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Belarus: two dimensions of e-democracy

Mikhail Doroshevich1, Marina Sokolova2

According to the results of a poll conducted in 2002 by the Institute of Sociology and Social Technologies of the National Academy of Science 40 per cent of Belarus' population are computer literate. More than a quarter (27 per cent) of respondents have access to the internet but only one tenth of them access the internet daily. And one fifth (22 per cent) of those who access the internet do it more than once during the week, 29 per cent access the net several times a month, while 39 per cent go online less than once a month. One tenth of those polled said they were unaware of the internet. 62 % of Belarusian internet users live in Minsk, the capital of the country. Regional centers make up 23 per cent of internet users. Meanwhile, cities with over 10,000 inhabitants claim 13 per cent of Belarus internet users, up from 11 per cent last spring. The most active internet visitors are between 17-22 years old, comprising 40 per cent of Belarusian internet users. 23-29 year olds, meanwhile, make up 28 per cent of users, while 30-39 year olds make up 15 per cent. The 16 year old and younger crowds make up only 8 per cent of Belarusian internet population. 40-49 year olds make up 6 per cent of internet users, while 50-59 and 60-over make up 2 and 1 per cent of Belarusian internet users respectively. Students and young people, therefore, continue to make up two-thirds of internet users. Currently, however, about 3000 elderly people use e-mail, generally to correspond with their relatives abroad. The majority of users are men, at 75 per cent. 41 per cent of internet users have a higher education, while 28 per cent have an unfinished higher education

In May, 2003 the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the Information Development Programme (InfoDev), the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, and the Belarusian Information Fund published their report on ICT Infrastructure and E-Readiness Assessments in the Republic of Belarus. According to the report, the defined Belarus Networked Readiness Index is 3.19, which gives the country a ranking of 61 out of 76 countries. Other parameters were indexed as follows: network use component - 65th; network access - 67th; information infrastructure - 67th; hardware, software, and support -63rd; network policy - 73rd; business and economic environment - 66th; ICT Policy - 76th; networked society - 51st; networked learning - 66th; ICT opportunities - 66th; social capital - 26th; networked economy -65th; e-commerce - 64th; e-government - 72nd; and general infrastructure - 47th.

In this climate ICTs have very quickly come to play a rather important role in Belarusian society being used by companies and private individuals to engage in business, research, the collection of information and, more generally, communications in the country.

In the year of 2002 the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radio electronics (BSUIR) received a license for e - learning courses from the Belarusian Ministry of Education. A year of distant learning at the University will cost approximately $377. At the same year the Information Technologies Enterprise and the Institute of Technical cybernetics together with the University of Mannheim have taken part in the international TeSIAC (Telemedicine System for Image Analysis and Consultation) project to create a system for the analysis of and consultations on thyroid cancer cases in Belarus. TeSIAC is intended to interconnect the Radiation Medicine and Endocrinology Institute, the Minsk city cancer clinic and Tumor Center and the Radiation University of Wurzburg. The TeSIAC database will contain 3D ultrasound images of every patient's thyroid glands before and after operating.

Icetrade.by, the website of the National Marketing and Market-Determined Prices Centre is offering information on international government tenders and auctions. The site is intended to provide Belarusian Ministries and government organisations with updates on more than 5,000 tenders and auctions all over the world. It lists specialized bulletins and reports of trade delegations abroad, along with a review of 600 websites. Icetrade.by also maintains information on national tenders by Belarusian companies and government.In 2001 Priorbank was the first bank in Belarus to issue Visa internet cards for virtual payments. In the end of 2002 Belarusian portal Tut.by has recorded a profit, and return on investment (100KUSD) is expected in 2-5 years. More than 20,000 users visit the portal daily. TUT.BY offers internet, educational, cultural and other resources. Services offered by Tut.by include information on job openings and pager messages. In addition, Tut.by offers hosting and e-mail services to 300 companies and organisations. Furthermore, the scope of the portal's advertising services is constantly growing. Online advertising sales on Belarusian sites reached E39,986 by the end of 2002, according to a report by BelarusMedia agency. This figure doubles 2001 online advertising sales which totalled E19, 993. Belarusian online shopping service shop.by has launched an internet payment system, EasyPay.by, for customers to pay for products bought through its service. Shop.by began two years ago and now has 60 independent shops using its services. The company said the most popular items bought online include electronics, CDs, books and GSM mobile phones through the internet. On average, customers spend more than $100 (E111) on a single purchase. Last year, the company said overall turnover exceeded $2.6m (E2.9m). SHOP.BY chain and a bookshop OZ.BY are the major e-shops in Belarus. Shop.by started operating three years ago and now has 60 independent shops using its services. The company said the most popular items bought online include electronics, CDs, books and GSM mobile phones through the internet. On average, customers spend more than $100 (E111) on a single purchase. In 2001, the company said overall turnover exceeded $2.6m (E2.9m), and $400,000 (E445,000) at Christmas. Combined, all the shops belonging to the system generate about 20,000 hits daily in 2001.

Though Belarusian banks are not active in providing on-line services for private persons, two of them - Technobank http://www.tb.by and Priorbank http://www.priorbank.by -introduced Visa-internet in 2001.In April 2003 Priorbank (Belarus) signed licensing agreement with Alcor Payction (Russia). According to the agreement Priorbank acquires right to use internet system PayCash in Belarus. At present this system is used in Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, the USA and in Europe.

Frameworks for B2B and B2G activities have been worked out by National Marketing and Market Prices Center (NMMPC) founded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (http://www.icetrade.by). NMMPC holds annual international conferences "E-commerce in the CIS countries and in Eastern Europe". Besides, a private law company "Vlasova and Co" (http://www.vlasovaandpartners.by/ru/services/e-commerce.shtml)dealing with e-commerce issues has been founded in Belarus not long ago.

But in general Belarusian companies are still slow to see the benefits of the internet, but e-mail and electronic accounting systems are well-established. Nevertheless, websites are used by 29.6 per cent of companies in Belarus, according to a recent survey held by the Institute of Privatization and Management in Minsk, in cooperation with CIPE in Washington. PCs are used by 88.4 per cent of the 378 respondents, and 70.4 per cent of managers have introduced electronic business accounting systems in their enterprises. The survey also reports that electronic documents are used by 40 per cent of the companies, and that 70.4 per cent of managers use the internet and e-mail services.

This list of major developments of recent years proves that the ICT sector consisting of various sub-sectors (e.g., telecommunications, electronics, software, hardware, services, etc.) is expanding and infiltrating business, administration, education in Belarus.

While awareness of these dynamics is growing, Belarusian government is already pursuing an array of ICT-related laws and regulations. Governmental strategies in the ICT sphere is based on the following legal documents

    Law on the foundations of state scientific and technical strategies (19.01.1993 2105-XII);
  • Law on Communications (05.10. 1994);
  • Law on Inforamtization (06.09. 1995);
  • Law on Electronic Document (10.01. 2000);
  • Presidential Decree on Some Issues of Informatization in the Republic of Belarus (06. 04. 1999);
  • Presidential Decree on Governmental Support of IT Development and Export (03. 05. 2001);
  • Presidential Decree on National Legal Internet Portal in the Republic of Belarus and about Changes in Presidential Decree of 30.10.1998 (16.12. 2002).
  • Presidential Decree on Foundation of Interagency Committee on Informatization in the Republic of Belarus (07.12.1998)
  • Council of Ministers' Decree on State Registration of Information Resources (28.08.2000 )
  • State programme "Advanced Information and Telecommunication Technologies" for 2001-2005 adopted by the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus on 01.02.2001
  • Council of Ministers' Decree On the List of Information Resources of Public Importance (29.01.2001)
In 1991 Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus adopted the Programme of Informatization of the Republic of Belarus for 1991-2000 years. At the same time Belarusian Found for Informatization was established by the government. But because of the lack of funding and political will only few projects were accomplished and in 1993 the programme was suspended. The real basis for the present government policy in the ICT sphere was laid by the Law on Informatization adopted in 1995. In this document such concepts as "data", "information resources", "information network", "information product", "information services" were defined as subjects for law for the first time. In 1998 inter-departmental commission on informatization was organized. The strategy worked out by the Commission was adopted by the Presidential decree in 1999. The Concept states that transition to the information society is the major objective of the Belarusian government strategy in the sphere of informatization. Development of infrastructure and security of information are pointed out as the basis for the transition. In 2000 Law on Electronic Document was adopted in the Republic of Belarus

National telecommunications policy is based on the following legal acts: Concept of the development of telecommunications of the Republic of Belarus (1993) and Programme of telecommunications development 2001-2005 (2001).According to the Concept and Programme "in order to ensure effective state control over telecommunications and in order to create appropriate technical and financial conditions for their development : it is necessary to preserve sate monopoly" for primary telecommunications networks; long distance and international fix phone and fax services and for telegraphy; radio and television transmitters; mail services.

In 2001 President of the Republic of Belarus, has signed a decree that will see the establishment of an association of companies involved in the development and export of IT. Membership in the association, which will be an affiliate of the state university in Minsk, will only be available to those with a legal background, and all members are to be engaged in IT development. Foreigners and enterprises with foreign investments can also be members of the association. The government is expected to give unprecedented tax concessions - VAT amounts of five per cent and immunity from taxation. In February of 2003 the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus published its programme for the widespread introduction of information technology to government from 2003 to 2010 - State programme of informatization in the Republic of Belarus for 2003 - 2005 "E-Belarus".

The objectives of the programme are

  • creating of "an information space" in Belarus as the step towards information society,
  • increasing efficiency of economic structures, government and local administration structures through the introduction and dissemination of a large scale of information and communication technologies.
Major areas of activities in the targeted "E-Belarus" programme are:
  • creating of national "computer-assisted information system"
  • improving telecommunications infrastructure and of infrastructure for a public access to open sources
  • improving ICT and growth of IT industries export
  • providing legislative basis and improving regulatory activities in the IT sphere
  • upgrading the activities of state and local government bodies as the result of ICT use
  • developing e-commerce
  • education and development of personnel capacity
  • supporting the development of cultural projects and mass media on the basis of ICT use
  • improving national security system on the basis of ICT use.
The budget of the programme for 2003-2005 totals 32100 mln BYR (~16mlnUSD).

In the framework of the Programme 97 projects are to be launched.

The full implementation of the programme should bring about the following results

  • The volume of ICT export will be increasing by 5-10% annually
  • E-commerce operation will save from 20 to 40% funds spent on tender and purchase operations
  • The number of Internet-users and the volume of Internet services will grow up significantly
  • Fees for the Internet access will be reduced by 30% in 2005.
The Programme indicates some obstacles which should be overcome in order to carry out projects successfully, in particular unelaborated legislation regulating ICT activities, telco monopolies and ICT illiteracy.
It is expected that the state programme "E-Belarus" will further ICT sector development. Still, as the programme is aimed not to reengineering but to automatization of existing bureaucratic procedures, it seems problematic that ICT will fundamentally changed opportunities for economic and social development in the near future.

Overview of the governmental ICT initiatives shows that governmental activities are focused on the development of telecommunication infrastructure, widespread introduction of information technology to government in order to collect and process data and information security which are regarded as a step of transition to information society. State programme "Electronic Belarus" adopted in 2002 is oriented generally to organizational and technological upgrading of the public administrations. Issues of wide public electronic access to information and participation in democratic process, transparency of public administration are not mentioned in the programme. But the fact that e-government is proclaimed as a perspective creates opportunities for further work in this direction.

And there are two more reasons for optimism in this respect. The first one is a proclaimed commitment of government structures to provide the wide public with he access to legal information. That commitment was stated in The Final Report of the International Scientific and Practical Conference "The Modern Computer Technologies in the Systems of Legal Information" (Legal Informatization - 2002) Republic of Belarus (Minsk, November 21-22, 2002) .

In this report it was stated that elaboration of the adequate state policy and coordinated approaches at solving national and interstate problems in the sphere of legal informatization and formation of systems of legal information, directed to real coordination of the national programs of development of information (computer) technologies in the legal field and perfection of the legislation are the fundamental issues of the CIS countries cooperation. It was stressed that the governments are to create more effective conditions for the functioning of the systems of dissemination of legal information and to guarantee access to unified information legal resources, containing the actual, full and valid legal information on the law enforcement practices of the judicial authority bodies. It has been proposed to give a new social dimension to the information (computer) technologies by publicizing legal acts in electronic form, by developing electronic legal libraries, magazines and by providing large-scale network of public access to legal information. Again, the importance of a wide application of information (technologies) in education and in legal expert training has been emphasized. It was recommended to introduce course on Fundamentals of Legal Informatization into higher educational institutions curriculum. Another perspective defined by the participants of the meeting was creating of a unified informational legal space within the Commonwealth of Independent States and developing of interstate legal information exchange systems.

Another positive trend is a growing number of the web-sites of governmental institutions. A country's online presence begins to expand as its number of official websites increase. Government publications, legislation, newsletters become available to the public. At present 50 governmental institutions have their web sites. These are the sites of the President of the Republic of Belarus (http://www.president.gov.by), the governmental portal (http://www.main.gov.by), the web site of the Council of Ministers Council (http://www.government.by/) and sites of the ministries: http://www.mfa.gov.by (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), http://www.nalog.by (Tax administration), http://www.mod.mil.by/ (Ministry of Defense), http://www.mininform.gov.by (Ministry of Information) http://mvd-belarus.nsys.by/ (Ministry of Internal Affairs); http://www.mst.by/ (Ministry of Sport and Tourism), http://www.mshp.minsk.by (Ministry of Agriculture and Food), http://www.rescue01.gov.by (Emergency Situations Ministry), http://health.med.by/ (Ministry of Public Health), http://www.mpt.gov.by/ (Ministry of Communications), http://www.minedu.unibel.by (Ministry of Education), http://www.mintrans.by (Ministry of Transport), http://mvd-belarus.nsys.by/ (Ministry of Internal Affairs), http://www.minstroyarch.gov.by/ (Ministry of Architecture and Construction, http://www.mintrud.gov.by/ (Labor Ministry), http://ncpi.gov.by/minfin/ (Ministry of Finance). Only the upper chamber of Belarusian Parliament - Council of the Republic - has its website (http://www.sovrep.gov.by/)

Regional administrations are also present in the Internet (http://gomel-region.gov.by, http://www.region.grodno.by, http://www.region.mogilev.by, http://www.brest-region.by/, http://www.regadmin.vitebsk.by/).

The general situation with governmental websites is presented in the table below.

Table. General Assessment of governmental web-sites

Link Title of the Institution Updating Stage of development Comprehension Interaction Languages
1 http://www.president.gov.by President Daily Presence with some feedback Wide Feedback form Russian and English
2 http://www.minsk.gov.by Minsk City Executive Committee Daily Feedback Wide Guest book and forum Russian and English
3 http://www.gorod.gomel.by Gomel City Executive Committee Daily Presence with some feedback Rather wide and operative Guest book and feedback Russian
4 http://gomel-region.gov.by Gomel region Executive Committe Daily Presence with some feedback Rather wide and operative e-mail address Russian and English
5 http://www.region.grodno.by Grodno Region Execitive Committe No news during the last six months Presence Static general informationNo Russian and English
6 http://www.region.mogilev.by Mogilev region Executive Committee Daily Presence Static general information Feedback Russian and English
7 http://www.rec.gov.by Central Election Committee Sporadically Presence Only normative documents e-mail Russian
8 http://court.by Supreme Economic Court Daily Presence with some feedback Rather wide and operative FAQ Russian and English
9 http://www.avia.by State Committee on Aviation Daily Presence with some feedback Rather wide and operative Booking tickets, e-mail address Russian and English
10 http://www.gosstandart.gov.by State Committee on Standartization and Sertification Sporadically Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian and English
11 http://www.mshp.minsk.by Ministry of Agriculture and Food Rarely Presence Narrow No Russian and English
12 http://www.mfa.gov.by Foreign Affairs Ministry Daily Presence Rather wide and operative No Belarusian, Russian and English
13 http://www.nalog.by Tax Administration Now news during the last month Presence with some feedback Some sections are blank No Russian and English
14 http://www.mod.mil.by Ministry of Defense Daily Presence with some feedback Rather wide and operative Forum Belarusian, Russian and English
15 http://www.rescue01.gov.by Ministry on Emergency Situations Daily Presence with some feedback Rather wide Feedback Russian and English
16 http://health.med.by Public Health Ministry Rarely Presence Narrow e-mail address Russian
17 http://www.mpt.gov.by Communications Ministry Rarely Presence Only legal acts e-mail address Russian and English
18 http://www.minedu.unibel.by Ministry of Education Rarely Presence Only normative documents e-mail address Belarusian and Russian
19 http://www.ssf.gov.by Social Security Foundation Rarely Presence Only normative documents Forum, feedback, subscription for news Russian and English
20 http://www.mintrans.by Ministry of Transport Frequently Presence Static general information e-mail addresses of the higher officials Russian
21 http://www.nbrb.by National Bank Daily Presence Rather wide and operative e-mail address Russian and English
22 http://ncpi.gov.by National Center for Legal Information Daily Feedback Wide Guest book, online answers for asked questions Russian and English
23 http://www.noc.by National Olympic Committee Daily Presence with some feedback Rather wide and operative Feedback Russian and English
24 http://www.government.by Council of Ministers Daily Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian and English
25 http://www.guvd.gov.by Minsk City Police Department Daily Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian
26 http://www.mst.by Ministry of Sport and Tourism Frequently Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian
27 http://www.belgospatent.org State Patent Office Rarely Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian
28 http://www.brest-region.by Brest Region Executive Committee Daily Presence with some feedback Rather wide and operative Feedback with regional higher officials Russian and English
29 http://www.polisp.vitebsk.by Polotsk City Executive No Presence Static general information No Russian
30 http://www.regadmin.vitebsk.by Vitebsk Region Executive Committee Rarely Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian and English
31 http://www.mininform.gov.by Ministry of Information Daily Presence with some feedback Rather wide and operative Feedback Russian and English
32 http://www.minstroyarch.gov.by Ministry of Architecture and Construction No Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian
33 http://www.uvd.gomel.by Gomel Region Police Department No Presence Static general information No Russian
34 http://www.fumogilev.gov.by Financial Department of Mogilev Region Executive Committee Rarely Presence Static general information e-mail addresses Russian
35 http://www.main.gov.by Governmental Portal Daily Presence Static general information No Russian
36 http://mvd-belarus.nsys.by Home Affairs Ministry Daily Presence with some feedback Rather wide and operative Feedback Russian
37 http://www.chernobyl.by Chernobyl Committee Daily Presence with some feedback Rather wide and operative Feedback Russian
38 http://minparadm.lc-studio.com Administartion of Minsk City Partisan Region Daily Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian , English and German
39 http://www.mintrud.gov.by Labor Ministry No Presence Static general information No Russian
40 http://www.ihp.by/dhp Bakery foods Department of the Ministry of Agriculture Rarely Presence Static general information No Russian
41 http://www.sovrep.gov.by Council of the Republic of the National Assembly Rarely Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian and English
42 http://mchs.brest.by Brest Regional Department of Emergency Situations Ministry Rarely Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian
43 http://ncpi.gov.by/minfin/ Ministry of Finance Frequently Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian
44 http://www.pravo.by/ncla/ National Legislation Center Rarely Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian , English and German
45 http://www.archives.gov.by Belarusian Archives Rarely Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian and English
46 http://www.kin.by Penicitary Committee of the Ministry of Home Affairs rarely Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian
47 http://www.ncpi.gov.by/hozsud/ Minsk Economic Court Rarely Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian
48 http://www.belgiss.org.by Belarusian State Institute for standardization and Certification Frequently Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian
49 http://www.rstc.by Republican Scientific Center for Price Formation in Construction Rarely Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian
50 http://www.rcheph.by Republican Health, Hygiene and Epidemiological Center Frequently Presence Static general information e-mail address Russian

The general assessment of governmental sites shows that a formal but limited web presence is established through a few independent government websites which provide users with static organizational or political information. The sites include contact information (i.e. telephone numbers and addresses of public officials). In rare cases, special features like FAQs may be found. Though governmental publications, legislation and other sources of information are available, only few sites provide dynamic content with frequently updated specialized information.

The civil society organizations manifest their presence in the Internet as well. Though many websites covering the Belarusian presidential elections experienced various suspicious problems with their domains on election day in 2001, the web is changing social movements. Information about NGO activities in Belarus and about NGO's contacts with government bodies is available now at the website ngo.by launched by UnitedWay Belarus. Visitors of the website will have an opportunity to participate in various forums and discussions related to the NGO activities. But there are pessimistic attitudes about effectiveness of e-activities of a movement in the face of a regime that is more or less impervious to pressure from non-violent opposition movements. Belarusian national non governmental organization Information Society (IS) was founded in the year of 2000. IS holds annual Belarusian Congress on Telecommunications and on Information and Banking technologies. In 2001 'Information Society' has founded the National Association of Internet Providers (NAIP). But NAIP as well as Association of Computer Companies (ACC) founded by 15 Belarusian companies later on, are inactive and keep a low profile.

But the indicative trend here is the growing interest in information society issues. In November 2002 the 4th Belarusian Internet Forum announced creation of "Internet society" (IS) - a non governmental organization. The fifth annual internet forum held by IS in March 2003 became a milestone event. 200 representatives of various bodies and organizations and private individuals participated in the forum, with members of parliament taking part for the first time. In June 2003 a two-days workshop "Information society in Belarus" was held in Brest. Another event of June is the action of "Fostering economic reforms' group formed by the deputies of Belarusian parliament. The deputies had an out session in Internet cafe and answered the questions of journalists an on line queries.

All these events contribute to the formation of one of the major prerequisites of e-government and e-democracy development - political will. As the Belarusian parliament develops its role in the country, it is increasingly interacting with citizens, with government and other parts of Belarusian society. However, the ability of citizens to influence this increasing role is limited by many traditional barriers between elected representatives and their electorate. Although the spread of ICT in Belarus has provided opportunities for ICTs to be used in many new ways, they have so far been hardly used to narrow the gap between the parliamentarians and people they represent. Currently, deputies of the House of Representatives have access to computers and e-mail. However, as not all deputies have yet received their own computer, and as many deputies are not familiar with the possibilities of computers and ICT, the resources are still not used to a full extent. Here again recently we witnessed a bright example of private initiative. One of the fractions of Belarusian Parliament (Promotion of Economical Reforms) organized a workshop for his colleagues organized an "out Parliament meeting" in the Internet cafe in order to provide their colleagues with the possibility to learn how to work with their electorate online.

Another important step in this direction is a project launched recently by UNDP in cooperation with Belarusian parliament. The project aims to overcome the barriers impeding citizen's influence and interaction with parliamentarians, by increasing among deputies in the Belarusian Parliament of the opportunities new technologies can provide and improve democracy and through providing them tools to doing this by using a four stage approach: basic skills, application of basic skills (development of an information portal with relevant information about the parliament, including interactive elements), policy support to parliament on ICT issues and publicizing accessibility of parliamentary information. Thus the project will establish a mechanism for communication between parliamentarians and their constituencies through the use of ICT and also establish a forum for discussion of ICT policy issues between parliamentarians and other sectors of society.

In the long run, all these initiatives will create the basis for the merging of the two dimensions of e-democracy - e-governance and public participation and will set up foundation of information society in Belarus.

from "E-Democracy: Technology, Law and Politics"
Report of the working group E-Democracy
November 2003

1 GIPI CIS Technical Coordinator, mikhail@internews.ru
2 Ph.D. Senior Researcher National Academy of Sciences of Republic of Belarus, sokolova@data.minsk.by

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