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The State of Civil Society in Belarus and Armenia: Challenges and Opportunities

Large crowds have demonstrated their anger at the results of the presidential election in Belarus. Photo: Kseniya Halubovich

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 A vibrant civil society has long been thought to be a crucial instrument for political change in countries in transition and a key component of a democratic society.

While civic activism was critical to the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia, and posesformidable challenges to Aleksander Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule in Belarus, a question remains as to whether or not civil societies have the capacities to evolve into powerful agents of democracy in the two post-Soviet countries. 

The two countries share much in come in terms of their communist past and close alliances with Russia, vividly manifested in their being members of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union and CSTO. Moreover, the post-Soviet transition of both countries has been marred by a series of authoritarian malpractices, ranging from centralization and personalization of power to extensive crackdown on civil liberties and political freedoms

In both countries civil society organizations have been characterized by their organizational weakness, and marginality in terms of their social base, financial assets and influence over policy making.

Controlling the mass media and civil society has been crucial for Europe’s ‘last dictator’ Alexander Lukashenko’s rule. As a result, freedom of association has been extremely limited in Belarus, where the registration of groups remains entirely arbitrary, while the foreign funding to NGOs is treated as interference in the country’s domestic affairs. Only a few human rights groups continue to operate, amid huge harassment by the government. Alarmingly, in 2018, the Criminal Code of Belarus introduced the prospect of large fines for unregistered or liquidated organizations, thus aiming to curbtheir activism.

Moreover, the lack of a vibrant civil society has led to a situation where Belarusians have huge misconceptions about civil society organizations and do not tend to use the available resources within civil society and human rights organizations to defend their rights

The situation in Belarus turned upside down in the wake of 2020 presidential elections, that unleashed a huge wave of civic activism: hundreds of thousands of Belarusians raising their voices and taking to the streets.

The anti-government protests following the 2020 presidential elections show that the Belarusian opposition and civil society have the potential to challenge the status quo meticulously preserved by Lukashenko.

Nevertheless, it would be misleading to treat the successful actions by protesters or even civil society representatives per se as s shift in a robust or “emerging” civil society. The question remains as to if protests are organized by well-established and institutionalized organizations, or do groups emerge spontaneously out of the protests themselves?

By contrast, the Armenian civil society organizations enjoy considerable freedom and face less harassment by the government. While civil society played a critical role in the “Velvet Revolution,” the absence of an umbrella organization or clearly reform-oriented movement in Armenia, seems to leave the fate of the societal coalition that brought Nikol Pashinyan to power uncertain. Not surprisingly, the societal coalition started to break into pieces as Armenia endured tremendous setbacks in the war against Azerbaijan in November 2020. Overall, the demonstrations leading the revolution showed the “Velvet Revolution was a one-time fairy tale, rather than a feature of a vibrant civil society. Meanwhile, civil society organizations and activists need to move beyond the victory in the street and pursue victory in town halls and elections, with the growing realization that the “Velvet Revolution” now needs to be in people’s minds and behavior rather than in downtown Yerevan .

Despite the growing number of civil society organizations (there are more than 4,000 registered civil society organizations, mainly non-governmental organizations (NGO), absolute majority of them are inactive with little to no potential to represent certain interest groups. NGOs are especially weak in terms of their social base, funding and heavily depend on foreign donors. 

Arguably, the Russian oversize influence over Belarus and Armenia has been one of the core challenges to a vibrant civil society advancement in both countries. Of all the Eastern Partnership countries, Armenia and Belarus is by far the most vulnerable to Russian influence. This reflects its structural dependence on Russia in the economic, energy, security, geopolitical, as well as socio-cultural spheres, particularly in case of Belarus.

Belarus displays a series of characteristics that allow Russia to have a strong impact on civil society. These include a weak national identity, issues around language, the prevalence of Russian information in the media, exposure to Russian information warfare, as well as the presence in Belarus of Russian government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Notably, within its strategy of promoting Eurasian integration within the Eurasian Economic Union and beyond, Russian propaganda would frequently target Armenian NGOs by framing those which are Western-funded ones as threats to Armenian-Russian relations. Such claims would be followed by the calls for ‘neutralizing’ them through information campaigns and other methods, including through the legislature. Not surprisingly, the 2017 amendments to existing NGO legislation in Armenia, with imposed restrictions on their activities, would be largely viewed as a direct result of the mounting pressure emanating from Russia.

Boosting CSOs Actorness

Studies show that the path to a vibrant and consolidated civil society has two main dimensions. The first dimension boils down to the changes in the nature of civil society relations with the state and society and its potential and ability to induce reform, or what is often referred to as “change on the outside”. This has much to do with increasing their impact on public policy and practice, not least through engaging more with their constituencies and improving their interaction with public institutions and actors. It has not been uncommon for post-Soviet societies to treat civic associations as threat to the power and stability of the state together with the conviction that the state bears the responsibility for the wellbeing of the society.

Moreover, the CSOs’ tendency to prioritize relations with Western donors over engagement with citizens would result in their treatment as donor-driven, rather than community-oriented organizations. Meanwhile, greater engagement and effective communication with various social groups is critical to breaking down the public misconceptions about CSOs and their activities.

Thus, the “change on the outside” is instrumental in dissolving the apathy of the wider public leading to their shift from spectators to actors.

A major impediment to civil society in both countries is prevailing post-Soviet “informality” in the form of behavioral practices, such as considerable tolerance towards informal governance, the use of informal networks and connections in exchanges of favors, phone justice, corruption, etc. The latter has long condemned both countries to a vicious circle of underdevelopment and bad governance. Even though it would be an oversimplification to contend that graft is a way of life it takes a long time for deep rooted behavioral practices to change. Therefore, both governments, as well as CSOs have a crucial role in eradicating the informality and culture of corruption in both societies, not least through promoting liberal values and good governance practices.

The second critical dimension is “change on the inside”, related to the nature of civil society per se: such as the way it is organized and operates. This in turn has a great deal to do with the development of adequate institutional and professional capacity in civil society organizations and networks as a vital tool for influencing policy making. The institutional development at the organizational level includes building organizational capacities for governance, decision-making, and conflict management, as well as clarifying organizational identity, values and strategy of impact.

The latter is of crucial relevance as a lot of CSOs in both countries were established in response to certain needs or funding priorities with no predefined mission, strategic plans and organization structure. That said, they were doomed to failure in terms of addressing the specific needs of their constituencies.

Overall, these changes and reforms are vital to the advancement of a vibrant civil society that can become an agent of democracy in both countries.

Aram Terzyan, PhD, is research director of the Los Angeles-based Centre for East European and Russian Studies.

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Eastern Europe

A Weapon of War: Rapes in the Ukraine-Russia Conflict

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Warfare has always involved violent activity. It is the state-sanctioned, societally accepted form of murder determining which nation-state or non-state actor has power over an enemy. Like any area of society, however, warfare is governed by a series of laws and regulations (commonly known as the Law of Land Warfare) being codified in international law in 1899, 1907, and 1929 and by individual nation-states afterward. While these rules are often followed by at least one entity in a military conflict, there usually is a violation of the Law of Land Warfare in any military action.

While every violation is incredibly serious and important, one that often stands out in military conflicts is sexual assault or rape.

While it is one of (if not the) most abhorrent criminal actions known to man, rape has and always will be a commonality in warfare and violent conflicts. It is practically as old as warfare itself. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “… [wartime] rape was long considered an unfortunate but inevitable accompaniment of war—the result of the prolonged sexual deprivation of troops and insufficient military discipline” with the Second World War being a prime example of wartime rape on both sides of the conflict. Until the prevalence of international law in the late 20th century, wartime rape was “mischaracterized and dismissed by military and political leaders—in other words, those in a position to stop it—as a private crime, a sexual act, the ignoble conduct of one occasional soldier, or, worse still, it has been accepted precisely because it is so commonplace”, according to academics writing in Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS Review of International Affairs.

Partly due to an increase in unconventional conflicts involving non-state actors, “the international community began to recognize rape as a weapon and strategy of war, and efforts were made to prosecute such acts under existing international law” including Article 27 of the Geneva Convention and multiple declarations by the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights, the Fourth World Conference on Women, the International Criminal Court, and the UN Security Council. These declarations and codifications further allowed for the protection of men, women, and children in combat zones from rape in addition to making crimes of sexual assault eligible to be considered as crimes against humanity or war crimes.

While international law is clear and the penalties for such actions heavy, nation-states and non-state actors can choose to disregard such laws. This is best exemplified in the current era with the Ukraine-Russia Conflict.

While most persons first heard of the rape of Ukrainians by Russian troops in mid to late April of 2022, roughly two months into the invasion, reports and developments on wartime rape by Russian troops was circulating heavily. The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), looking at information received and vetted between the 22nd of February and 26th of March, reported there were “heightened risks of conflict related sexual violence (CRSV)” in addition to “a high number of women and girls [who are feeling Ukraine] face high risk of human trafficking and sexual exploitation”. While these reports were based on secondary sources or “made by alleged witnesses”, it is worth noting that Ukrainian law enforcement and the Prosecutor General of Ukraine all began investigating multiple reports of sexual assault of Ukrainians by Russian troops and that, generally, victims of rape may not report for a variety of reasons.

Other international entities, including Human Rights Watch, the New York Times, and BBC News, all reported further allegations of rape by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, yet these were relatively overshadowed by the news of active combat.

One of the first major outlets to report on this was The Guardian on 4 April 2022 which documented reports from victims and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on rape in Ukraine. Interviewing Kateryna Cherepakha, the president of sexual assault charity La Strada Ukraine, “We have had several calls to our emergency hotline from women and girls seeking assistance, but in most cases it’s been impossible to help them physically. We haven’t been able to reach them because of the fighting … Rape is an underreported crime and stigmatised issue even in peaceful times. I am worried that what we learn about is just going to be the tip of the iceberg”.

Throughout April and into May, rapes in Ukraine were reported on more heavily as victims, Ukrainian officials, and every day Ukrainians were speaking up. This drew the attention of many international entities including the International Criminal Court which launched “a war crimes investigation”, citing the rapes as being a key piece of evidence, and the European Parliament which condemned the use of rape as a weapon. The UN’s special representative on sexual violence in war also received “reports, not yet verified” concerning the sexual assault of men and boys throughout Ukraine stating “It’s hard for women and girls to report [rape] because of stigma amongst other reasons, but it’s often even harder for men and boys to report … we have to create that safe space for all victims to report cases of sexual violence”. The UN as a whole has demanded the allegations “be independently investigated to ensure justice and accountability”.

Throughout this military endeavor, Russia has denied allowing the rape of civilians (or any such war crimes) to occur, these denials being bolstered by various American and Western podcasters and questionable news sites. While Russia and other Putin apologists can try to deny such war crimes or illegal violations of the law of land warfare is taking place, others experienced in the field of sexual assault and human rights have contested this. Hugh Williamson with Human Rights Watch (HRW), speaking to CBC Radio, said HRW was “being very cautious … It’s taken us some time to piece it together, to make sure we are absolutely sure it is true and verifiable. We’re not saying this is very widespread, but we worry that it could be”.

While it is still quite difficult to ascertain what exactly is occurring in Ukraine, given the fact that a full on war is being exercised, it is likely to believe that some manner of war crimes, including sexual assault, is occurring. The fact that Russia has historically engaged in misinformation campaigns, knowingly spread false information in regards to the Ukraine crisis, and in the past engaged in war crimes throughout Eastern Europe in the post-Cold War era all indicate strongly that Russia can and will do whatever possible to try and conceal any negative news or obscure any real actions occurring.

Looking at this from a legal perspective, the case for Russian culpability in regards to war crimes and particularly sexual assaults in Ukraine is already being made. With the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in war accurately asserting “Today’s documentation is tomorrow’s prosecution”, proving such crimes will be difficult. Speaking to Dara Kay Cohen, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, NPR reported, “It is very rare to ever have smoking gun evidence that rape was ordered from the top down … There is some degree of accountability, but it is rare. But I think that that does not imply, however, that we shouldn’t be doing our best to collect all of the documentation that we possibly can in order to potentially hold perpetrators accountable”.

Proving or disproving sexual assault in wartime is a difficult task, even more so given the fact that the armed conflict is still occurring. It is without question that there is animosity between the Western world and Russia, which makes there a certain degree of speculation about how prevalent these assaults are. However, at this point, one must look at the facts on the ground.

It is very well documented that multiple Ukrainians are reporting assaults from a wide variety of locations and their stories all follow a similar tone common in military conflicts. The forensic information already collected by independent Ukrainian doctors, prosecutors, and the UN who examine the bodies of those deceased indicates multiple assaults by Russian troops. Intercepted telephone calls from the family of Russian soldiers to the soldiers currently taking part in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also indicate a condoning of such illegal and brutal activities.

At this point, it is undeniable that these reports are impossible to ignore with the forensic, eyewitness, technical, and historical evidence all painting a sinister picture of rape in Ukraine.

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Eastern Europe

The Media Fog of War: Propaganda in the Ukraine-Russia Conflict

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The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine has once again opened up the old wounds of east vs. west, continuing the long-established tradition of distrust and sometimes even open hatred from these two centers of power. This can be seen across the spectrum of media outlets in the west along with their counterparts in the east, as both sides push forth propaganda and favorable coverage so as to always show their side in a favorable light. With western media outlets, their coverage of the war has been very positive for the Ukrainians while showing the exact opposite when considering Russians. Western media quickly picks up Ukrainian propaganda pieces and repeats them for their audiences at home, who then take to social media to gloat over Russian losses and embarrassments. 

Stories like the “Ghost of Kyiv,” the Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island, and others which have later proven to be inaccurate or not based in truth spread like wildfire across media outlets (Thompson, New York Times, Washington Post, etc). Certainly, a story about a Ukrainian fighter pilot shooting down several Russian jets is noteworthy and a country facing assaults from a greater power needs to boost morale every chance it gets. However, the willingness to circulate the Ghost of Kyiv tale across western media outlets displayed a clear bias for the Ukrainian side of the war in the west and, even though many have poked holes in the myth of this mysterious fighter pilot, people still disregard its “fake newsiness.” Thompson pointed out that some users on social media shared a willingness to believe in the propaganda, even knowing that it was made up: “if the Russians believe it, it brings fear. If the Ukrainians believe it, it gives them hope,” remarked one user on Twitter. This set a dangerous precedent as truth became a casualty in the war in favor of people wanting to simply find stories that would support their favored narrative and consequently ignore more accurate reporting.   

Propaganda can be a useful tool for any country fighting to protect itself, but it can also lead to the spreading of falsehoods abroad and even lead some westerners to become inspired to take up arms in a conflict they probably should not get embedded within. Over 20,000 foreign fighters have signed up to fight for Ukraine in an International Brigade after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a call for help. Many of these people have little to no combat experience but were persuaded to fight for Ukraine so that they could be on “the right side of history” or combat injustice in a conflict that has been lauded as a brave underdog battle between the aggressor state Russia – longtime enemy of the west – and the small “noble” nation of Ukraine (Llana, Christian Science Monitor). Propaganda tales amplified by the media are largely responsible for bringing these foreign soldiers into a complex situation that they are not prepared for, ultimately risking an exacerbation of the war rather than a resolution of the conflict.

Stories like these have fortified in the minds of western audiences a strong dislike for Russia, its citizens, and its military. On social media channels, people were quick to put up symbols associated with Ukraine, most commonly, the Ukrainian flag, to show their support for its struggle as many, especially those in America, seemed to instinctively root for any underdog in a war. Support for Ukraine, though, naturally leads to discrimination toward Russians. Disregard for the suffering of Russian soldiers, a willingness to ignore the reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the ostracizing of Russian citizens from the rest of the world – whether physically via travel or economically via sanctions – will have negative repercussions for the international community for years to come. Many celebrate every victory that Ukraine scores against Russia, heedless of the human cost of the war in general. This may very well deepen the divide between east and west before the war ends and force many average Russian citizens into a retributive hatred for those in Europe and North America who treated their country so harshly when they themselves were powerless to stop or prevent the Ukraine-Russia war.  

Russian businesses have also been subject to discrimination in the west. Companies like Starbucks, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Electric and McDonald’s all announced that they were temporarily suspending their operations in Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine (Williams, Fox10 Phoenix). Sanctions laid down on Russia in an effort to stagnate its economy also extend to banks, legislators, and even oligarchs but will leave a much more powerful and profound effect on the general populace. This punishment will trickle down to Russian citizenry who have played no part in the conflict at all but will suffer the most from these economic sanctions, simply because they live in the aggressor country.  

This negativity against Russia and its people already existed prior to the Ukrainian-Russian war, but was reignited by the conflict. Many people in the west find it easy to fall into the camp of attacking the long-standing “enemy” due to the history left behind by the Cold War, by the psychologically-imprinted suspicion of those across the sea who threatened us with nuclear weapons for so long. In places like the U.S., there almost seems to exist a willingness to not hear the other side’s point of view, a refusal to acknowledge the sufferings of very human foes who are not so different from their adversaries. The question of why many Americans would even feel the need to take a position in a conflict that has little bearing on their everyday lives could have more than one answer. The need to cheer on an underdog in a pitched struggle, the old hatred left over by the Cold War, or possibly a need to satisfy the age-old good guy vs. bad guy complex which has been hardwired into many people’s minds through television, movies, literature, and other parts of our pop culture. For many, there exists a need to satisfy one’s own moral superiority, a need to establish good from evil. The recent conflict between Ukraine and Russia has given many the outlet they seek for this vindication.  

The question of whether this treatment of Russia is justified or not lies primarily with an individual’s perception of the country as a belligerent at the international level or a nation trying to clearly define where its sphere of influence begins and ends. Russia invading Ukraine and starting a war rife with human tragedy on both sides was not done simply because Russia as a state is a villain or it gets its kicks by starting wars randomly. A deeper examination of the “whys” surrounding Russia’s invasion is desperately needed, where the proffered reasons are given legitimate analytical consideration. So far, this type of analysis has not been done. Ultimately, why it matters is because reaching into that understanding may help prevent a country like Russia in the future from feeling the need to invade at all.  

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Eastern Europe

When Will the War in Ukraine End?

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Predicting the beginning and the end of a war is always a difficult task.

Many people would think of the usage of models and data, which would most likely refer to data on combat power, staff computing operations etc. A more advanced approach for some would include the super-complex model such as war games. Overall, the use of these methods depends on the target audience. The approach and delivery are different for the media or academia, in which the use of data would be necessary for the audience to understand and verify the forecasted results.

If the target audience is neither the media nor the academia, the use of different approaches would be necessary. The results would be tested on the battlefield rather than relying on statistics in the decision-making circles. A practical example given here is making predictions through information analysis.

The focus of such analysis, is naturally, information. The first important piece of information about when the war in Ukraine will end is to refer to the news from Moscow that it plans to end the war in September 2022. The second piece of important news is that Russia has about 1,200 to 1,300 missiles in its inventory.

Combining these two pieces of information allows us to do a simple analysis. If we calculate the average number of missiles that Russia uses on the Ukrainian battlefield every day, we find that at least 300 missiles are launched in a month by the Russian army. Now we are in the month of May, and after 5 months, Russia’s missile inventory will be exhausted. This means that, by October 2022, the Russian military will have almost no effective weapons to attack Ukraine. By then, of course, or maybe at a sooner date, Russia will have to attempt to end the war.

A question that naturally follows this is, can’t the Russian army use other methods to continue the war?

The answer is no. Because the Russian Air Force has gradually lost its advantage in the Ukrainian sky, if the air force is used to penetrate the battlefield, the losses will be heavy. Hence, the offensive force that Russia can rely on now is only to project missiles from combat aircraft outside the line of sight. Another approach is to use the small but large number of World War II period artillery to bombard indiscriminately, yet the areas assaulted will be ranging from zoos to children’s playgrounds. Therefore, the Russian army seems to have fewer battlefield options than what most people imagine.

Based on some key information, together with an analysis on the information of Russia’s missile inventory, the conclusion is clear. All indications point toward the end of the war in Ukraine from around September to October 2022.

The accuracy of the forecast will be verified as the event unfolds, and this is positivist style of thinking.

For some people, models and data are the only way to forecast the future, rather than simpler methods like information analysis. In this situation, the outcome may be determined with the use of all available data after the war is over. However, we now have a clear and convincing conclusion used to judge the prospects of war.

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