Lukashenka: Enough Babbling about Privatization
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkadiy Dvorkovich visited Minsk on an official visit in February. A number of experts believe that in the near future, Lukashenka's regime will make important concessions to Russia and sell major enterprises to Russian companies in exchange of favourable terms of supply of crude oil from Russia.
According to them, Dvorkovich came to Minsk as a representative of a wholesale buyer of Belarusian enterprises. Together with First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Siamashka, Dvorkovich visited some major Belarusian enterprises: Minsk Automobile Plant, "Hrodna Azot" and Agricultural machinery plant "Homsielmash".
As the Russian Deputy Prime Minister said, the parties agreed that before the end of the month Russian companies would conduct negotiations with top managers of MAZ and "Hrodna-Azot" and agree on joint steps for developing cooperation.
Privatisation linked to Russian oil supplies?
During a joint interview, Siamashka said that the parties continued negotiations about supply of crude oil in 2013. According to him, even while the agreement has only been reached for the first quarter, Belarus expected receiving 23 million tons of crude till the end of the year. He pointed out that Russia proceeded from this figure as in the first quarter it would supply a quarter of the volume requested by the Belarusian side – 5.75 million tons.
The opinion that the Russian Deputy Prime Minister came to accept the surrender of Lukashenka is not justified. Options for cooperation which the Belarusian side is suggesting to its Russian counterparts do not envisage privatisation of major enterprises.
On the eve of his visit to Minsk, Dvorkovich said that Belarus should compensate losses of the Russian budget from the "solvents and diluents" business which is estimated in at least USD 1.5 billion in Moscow. He also stressed inadmissibility of nonfulfillment by the Belarusian side of its obligations to supply high-octane gasoline to Russia. However, he did not raise these acute questions of bilateral relations during the talks.
Siamashka, speaking about prospects of receiving crude oil from Russia, said once again that Belarus was fulfilling in full its obligations regarding supply of oil products to Russia.
What is on sale?
On February 26, speaking at a meeting of the Council for Business Development at the President, Lukashenka made statements which implied that Siamashka, by far, was not the only "Mr. No" in power in the matter of sale of enterprises to Russian companies.
In contrast to Russian companies, the Western business does not lay claims on purchase of major Belarusian enterprises. Clearly speaking of Russian partners, Lukashenka said:
We won't privatise anything in the lump. We even gave up on having a list of enterprises singled out for privatisation. Any enterprise can be privatised: "Belaruskali", which many put their eyes on, oil refineries, MAZ, BelAZ and others. However, these enterprises have very high price. For instance, the announced price of "Belaruskali" is 32 billion dollars, I can't reduce it. They don't want to buy at this price – fine. We aren't in a hurry. These are efficient companies.
Lukashenka's team understands well that sale of major enterprises would mean strong attachment to Russia and dependence from Moscow, including in political matters. He said: "If they babble about privatisation in the government, and it passes to society… Then, there is a question: so, do you want to sell out the country ASAP?"
Lukashenka said repeatedly that he would not allow, as he puts it, a "barbarian privatisation" which can be imported from Russia. However, among major Belarusian businessmen who are loyal to him, Lukashenka speaks about his vision of privatisation.
The group of personalities similar to Moshenski and Shakutin understands very well that Lukashenko's words that "there would be no privatisation among officials or selling enterprises cheaply to big businesses" are a pure and simple populism.
For Lukashenka, former chairman of a kolkhoz and political propaganda worker during the Soviet era, it was impossible not to tell words pleasing to the Belarusian television audience to common people sitting in front of TV screens.
Among the members of the Council, there are also people who manage the business of Lukashenko's family: Jury Chizh, director of "Triple" (export of oil products, manufacturing of building materials, construction, network of hypermarkets, network of restaurants and cafes) and Evhieni Shihalov, director of the trade house "Zhdanovichy".
The following words of Lukashenka may be seen as addressed specifically to those present: "Please come. All things being equal, we will give preference to our people. But it should be in honesty. This is why the national investor will exist. If somebody lacks money alone, so get together".
Conditions attached to privatisation
Lukashenka also provided criteria of who are "our people" and who are not.
First, private business must not finance opposition. He said: "If a businessman finances the "fifth column" or makes negative impact on society in some other way, I will see it as their involvement in political struggle, in struggle against the state. And this struggle has its own laws. Then, let such businessmen take no offence".
Second, the entrepreneurs must finance social programmes. It follows from Lukashenka's statements that businessmen must by sympathetic towards "suggestions" of the authorities to finance repair of streets, roads and buildings and give money to kolkhozes for sawing campaigns.
These words of Lukashenko are not addressed in the first place to his confidant businessmen. Shakutin, Moshenski or Chizh can hardly be suspected of intentions to finance opposition. This is a warning to entrepreneurs who, at best, will get crumbs from the pie of possible privatisation.
One can get very big troubles (up to closing down of business) for hiring an opposition activist, for giving a pack of paper to a regional branch of an opposition political party, for any assistance to an NGO, which is seen as the "fifth column" by the authorities.
Not only pro-European organisations belong to the “fifth column”, according to Lukashenka. At the beginning of May, 2010 he claimed that Russia was financing several opposition organisations. After that the offices of the “Tell the Truth” campaign were searched in 20 cities of Belarus on May 18.
Overall, Lukashenka's team gets additional reasons to believe that during this year Russia will not bring into focus the acute questions of bilateral relations. The suggestions to sell enterprises to Russian companies will be a probing of the Belarusian side's position and will not be accompanied by pressure.
Andrei Liakhovich is a contributing author. He directs the Center for Political Education in Minsk.
Belarusian Constitution: An Obituary on Democracy
On 15 March 2013 Alexander Lukashenka congratulated Belarusians on the Constitution Day.
Since this document entered into force in 1994 it has suffered two substantial revisions, each of which emphasised the further decline into an authoritarian abyss.
Nowadays the Belarusian Constitution fails to fulfil its main purpose: to safeguard the country from the usurpation of power. Instead it has become an instrument of such abuse, entitling the all-powerful ruler to control the state machinery completely.
The Story of a Grand Takeover
Adopted in 1994, the Belarusian Constitution contained all the prerequisites to make this post-socialist state a European democracy based on the rule of law and the separation of powers. But it failed to resist the intentions of the first democratically-elected president to grasp power.
Since Lukashenka won the presidential elections in 1994 he has remained in permanent conflict with other branches of power: the legislative (Supreme Council) and the judicial (Constitutional Court) until 1996.
In November 1996, Lukashenka initiated a referendum proposing a new version of the Constitution which would enormously enlarge his powers and demean the role of parliament. The Supreme Council came up with a counter-proposal to abolish the institution of president and reform Belarus into a parliamentary republic.
The Constitutional Court unambiguously ruled that the results of the planned referendum could be only advisory, not mandatory. But Lukashenka issued a special edict making the referendum’s results legally binding.
A group of MPs opposed to the edict initiated an impeachment procedure against President Lukashenka. They asked the constitutional court to examine this issue. Ultimately, it culminated in a major political crisis in Belarus.
After a night of secret talks with Russian governmental envoys on 22 November 1996, Alexander Lukashenka and the Head of the Supreme Council of Belarus, Syamyon Sharetski, signed an agreement: parliament was to withhold the impeachment and Lukashenka was to withdraw the mandatory implementation of the referendum by edict.
The next day, after the Russian envoy had left, the pro-presidential fraction in the Belarusian parliament rejected the agreement. This gave Lukashenka a free hand to hold his referendum as legally binding just as he wished it to be.
On 24 November the referendum finally took place. Lukashenka, according to official figures, won on all the items that he had proposed.
The head of the Central Electoral Committee, a famous Belarusian lawyer and politician, Viktar Hanchar, refused to recognise the results because of multiple falsifications. Lukashenka dismissed him immediately without consulting the parliament as required under law. A few years later Viktar Hanchar was mysteriously kidnapped.
On 26 November 1996 the Constitutional Court, by a majority opinion, terminated the proceedings on impeachment. This event signified the end of the short-lived Belarusian democracy.
In the Aftermath of the Referendum
Soon after the referendum Lukashenka himself formed a new parliament that, having dismissed the others, counted among its ranks 110 loyal MPs. The new body was called the House of Representatives and became the lower chamber of the bicameral National Assembly.
In 2004 another referendum took place. Lukashenka removed the limitation of two presidential terms for any individual, allowing himself to stay in power for as long as he wanted. This time the loyal parliament and judicial system kept silent about falsifications and a direct breach of article 112 of the Electoral Code that prohibited putting issues dealing with presidential elections to a referendum.
The Venice Commission, a reputable Council of Europe institution, tasked with observation of constitutional developments in the world, called the results of the 1996 and 2004 referendums both unconstitutional and anti-democratic.
The EU, OSCE, and USA followed the same line. After the events of November 1996 they withdrew recognition of Alexander Lukashenka and his puppet parliament as the legitimate authority in Belarus. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expelled Belarus. It now holds a "special guest" status.
The Constitution Enables Autocracy and Contains "Dead" Norms
In the present-day Belarusian Constitution the president dominates all three branches (legislative, judicial and executive) and has exclusive powers in each of their fields of apparent competence.
For example, the president can appoint and dismiss all the judges in the country except for six judges of the Constitutional Court (they are elected by the Council of the Republic, the upper chamber of Belarusian parliament). For the appointment of top judges to the higher courts, the president needs formal approval from the Council of the Republic, which he has always received in the last 17 years.
Although the president is not de jure the head of the executive branch, he appoints all the ministers and other members of the government. The House of Representatives must approve the person of prime-minister. If it fails to reach such an agreement twice, the president can dissolve the parliament. Once again the recent history shows that parliament has never disputed any presidential decisions.
In the legislature, the powers of the president seem to be overwhelming. Presidential decrees and edicts have the same legal force as laws. But article 137 of the revised Constitution specifies that presidential acts are to prevail in any case of conflict with other laws.
Symbolically, Article 84, which describes the powers of the president, is the longest one in the entire Constitution.
Some norms in the Belarusian Constitution remain purely declaratory. Cases of multiple human rights violations are de-facto deviation from the Constitution, but the situation with alternative civil service is a unique officially admitted legal gap in the Belarusian legislation.
Article 57 of the Constitution provides citizens with the right to choose alternative civil service instead of mandatory military service. But the mere absence of the corresponding law disables this provision. Young men referring to this norm risk going to jail for claiming to exercise their constitutional right.
Even the Constitutional Court, cleansed of independent judges, has several times referred to such gaps and other defects of the Constitution, such as the absence of an ombudsman-institute or the presence of the death penalty. Nobody, however, has responded to these unpretentious efforts put forth by the Court.
The narrative of Belarusian modern history will always be a perfect example of how a country must not treat its most important law. When rewritten for the political purposes of specific personalities, the constitution becomes a political tool instead of the foundation of a democracy.