Alternative Civilian Service in Belarus: Possible, but Only in Theory
Belarus has mandatory legal conscription, but Alexander Lukashenka has ordered the preparation of a law on alternative civilian service in 2013.
For a long time the absence of this law has been putting many young people in a legal trap of having such a right and but having no possibility to exercise it.
But rather than solve the problem, the law is much more likely to become another one.The Belarusian government has rejected a public and open discussion of the draft law. And according to the views of experts, the law may be rigid and may serve the interests of the military officials.
Compulsory conscription in Belarus means that the army is not staffed with professional soldiers, but rather it is formed with the understanding that all healthy men aged between 18 and 27 have a constitutional duty to protect their fatherland and serve in the army.
The Gap between Law and Reality
At the same time, Article 57 of the constitution guarantees Belarusian citizens a right to choose to serve in an alternative civil service. In other states this means serving not in a military barracks but working at some socially-orientated institutions: hospitals, retirement homes, hospices, post-offices etc. The usual reason for this is so-called "conscientious objection", which means refusing to serve in the army because of religious, political and other beliefs.
But in Belarus no one has used their right to alternative service. And the reason is a simple absence of legislation clarifying such a right. Since 1994, when the constitution was adopted, such a law has been absent.
In 2000, even the Constitutional Court of Belarus ruled for the need to prepare legislation in this area. In 2003, several members of the parliament raised this issue. At the beginning of 2010 Alexander Lukashenka himself ordered the preparation of such a law. Yet nothing has changed.
In the meantime, several Belarusians have acted upon their rights and refused to enter the army. Their legal cases were rather strong – they had a constitutional right to alternative civilian service, but the courts rejected their claims invoking the absence of any corresponding legislation. Instead, they were convicted of "evading conscription" which is a criminal offence in Belarus punishable by imprisonment
Take the case of Ivan Mikhailau, a member of a Jewish-messianic religious community from Homel, the second largest city in Belarus. After he had refused to go to the army and had applied for alternative civilian service, on 15 December 2009 he was arrested.
The court found him guilty of "evading conscription" and sentenced him to three months in custody. Amnesty International recognised the young man as a prisoner of conscience. Only on 10 March 2010, after Lukashenka ordered drafting of a law on alternative civilian service, was Ivan’s sentence revised and he was found not guilty in the appeal trial.
Main Opponents are Top Military Officials
A very long delay in adopting such an important law can be explained only by powerful forces inside the ruling elite. And in Belarus' case it is the Ministry of Defence and related agencies.
"A real man must smell gunpowder", – Alexander Lukashenka once proclaimed. It is a perfect reflection of the position of Belarusian military officials, successors of the Soviet military tradition, who believe in the shamefulness of any type of alternative service.
Another reason is their fear to compete. If the young Belarusians have a right to choose the kind of state service they prefer, the traditional army will have to start attracting recruits instead of simply forcing them to serve. Like any monopoly they are afraid of competition.
The sad irony here is that the Belarusian ruler in 2010 appointed the Security Council of Belarus as the body responsible for drafting this law. This council consists of top military, KGB, police and other related officials. In other words, the military were made responsible for drafting something that they had always opposed.
In the best of KGB traditions, the drafting of the new law was done in secret. From there, any interested civil society groups could not openly access the materials concerning the future law. As a result, only rumours are available concerning its content.
Small Chances of Getting a Proper Law
Alternative civil service should not be a punishment for a person's unwillingness to serve in the army. In Russia, the term of alternative service is almost twice the length of the term of usual military service. Moreover, "the objector" cannot change their workplace, which is always remote from his home. His salary is extremely low and the working conditions are often horrible. In addition he is deprived of a right to strike.
But there are also successful examples of alternative service regulation among Belarus' neighbours. In Moldova, the term of alternative civilian service is only one year. The conscript’s motivation to refuse military service can vary: from ethical views to religious and political views. Young people work at normal jobs, and simply paying 25 per cent of their salary to the state.
In Lithuania, the alternative civilian service term is 18 months, while "the objector" is also not limited in grounds for choosing alternative service. And he is also allowed to keep his entire salary. The same rules (with a small difference in the conscription period) exist in Estonia.
Belarusian lawmakers are likely to choose the worst. The latest available draft, dating back to 2010, contains all restrictions imaginable: long-term appointment, a minimal salary, service in remote areas and serious deprivations of social rights.
Mikhail Pashkevich, the coordinator of the For Alternative Civilian Service campaign, says that according to his sources, the Belarusian authorities have gone even further in their desire to make alternative civilian service unbearable for young people. They plan to forbid distance learning during the alternative service and leave only one ground for conscientious objection: religion.
It is good that the Belarusian authorities are starting to at least do something about civil service, but their attitude may undermine its whole purpose.
How to Make Belarusian Privatisation More Sensible
Belarus will need to pay over $3 billion this year to serve its mounting external debt. This payment is more than twice than in 2012.
In the absence of significant foreign investments and additional Russian subsidies, Belarusian authorities may have to privatise more state enterprises.
Although a number of foreign companies have been operating in Belarus for decades, the process for privatisation is far from transparent and often unpredictable, a recent study from the Belarus Public Policy Fund suggests.
Although the efficiency gap between Belarusian state enterprises and foreign private companies is increasing, Belarusian authorities are not in a hurry to sell off state property. They lack a clear vision of the goals that should be achieved as the result of privatisation and often impose conditions which make privatisation unattractive for foreign investors.
The integration of Belarus with Russia and Kazakhstan within the Customs Union has been a mixed blessing for Belarus. On the one hand, potential foreign investors have access to a bigger market, which extends from the Polish border in the West to Korea in the East. But at the same time it has intensified competition within the Customs Union.
Now the key challenge for Belarus is to compete with often more favourable business environments in Russia and Kazakhstan. The better the investment climate, the better the chances that a large foreign investor would come and, consequently, the higher the asking price for privatised state property. Belarus is missing what its eastern neighbours have: a more liberal economic climate, private ownership of land, lower taxes, and other virtues of a more market-oriented company.
However, the not-so-favourable investment climate is not Belarus' biggest problem.
Main Barriers to Effective Privatisation
When it comes to selling state enterprises, a whole plethora of Belarusian state institutions comes into play. It is difficult to clearly understand differences between them and their responsibilities.
More importantly, Belrusian authorities and foreign investors have very different approaches to valuation of state property. Belarus insists that the balance sheet value of the enterprise should be the most important factor. Foreign investors are more interested in anticipated revenues of the enterprise. The problem is that when all liabilities and losses of privatised companies are taken into account, they become not nearly as attractive for potential buyers.
The new owners would have to deal not only with the old debts of the enterprise but also with various strings attached to the privatisation contract. They may need to guarantee that no massive layoffs would follow, that the volume of production would remain the same or that the investor would continue to inject money into the enterprise.
Even the very process of understanding what old and new liabilities come with the enterprise is not an easy task. The Belarusian state fails to publish coherent lists of enterprises offered for privatisation and the uniform conditions for sale of state enterprises simply do not exist.
This is yet further evidence that privatisation is Belarus lacks a coherent strategy and goals. Instead, privatisation is often done on an ad hoc basis, where each deals depends on how well the foreign investor can navigate its way in the corridors of Belarusian state institutions.
How to Make Privatisation More Effective
The most obvious step which Belarusian authorities need to take is to concentrate various privatisation procedures in a single state agency. It is no secret that the Presidential Administration takes the most important economic decisions in the country, including the privatisation of sizable chunks of state property.
Making the already existent National Investment and Privatisation Agency accountable directly to the Presidential Administration would help ease negotiations between the state and potential investors.
Agreeing on the right price tag for privatised assets remains the most difficult hurdle for foreign investors. If the parties reach a stalemate in negotiations, the use of independent experts to evaluate the property should be accepted by both parties.
The unwillingness of the parties to defer, despite their disagreements, to independent experts would probably mean that one of the parties is not genuinely interested in the deal. Otherwise, they should unconditionally accept such a valuation. If the state is unsatisfied with the result of the valuation, it would be counterproductive to refuse the sale altogether or organise another broad auction in order to invite new bids.
Instead of the requirement to preserve jobs at state enterprises, which are often overstaffed and inefficient, the state should insist on the mandatory retraining of personnel. A more flexible approach would also make sense in requiring the enterprise to preserve its core activities or guarantee a certain number of investments.
Finally, the process of privatisation should be more transparent not only to the parties involved, but also to the general public. This includes publishing the lists of enterprises offered for privatisation and developing a uniform set of rules for privatisation.
Although the practise of offering special favourable conditions to certain investors should remain, the process needs to become much more open and predictable. That would benefit not only the foreign investor, but also the state and the Belarusian people at large.
This review was prepared on the basis of Policy Brief Privatization in the Republic of Belarus: Framework Improvements and Chief Priorities of Andrej Skryba. The study was conducted by Belarus Public Policy Fund as a part of a program jointly carried out by Pontis Foundation (Slovakia) and Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.