Dedicated to Bringing Belarus to Brussels

Europeanisation is a difficult task, Olga Stuzhinskaya of the Office for a Democratic Belarus

Olga Stuzhinskaya had a progressive education in Belarus and grew up thinking of her country as part of the European family. Yet when she came to Brussels in 2001, to study government and politics, she found other Europeans knew little about the country or its recent history of political repression.

As she went on to internships and then a research assistant position at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, her conviction grew that something should be done to raise awareness of Belarus in EU circles. In 2006, with help from international colleagues and the blessing of civil-society groups and opposition politicians at home, she set up the Office for a Democratic Belarus.

Initially the aim was to increase the amount of information available, particularly in English, and to bring Belarusians to meet policymakers in Brussels.

“The key issue is that policy should be formulated using local expertise: research produced by local think- tanks and messages put forward by local civil-society and political actors,” she says.

Information also flowed the other way, with civil-society groups in Belarus learning about opportunities for co-operation and areas where the country could move further towards European standards in public life. “Most of the contacts which a broad range of Belarusian organisations have today started with us,” Stuzhinskaya says.

Now that EU policy towards Belarus is more developed, the office has adopted a more sectoral approach, working on areas such as energy, transport and environment. This is to broaden its input and form deeper connections at home, for example by reaching out to professional associations. It also has a ‘clearing house' project, which aims to build the organisational capacity of Belarusian civil-society groups and improve co-ordination with European donors.

Now, as in 2006, the office has no contact with the Belarusian government. A brief thaw in 2008 with greater interaction between Minsk and Brussels allowed the office to extend its activities in Belarus, creating a partner organisation — the Office for European Expertise and Communication — to help implement projects there. This arrangement continues, despite a government crack-down on political and civil society groups following presidential elections in 2010.

“Of course it is difficult to implement projects which are aimed at Europeanisation, reform and transformation while the government of the country does not want that. But this is what society wants,” Stuzhinskaya says. By identifying people willing to be part of this process, even within government institutions, progress can be made, if only on technical issues. “We can give them the tools, we can give them European expertise and platforms for communication with civil society actors.”

The office now has a staff of four people in Brussels, three of them from Belarus. “With all the difficulties involved in hiring someone from a ‘third country' it has been our policy to train as many people from our country as possible, people who in future will go back and contribute to the transformation process,” Stuzhinskaya says.

She includes herself in this group. “I would enjoy working for my country's ministry of foreign affairs, if things were different.” Yet that day is unlikely to come soon. “I don't see huge change, at least in the short term, which means that the Office for a Democratic Belarus will still be needed.”

Meanwhile, her involvement with the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum has suggested another way for the office to develop. This forum brings together groups from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and she hopes that in future her office will grow into a centre working for the partnership as a whole. “We hope we can make the Eastern Partnership more visible, create more connections with the EU and between the countries themselves,” she says.

Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.

European Voice