Belarusian civil society in Lithuania: how really welcome are we?

Protests in Minsk
Protests in Minsk, Scanpix

Over the last several years, more and more Belarusian Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have been relocating to Lithuania after it became too difficult or, in some cases, even impossible for them to operate in their home country due to political reasons. However, the official position of the Lithuanian government pronounces that they are most welcome, and the government indeed assisted them such as simplified visa procedures, financial support, and politically expressed refuge from Minsk.

However, problems remain, yet they are not unsolvable. Here, several Belarusian civil society representatives discuss some of those problems and, at the same time, suggest their solutions. Some responsibility also falls on the Lithuanian civil society.

Legal terra incognita, arrogance of the banks, and other challenges

While the general environment in Lithuania for Belarusian NGOs is quite friendly, several issues make a life for them somewhat difficult, says Anna Gerasimova, independent expert, analyst, and former Director of the Belarusian Human Rights House. First of all, these are formal requirements, such as legislation applicable to NGOs not being translated into a language other than Lithuanian.

“In some cases, the most recent translation of a law is from 2009, while the latest amendments [to that particular law] were made in 2020. This is clearly not a situation where one would want to rely on Google Translate, so it’s difficult for Belarusian NGOs to know how to really operate here,” Gerasimova says. As a result, Lithuanian civil society actors in Lithuania are forced to spend their precious resources on translation and legal advisory services. It also further complicates issues such as accounting, which in itself is already complex for cross-border activities.

Zmicer Herylovich of the Belarusian National Youth Council RADA agrees, explaining the lack of legal requirements in a language that the Belarusian civil society speaks – preferably Russian but also English. “Legislation and taxation issues are still terra incognita for those who relocate to Lithuania from Belarus,” he says.

This partly relates to the actual logistics of registering a non-governmental organisation, and secondly, its daily operations in the context of legal requirements. In Lithuania, many government services are accessible online, sometimes – only online, without a paper version that could be obtained in person or by post. While Lithuanian NGOs can register online using a simple procedure – provided they have the so-called “electronic or mobile signature” (accessed through e-banking or e-government services), which residents can easily obtain, – for foreign NGOs that generally do not possess one, the process is much more complex and time-consuming. “So many complications for something that was supposed to be a much easier process,” Gerasimova says.

The banks cause another big problem that Belarusian citizens face in Lithuania: more as a rule rather than an exception, commercial banks refuse to open bank accounts for either Belarusian individuals or their NGOs, citing “possible money laundering”. Without a bank account, it is extremely difficult for an organisation to receive funding for its activities, pay salaries for employees and contracted individuals, purchase services or materials they need to operate, etc. Gerasimova says that although this problem is not confined to Lithuania alone, it poses a real threat to the ability of civil society organisations to provide much-needed benefits to communities and the society at large. “Banks started playing the role of a regulator,” Gerasimova says. “So you formally register your organisation in Lithuania, then you go to a bank to open a bank account, and the bank tells you that you have no business being here in Lithuania! We’ve seen many organisations being forced to close their bank accounts and desperately try to find a solution to be able to receive funding. This is a huge problem.”

In the background of these issues, there is also an internal exile-related one, namely – the question of identity. The question arises: how to identify yourself when you are away from Belarus but dealing with Belarus anyway? Tatsiana Chulitskaya, academic Director of the Belarus/Lithuania-based School of Young Managers in Public Administration (SYMPA), says that today Belarusian civil society basically exists in survival mode.

“Many organisations that have been working for 20 or 30 years have now ceased to exist legally in Belarus and are forced to act from abroad. It is a huge challenge: how to organise their activities and reach their target audience while being elsewhere,” she says. “So in parallel, they have to solve both the issue of survival, i. e., their own physical security, and how to re-establish their activities – or rather start them from zero, how to reach from outside people who are inside. Here, all the organisational support is very much needed.”

Solutions exist, already

Together with listing the problems they face in Lithuania, Belarusian civil society representatives also offer solutions. While some of those are pretty straightforward, others could take longer and would require more effort, mainly from the Lithuanian side.

Making the relevant laws and other legal procedures available in foreign languages, primarily English, is one of those straightforward solutions that government agencies could easily implement. In relation to that is the establishment of a centralised info-point for foreign CSOs operating or wishing to operate in Lithuania, as proposed by Herylovich and agreed to by all other participants. It could be a one-stop informational desk where all the legal procedures and requirements demanded by Lithuania’s laws would be explained for foreigners and details regarding visas, residency, taxes, etc.

Having expressed his gratitude for Lithuanian state-sponsored study programmes such as scholarships for Belarusian students to study in Vilnius or support for the European Humanitarian University currently based in Lithuania, Herylovich adds that such programmes should be prolonged and extended. He also says that as the youth sector usually lacks financial resources, institutional support for the rent of premises for youth organisations to meet would be very much welcomed. It would also help cover living wages for youth CSOs, given that average salaries in Lithuania are 2 or 3 times higher than in Belarus, and due to the taxation system, it is often difficult to find the necessary funds to cover administrational costs, as project money is usually designed for activities and re-arranging funds already confirmed by donors is no easy task.

As for the problem with the banks, it is a bit trickier. Rytis Jokubauskas, Director of the Lithuanian NGO Law Institute, has been helping Belarusian NGOs threatened by Lithuanian commercial banks with transferring their data to law enforcement on allegations of money laundering. This, even though there was no indication of a crime – unless donors such as the Swedish embassy in the Netherlands are for some reason suspicious to Lithuanian banks, most of which have their HQ in that same Scandinavia. But Jokubauskas believes the bank problem, too, could be tackled. “One way would be for governmental institutions to talk to the Lithuanian Central bank, which would, in turn, talk to commercial banks to deliver the message,” he says.

However, both problems and their solutions are not solely for the benefit of the Belarusians, as Gerasimova points out. “We’re talking about Belarus as an exception to the rule. While exceptional measures are being taken [in favour of Belarusian CSOs], I think it’s not so much an exception if Lithuania wants to be open to international actors coming in to drive the economy: the Belarusian CSO case only shows the issues that everybody else will face too,” she says.

At the same time, the commercial banks’ behaviour seems to be dishonest, to say the least. “Robust legislation has been adopted recently across the world in terms of money laundering and tax evasion, but as we have seen from the Pandora papers, these laws only apply to the small and the poor, while the rich and powerful always find a way [to avoid them],” Gerasimova says. Therefore there is the absolute need to first and foremost help the smaller organisations in civil society.

The only Lithuanian government representative present at the online meeting with Belarusian CSO representatives was Justina Lukaševičiūtė, Head of the NGO Development Division at the Ministry of Social Security and Labour. She reiterated that we are now probably “on the right track”, but “the way is long, not short”.

According to her, the most important thing that the Lithuanian government could provide the Belarusian civil society with – which is also what the Lithuanian civil society needs – is education, competence-building and strengthening, to empower the next generation. Lukaševičiūtė says that without competencies in advocacy and other civil activities, it is hard to move forward. Chulitskaya, the Academic Director of SYMPA, confirmed that educational programmes are necessary and appreciated and should be continued. Still, the Belarusian civil society is facing huge problems today, not in 10 years from now. Accordingly, they should be dealt with now. Solutions do not stand in the way of education and do not replace it, nor are they themselves replaced by education.

Why the Minsk-Vilnius route, one-way for now

Recently, the NGO Law Institute in Lithuania published a study titled “Eastern Partnership and Lithuania: Challenges for NGOs, Solutions and Opportunities. Case study: Belarus”, in which it provided an overview of the general situation for NGOs in the EU Eastern Partnership countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The study shows that all six are facing various challenges. “The common trend [in these countries] is that governments don’t trust NGOs very much, which leads to governments tending to regulate NGOs, and in many cases over-regulate them, as well as impose all sorts of limitations on their activities,” says the Institute’s Director Jokubauskas.

In many ways, this has been the dire reality for CSOs in Belarus in particular, especially over the last couple of years. “CSOs are dealing with a non-friendly environment in Belarus,” Jokubauskas says, adding that the annual CSO Sustainability Index for 2019 shows no significant improvement for CSOs when compared to 2009 – more than a decade ago. And this is without taking into consideration the latest attacks by the state against civil society in Belarus that have greatly increased and intensified in scope since 2020. So while official procedures for registering NGOs in Belarus are not much different from those in other countries, when it comes to implementing them, the reality is that authorities are denying many NGOs registration for political reasons. Additionally, there are no tax exemptions or other positive encouragements from the government for NGOs to act.

Many people actively engaged in civil society actions in Belarus have been threatened, imprisoned, or otherwise persecuted by the Alexander Lukashenka government. As a result, some have chosen to relocate to neighbouring Lithuania and continue their activities from across the border.

Self-notes for the Lithuanian civil society

“What we need is that Lithuanian NGOs participate in advocacy campaigns because it involves communication with Lithuanian governmental bodies. It’s about how to make the legislation more suitable to international aid, not only Belarus. It’s about this problem with banks,” says Natallia Rabava, analyst and SYMPA director. “If we want to change it, we really need well-organised advocacy campaigns, but Belarusian NGOs are not able to organise them themselves without the help from Lithuanian NGOs.” Chulitskaya agrees: “We should have a roundtable with Belarusian and other CSOs, and with all political stakeholders. Dialogue and consultations must all be inclusive.”

From their own side, Lithuanian civil society actors want to see a more precise direction as formulated by the government: is supporting Belarusians with a safe yet temporary home enough? Do we want to support long-term civil society development? How ready are we to deal with this situation in case its temporality is extended for years or even decades? At the same time, Lithuanian CSOs should clarify first to themselves and then to others what their role in supporting Belarusian CSOs is. What are their tasks, and how to implement them?

“Many of these Belarusian NGOs had been our development cooperation partners before their relocation to Lithuania. Such regional partnership was greatly beneficial to both sides,” says Justina Kaluinaitė, Policy, Advocacy and Partnership Advisor for the Lithuanian NGDO Platform. “The current issues that Belarusian civil society is facing in Lithuania not only require an honest dialogue between all stakeholders, but they also present a great opportunity to become true and equal partners once again. Let us not forget that partnership is what both our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour publicly declare.”

This aspect becomes even more important given that the need for common inter-institutional policy has greatly increased. Kaluinaitė explains that development cooperation funding provided to some NGOs in the neighbouring country comes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Still, since Belarusian NGOs are now in Lithuania, they fall under the Ministry of Social Affairs wing, which deals with the non-governmental sector.

Additionally, the focus of Belarusian CSOs has shifted slightly, as their target audience is now partly in Belarus, partly in Lithuania. “We clearly see an urgent need for cooperation and a common strategy towards Lithuania’s assistance to Belarusian civil society in Lithuania,” Kaluinaitė says. “The need for bilingual legislation, wider availability of e-government services and their adaptation to non-residents, a central info point for foreign NGOs operating in Lithuania – these issues were already present yesterday. So the dialogue and action on them have to start, albeit belatedly, today.”

As for the Lithuanian civil society, the Lithuanian NGDO Platform calls for mutual support and inclusiveness. “We should ask our Belarusian colleagues about their needs and find ways to address them. This should not be about leaving the problems for others to solve – we are all responsible in our respective civil society fields. It is never enough to declare political will and support without any real action taken.”

This piece has been prepared by the Lithuanian Development Cooperation Platform. It is based on an online discussion titled Belarusian Civil Society in Lithuania: Integration, Situation, and Next Steps organised by the Lithuanian NGDO and moderated by Gaja Šavelė, Executive Director at Lithuanian NGO Coalition.

NB: In this article, the terms NGO (non-governmental organisation) and CSO (civil society organisation) are used interchangeably.

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