Looking East: The Russian example of volunteerism for Belarus

Dec 24, 2012
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Social participation is something that works for Russia sometimes as well as in the West. Or at least, OK, better than it does in Belarus.
We Belarusians dream about seeing more voluntary engagement of people in social activities, but for most people the word “volunteer” still doesn’t triggering any associations other than “someone who is not getting paid”. Companies here, unlike in the UK, are not seeking new ambitious young people who have done several apprenticeships/internships in their field and have also volunteered in social projects such as helping blind children or people with AIDS.
If there were fundraising announcements in the Minsk metro like they are in the London Tube (‘text something to XXXX to donate and help solve water problems in North Africa’ or ‘help blind children’),  they are not going to work.
We are OK collecting money for specific people and have a great auction (maesens.by - translated from Belarusian like ‘it makes sense’). This site allows anyone to put up their candidacies for meeting and the money a person pays to meet you – if you are a celebrity and not in emergency the money can go to a cause. This cause is usually a specific organization or a specific person – you decide whom and when – and this works. It also works when people are uniting in groups and each group takes over an orphanage (making a Christmas fest for the children, bringing toys, supplies, etc). It has been active in December 2010 and January 2011 when people united in bringing help in supplies, money, and expertise to those imprisoned after the 2010  elections. Uff, looks like a nice great list!
However, we are lacking volunteering for public causes. We can help certain people, like at orphanages, or we can unite after the tragic disappointment of the recent elections in a short peak of solidarity, but I cant imagine that people would purchase shares of companies to get inside  as stakeholders to uncover illegitimate business practices through such platforms as the Russian RosPil (a slightly changed word of Raspil, which means officials/businessmen pocketing the public money under some illegal schemes). I can’t imagine that people would report illegal content through a site like the Center for the Safe Internet. This means, they expect that people will be using this resource! And I am sure they are.
In Belarus, the legal base developed to legalize the notorious decree number 60 on Internet control which established the same black list of sites like the recent Federal Law in Russia , accompanied by protests including the one-day shut down of the Russian Wikipedia. The law stipulated that for a site to be blacklisted, it has to be reported by a state institution, a security service, or organization or any individual. The latter is a very handy excuse to filter out any site – the state press is frequently operating such Soviet-smelling excuse as the ‘requests of the veterans’ like: “we are raising the price in the commuter trains at the request of passengers“, or  ”at the request of the WWII veterans, we have changed the prospective metro station name from Rakauskaja to Spartyunaja – Rakauskaja, it is said in their letter, reminds too much of cancer”, etc. In the Soviet time, ‘the request of veterans’ had been an excuse for anything.
Anyway, there is such an option to blacklist a site at the request of a single person whose name doesn’t even need to be disclosed given the secrecy around our bureaucracy – they can respond to your request for this person’s name in a month’s time with a formal reply that disclosing this person may be unsafe for him, and hence: no info. But – there had been no blacklistings via personal requests. Filtering of websites still remains highly inconsistent, with blackouts only surrounding major events. Does this mean there are no requests from people?
Well, indeed so – unless this excuse for filtering was developed simply to justify rare, unsubstantiated filterings of the historic Freedom Day demonstrations. Such a waste of effort provided that the state had been openly filtering the sites since 2001, eight years before the decree was even adopted. The government has not started caring more about the judicial side of what they have been doing; multiple violations of the criminal code in the course of investigation of December 2010 events prove the contrary. Then the reason to make such an excuse really remains unclear.
Official statistics say that  there are nearly half a million people in the pro-governmental Belaya Rus association, and in the Belarusian Republican Union of Youth (sometimes compared to the Party and the Komsomol equivalents, respectively). These are half a million excuses for blocking unloyal sites, and half a million persons to report ‘state-wise unsafe’ info online. However, opposition sites are mostly working yet remain under constant threat of DDoS attacks and arrests of site moderators, etc. with no resources like successful platforms in Russia.
Belarus has a way to go before we see much public volunteering. And even further to develop the reach people would invest into the development of social networks that aim at the development of public activity. I am talking here about Yopolis.ru – a social network recently started by one of the Russian oligarchs, Maksim Nogotkov (Максим Ноготков), the owner of the mobile phones and accessories retail network of “Svyaznoy” (Связной). The social network is meant to channel citizen activity into helping them to solve issues related to things like construction of long-sought parking spaces, solving problems with water delivery, etc.  Basically, it is meant to help people influence their local authorities and make them equal participants in the process. People can post issues related to certain towns, on the wall, and others can vote on those. The social network also gives users power to start a cause, gather feedback, and contact local authorities to deliver feedback.
This is remarkable to the extent that the social network is set up by an oligarch in a country where public participation is more and more treated like in Belarus. There may be a number of reasons (apart from an idealism): Maksim Nogotkov wants to make money, or this is a plan to channel the public activity from uncontrollable VKontakte.ru (remember the Mr. Durov’s declining to shut down groups in VKontakte supporting the protests in Russia?) to a controllable network, or this is a part of a plan to distract attention of people to smaller problems that are not immediately dangerous for the authorities. But the important thing here is that it is happening in Russia – not in Belarus yet. Whatever the reason, public participation to the east of us is way higher then in Belarus.

About the Author

Alaksiej Lavoncyk

Alaksiej Lavonczyk is a media activist and social media expert from Minsk, Belarus. He had been in charge of the training projects for the NGOs and media on building their capacity in online campaigning and end-user security. Alaksiej had also acted as a consulting and technical expert for NGOs and media in Belarus and four countries of Central Asia (except Turkmenistan) on upgrading media/NGO websites to meet contemporary standards, and on their promotion online. Alaksiej is also running an online training centre for the Central Asians preparing the specialists in SMO promotion.
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