The Belarus Programme
While Belarus is a large and strategically important country in the heartland of Europe, it remains a blind-spot on the continent’s map of ethnic minorities. Belarus is not a Council of Europe member, and even though it is a participating state of the OSCE, it is not covered by the activities of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities due to difficulties in working with the current political regime. The international community’s concerns over the state of human rights/minority rights are on the agenda, but it seems strenuous to address them. Major international minority and human rights NGOs do not operate in Belarus and many civil society organizations conduct their work cautiously. On the other hand, Belarus seems to be interested in making its voice heard in Europe. Recently the government has declared European integration a strategic goal for the country and lifted a number of restrictions. Addressing minority issues, working with existing minority organizations and governmental institutions in a transparent way may lead to improved relations between Belarus and the rest of Europe.
Minorities such as Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Tatars, Lithuanians, Jews, Armenians, Roma and other communities that have resided on the country’s territory since long constitute about 16 per cent of the country’s population. Also, several minority organizations operate in Belarus. They are by and large locally organized and only few formed umbrella organizations representing them in the formal Consultative Interethnic Council. They undertake very little joint activities and are not strongly involved at the social level, being rather voiceless and invisible both within and outside the country. The Plenipotentiary for Religious and Nationalities Affairs repeatedly admitted that his office and minority NGOs needed implementation of European standards and increasing their operational capacities. ECMI envisages the involvement of various civil society organizations working on minority issues: the Young Lawyer Association can conduct legal reviews and the Belarus Association of Journalists can address the inter-ethnic relations and tolerance issues.
For more on the ECMI Belarus Programme, please contact Ewa Chylinski