Belarus: from Democracy to Dictatorship through Elections
Charismatic Alyaksandr Lukashenka was elected 1994, when Belarus had its first and so far the only relatively free presidential elections. Lukahsenka won giving promises of cash, refrigerators and TV sets to Belarusians impoverished as a result of the Soviet Union collapse. Following the decades of Soviet rule, the country had no well-rooted traditions of democracy or even its own statehood. As a result, civil society and national identity in Belarus was weaker than in any other Soviet republic. The prospects of populist politicians such as Lukashenka looked particularly bright.
The Role of Russia
As a highly industrialized and export-oriented country, Belarus depended in early 1990-s on Russia’s markets and raw materials. President Lukashenka skillfully courted the Russian political elite by introducing Russian as the second official language, favoring Russian military bases in Belarus and constantly promising Russia a reunification. The country’s pro-Russian foreign policy starkly contrasted with those of Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine were increasingly pro-Western and pro-NATO. The post Cold War political elite of Russia viewed Belarus as its only outpost in the West. Lukashenka’s hope was that Russia would support Belarus in the West a similar manner as the Unites States supported Israel in the Middle East.
Russia was happy to pay for this demonstration of loyalty. For many years, the Russian Government has been heavily subsidizing the Belarus economy by providing subsidized natural gas and oil. The cheap natural gas helped inefficient Belarusian enterprises to survive. The discounted oil had been processed and sold to the West at much higher prices. In addition, Belarus was often used by Russia as an intermediary for selling military equipment to “rough” states and other murky dealings. All that helped the Belarus regime to survive and keep the economy under state control without almost any foreign investments.
Belarusian Civil Society
Unfortunately, cheap oil and gas are usually detrimental to democracy and Belarus was not an exception. Its political parties were turned into small clubs of dissidents, opposition received zero access to state electronic media and virtually all employees were transfered to short-term contracts which made them dependent upon their employers. With most of the economy owned by the state that meant that people were afraid to protest because of the fear to lose their jobs.
While courting Russia, Lukashenka tried to make sure that the civil society in Belarus, particularly media, and political institutions were under his tight control. As a result, by the end of the 1990-s the parliament and the courts had been replaced with rubber-stamp institutions bowing to the presidential administration. The nearly wiped-out civil society makes Belarus very different from Ukraine and Georgia which had relatively independent media, parliaments and judiciary during their “revolutions”.
Russia was always helping the Lukashenka regime at difficult times. When he was nearly impeached by the Belarusian Parliament during very early years of his rule, the Russian prime minister and speakers of both Russian houses of Parliament came to Minsk to rescue Lukashenka. Quite often, when the United States or the European Union imposed sanctions against Belarus for human rights violation, Russia’s immediate response was to provide even more economic aid.
Russia or the West?
Recently Russia started to demand something more tangible than anti-Western rhetoric from Belarus for its economic aid. In particular, Russian businesses are interested in privatizing Belarusian companies and the Russian political elite cannot see any real steps towards the promised re-unification of two countries. Reducing subsidies to the Belarusian economy made Alyaksandr Lukashenka look elsewhere to keep the economy going. Meetings with top European politicians, joining the Eastern Partnership and launching more creative projects such as exporting oil from Venezuela were the steps in that direction.
It is difficult for the European Union to ignore Belarus which borders three EU member states and is an important European transit hub. It is also not in Europe’s best interest to leave Belarus to Russia. For Russia Lukashenka is still better than an uncertain alternative president, no matter how pro-Russian he sounds. Almost a decade ago, Russia supported Miloshevich not because he was the most pro-Russian politician of the region, but because he was the most isolated from the West. Lukashenka understands what drives Europe’s and Russia’s policy towards Belarus and tries gain something both from Europe and from the West to ensure that his regime survives.
The 2010 Presidential Elections
It would be naive to expect that this presidential elections are going to be fundamentally different from the ones it had in the past. True, Belarus authorities registered a number of alternative presidential candidates, introduced some minor changes to its elections regulations and the police so far seems to be less brutal. However, this cosmetic refurbishments have not affected the substance of these elections. According to the Organization on Cooperation and Security in Europe around 86% of all information in electronic media is about Lukashenka and is positive. All nine alternative candidates have just 14% and they are portrayed almost exclusively in negative light.
In addition, the votes are unlikely to be counted. The election committees consist of the very same people who falsified elections in the past. The central election committee is chaired by the notorious Lidia Yermoshina, who was banned from traveling to the European Union and the United States for ridging Belarusian elections. In her safe hands the result is going to be exactly as Mr Lukashenka wants it to be.
The opposition candidates urged their supporters to come to the main square of Minsk to protest. Thousands will come out tonight. But it would take tens of thousands to make any real impact. Not surprisingly, the elections are held at the end of December, when Belarusian winters are particularly cold. The authorities even took care of removing tents and sleeping bags from Minsk shops and made a huge skating rink in the middle of the square where the protests will take place.
What should be done?
First, if the elections are rigged they should not be recognized. Europe and the United States did it many times in the past and there appears to be little reason not to do it this time. Second, it is important to help Belarusian civil civil society, and in particular its media. If the eyes and the ears of the Belarusians are closed how can they make a choice in favour of democracy, let alone defending it? After all, most people in Belarus do not really know what democracy is.
Amnesty International’s Key Human Rights Concerns in Belarus
As Belarus prepares for elections on Sunday 19 December, Amnesty International UK outlined key human rights concerns in the country. The organization urged its members to sign a petition addressed to the acting Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and to the 19 December 2010 newly elected President of the Republic of Belarus.
The petition calls for Belarus to fulfil its human rights obligations, in particular, those which may be at risk of being violated during the election period. The closing date for the petition will be announced shortly – it is likely to be a couple of days before the (new) President is inaugurated.
According to Amnesty international UK, the main human rights concerns in Belarus include:
Freedom of expression
Most printed and electronic media remains under state control and the state press distribution system maintains a monopoly. However two independent newspapers – Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) and Nasha Niva (Our Field) – have been allowed to use the state press distribution system.
Amnesty is calling for a prompt, impartial and effective investigation into the recent death of the founder of the unofficial news website Charter’97, Aleh Byabenin. Shortly before his death, he had joined the campaign team of Andrei Sannikov, presidential candidate for the civic movement “European Belarus”. He was found with a rope around his neck suspended from the banisters of his country house on 3 September this year; an initial investigation said the cause of death was suicide. In November two experts commissioned by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) agreed with the official conclusions that Byabenin had committed suicide, however, their mandate had been to review the materials already compiled by Belarusian prosecutors and no autopsy was carried out.
Colleagues and friends questioned this possible cause of death as Byabenin was a happily married man who had arranged to meet friends at the cinema the following day. Eyewitnesses saw bruises on his body and dirt on his hands, suggesting a struggle. Aleh Byabenin had been attacked in the past and in March this year, the Charter’97 offices were searched by police, allegedly in connection with a criminal investigation into corruption in the police force. Colleagues say they have received anonymous threats since Aleh Byabenin’s death.
On 1 July, Presidential Decree No. 60 “On measures to improve the use of the national segment of the internet” came into effect. The decree requires that Internet cafés check the identity of all customers and keep records of internet use; and that internet service providers check the identity of subscribers in person and make information about subscribers available to the authorities. Other measures limit access to information that could be classed as extremist, pornographic, linked to illegal migration and trafficking, or that promotes violence and other illegal acts. According to a study commissioned by the OSCE these measures “lead to unsubstantiated restrictions of a citizen’s right to receive and disseminate information”, and give the authorities extremely broad powers to limit access to certain sources of information.
Freedom of assembly
The authorities continue to violate the right to freedom of assembly by not permitting demonstrations and public actions. The very restrictive Law on Public Events requires demonstrators to apply for permission to the local authorities to hold an event, and bans all demonstrations less than 200m away from underground stations and pedestrian crossings .
There have been allegations that excessive force has been used to disperse non-violent demonstrations, and peaceful demonstrators have been detained.
On 24 March, Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Iryna Toustsik of Human Rights Centre Viasna were detained overnight and fined for holding an unauthorised picket when they unfurled a banner against the death penalty in front of the Presidential Administration building.
Amnesty is campaigning for three youth activists who fled Belarus after they were convicted for their involvement in a peaceful public protest about taxation. Tatyana Tishkevich left Belarus after she was expelled from university because of her political activities. She was sentenced in her absence. Alyaksei Bondar and Mikhail Kryvau also left the country after they were sentenced. All three face up to three years’ imprisonment if they return to Belarus as leaving the country means that they have automatically violated the terms of their sentence.
The original sentence against Tatyana Tishkevich, Alyaksai Bondar and Mikhail Kryvau was in violation of their right to freedom of assembly. Amnesty is calling on the Belarusian authorities to allow the three to return to Belarus without any risk of being charged for violating the terms of their sentence. The organisation is urging people to take action on this case at www.amnesty.org.uk/minsk
Belarus is “Europe’s last executioner” – the only remaining country in Europe and the former Soviet Union which still carries out executions.
In March this year, Vasily Yuzepchuk and Andrei Zhuk were executed by a shot to the back of the head. Vasily Yuzepchuk was sentenced to death in June 2009 for the murder of six elderly women, after an investigation and trial which, according to his lawyer, were fundamentally flawed. The lawyer also claims that Vasily Yuzepchuk was beaten in detention to force him to confess. Vasily Yuzepchuk belonged to the marginalised Roma ethnic group, and was originally from Ukraine. He may have had an intellectual disability and, according to his lawyer, he did not know the months of the year and was illiterate.
Three men are currently on death row. Two were sentenced to death by shooting on 14 May 2010 for crimes committed during an armed robbery on a flat in Grodno in October 2009. Both men had their appeals dismissed on 17 September by the Supreme Court and have now appealed to the President for clemency On 14 September, Ihar Myalik was sentenced to death by Mahilyou regional court for a series of armed assaults and murders, committed in 2009.
Fair trials and torture
Nineteen years after independence, Belarus retains many repressive features of the Soviet criminal justice system. Judges routinely do not exercise their authority to independently and impartially decide on the legality of an arrest or detention nor the need for continued detention.
There is credible evidence that, under pressure to solve crimes, police investigators sometimes resort to torture and other ill-treatment in order to force confessions. These confessions are subsequently admitted as evidence in trials.
On 18 January a Minsk prosecutor turned down a request for a criminal investigation into allegations of torture made by Pavel Levshin. He had been detained by police officers on 9 December 2009 on suspicion of theft. Levshin claims that on 10 December from 5pm to 8pm police officers subjected him to torture and ill-treatment: they handcuffed him, laid him on his stomach and inserted his feet behind his hands in a position known as “the swallow”. They then beat him with a rubber truncheon and with plastic bottles filled with water. They also put a plastic bag over his head and held it there five times until he came close to suffocating. A forensic medical report confirmed that he had injuries consistent with his allegations, but the Prosecutor quoted the police report and stated that no evidence of torture had been found.
Human rights defenders
In January 2009, the human rights organisation, Nasha Vyasna (Our Spring), previously known as Vyasna (Spring), applied for registration for the third time. This request was refused for reasons which appear to be politically motivated, including reference to previous convictions of members of the group on administrative charges, inaccuracies in the list of founders, the fact that the mechanism for electing the Chair and the Secretary was not described, that the name of the organization was missing from one document, and that the headquarters of the organization were too cramped.
On 24 July 2007, the UN Human Rights Committee had ruled that the dissolution of the human rights organization Vyasna in 2003 violated the right to freedom of association and that the organisation was entitled to an appropriate remedy, including re-registration and compensation
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights
The Minsk City Executive Committee refused permission for the Slavic Pride march to take place on Saturday 15 May 2010. The organisers of the march received a letter on 8 May from the Minsk authorities, prohibiting the march on the grounds that the proposed route violated Article 9 of the Law on the staging of public events. The Article stipulates that public events cannot take place within 200 metres of underground stations and pedestrian crossings.
Amnesty International believes that the strict application of the law in this case resulted in a disproportionate and unjustifiable restriction on the rights to freedom of assembly and expression of those organising and wishing to take part in the march.
Violence against womenAdequate resources and structures to respond to violence against women are lacking in Belarus. There are only two shelters for victims of domestic violence, financed from a combination of state and non-governmental funding. The recently-introduced Law on Crime Prevention specifically referred, for the first time, to domestic violence and called on state bodies including the Ministry of Internal Affairs to investigate all cases of domestic violence and to prosecute the perpetrators.
UK office of Amnesty International has issued a Media Briefing which outlines Amnesty International’s key human rights concerns in Belarus.*