In mid-April, the Supreme Court of Belarus ordered the closure of the Independent Institute of Social-Economic and Political Research. The institute’s Russian-language acronym is NISEPI, though it is better known outside Belarus as NISEPS or IISEPS (Narodnaya volya, April 16). Its director, the respected sociologist Oleg Manayev (Aleh Manayeu), a 55-year old ethnic Russian, has maintained that the assault on NISEPI is an indicator that the authorities are already making preparations for the 2006 presidential elections.
The origin of that remark lies in the long history of NISEPI, which has operated since the beginning of the independence era and produced dozens of pamphlets and books using opinion surveys to monitor the views and sentiments of the Belarusian population. Perhaps the most notable achievement was the publication in 2000 of a lengthy volume authored by Manayev, and issued with the assistance of IREX and the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Belarus, entitled Stanovlenie grazhdanskohoobshchestva v nezavisimoy Belarusi: Sotsiologicheskie opyty: 1991-2000 [The state of public opinion in independent Belarus: sociological surveys: 1991-2000]. In the Foreword to this book Russian historian Dmitry Furman comments that the real role of NISEPI is not as part of a political struggle, but as part of the evolution of Belarus toward a civic society.
That evolution has now received a severe setback. The Supreme Court, headed by Judge L. Filimononikhina, dissolved the public association after a three-day hearing, but the decision had become a formality. Official pressure on NISEPI increased dramatically after the October 2004 referendum, prior to which NISEPI collaborated with the Gallup Institute to show that less than 49% of the electorate supported changes to the constitution that would permit President Alexander Lukashenka to run for a third term in office, rather than the 80% officially reported. Subsequently the Ministry of Justice, along with the Republican Procurator’s Office and the militia, began to harass the association, according to a statement from the NISEPI Board of Directors (Narodnaya volya, April 20), issuing letters of warning last fall and searching the apartment of a prominent member, Alexander Sasnou.
According to a representative of the Ministry of Justice, NISEPI violated the law in several respects: first, it was located at an address different from the one cited in its charter; second, it had more than once failed to provide required information and documents; third, the organization had a Supervisory Council not mentioned in its original charter, and fourth NISEPI often did not provide its full title on its publications. Manayev noted that other reasons were also provided, such as the alleged fabrication of public opinion polls, though the ministry did not focus on this “absurd” accusation in court (Belorusskiy rynok, April 18-24).
Most of the charges are exceedingly petty. The Supervisory Council functioned rather like the editorial board of a scholarly journal; i.e. it did not govern the association, particularly as many of its members live abroad (in Poland, Ukraine, the United States, etc.), but served as a consultative body. Though the association agreed to rent space at the Fanipol automobile repair plant, that building was rarely used, and NISEPI operated out of an apartment building in Minsk. Manayev claimed that the Fanipol office was used twice a month, but the office was evidently vacant when an inspection took place (Belorusskiy rynok, April 18-24).
As for the accusation that it did not always cite its full title, i.e. it used NISEPI rather than the Republican Public Association NISEPI (ROO NISEPI), one of its members, Yuri Drakokhrust, remarked that the Ministry of Justice is equally guilty of the same transgression, as it rarely cites its full title with the addendum “of the Republic of Belarus.”
More important to the course of the hearing was NISEPI’s refusal to submit copies of a sociological questionnaire for a survey conducted in 2004 to the Ministry of Justice. The NISEPI Board of Directors claimed that the ministry exceeded its authority, a claim that was not backed up by the Supreme Court.
NISEPI has sometimes been identified with the opposition over the past two years. Manayev has attended international meetings critical of the Belarusian government, and his surveys have indicated that there are flaws in the official perception of a universally popular president, with a mandate to run for a third term. In its response to such revelations, the government has demonstrated its control over two technically independent agencies: the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Court of Belarus.
Lately it has changed the focus of its attacks from opposition political parties to non-government media and public associations, as well as private higher educational institutions like the European Humanities University, closed in July 2004 but scheduled to reopen in Vilnius this summer (Charter 97, April 18).
NISEPI will not appeal the decision, but will attempt to win for itself legal status under a different form, though Manayev insists that it will retain the same name, one that has become widely known as a leading analyst of Belarusian society and a window to the real sentiments within this authoritarian state.