The European Association for Local Democracy (ALDA) in cooperation with MEP Bogdan Zdrojewski, CORLEAP; Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF) and its Belarusian National Platform, EaP CSF members Centre for European Transformation and Lev Sapieha Foundation held a panel discussion entitled “Dialogue between Citizens and Institutions in Belarus – the Way Forward?” The event took place at the European Parliament (EP) on 26 April 2016.

External European Action Service coordinator of the EaP multilateral Platform 1 Javier Fuentes-Leja discussed activities of the Platform 1 in the area Public Administration reform. Sustainable Municipal Development Flagship Initiative and Covenant of Mayors as well as economic growth and job creation were mentioned as notable elements in this context. Furthermore, the importance of effective communication with respect to EU policies in Belarus employing tools like STRATCOM East task force and weekly reviews were highlighted. Fuentes-Leja also noted that local and regional level authorities have a significant role to play in the implementation of reforms.

The Coordinator of the Belarusian National Platform (BNP) Sviatlana Karaiova underlined that the approximation towards the EU rules is at the core of the Eastern Partnership initiative. She raised the issue of the support for GONGOs by the Belarusian government. Ms Karaliova believes that the BNP provides the space for policy development by the genuine civil society in the country.

Former EaP CSF Belarus National Coordinator and SC Co-chair Andrei Yahorau spoke about the limited engagement of the civil society in Belarus. According to him the government has an ambiguous attitude towards the reforms. For instance, the reforms in relation to the Bologna process have not started yet and the recent address by the President highlighted that little is planned to be done in this direction. Mr Yahorau suggested that programme boards involving both the government and CSOs should be created for the implementations of EU programmes in Belarus. Regional government, decentralization and green economy were mentioned as areas where structural dialogue with civil society is possible.

Mr Kobasa from Lev Sapieha Foundation stressed that a very small number of civil servants is involved in the regional governance – 270 people in total, while those representatives are not full accountable to the citizens. He also described the high level of distrust between the regional authorities and civil society. Among the hurdles for civil society he mentioned the limitations on registration of NGOs, criminal liability for the activities of unregistered NGOs and lengthy procedures for registration of international grants.

In his closing remarks, Zdrojewski underlined that the European Parliament should promote the message of Europe’s openness to Belarusian society. In addition, need for a more vocal criticism on the persisting issues and the role of the upcoming parliamentary elections as a determinant of progress were noted.

Following the statements by the speakers, the audience heard directly from the three citizen centers in Slonim, Mogilev and Vitebsk about their experience and recommendations on how to enhance the dialogue.