“The practices of local government in Belarus and Sweden differ significantly. For Sweden, which took the path of democratic development long ago, there is no question why it is necessary to take into account the views of the residents at all levels, starting from the local one, and there is a mechanism for considering these views,” said MFF Chairman Yuri Hubarevich, opening the round-table conference.
According to him, those politicians in Sweden who depart from the wishes of their voters cannot stay in power for a long time.
“The situation in Belarus is completely different: no authorities, including local ones, are elected. This allows them to not take into account people’s opinions. The MFF’s task is to reverse this situation — we are working to help people who are struggling for their rights. At the same time, we understand that the relationships between society and the authorities should not be reduced solely to confrontation. However, opinions must be taken into consideration,” said the MFF leader.
Not all of the rules that apply in Sweden would work in Belarus, but there are some universal rules, said Elisabet Lann, Vice Mayor of Gothenburg.
“The role of voters is very important in the political process in Sweden: they are invited to debate, negotiate, they raise very important issues, make politicians listen to them and promote their interests, they are political partners in advancing the interests of the entire society,” said Ms. Lann.
According to her, the state must guarantee the well-being of all voters, but when public activists can do something good, they should have freedom of action in respective areas. “Society must be involved in the construction of democracy — this promotes the credibility of the authorities and the existing management system,” said the Swedish politician.
Public activist Miraslau Kobasa of Leu Sapeha Foundation spoke about the forms of participation of citizen in decision making. He acknowledged that by no means all methods work in Belarus — for example, not a single local referendum was ever held.
“There are three main obstacles. The first is statement of the question itself — critical issues should be put to referendums, but their importance is determined by the regional branches of the Ministry of Justice. The second one is that citizens bear any applicable financial expenses. And the third one is that there is no mechanism of response to the referendum decisions — the authorities can simply take note of them [and do nothing],” said Miraslau Kobasa.
According to him, “people should co-operate with local authorities at the local level, but they should understand that the current system is not designed to make our lives better, but to better control us — the interests of the citizens do not come first.”
MFF Deputy Chairman Viktar Yanchurevich spoke about the practice of local referendums in Belarus, as well. In Belarus, because of the above-mentioned obstacles, there were only four attempts of residents to convey in such a way their opinion concerning the solution of local problems. The politician, however, believes that there still are certain advantages in using of local referendums.
“When citizens announce they want a referendum, they are putting the issue on the higher level — there is a broader information and mobilization effect, and the factor of social tension passes to the political sphere,” said Viktar Yanchurevich.
An initiative on referendum on urban development in the Sevastopalski Park, launched previously by Yanchurevich, resulted in the change of the plans. “We should use the methods provided to us by the law,” concluded the politician.
Volha Beliautsova of ‘Vakolitsa’ (‘Neighbourhood’) human rights and educational institution told about the cases of struggle of Minsk region residents for their rights. She mentioned the work of Kalodzishchi town initiative group among the successful ones. “They succeeded in defending 5 hectares of their forest — they called an independent examination, which found red-listed species there. They are now defending other areas in their district. I think they will succeed,” said Volha Beliautsova.
At the end of the round-table conference, the participants adopted a resolution in order to increase the effectiveness of participation of citizens in decision making at the local level. The participants of the round-table conference consider it necessary to develop communication between local government and citizens on the issues of local character; therefore they appealed to all subjects of legislative initiative, including the heads of local governments and the government of Belarus.