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Assessment of the Legal Framework for Non-Governmental Organizations in the Republic of Belarus

The Assessment of the Legal Framework for Non-governmental Organizations in Belarus  (Assessment) was prepared by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), under the auspices of the Belarus Reforms and Media Assistance Program (BRAMA). The Assessment provides a comprehensive overview of different areas of Belarus legislation relating to CSOs (including citizen participation, taxation, citizen participation, and good governance, in addition to the basic framework legislation). This overview is accompanied by an analysis which allows the reader to compare Belarus legislation with legislation of the neighboring countries and with European best practices. It intends to inform the international stakeholders about the CSO legal environment in Belarus. At the same time, it will assist Belarus stakeholders to plan and prioritize comprehensive reforms of CSO legislation. The overview and analysis were completed in English as well as in Russian. 

 

Freedom of association faces substantial challenges in Belarus as compared to other countries in the Eurasia region. For example, the participation in and the management and financing of unregistered public associations are considered punishable criminal and administrative offenses in Belarus. Despite these challenges, many CSOs exist and are active in Belarus and its civil society is still lively and vibrant. The fact that Belarus has both a restrictive operating environment and an active civil society necessitates an in-depth understanding of the legal framework for CSOs that will allow CSOs and international stakeholders to understand and properly implement the existing legislation while at the same time working to improve it.

Both the Belarus government and CSOs would benefit from improved CSO legislation. CSOs play an important role in the economic and social life of many democratic countries. A prominent sociologist, Lester Salamon, called the CSO sector a strategically important linkage in the search for the middle way between market and state.[1]  In fact, CSOs may play an important role in resolving quality of life issues and the deficit of social services. These issues usually cannot be solved by the government alone, and businesses often do not have enough economic incentive to contribute to their resolution. 

According to global research study conducted by The Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies in 35 countries,[2] the CSO sector in these countries constitutes:

  • A $1.3 trillion industry. The civil society sector, including religious congregations, had aggregate expenditures of US$1.3 trillion as of the late 1990s. This represents 5.1 percent of the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of these countries.
  • The world’s seventh largest economy. To put these figures into context, if the civil society sector in these countries were a separate national economy, its expenditures would make it the seventh largest economy in the world, ahead of Italy, Brazil, Russia, Spain, and Canada and just behind France and the U.K.
  • A major employer. The civil society sector in these 35 countries is also a major employer, with a total workforce of 39.5 million full-time equivalent workers including religious congregations. This means that civil society organizations:
    • employ, on average, 4.4 percent of the economically active population, or an average of almost one out of every 20 economically active persons;
    • employ, in the aggregate, 10 times more people than the utilities and textile industries in these countries, five times more people than the food manufacturing industry, and about 20 percent more people than the transportation industry.

However, sustainable and capable CSOs ready to make substantial contributions into economy are not created without support and investment from the government. When a government wants to strengthen small and medium size businesses, it creates a legal enabling environment that includes providing tax incentives. Similarly, in order to strengthen the CSO sector, it is essential to create enabling legal environment for them. A legal regulatory environment for CSOs would be considered enabling if it allowed for a simple registration procedure for all types of CSOs, supported and promoted the sustainability of CSOs by providing certain tax incentives and preferences that would help CSOs to generate income from various sources, and allowed CSOs to be part of political life and contributors to economy.

The most effective formula for CSO law reform occurs when government and CSOs build mutual trust and jointly seek solutions to existing issues within CSO legislation. The following issues are covered in the Assessment:

Registration.   The Assessment provides a detailed overview of the procedure for establishing various types of local CSOs as well as for opening of the offices and branches of foreign CSOs. The registration procedure for a new CSO in Belarus is a very complex and gives the government broad discretion on whether to grant the initiative group a registration. The Assessment identifies the main issues that must be taken into account when registering a new organization and notes that some forms are easier to register than others. For example, registering an institution is a relatively simple procedure, similar to the procedure available for businesses.

Governance and operational requirements.  The Assessment also provides a detailed overview of the legal requirements in regards to internal governance and activities of CSOs. The internal governance rules under Belarus law are very detailed and they must be taken into account when establishing a new CSO. It is also important that CSOs be aware of operational requirements during its lifetime; if a CSO violates its own bylaws, including internal governance rules outlined in the law and/or in its own bylaws, the CSO’s activities can be terminated. On a positive note, the majority of Belarus CSOs (with exception of foundations) enjoy freedoms in regards to engaging in political activities, especially in consultations with the government on policy and legislative issues.

Sustainability. The Assessment also closely reviews legislation relating to the sustainability of CSOs. While certain types of CSOs (active in the area of sports and culture, in particular) do enjoy special preferences, such as the possibility for businesses supporting them to deduct the contributions from their taxable income, the majority of CSOs are facing challenges to obtain any kind of income. Specifically, public associations (the most popular type of CSOs) are prohibited from selling goods and services even if directly related to their statutory goals. It is extremely challenging to obtain foreign funding, as all foreign funding must be pre-approved by the Belarusian government. Local businesses are prohibited from supporting any non-profit causes other than those specified in the presidential decree, under the threat of financial penalty for supporting unauthorized causes. There is no special legislation in regards to volunteers. However, activities in this unregulated area have not faced challenges from the government thus far.

Government control. The Belarus government in general and government authorities in charge of registration of CSOs in particular enjoy very broad powers in terms of control and suspension of activities of CSOs, both local and foreign operating in Belarus. Such authority is frequently exercised in regards to those CSOs engaged in advocacy and human rights. Severe penalties are applied against those who do not comply with the legislation.      

CSO legislation that is in compliance with international standards and best practices provides an enabling environment for all kinds of associational life, for CSOs as well as informal groups. Belarus CSO legislation would benefit from reform effort led by Belarus stakeholders. This Assessment provides an informational foundation for such efforts and ICNL hopes that it will be helpful in kick-starting the process.

 


[1] Global Civil Society Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector, by Lester M. Salamon; Helmut K. Anheier; Regina List; Stefan Toepler; S. Wojciech Sokolowski; and Associates, The Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies Baltimore, MD, 1999.

[2] Global Civil Society. An Overview, by Lester M. Salamon, S.Wojciech Sokolowski, Regina List. The Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies, 2003 pgs. 13-15,  http://www.wingsweb.org/download/global_civil_society.pdf.

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