The Belarusian government is moving to close dozens of organizations that were the backbone of the country’s once vibrant civil society.
These groups work on issues such as disability rights, the environment, media freedoms, pensioners’ rights, among others. They include internationally acclaimed organizations like the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Belarusian Pen Centre, whose president is Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich, and the Belarusian Press Club.
Today, the Minsk city government shutdown Lawtrend and Human Constant, prominent groups that document and provide legal services to victims of rights violations, including pro bono legal defense, and conduct legislative analysis. The authorities used the Russian term “liquidated” which is routine for such closure procedures, but the Stalinist connotations resonate.
The forced closures came a week after sweeping police raids of more than 40 groups, seizing equipment, and arresting many of the country’s top human rights activists who are now in custody pending trial.
These recent moves are the latest in a year of tyranny in Belarus, as the government continues to punish people who took to the streets in the aftermath of the August 9 presidential election to protest what they saw as a stolen election and demand change. More than 500 people are in prison on charges related to these protests. The authorities have arrested journalists, raided and closed media outlets, and now they are eviscerating groups that protect a wide range of rights. They’ve also muzzled lawyers, who can’t even discuss charges against their clients in these cases without themselves facing charges.
We shouldn’t be surprised that a government that will resort to faking a bomb threat to force an airplane to land in order to arrest an activist, wouldn’t hesitate to take steps to swing a metaphorical ax through civil society.
For decades, human rights and other civic society groups managed to survive despite Lukashenka’s authoritarian autocracy. They endured serial harassment, marginalization, and arrest of staff members. But this week’s purge signals the end of civil society in Belarus as we knew it. It will for sure live on, but likely underground and in exile.
Let’s stop calling this a crackdown. At a government meeting on July 22, President Alexander Lukashenka himself unapologetically called the recent actions “a purge.” These actions are a disgrace and key international actors should join efforts to stand up for Belarusian civil society and deliver a forceful response.