Updated at 13:33,29-11-2021

NGO leaders discussing politics involvement limits


Civic society leaders at a conference in Minsk on November 16 discussed limits of NGOs’ involvement in politics. The discussion took place at a conference of the National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civic Society Forum.

Participants approved a concept calling for expanding the National Platform’s agenda and powers to make is a more influential entity and rally NGOs behind it. The plan proposed by Ulad Velichka, of the EuroBelarus Consortium, and Tatsyana Vadalazhskaya, of the Humanities Technology Agency, drew fire for its political outreach.

Opponents of greater involvement in politics included Dzyanis Melyantsow, of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), and Volha Stuzhynskaya, head of the Brussels-based Office for Democratic Belarus.

Big battle vs. small-scale action

Vyalichka says that the National Platform should not be limited to the Eastern Partnership, an EU-sponsored effort to boost ties between the EU and its eastern neighbors Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

NGOs should develop EU-proposed platforms like the Eastern Partnership and the European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarus, rather than limit themselves to their format, he told The Viewer.

His plan gives the National Platform, an umbrella organization, greater powers to speak of behalf of NGOs.

Melyantsow is concerned that the National Platform comprising major Belarusian NGOs may press with a political agenda and take part in political power struggle.

“If someone wants to engage in political struggle, there are many political parties for them to realize their ambitions,” he argues.

Opponents of the new concept also include the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) and the Vyasna human rights center.

Politicization vs. professionalism and efficiency

For some NGOs involvement in politics carries risks of persecution and the erosion of their fundamental principles. Independence is not only their professional duty but also a precondition for their effective work.

Media freedom and human rights groups, as well as think tanks must be neutral to earn and maintain their credibility.

For instance, human rights organizations defend any person illegally convicted or oppressed regardless of his or her political affiliation.

Not surprisingly, the BAJ, the BHC and Vyasna voted against the new concept.

Some organizations such as trade unions, think tanks and environmentalists cooperate with the government and its agencies to advance their causes. “Politicization may undermine their core objectives. It would be impossible to do day-to-day business being involved in political struggle,” argues Melyantsow.

On razor’s edge

Vyalichka shrugs off criticism. The concept “does not set out political objectives but focuses on expanding the agenda” of the National Platform, he says.

However, Uladzimir Matskevich, another architect of the concept, says the National Platform’s mission is to keep up pressure on the government.

If the plan to rally NGOs will be implemented based on his approach, opponents’ concerns seem justified.

Meddling in politics, NGOs may not be able to properly perform their job and may compromise their principles.

The Belarusian authorities are hostile towards NGOs. Clearly, their mission is to bring together people for tackling their problems without help from the government and without external control from politicians.

Belarusian NGOs find it especially difficult to survive. As authorities tighten screws on civic society, groups are struggling to defend framework conditions for their operation. It is essential not to cross a dangerous line. If they join hands with fragmented and weakened political parties, they may not be able to perform their main functions, namely to offer people opportunities for self-organization.