Bridging Belarus

Alexander Osipov - ECMI Justice & Governance clusterOnly few people care, but those few receive us as if we are building a bridge to Belarus, explains Dr. Osipov in this interview. A constructive approach to dialogue on minority governance is the key.

“I don’t necessarily agree in Belarus’ approach to minority governance, but this is beside the point,” declares Dr. Alexander Osipov in his Flensburg office.

From his sessel with the wonderful view to the old port of Flensburg, he explains subdued the initial results of the Belarus programme of European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI):

ECMI’s interest is in research and in practice-oriented activities. The Centre wants to qualify its knowledge about the Belarusian approach to minority governance. And vice versa; the partners in Belarus are eager to learn more about the recent academic developments and public policy achievements in other parts of Europe.

This has proven to be a fortunate agenda for establishing local friendships, partners and co-operators for ECMI’s Belarus programme:

“They feel isolated because Belarus is always criticized, so I think we are kind of building a bridge to Belarus with our more constructive approach,” declares Osipov.

Knowledge transfer

In the long run, ECMI focus on integrating Belarus’ expert and activist environments into wider European debates and developments.

Issues of ethnocultural diversity are important for the development of Belarus. However, there is a lack of sufficient expertise in the area. The relevant topics are basically neglected in Belarus’ higher education, academia and public administration.

ECMI’s Belarus activities have also in 2012 proved that there are only few people who work on minority or even broader diversity related issues. The people who address the thematic area have restricted knowledge of the methodologies and approaches developed in the rest of Europe. Nevertheless, the people who are addressing this thematic area as researchers and practitioners are eager to learn; for instance about the so-called European minority rights regime, explains Dr. Osipov.

His gaze is caught for a moment by the screen where emails are regularly hitting the inbox. He regains the moment and explains further.

One of the initial aims of the programme has been to transfer knowledge and experience of ‘European’ standards to local levels of governance in Belarus.

A major accomplishment in this context was the issuing of the guidebook in May: Minority Issues in the Republic of Belarus, Europe and the World. (issued in Russian).

Read also: ECMI issues guidebook on minority issues for Belarus.

Dr. Osipov himself and Research Associate Hanna Vasilevich had the opportunity to present the book during the 9th Republican Festival of National Cultures in Hrodna, Belarus.

Read also: ECMI participates in festival of national cultures in Hrodna, Belarus
Watch also: Wonderful photo set by Hanna Vasilevich from the 9th Republican Festival of National Cultures.

“They were quite happy about the book and our partners were even distributing it,” says Dr. Osipov and puts it into the context of another initial aim of ECMI’s Belarus Programme:

“We hope to engage Belarus’ institutions in expanding the country’s approach to minority issues.”

Exposure to other regions

Towards minority organizations of Belarus, one aim of 2012 has been to expose them to other minority regions of Europe. Naturally, ECMI has organized visits to the Danish-German borderland.

So far, ECMI has carried out two study visits for Belarusian officials, minority organization leaders, and academic experts. In 2012 the study visit to the Danish-German borderland took place on 10-12 April.

Watch: Photos from the Belarusian visit April 2012.

Researchers between the Soviet legacy and ‘European’ standards

It is a distinct aim of the ECMI Belarus programme to stimulate research on minority issues in Belarus.

A donation from the European Humanities University with the financial support of Carnegie Corporation has been a lever for this ambition.

Currently, two scholars in Belarus are co-operating the project and researcher in the communist legacies in Belarus’ diversity policies. Their research efforts started with June and will last for 18 months. The project that encompasses more than just Belarus carries the title:

Ethno-cultural diversity management policy in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine: between the Soviet legacy and European standards.

Framing improved communication

Again in 2012, ECMI carried out a panel discussion on minority related issues at the Belarusian State University. An audience of around 60 students, faculty, activists, and civil society organizations followed the panel. Furthermore, roundtables on minority issues were carried out in Hrodna (Grodno) and Mahiliou (Mogilev). Around 70 minority activists, faculty, government officials, students, and civil society representatives took part.

Particularly, the latter events have served the intrinsic project aim of helping to improve communication between Belarus’ national and local authorities and its minority organizations.

At this stage Dr. Osipov reminds, that “Belarusians don’t want to be isolated from the rest of Europe,” as many believe:

“Rather, their approach is that there are different models [of minority governance] and they should be discussed on an equal footing.”

We take into account this condition, and this is probably why ECMI experience a true interest in the ‘European’ standards at its panel discussions, explains Osipov.

Celebrating the Belarus model

9th Republican Festival of National Cultures in Hrodna, Belarus. The festival spanned over three days, 1-3 June 2012. Representatives of the ECMI were present.Belarus is not a state for ethnic Belarusians. It is a civic nation or a state-nation. Belarusian officials and academic experts would say that this is the difference between Belarus and most other European states. The ethnic fundament of the statehood is not emphasized, explains Osipov:

“Insofar they are like France, but while France claims to be culturally homogeneous, Belarus actually celebrates its cultural diversity.”

With the biannual Republican Festival of National Cultures, the celebration becomes very tangible. The festival is an occasion for all cultures that live and work in Belarus to present themselves via different performances. Hanna Vasilevich and Alexander Osipov from ECMI’s Citizenship & Ethics and Justice & Governance clusters respectively took part in the festival.

Watching Hanna Vasilevich’s photo set of the Festival and particularly of its opening procession, one find Dutch people alongside Venezuelians, Belarusians, Russians, Azeri, Roma and many more.

Dr. Osipov elaborates:

“This civic and multicultural approach implies that there is no distinction between new and old minorities, and in its self-perception the Belarus model is much more open to inclusion of different groups.”

Colleagues are regularly rushing through the hallway outside the office. As if he wants to demonstrate the constructive approach, Osipov’s door is always open. While the interview is coming to an end, a colleague takes position in the doorway. Apparently, she wants to conquer the next free bit of Dr. Osipov’s time.

Facts: The ECMI Belarus programme

ECMI’s Belarus Programme addresses the issue of minority governance in the Republic of Belarus.  Various traditional and post Soviet minorities constitute over 16% of the Belarus population. Although represented by cultural societies, they do not participate in all aspects of public life as minorities.

The national system of minority protection was established in the early 1990s. It remains isolated from the recent European developments, lacks full and consistent implementation, and resembles the previous Soviet style ethnographic-cultural approaches.

Being on the margins of the activist society, minorities are regarded as a stable part of the population, not attracting much attention.

ECMI’s Belarus programme at its initial stage has aimed at:

  • Improving communication between national and local authorities and minority organizations
  • Transferring knowledge and experience of European standards to local levels of governance in Belarus and to minority organizations through exposure to other regions in Europe
  • Stimulating practice-oriented research on minorities through workshops and publications
  • Engaging Belarus institutions to expand its approach to minority issues
    Investigating aspects of minority vulnerability related to trafficking in human beings.
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