It is sad and painful— to see how the fruit of five years’ work goes to the archive of history. But it was not wasted time
In June 2007, a group of prominent Belarusian scientists and public figures, with the support of the international organization Pact, founded the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies (BISS). Under the leadership of the first director Vitali Silitski, the institute became a place of high-quality socio-political expertise. BISS gained the reputation of an authoritative and influential think-tank operating at the European level.
After the untimely death of Vitali Silitski in June 2011, conceptional and personal cleavages appeared in the organization. Nevertheless, the institute enjoyed institutional funding and could still function as a normal organization. In 2012, the Delegation of the European Union to Belarus, without any call for proposal, awarded BISS a large grant for a three-year project ‘Modernizing Belarus: Towards a Competitive Society. Expert Polylogue on Reform Agenda’ (known under the abbreviated name ‘Reforum’). The implementation of the project began in November 2013 and ended in February 2017.
Shortly after the launch of this project, traditional donors stopped institutional financing of BISS. At the same time, the Granting Contract the Delegation prepared for BISS to sign contained no provisions on how to act in case there is no financing in BISS after the project is over.
Despite generous funding, by the end of the Reforum project, BISS found itself in deep financial and organizational crisis. From March 2017 to March 2018, there was practically no activity at the institute.
In the meantime, I happened to be in the ‘orbit’ of BISS. Upon defending my PhD thesis in Warsaw in 2016, I started to look for opportunities to do something for Belarus and—preferably— within Belarus. At the same time, the BISS Board, trying to find some way out of the crisis, began to search for a ‘new face’ of the organization. Our paths crossed, and from May 2017 I began— without any formal position—to try to figure out the situation.
After some hesitations, in March 2018 I agreed to become a volunteer director of BISS and signed a contract with the organization on volunteer directorship. Being a volunteer director meant that I had no salary; correspondingly, the set of duties was very limited. In fact, it contained only one definite obligation on my part: Contributing to writing project applications and implementation of [new] projects.
As of March 12, 2018 (the date when I signed the contract on volunteer directorship), the situation of BISS was the following:
- On BISS bank accounts there were 158 euros and 49 USD; no cash.
- BISS indebtedness amounted to 22,300 euros.
- No office (neither in Belarus nor in Lithuania), no computers or printers, and no other material assets, apart from a banner and a handful of pens.
- No access to the domain of BISS’s website (at that time it was belinstitute.eu).
- BISS’s website design was outdated and impractical.
- No staff and no expert team, apart from three volunteers (apart from me, website developer and former accountant agreed to help according to their abilities).
The starting conditions were extremely poor, but thanks to the moral, and sometimes material, support of good people, as well as the readiness of some experts to cooperate without a guarantee of salary—within one year, the organization practically came out of the crisis. Though the organization still did not have institutional financing and administrative work was carried out on a volunteer basis, it returned to its niche and new perspectives opened up.
As of March 2019 (a year after my appointment as a volunteer director), the situation at BISS was the following:
- All debts of the organization were either paid off or cancelled.
- A new team of experts was formed.
- Analytics and research were conducted on a regular basis.
- Since October 2018, BISS occupied relatively high places in rankings of think tanks’ media presence (for the period September—November 2018, BISS was ranked 7th out of 20 in terms of site visits, ahead of ‘Minsk Dialogue’, ‘Sympa- Bipart’ or ‘Liberal Club’).
- Prepared a long-term strategy for the development of BISS.
- Six project applications were prepared and sent to donors.
- The domain of the site was changed, and a plan of website design reform was prepared (the plan was subsequently embodied in the summer of 2020).
BISS became an attractive place for young and ambitious people. Since 2018, about 20 young people have applied to the organization for an internship or other forms of cooperation. Partly bacause of safety reasons, and partly due to the limited capabilities of the BISS team, we accepted only eight internships.
As of the summer of 2020, BISS already had many pre-requisites to transform into a full-fledged institution, with paid positions, an office, and a functional Board. The process of restoring the organization was interrupted in October 2020, when the Delegation of the European Union in Belarus decided to start an external audit of the Reforum project. Since I never participated in this project, and my directorship was still voluntary (unpaid), even with all my desire and efforts, it would be impossible for me to explore the documentation of the three-and-a-half-year project. It should be added that the documentation was in Vilnius, and part of it, presumably, was retained by former coordinators of the project, but I did not live in Vilnius and did not possess any instruments of coercion towards the Reforum coordinators.
During the years 2021-2023, approximately once every six months, the question of the audit appeared and disappeared. Due to the uncertainty that arose in connection with the audit, BISS went into an ‘inertial’ mode of existence. In such a situation, it made no sense to launch any big projects in order not to create risks for partners and contractors. Continuing efforts at transforming BISS into a full-fledged institution did not make sense either, what with the uncertainty that the decision on audit created.
Since the EU Delegation insists that the current BISS should answer for the probable shortcomings in the implementation of the Reform project, I do not see the possibility of continuing my work for BISS. I think I made every effort to restore the organization, but now I have gone to the limit to my abilities. Finding another candidate for the volunteer directorship appears to be unrealistic. Therefore, after consultations with the members of the BISS Board and talks with the members of the expert team, it was decided to suspend the activities of the organization.
It is sad and painful— to see how the fruit of five years’ work goes to the archive of history. But it was not wasted time. Thanks to the adventure with BISS, I had opportunities to meet many bright and wonderful people, get acquainted with many interesting projects and participate in the creation of dozens of important intellectual products.
I express my deep gratitude to all colleagues, partners, and donors who in a critical time believed in the possibility of reviving BISS and supported it. I hope we will continue to co-work in other formats and on other paths of life.
I invite you to view the photo slideshow on BISS in 2018-2023
...and read our analytical products, many of which will remain relevant for a long time.