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Awakening citizen politics in Belarus

August 27, 2009

This guest post was written by Sairhei Lisichonak, a 2008-2009 Edmund S. Muskie Fellow studying public policy at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He earned a law degree in his native country of Belarus and has worked in the underground democracy movement there for nearly a decade.

Belarus has been deservedly labeled “the last dictatorship in Europe.” Soon after escaping from the ruins of the Soviet Union, Belarus turned into a new political regime where the president has not been changed for more than 15 years. It is a country where democratic movement activists are called ‘dermocrats’ by the state-owned TV (there is no independent one): this could be translated into English as ‘shitocrats’. (I do apologize for the tough Belarusian reality.) It is a country where being a member of an NGO or self-organized group may lead to a three year imprisonment.

As a graduate student at the Humphrey Institute, I have been fortunate to get to know about “citizen politics” model of democracy taught by Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan. That was a natural interest for me because for nine years I have been an activist of the democratic movement in Belarus, where promotion of democracy and establishment of democratic governance has been my main dream and my everyday task.

My colleagues and I have tried to figure out what is the best way to promote democratic values among youth and how to embed those values into the thinking and everyday life of young people. At some stage of our quest for democracy we thought civic education was the answer, and we got trained to be trainers and started training youth all over the country using modern methods and concepts of civic education. We were following the mainstream in by organizing discussion groups, teaching human rights law extracts, giving introduction into political science, negotiations, non-profit management and many other very important, very needed and very useful skills and concepts for the Belarusian society. Very promising stuff that somehow didn’t work. The bitterness of our situation was that the young and active people engaged in training and learning did not drastically contribute to promotion of democracy. The youth had gotten their knowledge, and their understanding and skills improved, and they became more confident in their rights, more conscious about their duties, more skilled in communicating, and more ready for civic action. The majority of our students actually did take an action, and many of them did it in a sincere and sacrificing manner as only the youth is able to do. Some of them became heroes for the few existing independent media and democratic-minded people. But the maximum that happened to those young people was that they became a part of the democratic ghetto, a group of people selflessly trying to mobilize the rest of the society to stand for free and open elections and to elect a democrat as the next president of the country. A ghetto full of heroes unable to wake up the society they are trying to serve.

I guess I finally know why.

Having come to Minnesota to study public policy and having discovered the concept of the Public Achievement, I understood what mistake has been being intensively replicated in Belarus which prevents people outside the active democratic community to join the stand for the ideals of democracy. Now I know that we were trying to teach the youth important, but not the vitally important skills. We were enthralled by the paradigm of civic education that is still the only one among Belarusian educators.

To explain what I mean, I’ll describe the Association for Civic Education web site. One of the high profile educators and ACE managers explains that the foundation of the models of civic education lies in helping people to ‘know the Constitution of the country and its’ political system, knowledge about the essence and dilemmas of democracy, competence in human rights and mechanisms of defending them.” Another educator, political scientist and one of the ideologists of the democratic movement, defines goals of the civic education as “transfer of knowledge about society, assistance in formulation of independent civic stand, help in development of responsible participation in politics.” And then he lists examples of the most successful organizations which act in civic education. Which sphere are they active in? “Teaching political science, advocacy of gender issues, training in educational methods and civic management, seminars on local self-governing, cultural events, training in ecology issues.” Any reader may explore appropriate sources to find more examples, but I already got the point: civic educators in Belarus teach volunteers how to fix problems. But what they really miss is teaching citizens how to build democratic power. They teach civics classes, lobbying and advocacy, but they don’t use public work projects. They make experts out of citizens, but they miss understanding that amateur citizens are already enough to bring the change. They address people as specialists or consumers of experts’ services, not believing that people are already capable to be producer and co-creator of democracy.

That’s exactly what determined success and failure of civic educators and their students in Belarus. The educators have been trying to ‘enlighten’ people who had very limited ideas about democracy and its virtues. The students have been improving their personal skills but still being not aware of the power of community organizing. Educators have been improving their skills and teaching methods. Some citizens have become professional activists. But democracy didn’t arise. The pill has been sweet for the patients, doctors have been very proud of themselves, but the treatment hasn’t been adequate to disease.

The Belarusian society is still sleeping. Any sociologist will tell you this. People are ignorant about politics and democratic ideals, they feel that it is not their business and someone else has to solve their problems. The society has to be awakened. But who will awake the awakening? Belarus, its people, civic experts and prospects for democracy wait for citizenship politics, both in training and in action.

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