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Citizenship Education in Belarus

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Citizenship Education in Belarus

Mikhail Matskevich Tatyana Vadalazhskaya

/ 13 Minuten zu lesen

Even in particularly circumstances, Citizenship Education must not lose its significance. You can learn here more about the situation of Citizenship Education (CE) in Belarus (status June 2021) with a focus on the definition, the ecosystem of non-formal CE, the legal environment as well as on stakeholders and challenges.

Belarus (© bpb)

1. Background Information regarding Citizenship Education in the Republic of Belarus

It is necessary to consider the history and current trends in citizenship education in Belarus in the context of the processes of transformation of the Soviet organisation of society and transition to democratic principles. In a Soviet society, citizens were typically understood as nationals who concluded their own individual contract with the government powers: a safe life and social security in exchange for loyalty. Citizenship education only developed in line with a commitment to communist ideology and the continuing formation of society accordingly. From 1991 and from the point in time at which Belarus became independent, there was a short period of democratic transformation, characterised by a wide variety of perceptions of citizenship and political participation. However, from 1994, two values representing contrary directions clearly emerged in citizenship education. The first follows Soviet tradition; the basis of this approach is the ideology of Belarusian nationhood: "a system of ideas revealing the core of the Belarusian paradigm of social development and paths to shift this from a far-off concept to a short-term prospect" . Human rights and contemporary Belarusian values, which are part of the ideology of Belarusian nationhood, are at odds with the practicalities of political life in an authoritarian regime. Citizenship education as part of this approach is realised within the framework of formal education, including specialist courses on the "Ideology of Belarusian nationhood" at universities and professional educational institutions, as well as at events providing ideological and educational work in schools.

The second approach is rooted within the framework of a wide network of organisations and initiatives in civic society. This approach is not monolithic and defined from within but includes a variety of approaches and practices. As such, the national democratic approach follows on from the development of the "Belarusian national concept" at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century. This approach is characterised by a tendency to form a national identity and self-awareness whilst not excluding the significance of democratic values, the rule of law and human rights. From the 1990s onwards, we also see the development of the approach which unifies those who identify with the concept of the "citizens’ nation" and who aim to achieve Belarus belonging to the categories of a "modern European national government" and developed civil society like the foundations of the nation in the future. Increasingly, the expansion with regard to the practice of citizenship education includes the concept of global citizenship. Different approaches when it comes to the subjects of civil society share some common features, which is reflected in the specific educational programmes, regardless of the frequent lack of shared values.

In 2001, a coalition consisting of 15 organisations was formed to engage with the topic of citizenship education: the Association of Civic Education. In 2011, this organisation was expanded and became the Association for Additional Education and Enlightenment. From 2006 onwards, there were efforts to create a common concept of citizenship education. The first development was presented by the group working with V. Matskevich and, in 2016, the "Position of the Association for Additional Education and Enlightenment for Civic Education in the Republic of Belarus" was formed.

After August 2020, the political situation changed significantly. The government is becoming stronger and radicalised in terms of demands for commitment and loyalty to the political regime. And the structures of civic society were forced to move "underground" (chapter 4, subsection "Legal default"). In actual fact, all public events were suspended and work continued in terms of providing support (such as legal, media and political education) to activists, protest groups and those suffering from repression in the regime. The field of independent citizenship education underwent a global change in terms of activities and relationships, including in connection with the appearance of new actors.

2. Definitions of Citizenship Education

The framework document which defines policies in all educational systems is the Educational Code, in which, however, there is no mention or concept of "civic education" or "citizenship". The government’s concept of citizenship education is expressed more fully in the "Concept of the Ongoing Education of Children and Young Students in the Republic of Belarus" (2015). One of the sections of this document is entitled "Ideological Education". In it, in particular, it is stated that "ideological education is realised in the context of the ideology of the Belarusian government, where government sovereignty, the national interest, national security, social equality, economic prosperity and the development of civic society play a special role" .

In the "Concept" document, the following definition is provided: "Citizenship is the integrative quality of identity, which is oriented to the worthy, responsible and socially significant fulfilment of social roles. Patriotism is a system of belief, values, practical actions on the part of an individual, society and the government with the aim of achieving the development, prosperity and protection of national security for the Republic of Belarus and this is associated by a world view characterised by a deep feeling of love for your homeland and willingness to defend it".

The programme for the ongoing education of children and young students from 2021 to 2025 makes reference to "citizen and patriotic education" : "an awareness amongst learners of the government holidays in the Republic of Belarus, their participation in events timed during government holidays, celebrations and memorials of dates of the country; active participation of learners in events relating to citizen/patriotic, history/local history, war/patriotic matters, acquisition of experience expressing their position as citizens; initiation of learners in national traditions, the cultural/historical legacy of the Belarusian people; involvement of learners in active searching, scientific/research, artistic activity; formation of responsibility for the fate of the country amongst learners, pride of identification with the actions of your ancestors, formation of a value relationship with your homeland, understanding of the importance of preserving historic monuments (especially those for the events of the Great Patriotic War, victims and the heroism of your compatriots)" etc. It is necessary to understand and interpret this approach in the context of the political and legal situation and the general tendency to ideologize educational systems in Belarus.

The majority of public organisations in the field of citizenship education are oriented based on representations of citizenship and the basis of the position of civic education set out in the European Charter of Active Citizenship and the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education. These representations are also connected to the Position of the Association for Additional Education and Enlightenment. Citizenship education is understood to be "education, training, awareness-raising, information, practices and activities which aim, by equipping learners with knowledge, skills and understanding and developing their attitudes and behaviour, to empower them to exercise and defend their democratic rights and accept their responsibility in society, to value diversity and to play an active part in democratic life, with a view to the promotion and protection of democracy and the rule of law" . The same document sets out a few basic principles which are oriented to the informal education programme: use in outreach work based on the protection of human rights; following the principles of educational inclusivity; maintenance of a friendly approach to environmental protection in the citizenship education process; popularisation of Belarusian national values, contribution to the broadening of use of the Belarusian language.

3. Ecosystem of Non-formal Citizenship Education

As described above, the division of ideological and, on a practical level, government and non-government actors takes place in parallel and these entities very rarely work together. After the events of August 2020, they become even more distanced from one another and collaboration becomes essentially impossible.

With the strength of the government organisation and the weak regulatory and practical importance of local government in the lives of Belarusians, the government providers of civic education (schools, specialised secondary education institutions, universities) diligently obey the rules set by the Ministry of Education; all educational processes are managed by regional and local educational departments. As a result of these structures, the educational programmes, which demonstrate the integral presence of elements of citizenship education, as shown in section 1, are declining significantly. The effect of these local organisations, public associations and local powers on the content of such programmes is minimal and not a significant part of the description.

Participants of this organised civil society, i.e. non-commercial organisations, parties and professional organisations, provide independent programmes as part of civic education as an element of achieving their mission. For example, human rights organisations translate the corresponding knowledge and values of their targeted audience, professional organisations, to their members to increase their knowledge on protecting workers’ rights etc. In the same way and for the purpose of political transformation, they organise a process of new participants in civic education, for example the European School of New Media by NEXTA (project by the recognised Belarusian powers with the same name for the extremist channel), training for the Solidarity Fund BySoL etc.

4. Legal Environment for Citizenship Education in Belarus

In Belarus, there is a profile law on civic education and, because the country is not a member of the European Union or the European Council, it is not affected by framework laws such as the CM/Rec Recommendation (2010) and the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights.

In national law, legal relations for participants in education are set out and described in the Code of the Republic of Belarus "On Education" . In Article 2 of the "Bases of Government Policy in the Field of Education", there is a list of principles upon which this policy is based, in particular "the priority of universal human values, human rights, the humanistic character of education". However, the realisation of these principles in educational process, either instrumentally or as a procedure, are not described in the Code, meaning that, in the eyes of the law, they exclusively exist at the level of a declaration.

The above-mentioned organisation is a government and non-government institution. Private educational organisations are licensed by the Ministry of Education and their educational programmes, like governmental ones, are agreed with the Ministry, which limits the opportunities for the dissemination of other content, although there is no doubt that, in practice, private schools have greater scope. It is worth mentioning that the private education sector in Belarus is very small. For example, there are 16 private compared to 3019 state schools and 9 private universities compared to 42 state universities .

Belarusian legislation does not define citizen, non-commercial organisations as educational establishments. Accordingly, the non-commercial organisations provide their educational events and programmes in connection with their internal standards and without agreement with state institutions. At the same time, there is a system of recognition with government certificates, issued to NGOs, regarding a course or an educational programme which does not form part of the national qualification system. The legislation does not specify possible mechanisms for the involvement of NGOs in the educational process but, taking into consideration more prohibited practice relating to initiatives, it is possible to conclude that civic education within the framework of NGOs and citizen initiatives exist in parallel with the state educational organisations.

The environment for organisations in the field of non-formal education is less defined by documents about education and rather by the legal framework for the activities of NGOs.

Legal Default

After the start of the electoral campaign and its implementation in the final count of fraudulent elections on 9 August 2020 , both within the country and outside its borders, the situation in Belarus is characterised by legal default. Lots of legal standards simply do not work and they just support their decorative facade for the purpose of electoral compliance with procedural standards and the implementation of court sessions. From August 2020, according to data by the human rights centre "Vesna" and the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture, more than 2000 people in Belarus were subjected to torture (counting only on the basis of the documented facts); more than ten people were killed as a result of the excessive use of force on the part of strongmen; more than 40,000 people were arrested or fined for participation in peaceful gatherings and, according to the status on 25 May 2021, there were 450 people imprisoned as official political prisoners . The number of criminal cases regarding participation in protests cannot be determined. In the opinion of the authors, there is a similar level of repression, which is unprecedented, in relation to individual citizens in Belarus and in the modern history of the EECCA region. In connection with the legal default, the process of organising citizenship education in Belarus is being criminalised and independent actors who enable citizens to increase their knowledge to democratise Belarus are risking being found guilty of a criminal offence. In state educational institutions, paternalistic, ideological and totalitarian practices are increasingly dominant and are embedded by the Ministry of Education for the purposes of propaganda and reducing the morale of protesters.

5. Stakeholders and Challenges

Participants in the field of citizenship education can be divided up into three groups. The first group represents government structures, including primarily state educational organisations, from schools to universities and pro-government public organisations: BRSM, "Belaya Rus’", professional associations, which actively convey concepts of patriotism and citizenship. The state media and ideological committee departments work outside the framework of special educational practices.

The second group are participants in civic society: political parties, business associations, professional societies, research centres and independent media, which do not have a special agenda in the field of citizenship education and even do not consider themselves to be participants in this field. After 2020, their activities in Belarus have been subject to strict restrictions.

The third group relates to independent providers of citizenship education: non-commercial organisations, initiatives, citizen campaigns etc., the programmes and self-definition of which are linked with the practice of education . The contribution of independent providers of civic education is small and insignificant in comparison with that of state providers: the overall coverage of citizen education programmes, according to the most optimistic forecasts, does not exceed 100,000 participants over the course of 5 years, which corresponds to around 1.2% of the population 14 years of age and above . In connection with this, due to the concentration of major NGOs in Minsk and regional cities, citizenship education programmes, with some rare exceptions, are not available in regional centres and rural locations. However, from August 2020, some of these organisations suspended or terminated their activities (in connection with criminal cases, arrests and forced emigration) and some are looking for a new direction in the current situation. Due to this, evaluating the number of providers and recipients of educational services within the framework of this state is not possible.

In the near future, government actors will become stronger and monopolise all areas (education, media, social work). However, new initiatives are appearing as well, such as lectures, consultations and training, which provide a situational answer to the requirements of protest groups and activists.

The key challenge for citizenship education after 2020 has been the existence of two directions of civic education in one space based on opposing values. The resolution to this problem has been seen to be in the widening of democratic practices and political participation in order to bring about fundamental changes in the country to lead to development in democratic organisations.

However, in the situation of legal default after 2020, civic society was set back several steps in its constructive activities. The current situation demonstrates a high level of development of values of civic participation by the majority of the population of Belarus, as well as the necessity of transformation in political organisations which do not provide opportunities to realise these values, attitudes and behaviours.

Considering that the values of civic participation are shared by most people, independent providers of citizenship education are facing an important challenge: the necessity to set standard requirements when it comes to society. One of the difficulties is that the actors share the concern of the masses in connection with the spread of COVID-19 and are not organising face-to-face events and, at the same time, the government is essentially carrying out its policy of refusing quarantine and limiting measures. Finally, additional obstacles pose a major risk with regard to criminal cases due to facts relating to the organisation of such educational programmes.

Editorial note: This text was drafted in June 2021. The author’s use of the term "Belarusian" has been preserved.

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Master of Political Science

PhD in sociology