Nations in Transit - Belarus (2005)
|Publication Date||15 June 2005|
|Cite as||Freedom House, Nations in Transit - Belarus (2005), 15 June 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473aff06c.html [accessed 1 February 2015]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Status: Not Free
Private Sector as % of GNI: na
Life Expectancy: 69
Religious Groups: Eastern Orthodox (80 percent), other (20 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Byelorussian (81.2 percent), Russian (11.4 percent), Polish, Ukrainian, and other (7.4 percent)
|Judicial Framework and Independence||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||6.75|
The prospects for democratization faded in Belarus with the election of the country's first president, Alexander Lukashenka, in 1994. Amendments to the Constitution, adopted in a highly controversial referendum in 1996, fully institutionalized the system of unlimited presidential authority. International criticism of Lukashenka's antidemocratic policies was ignored. The Belarusian economy remains unreformed and extensively bureaucratized. However, the economy recently recorded sound growth owing to the economic upturn in neighboring countries, most of all Russia, and a large-scale economic crisis does not seem imminent. The government preserves social stability through welfare and industrial policies that provide the population with minimally acceptable standards of living and full employment.
The referendum on lifting term limits that would bar Lukashenka from running for president defined the Belarusian political agenda in 2004. The referendum had been widely expected since Lukashenka's reelection in 2001; however, he abstained from declaring it until September 7,2004, when he announced that the vote would be held concurrently with the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 17. The decline of the president's popularity in 2002-2003 did not create a favorable environment for the ballot immediately after the presidential elections. This situation wasn't helped by the standoff in Russia-Belarus relations over economic matters and, reportedly, President Vladimir Putin's alleged opposition to Lukashenka's plans to extend his stay in office.
Lukashenka responded to these domestic and external challenges in 2004 by continuing to tighten his grip on power and cracking down on the opposition, civil society, and independent press. At the same time, improvements in the economy and efforts to exploit growing anti-Russian sentiment in the country helped to partially restore the president's popularity. Lukashenka also exploited the timing of the Beslan tragedy in Russia to announce the referendum on presidential term limits and contrast stability under his rule with Russia's apparent chaos.
National Democratic Governance. Although the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus proclaims the country to be "a unitary, democratic, social state based on the rule of law," in reality the government is based on unlimited presidential authority. The president is in full control of the cabinet, the legislature, and all defense and security structures. The centralized Belarusian economy remains unreformed and is considered among the most repressive in the world. The long anticipated referendum on lifting term limits for the presidency was carried out on October 17,2004, concurrently with the parliamentary elections, and eliminated the last legal restrictions on presidential authority. Attempts to campaign for a vote against the referendum were met with repression, and no basic conditions for a free and fair vote were provided. According to official data, 79 percent of all registered voters said yes to the question proposed by Lukashenka. Meanwhile, independent exit polls confirmed that the referendum would have been lost by Lukashenka had the vote been counted fairly. Belarus's rating for national democratic governance is 6.75. No major democratic institutions or practices are in place in Belarus, and those remaining, such as formally competitive elections or referendums, exist largely as window dressing.
Electoral Process. The parliamentary elections carried out on October 17 concurrently with the referendum ended with pro-government candidates taking all seats in the lower house of the Parliament with no opposition candidate elected. A weak parliamentary opposition consisting of fewer than 10 out of 110 members of the lower house was thus eliminated. No basic conditions were created for a free and fair vote. Opposition candidates were denied registration en masse; some who did run were brought to court in the aftermath of the vote for slandering the authorities or had to quit their jobs. Belarus's rating for electoral process is lowered from 6.75 to 7.00 owing to the executive branch's increasing control over the electoral process, which has tightened to the point where elections have ultimately ceased to play a role in allowing citizens to elect and change the government.
Civil Society. The independent civic sector has been continuously squeezed out of existence by the authorities, with the closure of 56 high-profile nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in 2003-2004 and the denial of registration to more than 90 percent of newly formed organizations during the same period. The attack on academic freedom unleashed by the announcement of a new state ideology in 2003 reached new heights with the closure of the European Humanities University in July. Belarus's rating for civil society remains unchanged at 6.75. Although the condition of an authentic nongovernmental sector worsened substantially in 2004, the commitment of NGO activists to continue work under unfavorable circumstances prevents the complete extinction of civil society in Belarus.
Independent Media. Publication of several leading independent newspapers was suspended before the parliamentary and referendum campaign. State-owned media showed little respect for expressing diverse opinion in advance of the vote, while continuing to attack the opposition, international organizations, diplomatic representatives, and foreign governments. Independent journalists continued to be harassed with lawsuits, whereas deportation and detainment of foreign journalists are already customary. The severe beating of reporters in sight of opposition protests and particularly the murder of leading independent journalist Veranika Charkasava on October 20 highlighted the dangers faced by independent reporters in Belarus. Belarus's rating for independent media remains unchanged at 6.75. Although the condition of independent media worsened substantially in 2004, a small network of printed press uncontrolled by the government continues to provide alternative information for a limited segment of Belarusian society.
Local Democratic Governance. Local self-government is nonexistent in Belarus, as municipal authorities continue to be fully subordinated to the central government. Heads of regional administration are appointed by the president, and local councils have limited responsibilities. Activities of the few independent councilpersons elected in 2003 are frequently sabotaged by the executive authorities. Belarus's rating for local democratic governance is 6.50 owing to the overcentralized, top-down administrative structure, which provides little room at the grassroots level, though local politics still remains a small outlet for political pluralism in the country.
Judicial Framework and Independence. The arrest and continuing imprisonment of opposition leader Mikhail Marynich and a highly biased investigation and sentence for regional union activists and publishers Valery Levaneuski and Alexander Vasilieu highlight the role of the judiciary as subordinate to the presidency. Opposition activists, civil society leaders, and independent journalists who appeal the authorities' arbitrary decisions rarely prevail. Severe beatings of protesters at mass events have occurred without investigation by the authorities. Property disputes, especially when challenging the interests of the state, are subject to administrative pressure from the highest levels. Belarus's rating for judicial framework and independence is 6.75.
Corruption. Belarus's downward slide in corruption ratings by independent surveys continued in 2004. The arrest and imprisonment of two government officials on corruption charges in February was not followed by a reorganization of the respective agencies in order to improve transparency and increase accountability. Meanwhile, the accountability of the government was further compromised by the presidential decree that made "top-secret" a large area of data pertaining to governmental operations. Belarus's rating for corruption is lowered from 5.75 to 6.00 owing to the failure of top leadership to effectively address the issues of government transparency amid increasing evidence of the serious problems related to corruption in the country.
Outlook for 2005. With presidential authority fully consolidated, President Lukashenka is set to proceed with eliminating the last remaining sources of political and civil resistance. The political opposition may become the focus of a new round of attacks in advance of the 2006 presidential elections. As it is highly unlikely that the currently favorable economic conditions will change in the short run, Lukashenka's popularity will continue to grow based on this implicit social contract with the population. The successful democratic revolution in Ukraine alerted the Belarus authorities, motivating them to act preemptively to eliminate the threat of a regime change. The prospect for political change in Belarus remains remote, and it is not likely to materialize without increased popular discontent with the government, intensified and coordinated international pressure, and a decline in the internal coherence of the regime.
National Governance (Score: 6.75)
Article 1 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus proclaims the country to be "a unitary, democratic, social state based on the rule of law." In reality, the government is based on the unlimited authority of the president, who is in full control of the cabinet and dominates the legislative process. Article 137 of the Constitution gives priority to presidential decrees over laws adopted by the National Assembly, and the assembly's bicameral composition enforces its subordination to the president. While the lower House of Representatives is elected on a single-member constituency basis, the upper Council of the Republic is appointed by regional assemblies of local councils, with the president appointing 8 of its 64 members.
The National Assembly has extremely limited powers and virtually no control over the state budget, which can be amended by presidential decree. The Presidential Department of Affairs (PDA) is responsible for the financial and material resources of the Parliament, which lacks control even over its own internal finances and wages. Only a small part of lawmaking is carried out in the Parliament. The National Center for Legislative Activities an agency responsible for the preparation of bills is also subordinate to the president.
Texts of major legislation are available to the public in printed and free Internet versions. However, no rules exist for disclosing the budgets of the central and local governments. The decree On the List of Data Representing State Secrets in the Republic of Belarus, signed by President Alexander Lukashenka on April 12, extended the range of classified information to data on international treaties, military and defense spending, information about state-sponsored research and development programs, and so on. There is no specific regulation authorizing the Parliament to make its records public. Likewise, citizens have no opportunity to view their representatives' voting record.
In 2004, the constitutional referendum on lifting presidential term limits opened the possibility for a lifelong presidency for Lukashenka. In his televised address to the nation on September 7, Lukashenka proposed one question for the plebiscite: "Do you allow the first president of the Republic of Belarus, Alexander Ryhoravich Lukashenka, to participate as a candidate in presidential elections, and do you approve of the first part of Article 81 of the Constitution of Belarus to be worded in the following way: 'The president shall be elected for five years directly by the people of the Republic of Belarus on the basis of a universal, free, equal, and direct election by secret ballot'?"
The question contradicted the electoral code, which forbids carrying out referendums on issues regarding the election of the president (Article 112). The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe declared that the question did not correspond to European standards, as it "mixes illegal privilege for one person with an issue of a greater, general importance." The Ministry of Justice and the Constitutional Court, however, endorsed the referendum and declared that the question did not contradict the law.
The smallest sign of protest against the referendum resulted in fines, imprisonment, arbitrary searches, break-ins, and hit-and-run attacks. Lukashenka gave his official blessing to an intimidation campaign, and harassment intensified as the vote drew nearer. Arrests and searches of people distributing anti-referendum leaflets and staging pickets took place almost daily before the vote. Allegations of vote fraud were widespread and well documented.
According to the Central Election Commission, 90 percent of eligible voters took part in the referendum and elections; 79 percent answered yes to the question. However, exit polls conducted by the Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys Center showed that only 48.6 percent answered yes in the referendum. These numbers were confirmed in polling conducted by the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies (IISEPS), in which only 49 percent of respondents declared a yes vote. Nevertheless, the public was not informed about the real results of the referendum, and the overall perception that Lukashenka could win any ballot remained unchallenged. In response to the IISEPS poll, the Ministry of Justice attempted to close down the organization for "numerous violations," reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), while the institute's deputy director, Alexander Sasnou, had his apartment searched by the KGB.
Heritage Foundation rates the Belarusian economy among the most repressive in the world. While the government does pursue relatively prudent macroeconomic policies and inflation is decreasing steadily, the private sector and domestic competition are systematically stifled in favor of outdated and largely unprofitable Soviet-style industries. Bureaucratization of the economy is an important tool of political control. Since the government controls approximately 80 percent of all assets, it employs the vast majority of Belarusians. The switch from a permanent employment system in public companies and institutions to a contract system was finalized in 2004. As nearly all employees have to renew their contracts each year, political disloyalty is easily punished. Moreover, presidential directive number one, On Strengthening Discipline and Order, proclaimed on March 11,2004, provided a wide range of pretexts for firing anyone from a public job, including for poorly concealed political reasons.
Several factors contribute to the stability of the Lukashenka regime. First, all power is concentrated in the hands of the president and there is little immediate threat to his position. Second, there are no significant interethnic or inter-religious tensions inside the country; neither are there territorial disputes with neighboring states. Third, the government enjoys continuous support from elderly and rural constituencies who favor state paternalism and Soviet-style security and stability. The president is keen on maintaining public support through redistribution of incomes and by engaging in carefully staged public relations campaigns.
Despite this stability, societal opposition to the government is sizable, reflecting both dissatisfaction with the regime's performance and disapproval of its antidemocratic policies. For example, in the opinion poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Foundation in August 2004,60 percent of respondents declared they would vote in upcoming elections for someone who would change the current political course, whereas 22 percent declared they would vote for the status quo. Likewise, according to a poll carried out by the sociological laboratory NOVAK in August 2004,55 percent of the respondents believed that the upcoming parliamentary elections would not be free and fair.
Belarus's defense and security structures are controlled by the presidency. Law enforcement agencies (such as the KGB, Interior Ministry, Office of the Prosecutor, State Control Committee, and Security Council) grew in size and influence over the last decade and enhanced their role in virtually all spheres of public life. Meeting with security forces in October, the president publicly called them to engage in a fight with the opposition, whom he called "the outcasts," reported RFE/RL.
Electoral Process (Score: 7.00)
Since the consolidation of presidential authority in a 1996 referendum, representative institutions in Belarus have become largely ceremonial bodies that rubber-stamp the policies made at the top of the vertical power structure. Likewise, elections have turned into exercises that validate Lukashenka's political dominance.
The current electoral code was adopted in February 2000 and, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), "fails to provide for democratic elections." The code does not provide election commissions with multiparty representation and independence. It also lacks provision for a sufficient level of transparency at all stages of the electoral process, for guarantees against vote rigging during early voting, and for a uniform appeals process for the decisions of election commissions. Last, the code's regulations stifle campaigning and freedom of speech.
An attempt to democratize the electoral legislation by three outgoing members of the House of Representatives (Valery Fralou, Siarhej Skrabets, and Uladzimir Parfenovich) in May and June 2004 was blocked by a house majority. The members of Parliament declared a hunger strike in protest. Initially, this unconventional (for Belarus) form of political protest caught the authorities unprepared. However, when the strikers announced they would end the protest early, they were ridiculed by the official media and Lukashenka.
The last presidential elections, held in September 2001, resulted in a resounding victory for Lukashenka. According to official results, he won 75 percent of the vote against 15 percent cast for the opposition candidate, Uladzimir Hancharyk, and 2 percent for the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Siarhej Hajdukevich. Official turnout was 83 percent. The opposition refused to accept the official results, complaining about the absence of opposition representation on election commissions, biased coverage of the campaign in the official media, imbalanced conditions for campaigning, harassment of opposition activists, and gross tabulation violations. The OSCE's limited election observation mission in Belarus declared that the "2001 presidential election process failed to meet OSCE commitment for democratic elections."
The most recent parliamentary elections took place on October 17,2004. Unlike the previous elections, these were not boycotted by the opposition, except for the Conservative Christian Party Belarusian Popular Front (CCP-BPF), which is a party that split from the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) in 1999 to follow ousted leader Zianon Pazniak. Failing to form a united front, a total of four opposition coalitions announced their intentions to run: the Popular Coalition Five Plus, the European Coalition Free Belarus, the Young Belarus Coalition, and the Respublika group of parliamentary opposition deputies.
In his annual address to the National Assembly in April, Lukashenka made clear his intention to control the election process and dictate the composition of the Parliament. He specifically stated that the elections must be completed in one round, stressed that the new legislature should not include "businessmen, merchants, and capitalists," and set the quota for women in the national legislature at 30-40 percent.
The opposition was blocked at all stages of the campaign. For example, out of 328 opposition representatives who applied for membership on election commissions, only 28 applications, or less than 0.2 percent of the total of 1,600 members of the commissions nationwide, were granted, according to the OCSE. Likewise, among the leading opposition parties, only 24 out of 59 candidates of the United Civil Party (UCP) were registered, as were only 32 out of 54 candidates from the BPF. The grounds on which some of the rejections were made reflected an inconsistent application of complex regulations. In the end, 10 out of 110 constituencies were left with just one candidate running.
Candidates representing the government were registered problem-free and enjoyed the advantage of firsthand access to the media and public institutions. Meanwhile, several opposition candidates lost jobs or were forced to abandon their university studies after deciding to run. Others were subjected to raids on their homes, undercover police surveillance, or hit-and-run attacks. Even though the law guarantees leaflets for registered candidates, several independent printing houses were threatened with revocation of their licenses for printing leaflets of the opposition candidates. Some opposition candidates had their leaflets censored to remove denunciations of the referendum, and others lost their registration. Opposition candidates were also denied legally guaranteed access to the media, and their campaign rallies were routinely banned.
Voter registration rolls for both the referendum and parliamentary elections were reduced by some 380,000 persons from the 2001 presidential elections, despite the fact that no comparable decline in the voting age population had occurred, according to the Charter-97 Internet newspaper. Many voters found themselves expelled from the rolls, and some were not written in even after complaining. In practice, a lower number of registered voters meant that a smaller number of votes were required to pass the 50 percent threshold of registered voters for the referendum.
According to the electoral code, early voting begins five days before the elections for those who cannot vote on election day. In practice, early voting has become compulsory for students and public sector employees in the countryside, presumably because the process is almost impossible to observe. In October 2004, reports of this practice were again widespread. Almost 20 percent of voters cast their ballots early, and observers reported massive fraud such as multiple voting and ballot stuffing.
Most electoral observers were not allowed to directly watch the vote count, as complaints of irregularities were met with the expulsion of around 400 observers nationwide. Uta Zapf, head of the Belarus working group in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, was twice evicted from polling stations. According to the OSCE observation mission, irregularities marred vote counts at 60 percent of the polling stations where it placed observers.
According to the Central Election Commission, the elections were valid in 109 constituencies out of 110, with 108 deputies elected, one runoff, and one election invalidated. Of the 108 deputies elected to constituencies in the first round, not a single opposition candidate won a place in the House of Representatives. The runoff election was carried out one week later, with the by-election in the invalidated constituency slated for 2005. All of the declared winners, which included eight from the Communist Party of Byelorussia, three from the Agrarian Party, and one from the LDP (an analogue of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party in Russia), were pro-government and supported the president. As with the referendum results, the election result data were questioned by the opposition and condemned by international organizations.
Elections to the upper house of the Parliament, the Council of the Republic, took place on November 2004, with the assemblies of local councils voting to fill a total of 56 seats, or 8 per region. All candidates ran unopposed. Several local councilpersons representing the opposition were not included in the list of electors because they "could not be contacted" by the regional authorities, reported RFE/RL.
With the adoption of a sharply amended Constitution in 1996, party development came to a standstill in Belarus. Pro-presidential parties continued as puppet groups whose only mission was to provide a pluralistic facade for the regime. Opposition parties were completely marginalized. The president does not have his own political party, and his insistence on staying aloof from party politics may be explained by his populist claim to represent "the people, not the parties."
After the reregistration of political parties in 1999, only 18 out of 43 remained. Eleven were opposition parties, 6 supported the regime, and 1 was neutral. Party membership is low (rarely exceeding 2,000 to 3,000 members), and affiliation with an opposition party can result in various problems for individuals working in government, education, or private business. Opposition party politics are notorious for personal rivalries among party leaders, the near absence of leadership rotation, and the inability of parties to unite behind common candidates.
Opposition parties are under constant pressure from the Lukashenka regime. The Belarusian Labor Party (BLP) was disbanded by the Supreme Court in July 2004 for failing to have a legal address (that is, an address where the office is officially located and correspondence is sent and received). In fact, the BLP lost its office space in 2003 when it was evicted from the Federation of Trade Unions building. The Ministry of Justice twice refused in 2004 to register the new Freedom and Progress Party. Several regional organizations of opposition parties also lost their registration for failure to have a legal address and could not place candidates in the 2004 parliamentary elections.
Indeed, on October 18 the Ministry of Justice announced that all local chapters of political parties must reregister to confirm their compliance with rules that forbid having offices in residential apartments. As opposition parties have almost no chance to rent state-owned office space, this rule may cause the near complete elimination of local party branches. Although a 2004 amendment to the Law on Political Parties prohibited their closure during the election campaign, independent analyst Aleh Bahutski said in Chapter-97 that the move was really intended to "cover up the repression against the parties."
Despite these numerous challenges, there is evidence that the opposition is picking up public support. According to a Gallup exit poll, 32 percent of Belarusians who revealed how they voted in the parliamentary elections said they voted for a pro-democratic candidate from Five Plus, European Coalition, or Respublika. Since the opposition candidates ran in only 75 of 110 constituencies, opposition support could have been as high as 40 percent, an excellent result given a nearly complete shutdown of independent opinion during the campaign.
Paradoxically, the referendum could have helped the opposition build public support, as the voters who turned down the Lukashenka's proposal were naturally inclined to search for a candidate opposing the president. Yet the opposition failed to convert these votes into a political advantage. The atmosphere of fear and intimidation definitely served to distract the population from defending their votes on the streets. Moreover, as the report of the Slovak Institute for Civic Diplomacy/Pontis Foundation stressed, "The majority of Belarusian citizens is still waiting for signals that the democratic opposition is able to deal with the economic, political, and social problems of the population, not only to criticize Lukashenka. There is still no real trust between citizens and the democratic opposition."
Civil Society (Score: 6.75)
The civil society sector in Belarus comprises a network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) run by opposition individuals who are effectively denied active participation in political life; nonpartisan NGOs such as humanitarian aid organizations; and puppet NGOs that act as mouthpieces for official propaganda and are subsidized directly by the state. More than 2,200 NGOs were officially registered with the Ministry of Justice as of January 1,2004, including 52 national trade unions and 2,214 public associations. Half of these are located in the capital. Overall, volunteerism is low owing to the lack of a tradition of public participation, an extremely low level of awareness about NGO work, and fear of problems that might accompany membership in an "opposition" NGO.
The existing Law on Public Associations does not provide adequate protection for civil society rights. Rules for NGO registration are complicated, and a variety of pretexts can be used to issue official warnings. Two warnings can result in the closure of an organization. In 2003, the Ministry of Justice issued 810 written warnings to NGOs, six times more than in 2002, reported the Belarusian Assembly of Democratic NGOs. New amendments to the Law on Public Associations adopted by the House of Representatives on June 30 introduced a new procedure for a six-month suspension of NGOs and stipulated that NGOs could now be closed down immediately once they are found violating rules for using foreign assistance.
For most NGOs, foreign grants remain the only source of financial support. Donations are not tax-exempt, and NGOs must pay heavy taxes if they choose to operate legally. This puts NGOs under intense scrutiny from tax authorities and, recently, the KGB. Domestic sponsorship is almost nonexistent since the private sector is small and businesses tend to avoid an association with the opposition. Government-controlled organizations attract financial aid from domestic and foreign-owned businesses that want to confirm their positive stance toward the authorities.
The sphere in which independent NGOs can operate effectively has been narrowed by the government since the last presidential elections. The State Commission for Registration and Reregistration of Public Organizations and Political Parties was established in 2001 to give advice to the Ministry of Justice on the desirability of registering certain NGOs or parties. The commission is stocked with the president's close associates, all known for their hard-line views. As a result, out of 1,464 organizations that submitted documents for registration in 2003, only 94 were registered. Several public organizations were denied registration in 2004 because some of their founders were members of the opposition.
In 2003-2004,56 NGOs were closed down by the authorities, mostly for technical reasons, such as incorrectly designed official forms used by organizations or a nonlegal office address, according to Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta. Forty-two organizations have been forced to self-liquidate following pressure from the Ministry of Justice and tax authorities. This campaign was targeted against the strongest and most internationally connected NGOs, such as human rights organizations, regional resource centers providing assistance to smaller NGOs, and independent research institutions. It had profound effects on the civil society sector. Thus, only one human rights group, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC), remained officially registered as of September 1,2004.
BHC itself was attacked in January 2004 when the Maskouski District Tax and Revenue Office in Minsk ruled that the organization should pay more than US$170,000 to the state in unpaid tax liabilities for the income it received abroad. The decision was overruled, as BHC proved that the money was received within projects administered by European Union (EU) Technical Assistance programs, which, according to the treaty between the EU and Belarus, was tax-exempt. The organization was once again attacked by the Ministry of Justice on September 16 for its appeal to the Constitutional Court to consider the constitutionality of the referendum. The Ministry of Justice considered this appeal to be "antistate activity," reported Chapter-97.
Think tanks and research-oriented NGOs recently became a new target for attack, presumably because these groups provide information and expert analysis to the West and give refuge to high-profile intellectuals who fall out of favor with the authorities. The organizations closed down in 2004 include the Center for Constitutionalism and Comparative Legal Studies and the International Institute for Political Studies. In September, the Ministry of Justice initiated a court proceeding to close down IISEPS. Liquidation of NGOs seriously disorganized the civil society sector but did not end its existence. Outlawed organizations continued working underground and on the premises of still registered ones. However, "underground" NGOs had few opportunities to execute their missions effectively.
The international contacts of Belarusian NGOs are curtailed through visa denial and the deportation of representatives of Western nonprofit organizations. Agnieszka Komorowska, manager of the Belarus program at the Warsaw-based Stefan Batory Foundation; Alan Flowers, a British national who was engaged in developing contacts between Belarusian and international NGOs; and Helmut Kurt, head of the regional bureau of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, were all denied entrance to Belarus in 2004.
The consolidation of political control over the education system continued in 2004. An order by Minister of Education Anatol Radzkou (On Measures to Strengthen the Ideological Work at the Education Establishments) forbade leaves of absence for students to travel abroad for study, demanded withdrawal of unauthorized textbooks and academic publications from the university libraries, and curtailed international contacts with Western partners. This order reflects a broader government policy to "protect" the younger generation from foreign influences. For example, in November President Lukashenka ordered the curtailment of programs for children affected by the Chernobyl disaster, since in his view travel abroad leads to the spread of "Western consumerism," as noted on the president's official Web site.
Courses on the new state ideology were introduced at secondary and higher education institutions, alongside other propaganda-filled courses, such as the Role of the Belarus People in the Great Patriotic War. Control over conferring academic degrees was also tightened to ensure the compliance of dissertations with the "state ideology." New regulations issued by the president allow revocation of advanced academic degrees once professors are found guilty of "improper behavior," such as participating in opposition rallies. The Ministry of Education can also revoke a higher education diploma if a graduate refuses to take a mandatory work assignment after graduation.
The closure in 2004 of the Minsk-based European Humanities University (EHU) eliminated the last stronghold of Western-style higher education in Belarus. EHU was founded in 1991 as a private institution and defined as its mission "to educate the new generation of young professionals capable of leading Belarus on its way toward civil society based on the values of European civilization." The university had extensive international contacts and donor support and annually invited several dozen foreign professors. EHU was first attacked on January 21,2004, when its rector, Anatoly Mikhailov, was ordered to resign by the Ministry of Education.
On July 21, after six months of conflict, the university was ordered out of its premises, which were rented from the state, and its license was annulled five days later on the grounds that it did not have premises to continue teaching. EHU students were promised transfers to other universities, but since EHU programs differed substantially from those in state schools, many were forced to take a leave of absence. As a result, a number of students had to leave the country, taking offers of support from Western, Central European, and Russian universities.
Lukashenka himself admitted that EHU's determination to train Europe-oriented elite was the reason for its shutdown. He also acknowledged that the closure of the Belarusian National Humanities Lyceum in 2003 was politically motivated, as the students at this institution, in his words, were "crippled by the opposition."
Independent unions also remained under pressure. In May, regional branches of the Free Union of Belarus were denied reregistration in the city of Navapolatsk. The former head of the Belarusian Union of Air Traffic Controllers (banned in 2003) was fired from his position at the air traffic control center after he testified before the International Labor Organization about the violation of labor rights in Belarus. In August 2004, the Ministry of Justice proposed amendments to the Law on Trade Unions that would increase minimum union membership from 500 to 30,000 members. In practice, this would wipe out all unions except for the government-controlled federation.
Independent Media (Score: 6.75)
In 2004, Freedom House ranked Belarus among countries with the lowest respect for freedom of speech. Only Turkmenistan received a lower ranking among the former USSR countries. Although Article 33 of the Constitution provides guarantees for freedom of speech, this civil right is subject to systematic violations. The Ministry of Information controls the licensing of media and effectively acts as a tool of repression against independent press that are critical of the government. Licenses can be withheld or revoked at the whim of the committee or on direct orders from the president. Two warnings received from the ministry within a year are sufficient to close down a newspaper. Independent journalists are subject to official harassment and become victims of arbitrary lawsuits under Article 367 (slander against the president), Article 368 (insulting the president), and Article 369 (insulting government officials) of the criminal code. These stipulate large fines and prison sentences for journalists who are found guilty.
State companies heavily dominate the publication and distribution of newspapers. State-run presses routinely refuse to publish materials critical of the authorities, and Belsajuzdruk, the state press distribution network, can refuse distribution of the independent press. Alternative sources of distribution (such as supermarkets or bookstores) exist, but they are hardly reliable and easily eliminated. State-owned media are extensively subsidized, whereas independent media are forced to shoulder high taxes and fees on printing and distribution. The independent press depends heavily on foreign assistance because of discriminatory pricing at state printing houses and difficulties in attracting advertisements from state-owned companies.
Veranika Charkasava, a veteran independent journalist, was murdered on October 20 in unknown circumstances. The cruel, ceremonial nature of the stabbing pointed to Satanist sects, whose activities Charkasava had investigated. Charkasava also investigated politically sensitive topics, such as KGB activities and arms trading with Arab states. The police were slow to accept other criminal scenarios beyond the domestic violence explanation, which it chose to consider initially, and as of the end of October no suspects had been identified.
Siarhej Antroshchanka, a business tycoon in control of several newspapers loyal to the government, used a loophole in the Law on Trademarks in December 2003 to acquire the copyright to the title Narodnaja Volia (already in use by the leading independent daily) four days before a new law forbade registering the titles of existing publications. (The independent newspaper is officially registered; however, it had not registered its title as a trademark.) Antroshchanka subsequently sued Narodnaja Volia, demanding compensation of 16 million Belarusian rubles (US$7,500) for "illegal use of the registered trademark." On August 6, the state printing house refused to publish Narodnaja Volia until the suit was paid in full. Antroshchanka put forward a new libel suit against Narodnaja Volia on September 17, this time demanding compensation of 1.5 million Belarusian rubles (US$700) for slandering him. Antroshchanka was subsequently awarded a smaller amount.
Foreign journalists critical of the government are not welcomed in Belarus. Mikhail Padaliak, a journalist from the newspaper Vremya, was deported by the KGB on June 21 for slandering the state and calling for the destabilization of the country. Padaliak, a Ukrainian national, lived in Belarus for 15 years with his wife and child (who are Belarusian citizens) but was routinely denied citizenship. Deportation forcibly separated him from his family. Padaliak is famous for writing articles on the conflicts inside Lukashenka's inner circle. The bureau of the Russian state TV channel RTR was expelled from Belarus for "inadequate" reporting about the opposition rally that took place on July 21 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Lukashenka's rule. French channel TF-1 was stripped of accreditation in November after filming a documentary about the Zubr opposition movement.
At the local level, the state-controlled regional newspapers remain the most important source of printed information on regional events. Regional independent newspapers do exist, and in some of the regions they hold a significant share of the information market. However, these editions are often pressured by the authorities, and many were suspended by the Ministry of Information or forced to go out of print. Smaller publications with a circulation of up to 300 copies exist in many provincial towns, as they do not need to be registered.
In anticipation of the parliamentary elections and the referendum, the independent press was subjected to renewed pressure. Several newspapers were suspended on charges varying from slandering the president to an inability to locate the editorial boards at registered legal addresses. These included Vremya, a recently launched publication that immediately gained popularity for sharp, sometimes controversial reporting; and Navinki, a satirical paper that had already been suspended in 2003. The newspaper Nedelya, which began publishing in September, was suspended after the first issue appeared for sale. Navinki's editor Paval Kanavalchyk was beaten on the street by unknowns on October 25. Most of the leading independent newspapers approached the election campaign with several warnings from the Ministry of Information (enough to be closed down), and their coverage of the campaign was conspicuously constrained, amounting to self-censorship.
Electronic media in Belarus are completely dominated by the state. Belarus currently has four national television channels. All-National Television (ONT), Capital TV, and Lad fill the bulk of their airtime with rebroadcasts of Russian TV networks. Neither of the state channels offers alternative views on political issues, and all channels report on domestic and international affairs in a manner acceptable to the government. The channels differ mostly in the extent to which their broadcasts are filled with antiopposition messages. The First National Channel (BT-1) is the undisputed leader. ONT and Capital TV routinely rebroadcast BT-1 programs devoted to praising the president and attacking the opposition. Lad, which remains relatively politics-free, is the only remaining channel with a fair amount of airtime in the Belarusian language.
Media attacks on the opposition are common. For example, the documentary Road to Nowhere, shown by BT-1 on May 12, accused the opposition of taking money from Russia's business circles, imitating Nazi political tactics, and even planning to assassinate top figures in Lukashenka's entourage. On April 26, BT-1 announced that the opposition party BPF would curtail the Chernobyl assistance program once it came to power; in actuality, the BPF has raised concerns about the insufficient amount of attention given to Chernobyl problems throughout its existence, from the Soviet period to Lukashenka. The BPF filed a libel suit against the creators of the program in the Pershamajski District Court in Minsk, but the case was rejected.
Russian electronic media broadcasts have been restricted since 2002 (not from the reversal of Russification, which actually progressed during the regime-controlled media, but from the suppression of alternative information and opinion). Belarusian media surpassed Russian media in 2003-2004 as a primary source of information about domestic and foreign events for the majority of Belarusians. As a result, Russian media can no longer balance the official propaganda. This became visible in February, when Belarusian and Russian TV stations presented different explanations for the halt of gas supplies to Belarus. Independent polls showed that public opinion strongly backed Lukashenka's version that this was an attack on the country's sovereignty, and his popularity rose. Russian TV channels may be turned off at any time once they broadcast criticism of the Belarusian authorities. In April, the RTR channel was switched off for two nights in a row to avoid broadcasts of analytical programs criticizing Lukashenka. The airwaves of Russian networks were used in September to broadcast antiopposition propaganda (presumably in an attempt to reach out to viewers who do not watch official TV).
The Ministry of Information tightened control over FM radio broadcasting in 2004. In July, all FM stations received orders to withdraw the broadcasting of rock and folk groups that took part in the opposition rally on July 21. The order affected some of the most popular Belarusian-language groups and musicians. In November 2004, the Ministry of Information issued a directive requiring that 75 percent of broadcasts be filled with Belarusian music. Unfortunately, this did not have the effect of reinstating the suspended groups; rather, the broadcasts were filled with singers who could claim at least distant Belarusian heritage.
Elimination of the Belarusian language from the media continued in 2004 regardless of its constitutional status as the official state language. In April, the Ministry of Information ceased publication of the magazine Biarozka, the last state-run children's magazine printed in Belarusian. In November, FM radio stations refused to take messages in Belarusian from listeners participating in the "Storm FM" campaign (a grassroots initiative aimed at increasing the presence of Belarusian in the media) or to fulfill their requests for Belarusian-language music on the air.
The September 7 announcement of the referendum was followed by an unbridled pro-Lukashenka campaign in the state-owned press. Pro-referendum messages were broadcast every half hour on nationwide channels. As much as 74 percent of total news coverage was dedicated to Lukashenka, according to independent reports. The media failed to provide equal ground for an unbiased review of the referendum. Elena Rabvetskaja, editor in chief of the Hrodna-based Birzha Informatsii, was fined for an editorial in which she described the referendum as a "challenge to the society." Several Hrodna-based journalists staged an unauthorized picket protesting the sentence on October 4 and faced charges afterward. One of the protesters, Paval Mazhejka, a journalist convicted in 2002 to forced labor, was given a week in jail. Five newspapers were suspended nationwide during the referendum campaign. The World Association of Newspapers and the World Forum of Newspapers, Paris-based press freedom defense NGOs, declared that after so many newspapers had been attacked, before and during the campaign, the upcoming elections "cannot be trusted," reported the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
During the campaign, state channels stepped up attacks on the opposition, accusing it of plotting acts of terrorism, and confronted Western diplomatic representations in Belarus for, among other things, engaging in the drug trade and in pedophilia. Coverage of the parliamentary elections was pursued in a similar fashion. According to press monitoring by the Belarusian Association of Journalists, "State media became instruments of propaganda of pro-government candidates." Public messages explaining voting procedures did not show how to vote against the suggested question, limiting instructions to the yes vote. The Central Election Commission refused to consider complaints. "Let us face it: Media is the tool of ideology, and it would be stupid if state channels campaigned against the referendum," declared Central Election Commission head Lidia Ermoshina.
Belarusian authorities tried to block critical messages from abroad during the campaign. The Belarus embassy in Moscow issued a statement on September 23 condemning Russian media for offering alternative views on the referendum. Similar statements were issued after the referendum against papers that informed about the police crackdown on street protests. International journalists detained before or on election day included Hanna Garasimowicz from Poland, Miroslav Karas from the Czech Republic, and a crew of the Polish TV Channel 1. Iryna Khalip, a Belarusian journalist frequently appearing in the Russian press, was threatened with criminal charges for her articles alleging vote rigging.
On October 17, journalist Pavel Sheremet, an outspoken critic of Lukashenka, was beaten by skinheads (who could have been plainclothes agents) in Minsk and hospitalized with a skull injury. The police interpreted the incident as an act of hooliganism by Sheremet and launched criminal proceedings against him; however, the case was closed before the court hearing. Russian TV journalists Konstantin Morozov of NTV and Vladimir Kostin of REN-TV, together with the RL journalist Jury Svirko, were beaten while filming the police crackdown on the anti-referendum protests on October 19. Russian journalists were subsequently banned from transmitting footage from these demonstrations to Russian audiences. NTV broadcasting was effectively shut out for several days after October 17 while it aired footage of beatings.
Access to independent Internet sites posting claims of vote rigging was blocked for most of October 17. Several online editions, such as the Internet newspaper naviny.by, had their phones turned off for the day. Amendments to the Law on Mass Media considered by the House of Representatives in November 2004 foresaw obligatory registration of Internet editions, just as for ordinary newspapers; failure to register may result in blocked Web sites, which is technically achievable given the government monopoly on Internet service. The House of Representatives is likely to pass these amendments in April 2005.
Local Governance (Score: 6.50)
Belarus has three levels of local government: regional, district, and village or (in urban areas) township. Upper-level administrations direct and coordinate the work of lower levels. The total number of local governments is approximately 1,700. The Constitution does not separate local government from state authority. Heads of regional administrations are appointed by the president and are directly subordinated to him by law. Local councils are popularly elected but have no control over the executive bodies and are generally window dressing.
Subnational governments have extensive responsibilities, including housing, social services, public security, and education. The Constitution establishes that local councils have exclusive decision-making rights in adopting regional programs of social and economic development, establishing local taxes and adopting budgets, managing communal property within limits established by law, and calling local referendums. Notwithstanding prerogatives, local governments have little control over their finances. Independent revenue sources account for only one tenth of local budgets. Village and township governments are particularly impotent since the territory they cover is generally smaller than the size of a basic production unit in the area, usually a collective farm whose head serves as the territory's de facto administrator. The collective farm system thus provides the real foundation of state authority in the countryside.
The last local elections, held in 2003, were largely alternative-free. For 24,000 seats on local councils, only 26,500 candidates were nominated. Up to two thirds of the opposition's initial nominees were denied registration, and it managed to secure only a minuscule representation in the election commissions. According to official sources, 73.4 percent of voters took part in the first round of the elections and early voting combined. One-fifth of the electorate voted early. Altogether, out of 23,275 deputies elected to councils on all levels, only 257 (or slightly more than 1 percent) represented political parties. Of this number, only 107 were representatives of opposition parties, and the rest represented pro-government parties, noted the Belarusian Association of Resource Centers in its Choice Through Elections analysis. Although opposition parties accused the authorities of rigging the vote, they had little success collecting evidence for the charges. The opposition-dominated Assembly of the Deputies of Local Councils created in October 2003 unites just 50 deputies.
Local authorities usually avoid cooperation with most local civil society groups. Their participation at nonpoliticized events organized by entrepreneurial associations, women's groups, and so forth is possible but often merely ceremonial. Local authorities must be responsive to independent groups in emergency situations, such as strikes and organized protests. (In 2004, a hunger strike by cabdrivers in Vaukavysk protesting the revocation of a private taxi company's license brought a restoration of the license.) At the same time, ideology departments of the local governments are responsible for guiding and overseeing the work of government-organized NGOs, such as the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, and take an active part in persecuting the "opposition" NGOs. The local press covers the activities of local authorities extensively. State press, however, enjoys privileged access to information and officials, and internal regulations in some district and regional committees and councils allow only the official press to have access to meetings and sessions. Local opposition deputies have problems organizing meetings with their voters and are often attacked by local government press and the executive authorities.
The rules of disclosure, oversight, and accountability at the local level do not differ from those that apply to the central government. In theory, state bodies are obliged to present nonclassified information, but the local authorities may deny access to information to independent journalists, NGOs, or local deputies. Independent local media face attacks from the executive authorities whenever they voice criticism of official decisions.
Judicial Framework and Independence (Score: 6.75)
Article 109 of the Constitution confers judicial power to the courts, and Article 110 stipulates that all judges shall be independent and any interference in the administration of justice is unlawful. However, the procedures for appointing judges give the president the upper hand. The president appoints 6 out of 12 members of the Constitutional Court; the remaining 6 are appointed by the Council of the Republic on his recommendation. The president also appoints the entire Supreme Court and Supreme Economic Court, as well as all military and district judges. The Constitution does not protect judges from voluntary removal during their tenure. No parliamentary approval is needed to remove judges from the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court; the president must simply "notify" the Council of the Republic. The institutional dependence of judges on the president is matched by their reliance on the executive branch for bonuses, promotion, and housing, which arguably makes them vulnerable to coercion.
Although the Constitution provides for basic human rights, including freedom of expression, association, religion, and business and property rights, these are not adequately protected in practice. Moreover, many existing laws (including the Law on Public Associations, the Law on Freedom of Religion, and the Law on Meetings, Rallies, Street Processions, and Pickets) significantly restrict the constitutional rights of citizens.
It is not entirely impossible to receive a fair trial in Belarus. However, legal procedures can be violated in politically sensitive cases. In January 2004, Iryna Makavetskaya, a journalist of Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, was denied the right to begin criminal proceedings against an individual who threatened her over the phone, even though the police had established his identity. In March 2004, the district court in Minsk rejected the appeal by Aleh Vouchak, an opposition and NGO activist, to start criminal proceedings against the man who attacked and beat him on the streets.
The courts routinely refused libel suits against the opposition and civil society activists criticized by the official media. Civil society activists do manage occasionally to annul the unlawful decisions of courts or tax authorities, but new retributive charges and recriminations may follow.
Mikhail Marynich, a former government minister and diplomat who switched to the opposition during the 2001 presidential election, was arrested by the KGB on April 26. He was initially suspected of illegally possessing classified government documents and two unregistered guns. The KGB also claimed that more than US$90,000 in cash seized from Marynich was directed to the opposition from Russia. According to the law, the KGB had one month to put forward formal charges against Marynich, but they postponed this and prolonged his detention for about half a year, even though the preliminary investigation refuted the charges and Marynich experienced severe heart problems while in jail. No action was taken in the case by the prosecution for four months, from June to October. The final charges against Marynich were put forward on November 5, including that of large-scale theft, which was not on the list in the beginning of the investigation. Marynich was sentenced to five years in jail on December 26 for stealing computers from the organization Business Initiative, which he heads. The computers were in fact donated by the U.S. embassy, and both the embassy and Business Initiative alleged no wrongdoing by Marynich.
Punishments against opposition activists have grown increasingly severe in 2004. Valery Levaneuski, head of the Hrodna-based Independent Union of Private Entrepreneurs, and his associate Alexander Vasilieu were sentenced to two years in prison on September 7 for "insulting the president" by distributing a leaflet saying that "someone takes vacations for public money in Austria." The sentence was based on the judge's perception rather than proven evidence that Levaneuski and Vasilieu actually meant Lukashenka or that they misrepresented the source from which his vacation was financed. In the past, such charges bore much milder sentences, up to two years of forced labor. Amnesty International declared Levaneuski and Vasilieu prisoners of conscience.
The Constitution prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. In practice, however, the rights of the convicted may be violated, and police and prison guards at times beat suspects and convicts. Opposition activists are routinely arrested and beaten for staging rallies and pickets and distributing literature. Around 60 individuals were arrested for staging an opposition rally in Minsk on July 21. Fifty more were rounded up by security services and taken out of town in police minivans, severely beaten, and robbed. In the aftermath of the October 17 election and referendum, street protests were dispersed with unprecedented cruelty. Anatol Liabedzka, head of the UCP, was rounded up by security troops during the rally on October 20, taken inside a restaurant, and beaten in front of TV cameras. Liabedzka suffered a severe concussion and kidney hematoma. No criminal procedure against his attackers was launched.
Confiscating property or freezing assets may be enforced in cases that have obvious political underpinnings or involve the interests of the bureaucracy. Arbitrary confiscation of goods at customs has grown into a state-sponsored business, as customs offices are obliged to provide, in the words of State Customs Committee head Alexander Shpileuski, "a steady and predictable increase of the customs' share in the total volume of the national revenues," reported Transitions Online. The appeals are rarely ruled on in a proper manner as, according to one judge involved, "nobody has the courage to make a decision that would reduce the state treasury's income by tens of thousands of dollars." Reporting on these practices, the international press called them "rubber-stamped daylight robbery."
On a positive note, the criminal code and criminal proceedings code of the Republic of Belarus were partially amended in 2003 to exclude some of the most notorious Soviet-era punitive practices. The amendments abolished the prison penalty for some minor crimes, lowered the minimum fines paid in court sentences, and introduced more lenient rules for parole. As the courts are controlled de facto by the executive authority, problems with nonenforcement generally do not occur.
Corruption (Score: 6.00)
Although Belarus remained above all other former Soviet republics in the 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International, its rating deteriorated dramatically from 51st place in 2003 to 71st in 2004. This continued its slide from 36th place in 2002. A rapid decline cannot be explained simply by a continuous spread of low-level and high-level corruption, although that appears to be the case. Another possible reason is a better understanding of the sources of corruption in Belarus by surveyors, as the institutions that most surveys assess (Parliament, political parties, and the media) either have little decision-making power or are fully blocked to outsiders by the government and hence appear to be relatively corruption-free.
Corruption is usually not acknowledged by the government except when top-ranking officials or former officials who switch to the opposition are put on show trials. It came as a shock, though, when Viktar Prus, deputy prosecutor-general of Belarus, declared to the Parliament in October that the volume of the shadow economy in Belarus probably hovers at around 17 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), or about US$3 billion. Prus specified that this number accounts for the amount of services sold by bureaucrats abusing their offices, reported Belorusskaya Gazeta.
Over-regulation of business activities and unstable regulation have created pervasive opportunities for corruption at all levels of business. Likewise, the tax system is complicated and cumbersome. According to a World Bank survey, opening a private business in Belarus is an arduous undertaking that requires passing 16 legal procedures (which by itself can take 79 days on average) and spending an equivalent of 25 percent of the annual GDP per capita. The same survey estimates the volume of the shadow economy in Belarus at 48 percent of GDP, or about US$7 billion.
Allegations of wrongdoings in the highest echelons of authority are abundant (even though they are often politically motivated). The primary targets are government agencies, such as the PDA, or companies under the patronage of security bodies, which are directly involved in the most lucrative businesses (such as the cigarette trade and exploitation of national parks) and enjoy a monopolistic status conferred by the president or the government. Since 1994, there have been charges that these revenues are channeled into a "shadow" presidential budget. Officials do not deny the existence of a shadow budget but refuse to comment on its size.
Monopolization of rents by the presidential structures gives top state bureaucracy ubiquitous opportunities for enrichment through the system of patronage, contracting to firms in which relatives of officials have stakes or control top positions or taking bribes for making the entrance accessible for outsiders. The largest corruption scandal in recent history broke out on February 9 when Halina Zhuraukova, then PDA head, was sacked and arrested by the KGB on charges of theft and abuse of office alongside her son, who worked in a PDA-related company. Zhuraukova was eventually sentenced to four years in jail with confiscation of property.
Although there is little doubt that there was a case for arresting Zhuraukova, this could have been revenge from the law enforcement officers within Lukashenka's inner circle who competed with PDA for access to administrative rents. Moreover, the case was not followed by any revision of PDA operational principles and did not increase the transparency of its activities. The fight against corruption was reduced to a media campaign, and Lukashenka simply warned the state apparatus that anyone building "a dacha higher than the presidential residence while working as a teacher, custom official, or a doctor" could find himself in the hands of the KGB.
Another top-level official arrested in February was Jahor Rybakou, head of the National State TV and Radio Company, who was charged with squandering public funds and abuse of office. As in Zhuraukova's case, the arrest and appointment of a new head was not followed by substantial reorganization of the company, as changes were limited to tightening the ideological monitoring of program content (the new head of the National State TV and Radio Company is an old-time friend of Lukashenka's who previously headed the ideology department at an industrial plant).
The Law on Public Service, signed on June 14,2003, establishes conflict of interest rules. Civil servants (including members of Parliament) are barred from entrepreneurial activities, either direct or indirect, or from taking part in the management of a commercial organization. The recently proposed new anticorruption legislation foresees strengthening the conflict of interest rules and expands the application of anticorruption legislation to a broader circle of government agencies and officials.
In practice, the transparency of decision-making processes and business operations under the aegis of government institutions is doubtful. The government does advertise contracts and tenders, but those turn into a formality once the interests of state companies are affected or the government fears losing its control over assets or whole sectors. For example, a tender announced in 2004 for establishing the third mobile telephone operator in Belarus became irrelevant once President Lukashenka declared that the winning company should have 100 percent of state capital, de facto appointing the state company Best, which had been created for this tender, as the winner. Transparency suffered another blow in 2004 with the adoption of the presidential decree on state secrets, which made a wide range of economic and social statistics inaccessible to the public.
Anticorruption policies often have the appearance of propaganda campaigns aimed at boosting the popularity of Lukashenka, who came to power in 1994 as head of the Anticorruption Commission in the Parliament. Lukashenka subsequently used the corruption issue as a tool for providing the public with an easy explanation for economic hardships, and bribery charges supplied him with a fitting pretext to crack down on opponents, as in the case of Mikhail Marynich. Another example is Mikhail Liavonau, a former director of Minsk Tractor Works rumored to have contemplated a run against Lukashenka in 2001; Liavonau was sentenced in February to 10 years in prison for large-scale theft.
Independent investigations of corruption are not encouraged and are seen in many instances as instruments of political attack against the regime. Journalists and independent media reporting on the issue have faced libel suits in the past, with punishments including huge fines and closure.
Vitali Silitski is a Minsk-based independent analyst. He is currently serving as Reagan Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington, D.C.