Belarus: Breaking Down the Stereotypes

After meeting EP candidates in Riga, we embarked on a journey to the unknown – Belarus. Stories about the strict border control in Belarus are quite common and so until the very last minute we were not sure if we will be allowed to enter the country. However, much to our surprise, the border police was not interested in where are we going and what exactly are we going to do in Belarus or even where are we going to live during our trip. If Belarusian authorities are trying to attract more foreigners to visit Belarus during the time of the Ice Hockey Championship they are definitely on the right track. Hence, we arrived in Minsk without the delay and were ready to brake few more stereotypes about the last dictatorship in Europe.

Similar to Warsaw we found Minsk to be full of construction projects. New office buildings and a lot more housing units were visible on the horizon. City that has been almost completely destroyed in the so-called Minsk Blitz during the WWII is rising from the ashes. “Order” seems to be one of the guiding principles of the city’s administration today and it is probably one of the cleanest cities in Europe. Another surprise awaited us in the Minsk’s Metro. In the impressive artistic Soviet metro stations for the first time one can hear announcements in English but beware trying to take pictures, after the Minsk’s metro bomb explosion in 2011 it is strictly forbidden to make photos and the security will not hesitate to stop you.

Young, Engaged and Active

In Minsk we had the chance to meet people who represent the future of Belarus and they impressed us with their ideas, determination and energy.

DSC_1812Pavel Harbunou – a member of the Minsk’s cyclict society explained to us the initiatives of the cyclists and what have they been doing to try to influence the government and to change the way things work in the city. One of the most successful projects is the repair shop where anyone can fix his/her bike for free.  Pavel told us that in order to encourage people to use bicycles instead of cars we need proper infrustructure. Cyclist society of Minsk has been involved in drafting cyclist policy for the city and making sure that the voices of the cyclist are heard by the state aparatus.

In a similar way another organization is trying to change Minsk. Egalite is concerned with improving conditions for social integration and rehabilitation of people with disabilities. For many years Agnia Asanovich has been living and studying in Europe but she came back to Belarus because she believes her experience and understanding of the work of NGO’s can help organizations such as Egalite to gain ground, be heard by the authorities and help to protect the rights of those who are often left behind.

We were also very fortunate to speak to Mikhail Mazkevich from the Legal Transformation Center (LAWTREND). Mikhail’s organization has been actively involved in promoting democratization and human rights in Belarus in particular by defending individual rights to freedom of expression, assembly and fair trial. When we asked Mikhail what he thinks about the new generation of Belarusians and whether we can expect a change of the system, Mikhail was rather skeptical at first but did admit that more and more people are interested in the human rights and the seminars on this issue are always full of young people who do care about the situation in the country. Mikhail believes that it is important to inform people about human rights because sooner or later Belarus will have to choose its path and the more people are aware of what they are entitled to, the more likely that they will choose the right way forward.

IMG_0283Another important question we were searching an answer to in Belarus was how can we get more young people involved in the social and political movements in their countries? Illia Petravets – activist of the cyclist and the human rights movements in Belarus had something very interesting to say to us. First of all, young people need a role model. The youth should be able to see that there are successful projects and initiatives out there. They should be able to meet and talk to the people who have experience with getting what they want from the authorities and standing up for what they believe in. In this way, those who have never been involved and think that their vote or their activities do not matter will know that they can indeed make a difference and change their surrounding for good. And the second even more important factor that the young people need in order to realize their potential and implement their ideas into reality is the non-interference of the state.

Belarus has been a source of inspiration for us and we have found plenty proves that young people in this country do care about their future and are trying step by step to make a difference. Each one of them employs different methods but they are united by the same goal – changing the system for the better. After speaking to the young Belarusians we have even more questions to ask in Kyiv – our next stop. What role did the young people play in the Euromaidan and how can we make sure that they will continue to be involved in the political and social life of their country after the revolution?