Sunday, July 15, 2007

Now about that quote…

Alexander Lukashenko attending the launching ceremony of the hot-rolling complex at the BSW
Got out new BEING HAD Times today. At the top, I have a quote from the president of the Republic of Belarus concerning money sent to NGO's or opposition parties:

    "US President George Bush had better deal with the problems of his country: Iraq, other hot spots which they (the USA) have created and pay less attention to those countries where they try to support the opposition. These are investments in the country but they should be legal. In case of illegal actions these organizations will be closed down."
This quote came from the press conference that the president had at the Belarusian Steel Work at Zhlobin.

The Moscow Times posting from the AP wire added in a few more words, quoting the president as saying:

    "Those who bring money into Belarus illegally, they are destroying themselves with this money.

    "Bush has significantly more problems then we do. Here's one place where money can be sent: the inflation of the dollar has taken on horrifying sizes,"
The comment basically follows President Bush's signing into law in January the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act tightening sanctions against Belarus, and reauthorizing funding for independent media and democratic groups opposed to the authoritarian government in the former Soviet republic.

According to Ria Novosti,:

    The document authorizes over $27 million in assistance for each fiscal year, 2007 and 2008, for democracy-building operations, such as support for non-governmental organizations, including youth groups, independent trade unions, entrepreneurs, human rights defenders, independent media, democratic political parties, and international exchanges.
Robert Amsterdam however reports:

    The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the U.S. State Department has opened up an invitation for civil society organizations in Russia to apply for up to $4 million in grants to promote "programs that will (1) bolster media freedom; priority areas include journalist training, media monitoring, supporting networks of journalists covering high-risk topics, and objective information dissemination, and (2) and programs to support the advocacy, transparency, networking, and professionalism of the NGO sector in order to promote themes that advance democratic development and the promotion of human rights."

    The varying levels of funding dedicated to different regions of the world in this invitation reveal to some extent just how concerned the U.S. government is about press freedom in the respective countries. Four million dollars is rather paltry amount to spread across a territory as vast as Russia, Belarus, the Balkans, and Kosovo, especially compared to what is being dedicated to other areas (however Africa is virtually ignored). The big money ($6.4 million) obviously goes to Iran and Syria, and a totally disproportionate $3.65 million for programs in Cuba.
So perhaps this is the specific action that got the president's ire.

However, the real point may not be that any money which is being planned to be sent will only lead to an NGO's ruin, but that stripping licenses and disallowing money to opposition organizations is not anything new to Belarus.

I had a conversation about five year's ago with a very good friend of mine who has been working for a NGO group whose purpose was to monitor human rights abuses in Belarus. They also offered help for people who felt they had been mistreated by the system.

I remember his trying to describe to me what sorts of troubles his organization has had to endure just to receive some funding now and again:

    "First of all the organization needs to have a permit to exist. If you do not have a permit, you cannot have an organization and trying to continue any activities without being registered is a crime. However, if the government does not agree that what you do should be a part of Belarus, then they will not allow you to have a permit.

    "However, let's suppose that you do your paperwork correctly, and you receive your permit. There are rules about money as to what you can and cannot do in a legal organization. One of the rules says that you cannot officially accept any money nor can you have a bank account specifically to hold funds for your organization. Of course you can just do what you can do, but because you cannot have a bank account, you of course cannot cash checks, receive credit card payments or bank transfers; so basically, it is very difficult to receive money.

    "The question which usually follows is: Without money, how can we function? The answer is very simple: We can't. That’s the problem.”
He also added that he personally had received several very sharp punishments for his activities. He told me had had his personal bank account removed from the bank and had been fined several thousand “minimum salaries”.

    "How are you able to pay this?” I asked.

    “You can’t. If I was fined 10 or twenty minimum salaries, I would feel pain. But a thousand is such a ridiculous number, that there is simply nothing to think about.”

    “Why don’t you protest?”

    "I am protesting."

    "I mean publicly."

    “It is illegal to speak out publicly against the government.”
I asked a few local friends what they thought of the president's comments. I also E-mailed some friends from Europe and the states and asked them as well. I have posted the letters they sent me below in the comments section and I think some of the answers might be a little surprising. All of course are welcome to add in to the conversation. What do you think of this situation?

More soon…