How the Belarusian Political System Works
Last year the Ostrogorski Centre launched its Belarus Profile web site. Since then the database of the most influential Belarusians has become an increasingly popular source of biographical information.
However, not many people in the West know what the Belarusian political system looks like under the Constitution. This article intends to fill that gap.
State of the Super President
Alexander Lukashenka was not joking in 1995, when during an interview to Handlesblatt magazine he praised the concentrated official powers of Hitler. One year later, a rigged referendum made him something akin to a super President.
At the time, many people compared the competencies of the President of Belarus with those of the President of France, although Lukashenka was authorised to do much more.
The Presidential Administration is much more powerful than the Council of Ministers and the Parliament Read more
Since 2004, the President has had the right to run for office an unlimited number of times. The term of office is 5 years. According to the Constitution, the President of Belarus not only has very broad executive powers, but legislative ones as well.
Lukashenka has the right to issue decrees that automatically assume the power of being law and override existing laws. Contrary to the Constitution, the President has significant competencies in the judicial field: he has the power to exempt individuals from criminal culpability for some crimes and can even pardon people for economic crimes.
The Presidential Administration is much more powerful than the Council of Ministers and the Parliament, with considerably more power. The Presidential Administration's 'legislators' effectively make the nations laws. Some departments of the Administration duplicate the work of the ministries. They make any number of key decisions that determine the policy of the state.
The President also chairs the Security Council, which is probably the most important institution in the Belarusian political system. This body brings together the country’s top leaders and the main security agencies. Lukashenka keeps security officials in very close, as he does not trust them.
The top security staff basically unchanged over the past 19 years, with Lukashenka occasionally shuffling the same deck of cards in the nation's law enforcement agencies. It should also be noted that his oldest son – Viktar Lukashenka – is a member of the Council.
Belarusian political scientist Uladzimir Rouda describes the value in terms of the government being an economic and administrative agency that subordinate to the Head of State.
The President appoints and dismisses the prime minister and all other ministers. He also often leads the Council of Ministers' meetings which usually devolve into public humiliation sessions – or "a beating of the boys" – i.e. the ministers.
The Council of Ministers oversees several state organisations Read more
The government itself remains little more than a functionary, destined to execute the decisions of the President and his administration. Ministers in Belarus are not prone to quick turn over, yet despite the apparent job security afforded them, as a former employee of the Lukashenka`s team Siarhei Chaly said, "no one wants to be a minister."
The Council of Ministers has 24 ministries and seven committees, such as the Committee for State Security. The Council of Ministers oversees several state organisations, such as the Belarusian State Concern for Oil and Chemistry. This concern includes the largest enterprises in Belarus, such as "Belaruskali" and oil processing plants.
Belarusian parliament has two chambers: the House of Representatives (lower chamber) and the Council of the Republic (higher chamber).
the Parliament has independently drafted only one law Read more
110 deputies elected in direct elections constitute the House of Representatives. 64 deputies constitute the Council of the Republic. Members of local councils from each region and Minsk elect eight members. Lukashenka appoints another eight personally.
The Parliament plays a very insignificant role. It has no real executive functions and the main task of the Parliament is basically rubber stamping laws whose content has already been drafted and finalised before it reaches them. According to Andrej Jahorau, over the course of its last four-year term, the Parliament has independently drafted only one law.
The House of Representatives or Council of the Republic do not hold any debates and MPs often just pass a given law unanimously. The Chamber Speakers or Chairmen of the parliamentary committees play a marginal role in Belarusian politics. Even Parliament property is managed by the Office of Presidential Affairs.
Dependent Judicial System
The judicial branch, as well as the legislative, remains almost entirely dependent. The executive branch organises the courts, appoints its judges and even determines the size of the bonuses that Court officials receive. The Constitutional Court is composed of 12 members, the President and the Council of the Republic appoint six judges each.
Since 1996, the Constitutional Court has not considered or renounced any legal act passed by Lukashenka to be unconstitutional. Moreover, the Constitutional Court is not able to start a case by their own, but instead must seek approval from the head of state.
No Local Self-Government
Although Belarusian traditions of local self-government have roots stretching back to the 14th century, these days Belarusians do not even have the possiblity of electing their own mayors. The President himself appoints the heads of local executive bodies, so they remain primarily loyal to him, and not to its local citizens.
A few members from opposition political parties were elected at the local elections in 2010 Read more
Belarusians call this system the "executive vertical". The President can dismiss ordinary officials of the local executive committees and even revoke their decisions.
The local councils are made up of 21,288 deputies, but their official competencies remain pitifully narrow. Only a few members from opposition political parties made it through the sieve of fraud at the local elections in 2010. In 2014 Belarus will hold new elections to its local councils with what would appear to be rather predictable results.
The Final Count
Belarus remains a country with super-presidential system. Lukashenka controls the executive and legislative branches of government. The President also significantly influences the judicial branch, despite the fact that this is a clear violation of the fundamental Law of the country.
The Council of Ministers is doing little else but working to make sure Lukashenka`s policy objectives are met. Parliament is a body is a rubber stamp institution that is charged with approving legislation created by the Presidential Administration. Local executive bodies, as well as the Council of Ministers, implement Lukashenka`s policies, but only at the lowest level.
It is inconceivable that the judicial system will confront the President, as it remains almost entirely dependent on him.
The rigged referendums in 1995, 1996 and 2004 brought great changes to the Constitution and gave the President unlimited powers. Thus, Lukashenka's dictatorship has roots not only in his political practises, but also in the fundamental laws of Belarus.
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European Humanities University Elects Its Senate and Debates its Future
On 19 November the European Humanities University (EHU), also knows as Belarusian university in exile, held elections for its Senate. Although the Senate is just one of several bodies which govern EHU, the result may affect the direction of EHU's reforms.
Unlike previous elections, which often went unnoticed by the Belarusian press, this time a group of EHU academics united under a platform called 'For a New EHU' which conducted a vibrant electoral campaign. The vast majority of the newly elected Senate members supported the platform. The election campaign provoked discussions in Belarusian media about the direction EHU is taking under its current administration.
The main topics raised during the Senate election campaign included the role of academics in the governance of the university in exile and whether the Belarusian university in exile could do more for Belarusian society.
The Rector of the University responded to criticism by explaining that the university needs changes to improve the quality of its scholarship and teaching and also to remain competitive.
Academics Want More Involvement
A public debate started after a group of lecturers adopted a manifesto criticising the management style of the EHU administration as being not democratic enough.
The group 'For a new EHU' consisted of the Chairman of the EHU Senate Pavel Cierashkovich and a number of lecturers including Volha Shparaha, Andrej Laurukhin and Maxim Zhbankou.
According to the manifesto, the university often made important decisions without meaningful consultations with EHU academics. The academics argued that the management excluded representatives of the Senate and labour unions from the decision making process related to the future of the university.
The lecturers also claimed that most Belarusian academics have to work for the university without employment contracts. They called for strengthening the role of the Senate and EHU academics and the introduction of regular rotations for key administrators, including the rector.
In their view, the university is losing its humanities identity, as well as its ties to Belarusian society. Therefore, the EHU should also develop Belarus-oriented programmes for students and encourage teaching in the Belarusian language and learning the language.
According to the manifesto, co-operation not only with Belarusian NGOs and think tanks, but also prominent Belarusian political and cultural figures, might help to bring the university closer to civil society in Belarus. It also states that the teaching programmes should keep Belarus as a point of focus and involve successful Belarusian academics from around the world.
The EHU administration promises reforms
On 14 November Professor Anatoli Mikhailov, who has been leading the university since its establishment in 1992 responded and shared his vision of the future of the university.
Professor Mikhailov explained that the university planed to hire a core faculty consisting of permanent lecturers after holding an open competition. The budget for salaries will be doubled. The permanent staff is supposed to reside in Vilnius and could claim all social benefits and will have proper employment contracts, in compliance with Lithuanian law.
This change would signify a shift from the previous practise of EHU lecturers regularly commuting from Belarus to teach.
Commenting on whether Belarusian academics will be replaced by other nationals, Mikhailov emphasised that Belarus was and would continue to be at the centre of EHU's focus. He emphasised that the university has always been on the look out for qualified candidates from Belarus.
The rector also explained that to strengthen its focus on Belarus, the EHU is developing a programme of transformation studies. The EHU also wants to revive its Belarusian studies programme which was closed not that long ago. According to Professor Mikhailov, thanks to generous and consistent donor support, the EHU's financial situation has never been better.
The rector commented also on the accusations that the administration had excluded the Senate and representatives of the University's faculty from the decision making process. In his view, the governing structure of the EHU is a hybrid one and consists of international educational experts, foreign donors, the Senate, which is understood to consist of representatives of the EHU administration, staff and students.
He described this model as being one of “stakeholder involvement, separation of powers, and accountable democratic leadership”. In his view, it allows for the efficient, but also democratic management of the university.
Competing or complementary visions of the EHU?
Will the newly selected Senate with majority of supporters of reforms, find a compromise with the university management? In fact, much will depend on the position of the administration of the university. Although the Senate is an important body, its powers, when it comes to real strategic decisions and appointments, is rather limited.
Both the majority of the EHU Senate and the university management think that EHU needs change. On most issues, the positions of the Platform 'For a New EHU' and Rector Mikhailov are not mutually exclusive.
All agree that the University needs to maintain its focus on Belarus, hire Belarusian academics and act as an important platform for debate, research and teaching relevant to Belarus. They also agree that the voice of academics at the EHU should be heard and respected.
Rector Mikhailov already announced that he would discuss with the Senate and try to get its approval of his reforms. One hopes that EHU's management and the Senate will be able to agree on a viable reform plan.
The debate on the future reform of the university, widely covered in Belarusian press, shows diverse opinions among those who work for EHU. The university could benefit from the healthy debates if it makes sure that they lead not to divisions but to improvements and progress.
This will help EHU to balance its Belarusian identity with the challenges of making the university more internationally competitive and strengthening its relevance to Belarus at the same time.