Why Does Europe Engage with Belarus’s Rubber Stamp Parliament?
On 2 – 4 August, Ryszard Terlecki, vice-speaker of the Polish Sejm, led the highest-level parliamentary delegation of an EU country to Minsk in twenty years.
This visit is emblematic of the increasingly common nature of inter-parliamentary contacts between Belarus and Europe. The marginalised Belarusian parliament has been slowly gaining international recognition.
Will this trend help to promote democracy in Belarus and foster bilateral ties with the West?
Belarus's parliament ostracised and ignored
The programme of the Polish members of parliament included meetings with government officials, members of the opposition, activists from the Polish minority, and business executives.
However, two meetings stood out especially. On the first day of the visit, the delegation met with Uladzimir Andrejchanka and Mikhail Miasnikovich, the speakers of the lower and upper chambers of the Belarusian parliament.
Belarusian members of parliament can hardly boast extensive international contacts. Since November 1996, when Alexander Lukashenka hand-picked members of the national assembly for a reformatted legislature following a questionable constitutional reform, the Belarusian parliament has lost its international recognition.
Initially, Western democracies refused to recognise this newly formed entity.
In 1997, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA OSCE) reaffirmed the status of the last democratically elected parliament as the only legitimate parliament of Belarus. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe suspended Belarus’s special guest status.
Things began to ease up in 2000, after most opposition groups boycotted elections to the lower chamber of the parliament. The OSCE’s mission concluded that the elections had failed to meet international standards.
However, the fact that the parliament was (at least, formally) elected and not appointed allowed the National Assembly to reclaim its representation in the PA OSCE. It may also have helped that a few figures critical of the authorities secured seats in the new legislature.
The executive branch remedied this omission after the following elections in 2004. Since then, not a single Belarusian parliamentarian has ever opposed Lukashenka’s policies. Belarus remains the only country in Europe with no opposition represented in parliament.
Over the last twenty years, the international contacts of Belarusian MPs remained limited mostly to their colleagues in Russia, the CIS and developing countries. Belarusian legislators had reason to speak with their European counterparts mainly on the sidelines of inter-parliamentary events.
The National Assembly has not signed an agreement on inter-parliamentary cooperation with a parliament of any European country outside the CIS. It has established working groups on cooperation with fourteen EU countries but they have mostly remained inactive.
During the first nine months of 2015, the Belarusian parliament exchanged visits with their colleagues in Slovakia (in May and September) and received a delegation from Spain (in September).
An end to isolation
Things began to change rapidly in October 2015, when the EU decided to suspend its sanctions against Belarus following the peaceful presidential elections and release of political prisoners.
Formally, the sanctions never prohibited inter-parliamentarian contacts. Only two members of parliament were on the sanctions list due to their activities under previous positions. However, several national parliaments apparently perceived the removal of the sanctions as an encouragement to reengage with Belarus in all areas, including inter-parliamentary relations.
In October 2015 – July 2016, the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament received parliamentary delegations from seven EU countries (Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia (twice), Hungary, and Romania) and Japan.
Most of the delegations were headed by chairpersons of groups advocating friendship with Belarus in their respective parliaments, the others were headed by heads of foreign relations committees.
Austria sent Karlheinz Kopf, the second president of the national parliament’s lower chamber, to engage the Belarusian parliament. Eager to promote Austria’s business interests in Belarus, Kopf discussed inter-parliamentary cooperation with Andrejchanka and congratulated Lukashenka on a “convincing victory” two days after the flawed presidential elections.
Former Soviet satellites from Eastern and Central Europe (along with business-minded Austria) may have fewer compunctions about dealing with Belarus's rubber stamp parliament. “Old Europe,” on the other hand, has so far displayed greater reticence in engaging with the Belarusian legislature.
However, there are always footloose parliamentarians who pursue their own agenda. A good example of such a maverick is Thierry Mariani, a French MP who found “nothing abnormal” as an observer at the October 2015 presidential elections in Belarus.
On 7 – 8 July, Mariani brought his pro-Russian colleague, Nicolas Dhuicq, the new head of the France – Belarus parliamentary friendship group, to Minsk. The parliamentarians were received in both chambers of the Belarusian parliament and the Belarusian foreign ministry.
Why is Europe legitimising an impotent parliament?
The eagerness of several European national legislatures to re-establish contacts with the Belarusian parliament seems to lack a logical explanation, and no convincing attempt to provide one has been made so far.
Europe’s recent tactics of greater engagement with Belarusian officials by encouraging dialogue and cooperation with their Western colleagues may indeed be effective in certain situations. They may help those involved in different levels of government to better understand the modus operandi of democratic societies, thus encouraging them to apply certain best practises to their daily work.
However, the same can hardly be said of the Belarusian legislature. Even if one puts aside the question of its legitimacy (which one should not), the real role of the current Belarusian parliament in society should not be ignored.
Legislators appointed by Lukashenka have no say in either domestic or foreign policy. Their true purpose is to rubber-stamp the decisions drafted by the executive branch.
Not a single parliamentarian has criticised Lukashenka Read more
Belarusian MPs have initiated only a handful of laws over the last twenty years. In recent years, the parliament has not blocked a single draft law submitted by the government. Members of parliament have always been eager to approve any initiative or appointment coming from the president.
Not a single member of parliament has ever publicly criticised Lukashenka. Some mild criticism of the government or local authorities has been tolerated, but only if it fits with Lukashenka's position.
The government’s appointees in the parliament also lack any serious lobbying power in the country. Most of them are political has-beens at the end of their carriers or mid-level local officials who have few prospects of taking positions of responsibility in the executive branch.
The increased contacts of European parliamentarians with their Belarusian “counterparts” have no positive impact on development of democracy in Belarus or promoting the national interests of the EU countries concerned. Meanwhile, such collaboration helps strengthen the international position of the Belarusian government.
Time for Belarus to Implement Real Student Self-Governance?
Belarusian authorities are discreetly preparing a new Education Code, partly to demonstrate to the West that they are making changes. In 2015, Belarus joined the Bologna process and is now required to reform the education system accordingly.
So far, the Belarusian education law has completely ignored the issue of student self-governance. Authorities restrict activities of student unions by depriving them of autonomy, placing university staff into student unions, and limiting activities of independent youth organisations in universities.
As Belarus is adapting its education system to the Bologna process, its partners should make it clear that the law should become more student-friendly.
Politicised perception of students
As in many other countries, Belarusian students historically played a major role in the democratic movement. In 1830-1831 and 1863-1864, students were among the initiators of uprisings against the Russian Empire.
Even during the Soviet era, Belarusian students created organisations and wrote appeals to increase the use of the Belarusian language and to expand academic freedoms. This usually resulted in expulsion for the instigators by Soviet authorities. In 1985, one of the expelled students even jumped from the sixth floor of the Belarusian State University in protest.
Since Belarus's independence, student organisations have become particularly close to the pro-democracy movement, comprising a significant part of opposition protests: in 2006, students organised a tent city to protest election fraud during the presidential campaign.
During this time, October Square, where the protests took place, received the unofficial name "Kastus Kalinouski," after the leader of the uprising of 1863-1864 in the Belarusian lands.
Although one can hardly call Belarusian students politicised, they still remain the most active part of society. They are also a huge group, consisting of about 460 thousand people, or 4.7 per cent of the population.
What's more, researches at the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, an authoritative Belarusian pollster, shows that the youth remain the group most exposed to the ideas of democratisation and Europeanisation in Belarusian society.
Fake student government
Many student unions actually do operate at Belarusian universities. In practise, however, they have very little influence over the university establishment and cannot defend student rights when they are broken. The current Education Code, adopted in 2011, lacks even a single mention of student government. Therefore, internal university regulations subordinate activities of student unions and only one, the Student Union of the Belarusian State University, has an appropriate legal status.
Without legal status, student unions fail to attract money from outside sources, but depend on funding from universities. Belarusian authorities give financial support to only one youth organisation working at Belarusian universities and schools – the Belarusian Republican Youth Union.
This organisation is the successor of the Komsomol (the Communist Youth League) and has half a million members. However, the large number of members does not mean that all of them support the current regime. The majority of people are signed up for BRSM forcibly or because it helps them get a place in university accommodation during studies.
Most student unions are openly run by university authorities. At the Baranavichy State University, some members of the university administrative staff belong to the student union. Provisions of the Belarusian National Technical University or International Economic Institute state simply that the activities of student unions are under the leadership of universities’ vice-chancellors.
Moreover, university authorities demand that student unions be wary of any cooperation with independent youth organisations. In February 2016, the administration of the Belarusian State Medical University sent a letter to class-leaders that they should conduct preventive conversations with fellow students explaining why they should not cooperate with independent youth organisations.
In the letter, three independent organisations, the Centre for Development of Students’ Initiatives, the Brotherhood of Organisers of Student Self-government and the Students’ Council were called illegal. However, all of them are actually registered in Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities also create fake structures to replace independent youth organisations. As an example, in 2015 the authorities set up a Student Council under the Ministry of Education, which may seem solid, but in practise has no influence. The Council includes representatives of all universities in Belarus, but its purpose remains unclear.
Making student government more genuine
Now is the best time for Belarus's international partners to encourage reform in Belarusian higher education, not only because of a thaw in relations between Belarus and the West but also because the authorities are working on a new code and want to show the European Union that they can introduce at least gradual changes. So far, the Belarusian government has tried to hide certain problems while continuing to restrict youth organisations and even expelling some students.
The new code should state directly that student government will be autonomous and free from guidance by university administration. Also, unions should obtain legal status, as this will allow them to obtain funding from outside the university.
However, even if the law changes, Belarusian authorities also need to change their behaviour towards student groups. Now that Belarus has become part of the Bologna Process, it should stop the persecution of independent youth organisations and student unions with whom they collaborate.
In 2015, the European Union invited Belarus to be part of the Bologna system, trusting that it would eventually implement reforms. Now it's time for Belarusian authorities to live up to their promises.