In 2020, mass protests erupted in Belarus following another rigged election in a country that has been under authoritarian rule for decades. The protest movement started with young people, but quickly expanded to include hundreds of thousands of Belarusians of all ages and walks of life. With enormous brutality and the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko crushed the protest, imprisoning thousands of people.
The world was witnessing the new strength of Belarusian civil society, a development the German Marshall Fund had seen coming. For many years before 2020, he had quietly supported civil society initiatives in Belarus, from local book clubs, libraries and cultural initiatives to shelters for victims of domestic violence and helping to depopulate villages.
Supporting civil society in Eastern Europe has long been one of the core activities of GMF, which offers direct assistance in the name of its mission.
Supporting civil society in Eastern Europe has long been one of the core activities of GMF, which offers direct assistance in the name of its mission. This type of support is rarely advertised in the news because field work does not lend itself to headlines. Often, recipients of this aid prefer to remain anonymous or not to advertise their activities.
At the end of the 1980s, thanks to courageous demonstrators, the communist leaders of Eastern Europe were forced to resign. In order to build participatory and sustainable democracies, strong and active civil societies would be needed. This is why the GMF, as a transatlantic organization, quickly set out to strengthen civil society in Eastern Europe. As described in a 1990 internal memo, the organization decided to redirect its “funding focus towards increasing citizen participation in decision-making, in response to the absence of such a tradition.”
With the Balkan wars and the enlargement of NATO, GMF’s activities in Eastern Europe grew. While it initially distributed small grants to individuals and groups on a largely ad hoc basis, it quickly moved on to developing regional strategies for its activities, which resulted in the creation of the Balkan Trust for Democracy in 2003, the Fund for Belarus Democracy in 2005, and the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation in 2007.
What has made these programs a success, and in some cases a model for others, are the four principles on which they are based.
With the Balkan wars and the enlargement of NATO, GMF’s activities in Eastern Europe grew.
First of all, “it is up to the local partners to suggest which initiatives the money should go to,” explains Jörg Forbrig, who manages the Belarusian fund from the GMF office in Berlin. “Only the locals have the knowledge and can assess the likely reception, value and potential risks of a given initiative. After all, it is the people who must take the destiny of their country into their own hands. »
Second, a functioning civil society must be diverse and inclusive. Therefore, GMF offers between tens and hundreds of grants each year, rather than focusing on a few large projects, to ensure that many different citizen initiatives can benefit from financial support.
In 2005, one of the first GMF grants went to the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground company that performed in garages and abandoned houses. The organization has supported rock bands and independent galleries, offered reintegration assistance to inmates, and helped professional associations. Writer Svetlana Alexievitch, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, was a fellow, as were several initiatives that monitor government activities.
Third, GMF activities in Eastern Europe are designed for the long term and often funded by outside sources who share such a long-term commitment.
Fourth, GMF does not seek short-term political changes. “Our goal is sustainable, in-depth development that includes people from all walks of life,” Forbrig says. “We want to look at civil society in very broad terms.”