukashenko recently stated that he would rather die than agree to a new, internationally observed presidential election.

Yet, between the United States Agency for International Development, as well the United Nations, and of course Human Rights Watch and other NGOs like Ponimanie and Humanium are continuing to chip away at the hardships within Belarus. While NGOs like the first require little introduction, the latter two, since 2000 and 2008 respectively, have been doing this by working to reduce and eliminate poverty and crime in these places, by educating and protecting the children. This should assure all of the people the necessary resources for thriving, not simply surviving, as well as help enhance industry and the rate of societal innovation. While the European Union, the United States and the greater international community continue to look at ways of punishing Belarus’s government for its breach of human rights regarding the Ryanair incident, while sparing the people themselves, Alexander Lukashenko remains a major roadblock to any and all positive innovations.

Looking Ahead

 While some argue that it is the state-owned structure of Belarus that inhibits the financial development of its citizens, one can clearly see that other nations with high percentages of state-owned infrastructure do not necessarily suffer this particular hardship; what Belarus actually needs is the ambition to legislate opportunities for the people, for the development of the people’s national and domestic infrastructure, as well as the creation and maintenance of functional economic structures, from localized, egalitarian domestic trade unions all the way up to fully participating within the European Union economic structure. Only when national conditions and expectations meet those of the Belarusian people and the greater international community can one say that the country will have made real progress eliminating poverty and civil strife in Belarus. However, until then, the work continues.

– Trent Nelson
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

USAID is Gendering Belarus PoliticsUSAID is an independent agency of the United States federal government that takes care of administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance. It is one the largest official aid agencies in the world, controlling a large share of U.S. foreign assistance programs. USAID operates in more than 100 countries all around the world. One of them is Belarus, where USAID — which represents the second-largest actor after the E.U. — is effectively gendering its politics. USAID has indeed been able to transform the current business and social landscapes for Belarusian women.

Gender Politics in Belarus

In 2017, Belarus ranked 26 out of 144 in the Global Gender Gap Index. However, differences start to show when looking at detail. Women outnumber men at tertiary education enrollment. But despite being more likely to achieve white-collar positions, women are not as likely as men to receive managerial power. Only 17% of female white-collar employees rise through the ranks against a stark 41% for men. Women also lack executive power in politics. Although they hold around 30% of parliament seats, their presence in the executive branch is scarce. In addition, gender wage gaps have been increasing in recent years. This is due to the country’s employment residing namely in public sectors such as education, where pay is lower.

Belarus is a country where STEM start-ups and corporations are usually presented as a field for men to develop their careers. Belarus has profited from USAID support to Belarusian women. By sponsoring teams that consist of at least 30% women, the U.S. support program is bringing forth a cultural shift in the entrepreneurial mentality of Belarusians.

USAID is Gendering Belarus Politics

USAID is gendering Belarus politics by increasing the relative bargaining power of women in society. A clear example of this promotion commitment is USAID’s Community Connections Exchange Program, through which Belarusians have the opportunity to travel to the U.S. to undergo short-term exchanges. During this stage, they learn about innovative practices, youth business promotion and female empowerment. Women made up more than half of 2017’s edition of the program, enlarging the ranks of the more than 400 women that had already enjoyed these lessons and leadership skill-building tools. Not only that, but another instance of leading by example would be the U.S.’s personal compromise to constitute offices in Belarus. At least one staff member n the office must be female. This is regardless of whether their tasks involve directing diplomatic meetings, developing the private sector or dealing with administrative matters.

USAID’s Action

The U.S. commitment to improving the living conditions in Belarus extends well beyond jobs. It is also focusing on the way that politics are carried out in the country. The U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights Report has criticized the increasing neglect by Belarusian authorities to protect human rights as fundamental as the freedom of speech or press. However, to encourage positive promotion and not negative condemnation, the Embassy also assists the growing independent media and NGO community. It is offering public exchanges and bringing American experts to the country to offer insight into democratic initiatives and reforms.

Along those lines, American and Belarusian counterparts in law enforcement and international development agreed to collaborate; this is particularly through American support schemes for the education of Belarusian officials to enable the law to be upheld and create strong legal infrastructures. The advancement of human rights entails a clear compromise toward the inclusion of women in society, especially in a country where legislation is “gender blind.” While discrimination is formally prohibited, this does not stop employers to view women as undesirable based on their maternity benefits and earlier retirement age (55 for women and 60 for men).

USAID gendering Belarusian politics also means USAID is pushing for human rights to become a fundamental principle guiding legislative activity. Independent media, expert advice and reforms help create a more inclusive society. In addition, it is important to implement legislation that is gender aware, rather than gender blind.

Moving Forward

Women’s participation in politics has been one of the main issues at stake in Belarus. USAID has helped promote civilian expansion and participation in political and economic decision-making. It has helped encourage opening up society and allowing for reform.

With markets opening, women have taken it as a sign that it is time for politics to follow the economic trail. The continued support offered by U.S. institutions to promote the role of women in the labor market may also enable them to increase their bargaining power in politics. Alongside the U.S. focus on protecting and projecting democratic reform and the rule of law in the country, there comes peaceful reform in a country that is making strides toward gender equality.

– Álvaro Salgado
Photo:Flickr

Healtcare workers in BelarusBelarus’ health system is simultaneously advancing and posing challenges to its health personal. These challenges directly impact the quality and availability of medical services to Belarusian individuals. That said, current situations regarding the government and health sector could affect future outlooks both for patients and healthcare workers in Belarus.

Healthcare in Belarus

Belarus offers universal healthcare. This means that most of its population can access many free health services. In fact, citizens of neighboring countries like Russia seek Belarusian medical care because of its affordability. This is just one way Belarus’ health industry is supportive. Over the past decade, many beneficial healthcare feats happened through the efforts of the government and medical workers. The country met Millennium Goals in 2013, per the World Health Organization (WHO), by lowering maternal and child mortality rates. It implemented new technologies and health institutions and built the first long-term care facility for people with chronic illness and disability in 2015. Furthermore, the health sector achieved positive outcomes with addressing HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and child immunizations.

Clearly, without healthcare workers in Belarus, none of this growth would be possible. For example, Belarus had some of the highest numbers of physicians and nurses access to the population compared to other post-Soviet countries, according to a WHO report. It also cited a surplus of nursing students assisting patients. Incentives for health institutions to increase highly trained staff ensure more medical development and career advancements. Though such incentives display Belarus’ value of qualified medical personal and although they are present and enacting medical progress, there are considerable obstacles in the livelihoods of many in the health system.

Challenges Healthcare Workers Face

Many health workers from Belarus migrate to Russia to work. Little opportunity for professional advancement, inadequate workplace conditions, poor infrastructure in rural regions and low wages are the main factors driving away medical staff. Belarusian medical workers were increasingly moving from rural to urban regions in 2013, a concern for rural populations. This movement prompted the government to implement compulsory placements in rural populations for some personal to ease rural shortages.

Rural shortages of healthcare workers in Belarus naturally produce spottiness in medical coverage in many regions. Former Health Minister Vasil Zharko stated various cities did not have 30-40% of needed medical staff in 2015. Resultantly, many were not able to attain a doctor’s appointment due to a lack of qualified doctors and wait times for medical equipment spanned months.

To combat higher concentrations of health staff in large cities and lower concentrations in rural areas, benefits and accommodations are offered as incentives to rural Belarusian health workers. Benefits and accommodations are likely welcome given the low salaries of Belarusian medical staff. Health workers in Poland earned three times as much as Belarusian counterparts in 2015 and many worked 1.5 full-time jobs to earn money.

Current and Future Realities

These achievements and challenges in Belarus’ health system shape reality for all working within it. Accordingly, various current events shape their future. COVID-19’s emergence into the country did not immediately bring significant change. President Aleksandr Lukashenko initially opted not to impose restrictions against the virus. Furthermore, he claimed it could be treated by trips to the sauna and vodka. This plus his political actions regarding the 2020 election angered many, inciting protests against his presidency and policies. Medical workers were not exempt from this.

In late 2020 in Minsk, Belarus, many participated in the March of Pensioners and Healthcare Workers every Monday. They marched for President Lukashenko’s removal, a transparent election and the release of political prisoners. Another response from health personnel occurred in August 2020, when health workers and others organized at the Ministry of Health to speak with Health Minister Vladimir Karanik. Additionally, many advocated on social media for doctors to go on strike. Health staff likely participated in these events hoping to change the country’s political and health-centered futures for themselves and their patients. Current circumstances indicate the future might already be getting better.

Looking Forward

In 2021 healthcare spending in Belarus will sit at around 4.6% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), increasing over the last five years. The government plans to add to funding to keep raising salaries. The government decided to raise the standard salary rate, beginning with raising the salaries of those with low wages. Furthermore, it increased spending on scholarships and allowances in health in 2021. Considering health workers’ calls for political shifts and an increase in monetary support for Belarusian medical personal in the immediate future, it is safe to say that greater prioritization and change is on the horizon in the lives of healthcare workers in Belarus.

– Claire Kirchner
Photo: Flickr

Belarus Welcomes in Democracy and Human RightsThe country of Belarus is both physically and politically stuck between Russia and Western Europe, who have been at odds for the past several years. Currently, Belarus is in the wake of recent political protests and social unrest. Additionally, the country is reaching a tipping point and the people are demanding change. The first step is the introduction of a new democracy and human rights bill in the U.S. Congress.

The Presidential Election

Belarus’s current president is Alexander Lukashenko, a man given the nickname of “Europe’s Last Dictator.” In August 2020, a presidential election was held and a high majority of the country’s population claims that the election was entirely fixed. Lukashenko won in a landslide victory and claimed his 26th straight year as Belarus’s leader. Consequently, massive waves of political protest immediately followed the election. It demonstrates a demand for the president’s removal of office. Lukashenko showed no indication of planning to resign. Vladimir Putin politically supports Lukashenko. However, there is strong evidence that suggests that Putin’s support comes from the worry of a potential social rebellion of the Belarusian people. As a result of the social outcry, protestors and police forces have violently clashed.

The election in August created a chain reaction of historical change for the country. Belarus’s citizens have a history of being private about their personal political opinions. Nevertheless, the severity of this matter encourages people to break their silence. This social upheaval brought with it an extreme push back from law enforcement in the result of above 7,000 arrests of political demonstrators within seven days after the election. In addition, these arrests include accusations of extreme abuse and the disappearances of inmates. This has gained the attention of the U.N. Like everywhere else, Belarus also has significant cases of COVID-19. In response, the U.N. put $7.5 million toward medical aid and spread prevention. Furthermore, basic universal human rights now become one of the main focuses of Belarus’ and the U.N.’s plan for positive reform.

A Democracy Bill

In October 2020, a team of U.S. politicians introduced a proposed plan of solution for the situation in Belarus. It proposed The Belarus Democracy, Human Rights, and Sovereignty Act of 2020. This act would grant the U.S. an opportunity to help introduce democracy to the people of Belarus. In a recent press release from The Committee On Foreign Affairs, each house member who supports the Act explains their reasons for supporting the bill.

Moreover, one of the most notable quotes came from Republican Leader Rep. McCaul. He said, “We stand with the historic numbers of peaceful Belarusian protesters that continue to flood the streets to demand a more democratic country. Their voices must be heard and the Belarusian authorities using violence, arbitrary detentions, and repression in an attempt to stifle their calls to chart their own future must be held accountable.” He went on to clarify that Lukashenko’s victory would not be considered legitimate by the United States.

Basic human rights belong to every person, no matter their geographical location or political situation. This serves as a reminder that not every country shares the same rights globally. The introduction of democracy and freedom is an important piece to the puzzle of trying to make circumstances better for a nation and its people.

Brandon Baham

Photo: Flickr

Human Trafficking in Belarus
The eastern European country of Belarus is a hub for human trafficking. In fact, the country ranks as Tier 3 for human trafficking according to the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons report, signifying a dire need for improvement going forward. Belarus’ Tier 3 status makes it one of the worst places for human trafficking in the world, despite its consistently slowing rate. Here is some information about efforts to eradicate human trafficking in Belarus.

The Situation

Belarus recorded 128 confirmed trafficking victims and nine potential victims in the Trafficking in Persons report for 2020. Meanwhile, data that NGOs compiled in 2019 has indicated that 91 identified victims comprised of 58 men and 33 women. While victims exist within Belarus, they also exist outside of Belarus’ borders as the traffickers export men for forced labor to Russia and women for sex work to western Europe. Of the 91 victims, 52 experienced exploitation in Russia.

At the moment, human trafficking predominantly affects men in Belarus by way of labor exploitation. In particular, it is common for Belarusian men to find themselves enslaved in Dagestani brick factories. Forced labor also takes place in Belarus through state-sponsored programs called “subbotniks.” These governmental programs force factory workers, civil workers and students to work on farms and clean streets, and anyone who resists experiences threats and intimidation.

Regarding trafficking rates, although they have declined throughout recent years, it would be a mistake to assume that Belarus has solved the problem as it still has a Tier 3 ranking through the U.S. State Department. The people most susceptible to falling victim to human trafficking in Belarus are women from poor families and men from small towns and villages.

Potential Solutions

In terms of where to improve, one of the most direct courses of action that Belarus can take against human trafficking is to put a stop to all subbotniks. State-sponsored forced labor poses a substantial barrier for any country wanting to seriously tackle human trafficking. Additionally, putting an end to subbotniks will help Belarus achieve a better rating from the U.S. State Department. A more broad way to eradicate human trafficking in Belarus would be to minimize poverty in the country. Since many of the people who fall victim to trafficking live in poverty, increased financial stability for those in poverty could provide alternative opportunities for them to escape it and create a recruiting challenge for traffickers.

Unfortunately, Belarus has seen heightened civil unrest and economic displeasure amongst the people under President Alexander Lukashenko’s leadership, specifically regarding stagnating wages and a lack of opportunities to earn more. Belarusian leadership should properly address these grievances in order to help elevate the peoples’ standard of living. Moreover, Belarus’ rural communities should have a specific focus on reducing poverty as they are dramatically poorer than their urban counterparts. Despite the fact that Belarus is one of Europe’s least impoverished countries, rural areas have poverty rates as high as 45.6%. With this in mind, it is essential that programs such as USAID’s Increasing Access to Finance for the Rural Population in Belarus continue in order to further help Belarus’ rural population.

La Strada

NGOs such as La Strada are also doing great work in Belarus to prevent human trafficking. La Strada lobbies, provides resources for victims, grants education for the purpose of prevention and conducts media operations to raise awareness about trafficking.

Crisis Rooms

Crisis rooms are an important part of the victim rehabilitation process and Belarus currently has 136 of them. They are places of temporary residence for trafficking victims which provide protection and resources at no cost to the victims. Belarus needs more rooms, as well as an improvement in the government-run crisis rooms. Most victims try to find private crisis rooms due to public crisis rooms being poorly equipped and short on qualified caregivers. Improving both the quantity and quality of government-run crisis rooms could provide a more accessible and healthy rehabilitation for human trafficking victims.

Belarus’ Efforts

Belarus has continually strengthened its efforts to eradicate human trafficking in Belarus. These efforts have come in the form of increased police training, substantial prison sentences for offenders and more victim protection and rehabilitation resources. The government has rolled out a national action plan which is in place to protect minors from the dangers of sex trafficking. Also, the Belarusian government, with the help of NGOs, has run a large public awareness campaign that utilizes television, radio, print media and billboards. Furthermore, La Strada set up a hotline in 2001 which people can use to help prevent trafficking by identifying illegal recruiting practices and assisting with safe travel for migrant workers.

Ultimately, Belarus has made considerable progress over the past few years in reducing rates of trafficking, but as its Tier 3 designation suggests, it still has considerable progress to make. The next steps Belarus could take would be to end subbotniks, provide assistance to NGOs and ease the difficult political, social and economic circumstances of its people. Economic disparity is a growing concern in Belarus and the implementation of programs such as USAID’s Increasing Access to Finance for the Rural Population in Belarus are crucial to mitigating disparity since poverty is conducive to human trafficking.

– Sean Kenney
Photo: Unsplash

Poverty in Belarus
The Eastern European post-Soviet state of Belarus has had a tumultuous, bumpy ride in the last 30 years. A long-treasured satellite of the Soviet Union for almost the entirety of the 20th century forced the country to adopt massive changes when it broke off from the Soviet Union when it collapsed in 1991. Since then, one man has ruled this small country with an iron grip. Alexander Lukashenko has been a dictator-like figure masquerading in a phony democratic society. He has been drawing social, economic and political policies in Belarus for the last three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union. Though he did reduce poverty according to official government statistics, there has been a high fluctuation in actual figures related to the poverty rate in Belarus since he took office in the early 1990s. Understanding the underlying causes and remedies of this poverty in Belarus is a complex affair, however, it is clear that certain political, economic and social actions have impacted the country in many ways.

Poverty in Belarus

Being one of the poorest countries in the geographical limits of Europe, the inability to properly take care of its citizens hampered Belarus. Showing its signs of instability, the Belarusian system creaked heavily during a brief two-year recession during 2015-2016. Within a matter of months, the share of the population living below the poverty line increased by three percentage points while in rural areas that number doubled. This fluctuation shows an economy and political system that is not yet resilient to normal market pressures. Additionally, according to a UNDP report, Belarus ranked in the bottom third in countries on the metric “socioeconomic sustainability” which predicts the longer-term impact of economic growth factors and the sustainability of economic output.

Compounding this dilemma, a comprehensive study concluded that much of Belarus’ economic growth in the past 20 years is quite vulnerable, citing both demographic concerns about aging and continuous reforms in the utility sector, which employs much of the workforce of the country. The myriad of challenges facing Belarus is not just abstract downstream economic impacts. President Alexander Lukashenko hampers the prosperity of his own citizenry in many ways through his brash leading style and the specific intricate political decisions that impact his citizens.

According to the University of Pennsylvania professor of Eastern European Studies, Mitchell Orenstein, the Lukashenko regime “is certainly repressive. His regime regularly beats peaceful protesters and threatens and imprisons and tortures opposition presidential candidates.” This type of social order is not conducive to finding the best public policy that helps the most people, but rather a closed-off system that is resistant to change–which is important when advancing important economic interests that lift people out of poverty in Belarus. Orenstein also notes that many Belurrusians tolerate much of this behavior, as President Lukashenko argues, “Belarus must have a powerful dictator to prevent invasion from outside forces, noting Belarus’s World War II history, and Russia’s desire to undermine Belarusian sovereignty. He also blames NATO for seeking to subdue Belarus.” This provides an underpinning of legitimacy that was successful at holding off dissatisfaction among his people, but as poverty trends stagnate, that dissatisfaction may inevitably boil over.

Improvements in Belarus

Upon examining the raw data, one might come to the conclusion that Belarus has been dealing with its poverty problem quite well since Lukashenko took office. In the year 2000, 41.9% of the population was below the national poverty line while in 2013 that number astoundingly fell 36.2 percentage points to 5.7% below the poverty line in the country. This was due to mass mobilization of the public sector for manufacturing–mainly to fuel the growing Russian economy at the time. Moreover, massive investments from multilateral organizations, such as the World Bank, spurred the production of critical infrastructure all around the country and international investment.

With the 90 million Euro investment from the World Bank in 2019, coupled with numerous other investments like the UNDP project, Belarus is making extraordinary strides in not only fighting poverty but developing and cultivating the systems that attract foreign investment in their country. Moreover, innovative NGOs are tackling every angle of the poverty cycle in the country. Organizations like Ponimanie are fighting to protect children’s rights and ensure positive outcomes for vulnerable groups of children.

This type of organization is crucial for breaking the cycle of poverty and providing opportunities to succeed in disadvantaged communities in the country. In addition, poverty in Belarus has received aid from the fact that Belarus’ main trading partners–like Russia–have experienced an economic boom as well. This reaction sets a favorable sequence into motion that spurs production in its energy and agricultural sectors lifting people out of poverty.

Importantly, while Belarus has made great strides in its ability to fight poverty (as shown by the successful years of positive economic policy and results), many of the trends have leveled off during recent times. Life expectancy, education and GNI per capita all increased dramatically over the course of the first years of the 21st century while then plateauing into the 2010s. This certainly shows progress but also highlights the inability of the Belarussian system to maintain and replicate the growth and prosperity that the country experienced 15 years ago.

While poverty in Belarus is most certainly an ongoing threat, understanding some of the more intricate causes of instability and continued poverty are important for determining the outcome of millions in this Eastern European country in the future.

– Zak Schneider
Photo: Flickr

Women’s Rights in Belarus
Belarus is a landlocked Eastern European country that Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia border. Women’s rights in Belarus have a complicated role in society. As of July 2020, Belarus reported a population of 9.4 million, over half of which were females. The 2017 estimated median age for Belarusian women is 43.1, with most falling into the 25-54 age range. The average life expectancy for Belarusian women is 74 years old.

Belarusian law has protected women since the late 16th century, and Belarus continues to celebrate its contributions to society each year on March 8 on International Women’s Day. The nation has signed onto all international documents of gender equality and has been a party to the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women since 1981.

Yet gender roles in Belarus remain staunchly traditional, largely due to the country’s historically patriarchal culture. This article will provide an overview of women’s rights in Belarus, including their history, current state and areas for improvement.

History of Women’s Movements

Belarus has a rich history of women’s activism. Activists have been fighting for women’s rights in Belarus for over a century. The first women’s advocacy group, the United Belarusian Women’s Committee, formed at the beginning of the 20th century, promoting national revival via the advancement of women’s rights. Several organizations followed its lead, eventually leading to the first women’s political party, Nadzieja, in 1994.

The 1990s were the peak of the women’s movement, however. Though the Belarusian women’s network, an organization connecting women’s rights groups, formed in 2007, it has achieved minimal success; this is largely due to the movement’s struggle to find commonality in their goals and methods of advocacy. As of 2017, women’s organizations compose less than 1.5% of all NGOs in Belarus.

A Different Kind of Movement

The women’s movement is largely non-feminist. Though Belarusian women’s groups are largely unsuccessful due to their disorganization, it is important to note that these organizations generally do not focus on the advancement of women’s social and political rights. Belarusians instead emphasize women’s unique role as mothers, housekeepers and wives; they seek to protect and honor women in these traditional roles. As a result, most of these organizations have the prevention of violence against women as a top priority.

Tacciana Karatkievič, Belarus’s first female presidential candidate, is emblematic of these cultural values. Even as a public political figure, she adopted a ‘motherly’ persona rather than promoting gender equality.

In Business and Politics

Women remain underrepresented in business and politics.  A significant wage gap remains between the sexes. In 2016, the average salary of Belarusian women was 25% lower than men, and women only occupied 23% of high academic positions. In the 2017 rating of the best business people in Belarus, only seven out of 200 were women. Women are similarly a minority in politics, where, although about 30% of parliament members are female, there are little to no female chairpersons, administrators and deputies. This underrepresentation has consequences: according to an Internet survey of 1,519 women, 90% face discrimination at the workplace. Very few organizations are working to rectify these issues, however.

Women led the 2020 protests. Belarus made international headlines in 2020 for its massive protests against the contested reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko, which many believe was rigged. Women have a leading role in the movement, speaking out against Lukashenko’s past comments about women, which many consider sexist. These activists, distinctive in white dresses at rallies and demonstrations, also have voiced frustration about the constant harassment Belarusian women are subject to.

The Road Ahead

NGOs are fighting for change. Although fragmented, numerous NGOs exist that are advocating for women’s rights in Belarus. For example, the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) Belarus works to create new jobs in sustainable development and green energy specifically for women so that they are equally represented in the workforce. TUNDP Belarus earned the UNDP Equality Bronze Seal in 2015 for its successful strides toward greater gender equality. One successful UNDP initiative is its establishment of a system for collecting sex-disaggregated data to monitor and reduce HIV prevalence.

The Karat Coalition for Gender Equality began in February 2014 and has been working to have Belarusian law explicitly ensure women’s human rights. Karat has laid the groundwork for more comprehensive laws protecting women. It is currently working on a Belarusian draft law on gender equality, which it has received positive feedback on from the Belarusian government. This is a promising step that indicates greater equality in the law in the near future.

The Center for the Promotion of Women’s Rights—Her Rights is another Belarusian NGO that provides free and confidential help for women who experience gender-based violence and discrimination, especially domestic violence. The group helps at least 20 women each month escape unsafe homes and work environments.

The results of Belarus’s current social unrest are yet to emerge. But there is reason to believe that women’s rights in Belarus may finally begin to become a priority. The successful ventures of small, citizen-led groups indicate that the fight for Belarusian gender equality, though slow-moving, is leading to societal change.

Abby Tarwater
Photo: Flickr