Machine assisted translation
For a year now, the Czech Republic has had a Civil Society program in place to receive Russian and Belarusian dissidents. However, the quota allocated by the government was not even half used, due to organizational and bureaucratic obstacles, as well as a lack of resources. Gabriela Svárovská, former deputy director of the Prague Center for Civil Society and co-author of a critique of the program, told </emT-invariant why Civil Society is not effective in practice and what needs to be done to change the situation.
A year ago, at the initiative of Czech non-profit organizations, the Czech government approved the Civil Society program. It is addressed to citizens of Russia and Belarus who face political persecution in their home countries. Program participants can receive a long-term visa or residence permit in the Czech Republic. The approved annual quota of the program is 500 people. However, according to Gabriela Svárovská, only about 170 people were accepted into the program. There are several reasons for such a modest result.
Although the program was announced to be open to all, it turned out in practice to be dependent on its initiators — Czech non-profit organizations operating in Russia at the time of its adoption. Their motive was quite clear: they were trying to protect their colleagues and partners who were under threat of political persecution.
Under the terms of the program, participants had to prove that they had publicly expressed their political position and were now in danger because of it. Since a number of Czech non-profit organizations such as People in Need, the Freedom of Information Society (Společnost svobody informace), and the Prague Civil Society Centre were declared undesirable in Russia (collaboration with them is a criminal offense for Russian citizens), their partners were immediately affected. To collect the documents required for participation in the program was relatively uncomplicated for employees of such organizations, but the process still took about three months. Some applicants, especially those in a critical situation, could not withstand the wait and left for countries that issued visas more quickly.
Money was another challenge on the way of political emigrants from Russia and Belarus to the Czech Republic. Claiming to receive half a million Ukrainian refugees, Czech authorities refused to allocate funds to support political emigrants from Russia. “If you want to take your partners from Russia and Belarus, we will support you in this, but you must either provide them financially yourself, or these people must find a job,” was the reaction of the ministries, according to Gabriela Svárovská. So each program participant had to either show a source of income in the Czech Republic or be assisted by a guarantor, a nonprofit organization that supervised them. The guarantor was supposed to provide funds to support him or her, if necessary, for the duration of the visa, but nonprofits don’t have a lot of money.
The nonprofit sector also has limited organizational resources. There are no staff dedicated to collecting and processing documents for hundreds of Russians and Belarusians. Of course, scientific organizations interested in attracting Russian and Belarusian colleagues could help. But, according to Gabriela Svárovská, universities, and in particular the Charles University, was not the most active in this regard. It was often easier for the university to refuse a qualified person with an inappropriate passport than to deal with the bureaucratic system.
According to Gabriela Svárovská, nonprofit organizations do not have contacts in academia and are unfamiliar with scientists who would like to move to the Czech Republic. Therefore, the initiative here should come from the academic environment, which maintains contact with Russian and Belarusian scientists. «It is necessary for instance to find an initiative person at Charles University, who will rise up, go to the ministry and say: “I also want to be involved in this on behalf of my university, we have a list of the specific persons. We want to cooperate with them, we have common projects with them.” The government, the Ministry of Education could be more active. I think it’s worth to support the intellectual Russians and Belarusians, even though it’s not mainstream.»
Nevertheless, to date, Gabriela Svárovská has volunteered to help prepare documents for potential program participants. She believes that Czech authorities, educational and non-profit organizations are missing the chance to host Russian and Belarusian scientists and specialists who can be valuable to the country.
Text: MARINA STEINBERG
Gabriela Svárovská’s Proposals for Civic Society Reform
- To move the agenda forward, a consortium of nonprofit organizations must find a way to make the program accessible to all who need it.
- Ministries could simplify and speed up procedures for reviewing documents. Academic institutions that are interested in specialists from Russia and Belarus should support their desire to relocate to the Czech Republic.
- A consortium of Czech non-profit organizations should agree to exchange information and allocate resources for data verification, collection, and processing of documents.
- Because of the security risks to the country, reform of the Citizen Society program should be led by someone whose impeccable reputation inspires trust and guarantees against misuse.
In more detail, Gabriela Svárovská, Peter Havliček, and Tomáš Petříček describe the situation and their proposals for improvement in an article published in the Deník Referendum on April 18, 2023. It is translated here.
Let’s support Belarusian and Russian dissidents. They are our allies in saving democracy
Democracy as a system of governance today is under pressure from authoritarianism around the world. Support for pro-democratic forces in the regimes that have emerged in Russia and Belarus is now more important than ever. The Czech Republic still does not seem to understand this.
From the beginning, there were high hopes for a renewal of the principles underlying foreign and security policy with the government of Petr Fiala. After years spent in the shadows, the Czech Republic has entered the arena of European and world politics.
After February 24, 2022 the Czech government dramatically changed its attitude towards Russian and Belarusian societies, including their pro-Western part that it had been fully supporting for the past years. The Czech authorities rightly chose support for Ukraine, its refugees, the state, the armed forces, and society as their absolute priority. However, contrary to all logic, they simultaneously denied support to the Russian and Belarusian opposition, which immediately after the outbreak of war proclaimed as its main political goal the victory of Ukraine, the restoration of borders within the framework of 1991 and the final defeat of the dictatorships of Putin and Lukashenko.
The civil opposition in both countries represents a significant numerical and intellectual strength and is a source of information and invaluable experience for the Czech and international publics. An example is the most important investigative journalism that has had a significant impact on European and U.S. sanctions policy.
It was Russian investigative journalists who uncovered the perpetrators of the Vrbetica bombings, and it is Russian journalists who, together with their Czech colleagues, systematically publish materials about the assets of Russian oligarchs and mafia and their connections in the Czech Republic.
We can now take full advantage of our longstanding relations with the Russian and Belarusian civil and political opposition, independent journalists and freedom fighters. These relations have been built for thirty years by Czech NGOs and democratic politicians, both those in power and those in opposition. It would seem that now, when the neo-totalitarian regimes in both countries are nearing their end, and local democrats certainly tie their fate to the victory of Ukraine, it is time to unite.
Paradoxes of Czech foreign policy
After the failed protests against the rigged presidential election in Belarus in the summer of 2020, the Czech Republic supported local civic activists, independent media, democratic politicians, students, and scholars of all political persuasions. When Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a representative of democratic Belarus, first came to Prague, almost everyone wanted to take a photo with her.
We seemed to be well aware of the fundamental shift that had occurred in Belarusian society. During the election, the majority of Belarusians resolutely rejected Lukashenka’s continued rule, to which no alternative acceptable to all had been found before Tikhanovska appeared. For months, the regime was unable to quell the protests, even using violence unprecedented for Belarus at that time.
Many European politicians, including the then Czech Prime Minister, stated that they did not recognize Lukashenko as president of Belarus. On the other hand, the leader of the democratic opposition, who was forced to emigrate to Lithuania, was taken in by the diplomatic protocol usually applied to incumbent statesmen.
Belarus: escape from Lukashenko’s regime at any cost
Many Belarusian democrats then found refuge in the Czech Republic, including those seriously injured at demonstrations and those tortured in police stations. Czech universities competed with one another in the distribution of scholarships, compensated by the European Commission. Belarus was «in the trend.»
The change for Belarusians after February 24 last year was extremely dramatic. Although the general prohibition on issuing visas to Belarusian citizens was largely justified, the inability to apply certain exemptions in practice lacked logic.
At the same time, the Belarusian opposition has not taken Lukashenko’s side — on the contrary, it has intensified its efforts to fight the regime. The Belarusian company is fighting against Russia in Ukraine. Belarusian students in our country have not cooperated with the regime they previously protested against. However, relatives of those who were evacuated to the Czech Republic with severe injuries sustained while participating in the protests cannot come to visit their loved ones even for a short time.
It is difficult to shake off the feeling that in this case we are talking about the application of the principle of collective guilt to holders of Russian and Belarusian passports, regardless of their values, years of activity, and attitude to the war.
The civilian sector saves the situation. Not for the first time
This general approach was only partially revised by the Czech government after the intervention of Czech civil society organizations. The government adopted the Civil Society program, which allows offering visa assistance to a limited number of people from certain categories.
In general, the program was well designed, but the main administrative burden and all financial guarantees fell on the shoulders of Czech civil society organizations, which can submit lists of candidates for long-term visas.
Another problem concerns, for example, Russian journalists working remotely in independent media, whose editorial offices are scattered all over Europe. Some of them had to emigrate earlier, while others left only when laws prohibiting truthful reporting on the war between Russia and Ukraine under threat of imprisonment began to take effect in Russia. A handful of daredevils still remain in Russia and operate virtually illegally. They, too, will probably need asylum if the situation does not change soon.
They cannot settle in Prague unless they themselves set up an organization here that could employ them. It is not mainly a question of money: most of these media outlets are financially self-sufficient, they have their own donors and supporters, and they have tens of millions of readers in Russia.
The main problem is the timing of decisions and unreasonable demands on people who suddenly find themselves in exile and, instead of continuing to work and provide their readers in Russia with much-needed information, have to fill out paperwork, collect documents showing that criminal charges are actually being brought against them, meet with lawyers, and wait for weeks or months for the reaction of Czech authorities. At the same time it is not a problem to check their views and activities in our Internet age and with our knowledge of the environment.
Many Russian and Belarusian scientists and students, especially those who have publicly spoken out against the war, have found themselves in a critical situation, but their formal data do not meet the strict requirements of the visa law. At the same time, Russian hockey players were able to come and play in the NHL games in Prague without any problems.
The absurdity of the situation reached its climax with the introduction of a ban on all citizens of the Russian Federation entering our country, including the few tens a day who could theoretically fly in from third countries, for example to Vaclav Havel International Airport. Given that the neighboring countries, Germany, Austria and Slovakia have not joined the restriction, maintaining common open borders within the Schengen area, the advisability of the Czech measure may be questioned. It is ─ a pointless gesture, but it is detrimental to the country.
In Prague, once a center of free Russian and Belarusian critical thinking, media work, and civic activism, existing or planned projects and events have either been postponed indefinitely, or have gradually begun to move to neighboring countries, mainly Germany and Poland.
Bureaucracy and problems related to the legalization of residence have forced many scientists, journalists, artists, activists, and well-known figures to head elsewhere. A number of activities that could influence the pan-European debate about the future after the fall of the two Eastern European dictatorships have found a place for implementation outside of the not so hospitable Czech land.
We have something to be inspired by
The Czech Republic has a historical basis on which it could draw — that of Russian Aid Action, which attracted some of the best Russian minds and talents of its time to Czechoslovakia during the interwar period.
For a new Russian and Belarusian aid action to succeed, it is necessary to mobilize the political will and practical willingness to help people who are being repressed because of their opposition to the regime. This could contribute to a potential revision of relations with Russia in the future.
Specific problems that the government needs to address now are inflexible visa regulations, the excessively long and bureaucratic process involved in granting visas even for short stays, and the financial guarantees required by the state from the nonprofit sector.
This possibility will emerge in the upcoming debate on the prospects and reform of the Civil Society program at the government level. At the same time, the Czech Republic should return to more active support for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, founded in 2011 in Prague. The importance of this major civil forum for an exchange of views on EU-Russia relations is demonstrated by the fact that the Kremlin has included it in the list of so-called undesirable organizations.
The experience of Lithuania is before our eyes: in previous years, it has received thousands of democracy fighters from both countries. In contrast, the Czech Republic only supported about 170 people as part of the Civil Society program. At the same time, Lithuania’s overall visa policy remains strict and practically closed to tourists and citizens of Russia and Belarus in general. Lithuania is particularly tough on individuals who pose a threat to its national security.
But Lithuania - unlike us - can distinguish the wheat from the chaff. The combination of friendliness and toughness in Lithuania is possible due to effective coordination of the entire state apparatus and cooperation with non-governmental organizations, which can conduct reliable checks on individual applicants.
Moreover, the Czech government could be inspired by the examples of neighboring Germany and the Netherlands, which support scientists and students in need. Their authorities create the necessary infrastructure for them, help with relocation, provide visas, and mediate employment. So far, this approach, except in isolated cases, has not worked at all in the Czech Republic. And even for these first few, life is complicated by the confusing rules of Czech academic communities and general bureaucracy.
At the same time, some of the emigrated scientists receive grants for their activities from international sources and find their place in international research teams. They are also supported by European institutions. But not the Czech Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
At the same time, it is independent research and science, as well as academia in general, that is under the threat of destruction by the regimes of Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko. This is evidenced by the inclusion of the Riga-based Free University among the so-called undesirable organizations. In Russia, association with an undesirable organization is punishable by six years in prison.
Of course, this does not mean that we have to change anything about our support of Ukraine. But we must learn to work in several directions simultaneously: that is, in this case, to support and maximize the democratic potential of the «new» Belarus and Russia.
Freedom of the media is a long-standing priority of Czech human rights policy and has survived more than one government coalition. For example, European Commissioner Vera Jourová, as well as a number of European institutions, foundations, and EU member states, have been involved in supporting Belarusian, Russian, and Russian-language independent media. The Czech Republic can play a potentially much greater role in this direction, for example, in cooperation with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which broadcast from Prague.
We should not remain on the sidelines and can return to circles where we have been counted on in the past and will probably continue to be counted on in the future. And if the argument that we should help others is not enough, let us not forget that the help given to Russian and Belarusian freedom fighters benefits us as well. After all, we want to be where the strategy for Russia without Putin and Belarus without Lukashenko will be worked out. They will not be in power forever.
Original text: Pavel Havlíček, Tomáš Petříček, Gabriela Svárovská. Podpořme běloruské a ruské disidenty. Jsou našimi spojenci v záchraně demokracie
Marina Steinberg 12.05.2023