Protesters oppose Belarus-Russia union, new laws on volunteering and foreign grants expected


Belarus prepares for draft law on volunteering, while new legislation on foreign grants almost finalised

On 26th December 2019, the Decree “On Approving the Plan for the Preparation of Bills for 2020” was adopted. It included the preparation ofthe Law of the Republic of Belarus “On Volunteering” which is expected to be ready by November 2020 and thereafter submitted to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly in March 2021. The Centre for Legal Transformation advised non-profit organisations to begin developing proposals that will inform the structure and content of the bill.

Separately, the Law Transformation Center wrote to the Department of Humanitarian Affairs and the Ministry of Economy requesting information about plans to amend legislation on foreign aid and grants (sponsorship) assistance in 2020. This followed an announcement by the Department of Humanitarian Affairs in July 2019 that new legislation would take effect in January 2020. In their letter, the Law Transformation Centre also inquired whether there were plans to discuss the practices stipulated in new legislation with the public. Replying to these inquiries, the Ministry of Economy said that the new law on the use of grant (sponsor) assistance which had already passed public discussion was submitted to the Government and was being finalised. A second round of public discussion was not planned. The Department of Humanitarian Affairs said that a training seminar on the practical application of the decree on Foreign Aid would be held for recipients of foreign donations once the law is adopted.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests held against establishment of a Russia-Belarus State Union

After the publication of an article in the Kommersant publication in September 2019, more officials began to publicly debate the idea of establishing the Russia-Belarus State Union. The article by Kommersant spoke about the unification of the fiscal codes of the two states. In protest against this development, Belarussian citizens launched a petition to plead against Belarus "being swallowed" by Russia. The petition gathered more than 1,500 signatories in the first few days. In the end, the number of signatories exceeded 10,000.

In December 2019, citizens held several protests as they chanted slogans against unification with "imperialist Russia". Several protesters, including members of opposition parties, activists and representatives of civil society were detained by the police and subsequently fined. According to media reports, the number of fines issued totalled USD 40,000. Activists announced a fundraising auction to pay the fines for the detainees. Court hearings for the detainees were scheduled in January 2020.

In one such instance, on 7th December 2019 it was reported that over 1,000 citizens took to the streets to express dissatisfaction with the warming relations between Belarus and Russia. The protest came after a meeting was held between Alexandr Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, where the topic ofthe Union of Russia-Belarus States was discussed again. Protesters carried placards that read: "It's not integration, it's an occupation" and "The president is selling our country" as they marched towards the government headquarters in Minsk. Police were deployed to the scene but made no arrests.

On 16th December 2019 however, a pro Russia-Belarus integration rally was organised in October square in Minsk to express support for the integration. According to the Russian press, only journalists attended this action as it was announced rather late and protesters failed to obtain the necessary authorisation on time. In addition, the organisers of the rally also indicated that they had abandoned the rally because they had ‘burned out’ and did not have resources to pay for any possible fines that would follow, as had been the case with previous protests by the opposition.

Following police responses to the late 2019 protests, in February 2020 Amnesty International published a new Statement calling on the Belarusian authorities to stop violating the freedom of peaceful assembly. The statement was published in cognizance of the cases of legal and physical persecution of protesters, activists and journalists after the demonstrations in late 2019.

Students from a Belarusian University announce strike

On 19th March 2020, it was reported that students of the Minsk State Linguistic University (MSLU) announced a strike scheduled for 20th March 2020 to raise awareness among students about taking appropriate measures to avoid Corona virus (COVID-19) infection. The organisers asked students to stay at home and minimize contact with people so as to avoid the spreading of the Corona virus disease. Activists emphasised that the purpose of the action was to show that students were ready to switch to a distance learning format.


Journalist accused of crime as lawyer argues arrest related to journalistic activities

Vladimir Chudentsov, a journalist from Belarus, was arrested in November 2019 while travelling to Poland. According to Belarusian media, Chudentsov had about 0.87g of marijuana on him. Media reports also added that police found a small amount of drugs at his home. The journalist was accused of possession and use of narcotic substances and was later also accused of sexual abuse.

His lawyer however argued that the drugs were planted on him, and that the detention was related to the fact that he collaborated with NEXTA blogger Stepan Svetlov, who studies and works in Poland and who leads a telegram channel, broadcast on the Belsat TV channel.

Belsat TV Channel is an independent Polish broadcaster that covers news about Belarus. In the past, the TV channel has been subjected to many investigations and pressure from Belarusian authorities.

Human Rights Watch Report highlights restrictions on journalists

In early 2020, Human Rights Watch published its annual report on human rights. The report notes that while the human rights situation remained largely unchanged in Belarus, there were indications of some worrying trends.

Attacks on journalists, including during protests, as well as restrictions on the work of journalists were some of the key trends mentioned in the report. In 2019, several journalists who wanted to collaborate with foreign media outlets failed to receive accreditation to allow them carry out their activities and very few independent media initiatives managed to be registered by the authorities. Additionally, web pages in the offices of independent news agencies in opposition to the government were blocked. There were also reported cases of media representatives being denied entry to meetings by authorities and public institutions and criminal cases continued to be filed against many journalists.