The 2016 Belarusian People’s Congress: the Illusion of Democracy
The Fifth Belarusian People's Congress will take place in Minsk on 22-23 June. The event will bring together 2,500 carefully selected participants from all over the country representing the branches of the government, industry and business, science, health and culture.
This Soviet-styled Belarusian institution is President Alexander Lukashenka’s preferred means of communicating with the electorate. The president convened the first Congress in 1996 to rally support for a constitutional amendment that would strengthen the powers of the executive. Over time, this institution has become the centrepiece of presidential election campaigns.
At this year's Congress, the president promised to present a strategy on how to overcome the economic crisis. Lukashenka may be hoping to use Congress as an opportunity to improve his public image. However, the Congress seems to have lost its charm with most Belarusians. Few will take the president's promises seriously this time around.
The origins of the People's Congress
The People's Congress, despite an awe-inspiring name, has little to do with real decision-making. Its main purpose is to help the regime to communicate its policies to the Belarusian public. In fact, the constitution doe not even mention the Congress.
Lukashenka convened the first People's Congress in 1996, on the eve of the referendum on the expansion of presidential powers. Having the constitutional amendments approved by the People’s Congress prior to the referendum helped Lukashenka to override the objections of parliament and the Constitutional Court. Not surprisingly, the president has hailed the Congress as “the highest form of the Belarusian democracy.”
The 1996 Congress gathered five thousand people from different parts of Belarus. Subsequent events brought only half as many delegates. As part of the nomination of Congress participants, the government elects loyal representatives of all professions. At the end of each Congress, these people rubber-stamp the president's five-year program.
The Belarusian People's Congress played an important role in Lukashenka's electoral campaigns in 2001, 2006 and 2010. On each occasion, the president gave a long speech in front of the delegates. The speech typically summarised the events of the previous five years and outlined the priorities for the following five years. Lukashenka’s speech at the 2010 Congress lasted more than three hours.
The Belarusian People's Congress is sometimes compared with the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Just like its Communist prototype, the Belarusian People's Congress is celebrated with great pomp and lacks serious discussion.
What is the point of the People’s Congress?
This time Lukashenka broke with tradition by waiting to convene the People's Congress until after the presidential election. One possible reason is his reluctance to discuss the dire state of the Belarusian economy before the votes were cast and counted.
On 5 April, parliament rubber-stamped the government's new socioeconomic plan for 2016-2020, formerly one of the main tasks performed by the People's Congress. What is the point of holding the People's Congress this year?
First, convening the Congress this year will allow the president to convince the public that holding the Congress in 2016 rather than 2015 has nothing to do with his policy failures, but rather the authorities decided to postpone the People's Congress on technical grounds.
Second, the president may be reluctant to break the tradition of holding Congresses. Lukashenka himself may be “mentally imprisoned by Soviet rituals," as political analyst Alexander Klaskouski argues.
Third, the Belarusian People's Congress will help rally support for the president. In the presence of several thousand people and in front of the whole country on television, the president will try to shift the blame for the crisis onto the government. In fact, Lukashenka enjoys public speaking. Oratorical talent helped him to win the first (and last) democratic election in 1994, and even though elections are no longer free and fair, regular speaking engagements remain important for maintaining his approval rating.
Two and a half thousand delegates will attend the Congress in June, and the authorities are trying to prepare for the meeting. State media has issued grandiose proclamations in anticipation of the event. For instance, the Belarusian Telegraph Agency wrote that “the People's Assembly will give a new impetus to the development of the country”, that “the current five-year plan will focus on improving the living standards of the nation”, and that "the central idea of the Belarusian People's Congress is the people's unity."
What to watch for at the next Congress
On 26 April, Lukashenka promised to present the Congress with "a realistic program for future activities that will serve as a guide for society."
The previously announced programmes, including Lukashenka’s 2015 electoral platform, have already partly failed. For instance, the platform promised that the government would not introduce any new taxes over the next five years, but the authorities have reneged on this and already passed several laws introducing new taxes.
The president’s approval rating is falling together with Belarus’s economy. According to official figures, the economy declined by 3.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2016 and according to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, 47 per cent of Belarusians blame the country's leader for the crisis. So, Lukashenka may hope that his next Congress performance will make the people more optimistic about the future.
Lukashenka will not be the only dignitary to speak at the next Congress. Other officials invited to speak at the Congress will be those who hold some influence within the bureaucracy. The anti-reform and pro-reform camps remain in conflict and the time allotted to speakers from each of these two opposing camps will show which group Lukashenka favours.
The Belarusian People's Congress remains in stark contrast with the Belarusian National Congress organised by several opposition groups. Pro-democratic forces organise their event almost without funds and are still facing problems finding an appropriate venue for the Congress, although it is scheduled to take place on 14-15 May. As former political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich recently stated, the Congress can even be held in the park. At the same time, the authorities spend sufficient money to organise their event.
But one thing unites both Assemblies. Although they use such titles as People's or National, few ordinary people take such words seriously. As Aliaksandr Klaskouski recently stated, the Belarusian authorities, the opposition and people live in parallel realities.
Chernobyl as Belarus’ foreign policy priority
On 25-26 April, Minsk hosts an international conference titled Thirty Years after Chernobyl: From Emergency to Revival and Sustainable Socio-Economic Development of Affected Territories.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dispatched his deputy Helen Clark, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator, to attend the event.
After several years backstage, Chernobyl has returned to the list of Belarus' foreign policy priorities. Is this a long-term trend or are Belarusian diplomats seizing the moment to preserve the flow of foreign assistance to the affected areas in a changing international environment?
International assistance to Belarus: mostly of Western origin
The United Nations adopted its first resolutions on Chernobyl only in 1990, when the Soviet Union was on the verge of breakup. This decision helped to jump-start numerous assistance programmes by several UN agencies and international organisations.
Initially, the international community assisted Belarus in mitigating the consequences of the disaster in the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s technical cooperation programme, the UNDP’s country programme.
Belarus also worked with dedicated programmes and projects implemented by the World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the European Union.
In 2007, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the third decade after the Chernobyl disaster, 2006–2016, the Decade of Recovery and Sustainable Development of the Affected Regions. Belarus continued to receive multilateral and bilateral Chernobyl-related assistance through almost two dozen national and regional projects (with budgets varying between a few thousands and millions of dollars).
Altogether, in 1990-2015 Belarus attracted over $83.5m in foreign aid from government sources for mitigating the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. The bulk of assistance came from Western nations, mostly NATO and EU members but also Japan, China and Russia. UNDP and the IAEA remained the main institutional sponsors.
Large-scale aid from foreign NGOs and families
In the same period, charitable assistance from foreign donors to the affected areas of Belarus amounted to over $400m. About 30 per cent of this came in kind and the rest in monetary form. The humanitarian response was enormous. The government quickly introduced numerous regulations in an attempt to control this flow.
For Belarusian society, health care rehabilitation of Belarusian children abroad remains the best known form of foreign assistance in Chernobyl-related matters. From 1990 to 2015, over thirty countries received about one million Belarusian children. Italy accepted almost half of them.
Since 2004, the number of children received by foreign countries has been gradually decreasing. This may be explained by President Alexander Lukashenka’s decision to allow rehabilitation only in those countries which have signed bilateral agreements with Belarus on this matter. As of today, 14 European countries meet this criteria. In 2015, about 16,500 children were rehabilitated in twelve countries.
Chernobyl in Belarus’ foreign policy agenda
In the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Chernobyl issue remained at the top of Belarusian diplomats’ daily agenda. They used multilateral events and bilateral meetings to highlight the gravity of the problems which the country faced and the need for large-scale international assistance.
However, over the last few years Chernobyl has begun moving down the list of the country’s foreign policy priorities. In 2005, Lukashenka, speaking at the 60th session of the UN General Assembly, failed to mention Chernobyl for the first time ever. Speaking from the same rostrum ten years later, he referred to the disaster only in passing.
There may a number of reasons behind this downgrade.
First, the international community and donors have shifted their attention to new emerging priorities such as the financial crisis, climate change, and migration. If initially the UN General Assembly discussed the international response to the Chernobyl disaster annually, in 1993, mentions of the issue passed to a biennial, and in 2007 to a triennial, basis.
Second, some in the Belarusian government felt that too much international attention to Chernobyl might hamper the country’s efforts in promoting its exports and attracting foreign investment to Belarus because of the (mostly unjustified) fear of radioactive contamination.
Third, after years of doubts and internal debate, in the mid-2000s the Belarusian authorities decided to build a nuclear power plant in Belarus. The previous level of attention to the Chernobyl issue could have undermined the government’s newly adopted policy of pursuing nuclear energy.
The 30th anniversary and revamped Chernobyl diplomacy
Nevertheless, the Belarusian government would not think of missing the opportunity provided by the 30th anniversary of the disaster to secure continued international assistance to the affected areas. The current Chernobyl decade is about to expire. Without a new international framework, further foreign funding will become uncoordinated and scarce.
The Thirty Years after Chernobyl conference as well as the commemorative meeting of the UN General Assembly on 26 April are being used to raise global awareness of today’s needs and formulate new priorities and projects to address them.
In the last decade, the international response to the Chernobyl disaster has shifted conclusively from emergency relief and humanitarian assistance to capacity-building and sustainable development of the affected regions and communities.
Today, Belarusian diplomats are seeking to inscribe international Chernobyl-related activities in a broader context of UN efforts on social development. On 11 April, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov, speaking at a meeting of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Chernobyl in New York, promoted the Belarusian formula for the new Chernobyl framework of action as “Achieving Social Development Goals in the affected regions through partnership, innovation and investment”.
The Belarusian foreign ministry has also been emphasising the change in the country’s status with regards to Chernobyl-related activities – from a net recipient of foreign assistance to an equal partner of the international community. Belarus is offering to share its unique knowledge and experience in recovering from the consequences of a nuclear disaster, and best practises in moving from recovery to development.
The treatment of the Chernobyl issue in Belarus’ foreign policy is an example of good-quality diplomacy. When fighting for resources, Belarusian diplomats have learned to adapt their actions and rhetoric to modern trends and the new vocabulary of multilateral relations.