In Belarus, the space for youth NGOs is shrinking day by day. Money transfers coming from abroad, specifically the youth project funds or even the travel reimbursements of the youth mobility participants are taxed a lot, as they are considered an income if not proved to be from your relatives. This situation created permanent challenges for youth NGOs and young people involved in international mobility projects through the European institutions. For years youth NGOs were not able to find a legal way to justify the European funds or even the simple money reimbursements without being taxed by the government. The situation even worsened after the presidential elections of 2020 in Belarus, when young people could be investigated or even arrested for getting foreign money for projects or for reimbursement.

When the travel reimbursement can be a threat for youth NGOs

All the money coming from abroad is considered an income, more often an illegal income unless you can prove that the money is from your relatives. All the money that comes from abroad is tracked by the government’s tax offices. This usually works in this way: you are getting money from abroad and then there are two options: 1) you are lucky and nothing happens to you (this is also possible); 2) the tax service office calls you and tells that you have an income from abroad with all the consequences. Nobody knows the logic when they pay attention and when they do not. If it was from your relatives, you should just prove it and that’s fine. Even the reimbursement for already spent money is not an excuse to not pay the taxes with high rates. There is always a chance that you will be lucky and the government will not deal with your case if you got the money, but you never know.

Apropos of NGOs operating in Belarus, there are currency income laws; formal control is usually made by banks. Belarusian youth NGOs have always had restrictions about receiving money from abroad for their activities. For example, it is hard to receive funds in the country even from the EU Erasmus+, the world-famous fund which has a reputation and is reliable. To get money as a grant for a project from abroad, NGOs preferably ask the special Department for permission even before applying for the grant. When an NGO gets the project approved and the money, it asks for permission to use it. NGOs can wait up to half a year for permission and implement the project only after getting the money on their account. The tax services can consider your case at least for half a year, and you cannot use the money during that period. They can also not give you permission in the end.

This is how it was before the presidential elections in 2020. Now we have a total failure of the justice system. It seems that laws do not exist anymore. At present, I would call it the riskiest thing to do, to get a grant as an NGO. And I also don't know what will happen to you if you get the money from abroad as an NGO or an individual, because there is not a rule of law in Belarus anymore. If money came from abroad even as reimbursement, it doesn't matter, this can end very badly, you are under the danger of being imprisoned. When the laws don't operate, it is very hard to understand what is legal and what is not, what is restricted and what is not (or maybe it is better to say that everything is restricted).

For me, as a person who is involved in international youth work, it is impossibly difficult to assess any limits of youth work or any economic difficulties. Any actions that I am taking as a youth worker or representative of my NGO I should overthink a lot on the point "would it cause suppression to my NGO?". Belarusian young people have fewer economic opportunities in this regard, as even the participation in international projects is difficult; the travel reimbursements are challenging to get when you are back to Belarus. It causes hardships and troubles for youth NGOs that are mainly involved in international activities and have lots of participants. In the end, it seems nonsense to be put in prison for money received from abroad for reimbursement, but if you are an activist and already have some problems, money from abroad can end very badly.

When our NGO should do local activities, which are part of the European funds and big projects, giving some subgrants, we always have to find a safe way to use this money. We find people who can bring this money in cash to our country and we provide receipts afterwards. This situation complicates the normal way NGOs should operate. Thanks to the international partners of our NGO that are always very inclusive and understanding in this aspect with making reimbursement in cash, we got a huge help in overcoming this barrier.

Another example is about one of our partners in Europe that wanted to help us during COVID-19. They wanted to collect money personally inside an NGO or among friends (so we are talking about some 200 EUR in total and it is more about solidarity than a huge help) and we would use this money for masks or antiseptics for the institutions that were not provided with them. We didn't find a legal way to do so, something that wouldn't be a threat to our NGO. We didn't get this help in the end. This situation shrinks especially youth organizations’ rights and spaces to initiate civic education. Different youth projects are always facing permanent economic difficulties. It’s hard to develop civil society youth organizations that do not get financial support from the government.