Ulad Vialichka: The way Belarusans understand civil society is puzzling
Is the notion of civil society used correctly in Belarus? Which countries’ experience can be most useful for Belarusan civil society? And when this notion will come to mean something for Belarusans?
What sense should be put in the notion of civil society and how can we use European experience in its development, told Ulad Vialichka, the chairman of the International Consortium "EuroBelarus".
The notion of civil society is quite thoroughly elaborated in different theories and concepts. The authors of one of such theories are Popper and Soros, who defined it as a certain form of post-governmental formation. “They understood such society as a certain relationship model for people who identify themselves as citizens, i.e. who act as citizens in the situations that require such behavior”, - notes Ulad Vialichka.
Civil society consists from citizens on the one hand and from organizations, associations of citizens on the other; thus, civil society doesn’t exist separately from the whole society. However, notes Ulad Vialichka, “sometimes people have absurd understanding of what civil society is, contrasting civil society with military society”.
It is important to understand that civil society is a certain characteristic of the society as a whole:
“We can talk about the existence of the civil society when citizens act accordingly and can identify the situations where they can demonstrate their civil behavior. The most vivid example is the election, the civic duty of every citizen who has to make a decision whether he should or should not participate in the voting procedure. And election is only one among the examples”.
“People have really peculiar interpretations and understanding of the civil society”
As opposed to the Western European countries, Belarusan society still has an underdeveloped understanding of civil society, Ulad Vialichka assumes: “It is connected with the fact that the processes of civil society formation that were going on in the early 90s were exposed to serious attacks afterwards. Accordingly, today the majority of Belarusan citizens don’t think in terms of the civil society. When asked what civil society is, lots of people have very simple reactions, merely opposing it to the military society. Such opinion can be met in the situations where people don’t think about it at all; like the commentaries in the social networks, for example. For some people such notion doesn’t exist at all; for the others – it’s just some definition from the politics, something to do with the Western European values. On the other hand, it would be hard to imagine that the notion of civil society is understood in the country that has serious difficulties with its development, if some people still draw analogies with the Soviet times where civil society didn’t exist at all, only some public organizations that were formed at the command from above”.
Though Europe shares roots and definitions of civil society, it is Northern Europe which understanding of the civil society corresponds to the conventional understanding of the civil society better: “Countries with protestant background, like Scandinavia and Germany, better correspond to the generally accepted notion of civil society. Then goes the Anglo-Saxon group – Great Britain and the US. But these are two different groups of the civil society. There is also one more similar conglomerate represented by South Europe: Italy, France, the countries where the civil society is centered round the trade unions and social dialog is the main subject of civil society formation. And it is the Northern Europe where civil society is formed by a great number of public organizations and self-organizations. In my understanding this variant is the closest to the civil society notion. Scandinavian model is built on equality, openness, information availability, absence of social barriers and intense communication between different social groups; Anglo-Saxon group is a bit different, with the idea of volunteering and personal contribution to the civil society development. However different, civil society in Europe continues to be the third sector able to control the first sector, which is the state. It is some kind of public control, a function of citizens’ control over the society and the state institutions”.
The difference in understanding of what civil society is can be easily explained: “Every concept is formed when there is already some history, tradition, certain mentality. Accordingly, different societies implement this concept differently. Besides, external factors influence it considerably. Thus, civil society in Ukraine looks stronger, with more opportunities, better access to the citizens and greater representation; at the same time, it is much more corrupt”.
“Even in the most rigorous conditions we are always striving for development”
It all looks slightly different in our country: “Of course, we also have certain donor support, but the basis for corruption is lower, at least because things are more complicated with it in this sector. It is difficult to make money on that. That is why those organizations which aim at bribing don’t last long and disappear; though in the early 90s it was quite widespread phenomenon”.
Ulad Vialichka believes that former USSR countries have model examples of civil society development: “For instance, when Saakashvili won the elections Georgian civil society endured peculiar times. The representatives of civil society who were against everything from the Soviet times and were for the European future of Georgia entered the newly elected governmental structures. After that Georgian civil society got into poor state and got consumed by the state machine. These events had very negative effect on the development of the civil society in Georgia”.
Despite the membership in the EU, Baltic States had difficulties with civil society development, too: “Civil society didn’t have enough time to develop in due way there. It deals with social and economic problems rather than with the human rights issues. Besides, this sector is rather commercialized, whereas we have sharp division and are not allowed to trade by law”.
Still, Ulad Vialichka believes that, no matter what, civil society will become meaningful for most citizens after a while: “I believe in that because I saw how it happened with our neighbours. We can say with confidence that the notion of civil society is recognized there already. Well, even the development of the civil society in Belarus today testifies to the fact that our sector won’t disappear. Even in the most rigorous conditions Belarusan civil society is always striving for development. I believe that as soon as the living conditions get better, our country will have a clear social development sphere, which will have fewer problems than other spheres thanks to the situation with the civil society in Belarus today”.