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

COVID-19 in Belarus
With a population of nearly 10 million, Belarus is one of the largest countries in Eastern Europe, and its problems with COVID-19 are just as great. Since its first cases were reported, the country has struggled with treating the virus and limiting its spread. Outbreaks of COVID-19 in Belarus have already revealed flaws in the country’s health infrastructure that could cause problems even after the pandemic ends.

What You Should Know About COVID-19 in Belarus

  1. The true scale of the outbreak remains unknown. Although Belarus began testing for COVID-19 in January, the country reported its first case on February 28. As of May 18, there were 30,572 confirmed cases and 171 deaths resulting from the pandemic. The majority of confirmed cases have occurred in the country’s urban areas on account of their high population density, with the Belarusian capital of Minsk reporting over 4,000 cases on April 24. The Ministry of Health has not provided a cumulative total of recovered patients, making it difficult to know the total number of infections.
  2. Belarus’ government has not enacted strict social distancing policies. While many countries adopted shelter-in-place policies in March and April, Belarus’s government has yet to implement a country-wide shutdown of non-essential businesses. So far, individual cities have decided how to protect their citizens, with some canceling social gatherings and extending school vacations. Unfortunately, this approach has led to an inconsistent response that has failed to slow the spread of the virus.
  3. Medical supplies are limited. Despite having 11 hospital beds per 1,000 people – one of the highest ratios in the world – the lack of quarantine protocols quickly overwhelmed Belarus’ healthcare system. Patients treated for COVID-19-related pneumonia observed that nurses and other healthcare officials were uninformed and inadequately equipped to handle the growing number of cases. Due to supply shortages and limited social distancing, epidemiologists predict that between 15,000 and 32,000 people could die of COVID-19.
  4. The pandemic could force the country into a recession. One reason Belarus lacks a comprehensive social distancing policy is that the country may not be able to afford it. Even before the crisis, Belarus’ economy had started to slow down, with GDP growth dropping from 3% to 1.2% between 2018 and 2019. Economists predict that reduced trade with Western Europe and Russia due to the pandemic could push the country into a recession. While the economic impact of COVID-19 is still unclear, it could cause Belarus’ economy to contract by up to 4%. This may require Belarus to cut spending on programs for vulnerable populations such as low-income households.
  5. The international community is stepping up. Due to the shortage of personal protective equipment and medical supplies in Belarus, other countries have begun shipping supplies over. On April 17, 32 tons of medical equipment such as thermometers, goggles, and gloves arrived in Belarus from China. At the same time, the European Union announced a 3 billion euro relief fund for 10 Eastern European countries, including Belarus. Belarus may require more aid in the future, but these contributions will help ease the country’s financial strain.

Although the full implications of the pandemic are still unknown, foreign aid will reduce the impact of COVID-19 in Belarus. Such aid is vitally important for the country’s ability to protect its sick and vulnerable populations.

Sarah Licht
Photo: Flickr

Human Rights in Belarus
Belarus, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, has dealt with external and internal oppression for decades. Alexander Lukashenko has been the president for 23 years and has held a tight grip on the country. Widely regarded as Europe’s last dictatorship, the government maintains power through intimidating those who would oppose them. Lukashenko controls a police force that is still referred to as the KGB, and political freedoms are stifled. Human rights in Belarus are often oppressed by the totalitarian government.

Activists working for human rights in Belarus are often arrested on baseless charges, and journalists endure oppressive sanctions and harassment. It is illegal to join an organization that is not formally registered with the government, and it is very difficult for groups not associated with the government to receive permission to register.

Last year, the European Union removed the sanctions meant to improve human rights in Belarus because Lukashenko released several prisoners who had been held unjustly. In October, Belarus created a plan to reduce human rights violations, but many critics say it is not specific enough to adequately improve the situation.

In March 2017, the police arrested almost 1,000 people who were peacefully protesting a law that taxes every citizen not working full-time. The suppression of this protest stands out as the worst human rights violation since the unjust election in 2010.

Belarus has also reinstated the death penalty and has executed several people without permission from the U.N. Human Rights Council. The next time the council meets, the country will endure a thorough evaluation and the U.N. will likely decide to take action to intervene on behalf of human rights in Belarus.

The EU has stated that it will not continue to support Belarus if the country continues to violate human rights. This move is meant to force Belarus to improve conditions, as its economy is largely dependent on imports from other countries.

Belarus does not meet the standards of human rights required for European countries by the U.N., but the events of the past couple years have shone a spotlight on the government’s misdemeanors. This spotlight has renewed the EU and U.N. focus on improving human rights in Belarus, and their work should improve conditions in the next decade.

Julia Mccartney

10 Facts About Belarussian Refugees
World War I was a massive turning point in the history of Belarus. Affecting the local economy, the war caused massive migration and displacement. Throughout the almost-century since then, the collapse of the Russian Empire, revolutions, various occupations and wars, Belarus has struggled to establish itself as an independent state. Belarus’s independence has been recognized globally since 1991.

Today, the country’s population is 84% Belarusian, 8.3% Russian, 3% Polish and 1.7% Ukrainian. Other ethnic groups in Belarus include Tatars, Jews and Roma. Over three million Belarusians live outside the country, most of them in Russia, Ukraine, Canada and the United States.

Here are 9 facts about Belarusian refugees:

  1. There were several waves of Belarusian refugees into the U.S. The first was before the Russian Revolution, then between 1919 and 1939 from West Belarus, then from the late 1940 to the early 1950s (after World War II), with the most recent wave of refugees coming after the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s.
  2. On March 28, 1928, 104 families moved to Birobidzhan from Belarus. The city in Siberia, near the Chinese border, became an administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast by a decision of the Communist Party.
  3. In the post-World War II period, from 1948 to the early 1950s, about 50,000 Belarusians fled to the U.S. Most of them left states all over Europe for political reasons.
  4. The largest concentrations of Belarusian Americans are in the metropolitan New York area, New Jersey, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Detroit.
  5. More than 340 Belarusian refugees resettled in Minnesota during the years 2003-2015.
  6. According to data made available to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) by asylum countries, the number of Belarusian refugees seeking asylum in 29 of the most industrialized countries in the world has increased dramatically since 2000. The number of cases of Belarusian refugees and asylum-seekers has grown from 3,291 in 2000 to 6,480 in 2010, peaking in 2006 at 11,062.
  7. Volha Charnysh, a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Harvard University and executive editor of the Belarus Digest, found that more people from Belarus seek asylum elsewhere than people from Kyrgyzstan or Russia when taking differences in population size into account.
  8. In her article “Belarus Produces More Refugees Than It Saves” published in 2014, Charnish explained that many Belarusians obtain refugees status or seek asylum for political and social reasons, as political activists are often encouraged to go into exile.
  9. The Chernobyl disaster changed Belarusian migration patterns in the 1980s. Following the accident, where a majority of the nuclear fallout landed in Belarus, many Belarusian natives resettled internationally.

Belarusian refugees are resettling in the EU, the U.S., Australia, Canada and Russia. The latest wave of refugees consists mostly of professionals – software and other engineers, scientists, students and athletes.

Yana Emets

Photo: Flickr

Top Diseases in BelarusBelarus is a relatively large country in Europe with a population of 9.5 million people. The life expectancy in Belarus is 71 years with females living longer than males. Understanding the top diseases in Belarus is key to improving preventative care and medical assistance available to the citizens. The top 10 diseases in Belarus have remained the same over the last decade.

Ischemic heart disease is the most prevalent disease and has risen almost 9 percent in the last decade. Males are more likely to have heart disease later in life than females. Cerebrovascular disease has also maintained its position over the decade as the second-most prevalent diseases. However, it has seen a decrease of just about 5 percent over the last decade.

Belarus has the highest mortality rate due to cardiovascular diseases in Europe. There are other countries around Europe where the impact of heart disease is much lower. Places like Norway, France and the Netherlands all have relatively low rates of heart disease. Studying healthcare and government initiatives of these countries could help Belarus fight these disease on the home front.

Since 1983, cardiac rehabilitation has been routinely used by doctors in Belarus after a cardiac event. In 2016, 53 percent of patients underwent rehab to strengthen their heart back to working condition. The opportunity to monitor patients and control the rehab process with newer technology is working to bring people back to healthy lives after a cardiac event.

More of the top 10 diseases in Belarus include three different types of cancers. Lung cancer is the only cancer that is in the top five. The other two types of cancer are colorectal and stomach cancer.

Alzheimer’s disease saw an increase of 37 percent over the last decade and jumped from eighth on the list up to fourth.

The main risk factors for the top diseases in Belarus include diet, high blood pressure, alcohol and drug abuse and smoking. Many of these risk factors can be controlled with preventative measures. Controlling even a few of these risk factors could drastically reduce the number of cases of heart disease and cancers.

Belarus is still feeling the effects of communist rule under which healthcare was severely neglected. However, there is a very large number of doctors, about 42,000, relative to the size of the population. There is also emergency care available. The country has 834 hospitals and more than 100,000 beds.

The top diseases in Belarus are similar to the rest of the world, with heart disease as the leading cause of death. Focusing on controlling risk factors and increasing preventative care could help to decrease the prevalence of these diseases and increase the life expectancy for Belarusians.

Brendin Axtman

Photo: Flickr

Water Quality in Belarus
A former member of the Soviet Union, Belarus has been under the control of President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. The country has almost 10 million citizens and is known for its suppression of free speech. Belarus currently depends on Russia for most of its energy supply and trade deals.

The country has a history filled with oppression and this manifests in the poverty seen in Belarus. As of 2014, 17.8 percent of citizens lived on an income below the level needed to support themselves. Equal access to clean drinking water is key to lifting communities and families out of poverty. In the past decade or so, water quality in Belarus improved, inspiring hope that poverty will continue to decrease.

Belarus has more than enough water sources to satisfy the needs of citizens. The roadblock to safe drinking water for everyone is pollution and an inability to distribute resources equally. Laws regarding ownership of bodies of water can cause conflict, especially when waterways border other states.

Environmental pollution is a huge issue for Belarus. It was the area of the Soviet Union most affected by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, and the consequences of that can still be seen today. The cities in Belarus are also very polluted due to industrial pursuits, and waste from factories can compromise water supplies.

Currently, 100 percent of Belarus has access to drinking water sources. Seven percent still does not have access to properly sanitized water, but these statistics are very encouraging when compared to other countries.

Without proper precautions, drinking water has a high risk of being contaminated and is not safe to drink due to a high iron content. The Water Supply and Sanitation Project worked to supply Belorussians with clean water. Funded by the World Bank, this project gave over 300,000 citizens access to a safe source of drinking water.

With the government’s newfound focus on improving the water quality in Belarus, equal access to clean water should be attainable.

Julia Mccartney

Photo: Flickr

Belarus is an Eastern European country that was previously one of the founding republics of the defunct Soviet Union. Like many former Soviet states, Belarus struggles from residual problems left behind by the USSR’s past influence, such as a poor human rights record and institutionalized authoritarianism. Despite the country’s rooted issues, it displays encouraging signs of development in food security. Unlike many other troubled countries, there are very low levels of hunger in Belarus.

Since 1997, Belarus has boasted an impressive Global Hunger Index score of less than five, indicating that the country as a whole does not suffer from prolonged food shortages and famine. Additionally, Belarus enjoys falling mortality rates as well as a marked decline in stunting and wasting in children younger than five years of age.

Overall, hunger and related issues are not widespread in Belarus, even though it remains a developing country. Much of the success in ending hunger in Belarus is attributable to the government’s prioritization of food security. The 1998 National Food Security Program developed standards for food security as well as measures to achieve hunger-prevention goals.

While Belarus benefits from commendably low hunger statistics, the country’s continued growth is limited by persisting Soviet-era practices in numerous economic sectors, especially agriculture. Foreign aid and development institutions such as the United Staties Agency for International Development have provided and continue to provide assistance towards privatization and free-market reforms intended to stimulate growth throughout the Belarusian economy.

Although Belarus does not struggle from significant food shortages, the country continues to face the consequences of the infamous 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown, in which nearly 70 percent of the radioactive fallout from the compromised plant landed in Belarus. Radiation contaminates about one-fifth of the nation’s farmland, and many Belarusians in the surrounding areas eat food that comes from these contaminated areas. Many Belarusians suffer from health issues caused by or related to exposure to radioactive fallout or contaminated food.

Fortunately, many organizations work to improve conditions for Belarus and its people by continuing to provide aid. One nonprofit, Overflowing Hands, brings Belarusian youth to the U.S. for six weeks every summer to provide access to clean food and a healthy environment, counteracting the detrimental effects of radiation exposure. According to Overflowing Hands, health care professionals estimate that for every six weeks they are kept away from radiation exposure, children and teens gain two years back to their lifespans. Overflowing Hands even teaches the Belarusian youth compassion by getting them involved in food aid and community service programs.

Hopefully, organizations such as Overflowing Hands will be successful in providing meaningful support by minimizing the already low levels of hunger in Belarus and finding solutions for Belarusians exposed to radioactivity. Similarly to Overflowing Hands’ youth summer program, perhaps these organizations will even succeed in empowering vulnerable Belarusians to help others.

Isidro Rafael Santa Maria

Photo: Flickr

Every year, the Social Progress Imperative comes out with an index that measures how individual countries perform in basic human needs, foundations of well-being, and opportunity. One subset of the foundations of well-being category is health and wellness. This subset takes into account life expectancy, non-communicable disease deaths between the ages of 30 and 70, obesity, outdoor air pollution attributed deaths and suicide rates. Below is a list of the world’s ten most unhealthy countries in the world, based on this subset.

10. Bulgaria, 60.63

Bulgaria is in the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula. The country has a high mortality rate from cardiovascular disease. Additionally, Bulgaria has the worst air quality in Europe, with some of the highest concentrations of particulate matter, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.

9. Mozambique, 60.40

Mozambique’s main health problems are to due with high mortality rates due to drought, poverty and HIV/AIDS, as well as a lack of experienced health workers in the country. The HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to decimate portions of the population in the country. In addition, capacity building and risk reduction expertise are both low.

8. Swaziland, 60.29

Located in southern Africa, Swaziland has an extremely high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, reaching over 26 percent. Swaziland needs the most improvement in life expectancy and non-communicable disease deaths between 30 and 70.

7. Latvia, 59.97

Latvia, too, has problems with air quality that cause long-term health problems. Latvia also needs to address substance abuse problems such as alcohol and tobacco, which both contribute to ill health in the country at a disproportional rate.

6. Armenia, 59.36

Armenia’s health issues revolve around a broken, extremely expensive health care system that cannot meet the burden of care. With economic downturn, basic medicines and doctor visits can become too expensive.

5. Moldova, 58.00

Moldova is currently experiencing negative population growth. The two main causes of death are heart disease and cancer. Moldova has high rates of substance abuse-related deaths, like alcohol and tobacco. Tuberculosis, especially multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, is rapidly becoming a major health concern in the country.

4. Belarus, 56.56

The main areas that need improvement in Belarus are non-communicable diseases and suicide rates. The country, located in Eastern Europe, is also relatively polluted, which can cause long-term ill-health.

3. Russia, 51.99

Russia needs improvement in almost all categories, including life expectancy, non-communicable diseases, air pollution and suicide rates. Additionally, Russia experiences high rates of mortality due to smoking for both men and women. HIV/AIDS is also becoming more of a concern.

2. Ukraine, 51.82

Ukraine, located in Eastern Europe, has similar problems as its neighbors, mainly bad air quality, high levels of tobacco and alcohol abuse and high suicide rates. Additionally, Ukrainians spend about 13 percent of their lives in ill-health, which is much higher than most of their neighbors. Ukraine also has the highest rate of infectious diseases in Europe.

1. Kazakhstan, 49.93

Kazakhstan, located in Central Asia, is ranked as the unhealthiest country in the world, according to the Social Progress Imperative. Kazakhstan needs dramatic improvement in life expectancy, deaths related to non-communicable diseases, air quality and suicide rates. HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis have become growing concerns; TB, especially, is of great concern because of drug-resistance.

Caitlin Huber

Sources: Social Progress Imperative, World Health Organization 1, World Health Organization 2, World Health Organization 3, World Health Organization 4, World Health Organization 5, New York Times, UNICEF, National Center for Biotechnology Information, Common Dreams, World Bank, University of Pittsburgh
Photo: Flickr

Ales_BelyatskyLeading Belarus human rights activist, Ales Belyatsky, was released early from prison this week after only serving three of a four-and-a-half year sentence for tax evasion. Belyatsky, who ran the rights group Vesna-96, was arrested for an alleged tax evasion after officials in Poland and Lithuania unwittingly supplied information regarding information in his bank accounts. Belarus, which imposes strict restrictions on the financing of NGOs, rules out virtually any financial help from abroad.

Yet Belyatsky, whose arrest was deemed “politically motivated,” never pleaded guilty for his alleged crimes, and attributed the funds in the bank account to years of supporting victims of human rights abuses in Belarus. In fact, there are at least seven other human rights activists in Belarus currently imprisoned, and while Belyatsky has been released early, many attribute his release to internal–and external–pressure toward the regime. The United States, among other countries, has commended Belyatsky’s release and urged Belarus to do the same for the rest of their prisoners.

Belyatsky claims he still feels part of the system, and while his release was unexpected, he has remained vigilant against the Belarusian regime. The regime, which has kept a tight authoritative control over the years, has consistently worked to eliminate human rights groups, squandering their political rights. While Belaytsky’s release may be seen from the West as a sign of improvement, those from the country fear this may be a political move to ensure a renewal of dialogue with the European Nation.

Despite his stint in prison, Belyatsky does not regret his activism. “I am not sorry for those three years spent in prison,” he said. “This is the price you pay for making Belarus a free and democratic country.” Belyatsky hopes other human rights prisoners, who often face extreme measures of psychological abuse under imprisonment, will be granted the right to follow suit.

– Nick Magnanti

Sources: KyivPost, Reuters, Charter97, Index on Censorship
Photo: Ozera

Despite the fact that Belarus has one of the lowest poverty rates of the post-Soviet states, poverty, though not extreme, threatens the welfare of her people. Only 1% of Belarusians are living on less than $1 a day, but a more concerning 27.1% are below the poverty line, with 17.8% living below the minimum subsistence level. The “minimum subsistence level” is defined per the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs as “a minimum level of income, which is considered to be necessary to ensure sustenance and other basic personal needs at a level allowing the individual to survive.” The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Belarus identifies the “rural population, children, and single-parent households” as the most vulnerable victims of poverty.

Fortunately, the UNDP is executing a poverty reduction plan in Belarus that fosters the development of small businesses and, therefore, encourages a vibrant private sector. The plan is spearheaded by multiple players, from the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank to the Belarusian government and small rural Belarusian businesses. The UNDP hopes that the installation of an agricultural business sector will rejuvenate rural Belarus and bring an end to poverty in the Eastern European country.

Rural initiatives are especially necessary in former Soviet territories where local economies have declined due to the rocky transition from collective to private farming that occurred after the fall of the USSR in the early 1990’s. Agricultural workers were completely unprepared to grow crops on their own. This resulted in a situation in which uneducated farmers with limited resources in a now free-market economy were unable to maximize the productivity of their land.

Part of the UNDP’s strategy has included the establishment of the Rural Business Development Center outside of Minsk, the nation’s capital. The Center is the legal hub for the development of former Soviet collective farms into efficient private enterprises. The director of the Center, Alla Voitekhovich, describes the day-to-day activities of the Center as including the “registration of small enterprises, the conducting of market surveys, (and) the facilitation of job creation,” among other efforts. The RBDC also holds workshops for small business owners and entrepreneurs and has recently begun to encourage local farmers to exploit agro-tourism as a means of job creation in the region.

The UNDP says that rural poverty has been significantly reduced in Belarus in the last decade, stating “From 2000 to 2009, the share of poor households dropped by 7.4 times in rural areas.” Surely, the UNDP has made great strides in Belarus, breathing new life into an agricultural system that only a short time ago seemed irreparably broken. The success of the UNDP in rural Belarus is truly a testament to the resourcefulness and efficiency of the United Nations.

Josh Forgét

Sources: UNDP Belarus, CIA World Factbook, Czech Republic Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs
Photo: Spotlight