Nations in Transit - Belarus (2006)
|Publication Date||13 June 2006|
|Cite as||Freedom House, Nations in Transit - Belarus (2006), 13 June 2006, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473aff30c.html [accessed 6 December 2013]|
|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||6.50||6.75||6.75||6.75||6.75||6.75||6.75|
|National Democratic Governance||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||6.75||7.00|
|Local Democratic Governance||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||6.50||6.50|
Belarus's prospects for democratization have faded over the decade of authoritarian rule by President Alexander Lukashenka, first elected in 1994. The country's Constitution, amended in a highly controversial referendum in 1996, fully institutionalized a system of unlimited presidential authority. Another controversial constitutional referendum conducted in 2004 removed term limits for the presidency and opened an opportunity for Lukashenka's "infinite rule." His regime ignores international criticism and continues to harden its grip on power. The Belarusian economy, although unreformed and extensively bureaucratized, recently recorded sound growth owing to the economic upturn in neighboring countries, particularly Russia. This allows the government to preserve social stability through welfare and industrial policies that provide acceptable standards of living and almost full employment for the population.
In 2005, the policies of the Lukashenka regime reflected efforts to resist the democratic "colored revolutions" that swept through post-Communist Eurasia starting in 2004. Although the October 2004 constitutional referendum, carried out with little organized resistance, proved the regime's high degree of immunity from electoral changes, Lukashenka took no chances and ordered mobilization of the entire state apparatus to combat democracy in Belarus.
A new series of preemptive strikes against the opposition, civil society, and the independent press marked 2005, even though the opposition community had already been emasculated by repression in previous years. The legitimate space for independent political and social activity was severely curtailed and paralleled a speedy increase in punishment for political opponents and ordinary citizens. The regime's most outspoken and active opponents were put in jail, while independent press and civil society were pushed to the brink of extinction. New laws introduced in November-December 2005 criminalize almost any opposition activity considered by the authorities as pursuing regime change. The Belarusian House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the Parliament, scheduled presidential elections for March 19,2006, four months ahead of the date mandated by the Constitution. This move, although considered by the opposition to be a sign of panic in the regime, was undertaken to hamper the efforts of opponents to connect to the electorate and turn public opinion against the regime.
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 government thoroughly cleansed the political field in 2005, introduced Soviet-era regulations punishing the public expression of independent opinion and unauthorized political activity, and amended laws to legitimize the shooting of protesters as a last resort. Belarus's rating for national democratic governance worsens from 6.75 to 7.00. Whereas major democratic institutions or practices have been in place in Belarus for almost a decade, the government has fully resorted to totalitarian methods of repression and has openly declared its commitment to defending the status quo by all means necessary.
Electoral Process. The March 2005 by-elections to the House of Representatives in the only constituency where a deputy was not elected in 2004 ended with a resounding victory by a pro-regime candidate and were marred by gross violations. The opposition united in the run-up to the 2006 presidential elections, but this is unlikely to be a factor in the campaign given the overall climate of fear and repression in the country. Belarus's rating for electoral process remains at 7.00 owing to the executive branch's control over the process, which has ultimately ceased to play a role in allowing citizens to elect and change the government.
Civil Society. The campaign to squeeze the independent civic sector out of existence continued in 2005 with the adoption of highly restrictive laws and decrees that culminated in the November amendments to the criminal code. The government delegalized almost all forms of international cooperation, independent analytical work, academic exchange, and human rights protection with the introduction of severe criminal punishment for membership in unregistered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or "discrediting" Belarus in the international arena. Belarus's rating for civil society remains unchanged at 6.75. In spite of the sharp and paralyzing increase in punishments for unauthorized social activities, independent civil society remains active and committed to promoting democracy in Belarus.
Independent Media. The government continued its routine campaign of attacking independent newspapers with libel suits, suspensions, and denials of distribution in 2005 and continued to deport and arrest foreign journalists. Failure to investigate the 2004 murder of leading independent journalist Veranika Charkasava and the mysterious death of Narodnaja Volja journalist Vasil Hrodnikau in October 2005 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 2005, 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.
The president's total disregard of protests in Minsk over the renaming of central avenues in the capital city confirmed the powerlessness of local authorities. Belarus's rating for local democratic governance remains at 6.50 owing to the country's overcentralized, top-down administrative structure, which provides little room for pluralism and responsibility at the grassroots level.
Judicial Framework and Independence. The political pressure on the Constitutional Court to revisit the 2002 decision lifting restrictions on foreign travel, as well as the inhumane treatment of political prisoner Mikhail Marynich, highlighted the role of the judiciary as subordinate to the government. Opposition activists, civil society leaders, and independent journalists rarely prevail in appeals to the authorities' arbitrary decisions. Protesters at mass events have been severely beaten without investigation by the authorities. Belarus's rating for judicial framework and independence remains at 6.75.
Corruption. Belarus's downward slide in corruption ratings by independent surveys continued in
2005. A series of high-profile arrests and criminal cases destroyed the official propaganda claiming Belarus to be a corruption-free state. A highly etatized economy creates ubiquitous opportunities for bribery and abuse by authorities, whereas the countercorruption measures considered by the government are inherently flawed with opportunities for their selective application. Belarus's rating for corruption is lowered from 6.00 to 6.25 owing to the increasing evidence of serious problems related to corruption in the country and the creation of a favorable environment for corruption by the bureaucratization of the economy.
Outlook for 2006. A systematic campaign to emasculate the political opposition and civil society leaves the opponents of President Lukashenka with little hope for the March 2006 presidential elections. Although the opposition had a modest success in nominating a single candidate and running a vigorous campaign, delegalization of any activities unapproved by the government and increasing political repression will be a paralyzing factor. As it is highly unlikely that the currently favorable economic conditions will change in the short run, Lukashenka will continue to enjoy his implicit social contract with the population, guaranteeing him acquiescence with repressive policies in exchange for the country's economic security.
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 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 "fails to provide for democratic elections," according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The code does not provide election commissions with multiparty representation and independence. Moreover, it fails to provide sufficient transparency, guarantees against vote rigging during early voting, or uniform appeals for the decisions of election commissions. The code's regulations also stifle campaigning and freedom of speech.
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 International 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. According to the CEC, the elections were valid in 109 constituencies out of 110, with 1 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. All of the declared winners, which included 8 from the Communist Party of Byelorussia, 3 from the Agrarian Party, and 1 from the LDP (an analogue of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party in Russia), were pro-government and supported the president. 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 56 seats, or 8 per region. Several local councilpersons representing the opposition were not included in the list of electors.
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 – but the opposition was blocked at all stages of the campaign. Only 28 out of 328 opposition representatives were granted membership on election commissions. More than half of the leading opposition party candidates were denied registration. Several candidates lost their 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. Opposition candidates were also denied legally guaranteed access to the media, and their campaign rallies were routinely banned.
Early voting, a procedure that begins five days before the elections for those who cannot vote on election day, turned into a compulsory exercise for students and public sector employees in the countryside, presumably because the process is almost impossible to observe. Almost 20 percent of voters cast their ballots early in 2004, 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. According to the OSCE observation mission, irregularities marred vote counts at 60 percent of the polling stations observed.
By-elections to the House of Representatives were conducted in March 2005 in the one constituency where the election was invalidated in October 2004. The pro-government candidate staged an easy victory against two opposition challengers, including former MP Valery Fralou, who according to official data received only 12 percent of the votes. Independent and international observers recorded more than 200 electoral violations and denounced the results as fraudulent.
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." 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. In 2005, the internal feud inside the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (BSDP) ended with the ouster of the veteran party chairman Mikalaj Statkievich, who refused to recognize his expulsion from the party and claimed leadership of a splinter group of his loyalists. The party elected as its chairman Alexander Kazulin, former rector of the Belarusian State University (fired by Lukashenka in 2003). The Ministry of Justice recognized the legitimacy of the pro-Kazulin group. However, its attempts to carry out a party congress were routinely disrupted in 2005. All local chapters of political parties had to reregister by February 1,2005, to confirm their compliance with rules that forbid having offices at residential addresses. As opposition parties have almost no chance to rent state-owned office space, this rule caused the near complete elimination of local party branches for many parties. As a result, more than 300 local branches of the opposition parties were deregistered by September 2005.
The ability of opposition parties to communicate is severely restricted by repressive government regulations regarding rallies, as well as attacks on independent media and civil society groups that are sympathetic to pro-democracy politicians. Rallies in Minsk are officially authorized in just one location on the outskirts of the city center, whereas participation in unsanctioned protest incurs heavy fines (up to US$2,500, slightly less than an average annual income for an entire family), dismissal from state jobs, and prison terms. As a result, attendance at opposition protests sank to just several hundred in 2005.
Dozens of protesters were arrested during the celebrations of the anniversary of the Belarusian Democratic Republic on March 25 and during the traditional Chernobyl memorial rally on April 26. During the April 26 protests, several Russian and Ukrainian activists who joined the Belarusian opposition in solidarity were arrested, beaten, and briefly jailed. The Russian ambassador failed to defend his compatriots, having issued instead a statement declaring his "disapproval" of their decision to join protests, apparently signaling solidarity with Lukashenka's authoritarianism following the Orange Revolution.
The only sizable protest that took place in 2005 was the strike of small-business entrepreneurs who protested the introduction of a new value-added tax (VAT) in March 2005. At least 100,000 people participated nationwide, and several thousand rallied on the central square of Minsk. Unlike opposition protests, the strike was not violently disrupted, and the government negotiated with the protesters (even though the strike leader was jailed for 10 days). This relative lenience confirmed that Lukashenka's government is "really afraid of large-scale social unrest." The strike, however, did not put forward any political demands, and its leaders refused to cooperate with the opposition, which indicates a general sense of hopelessness in Belarus society about political opposition and electoral politics.
The government stepped up pressure on election observer organizations, most of which have already been denied registration or refused to be registered. On October 29 in Minsk, the authorities disrupted the inaugural congress of the civic initiative Partnership, one of the largest NGOs in Belarus specializing in election monitoring. Several leaders of the group were sentenced to 15 days in jail for staging an unsanctioned rally, even though the law requires no official permission for conducting indoor meetings. Head of the CEC Lidzia Yarmoshina summarized her attitude toward independent election monitors at the OSCE conference in Moscow in November by claiming that they "paralyze" the work of election commissions.
Following six months of primaries in which delegates were invited to vote for one of four candidates, the Congress of Democratic Forces (CDF) held in Minsk on October 1-2 nominated Alyaksandr Milinkevich, leader of a provincial NGO, as a single candidate from the opposition to contest the presidential election, then scheduled for July 2006. The primaries took place in secrecy, as organizers had failed to receive official permits for most of the meetings. In September, Lukashenka publicly invited the opposition to hold the CDF in Minsk. The authorities presumably hoped that, unable to agree on a single candidate, the opposition would collapse, turning the meeting into a public relations disaster. The congress witnessed a tight race between Milinkevich and the leader of the United Civil Party, Anatol Liabedzka. Contrary to some expectations, Liabedzka accepted the result and pledged to work with Milinkevich.
The opposition coalition did not include the BSDP, whose leader, Alexander Kazulin, expressed his intention to run independently.
In a surprise move, the House of Representatives convened on December 16 and set the date of presidential elections for March 19,2006, four months before the date the election had to be carried out according to the Constitution. The authorities declared that this decision was "discriminatory" against the sitting president but was made in response to the "wishes of the citizens," who argued that summer elections would make it impossible for many agricultural workers and vacationers to vote. The opposition quickly declared that shifting the date represented a sign of panic inside the ruling circles.
However, the most important reason was arguably the shortening of a vigorous campaign by Milinkevich, the main opposition challenger, who started actively traveling across Belarus after his nomination by the CDF. On December 27, the CEC registered initiative groups of eight potential contesters, who were allowed to collect signatures to be nominated as candidates. Aside from Lukashenka and Milinkevich, the list included the BSDP's Alexander Kazulin, leader of the pro-presidential LDP Siarhej Hajdukevich, leader of the Conservative Christian Party-BPF Zianon Pazniak, political prisoner Siarhej Skrabets, former Speaker of the Council of the Republic Alyaksandr Vajtovich, and former member of the House of Representatives Valery Fralou. Only Lukashenka, Milinkevich, Kazulin, and Hajdukevich were expected to collect the 100,000 signatures necessary for nomination.
The authorities' first steps in organizing the elections in March 2006 demonstrated that a free and fair vote would be unlikely. Secretary of the CEC Mikalaj Lazavik declared that the main criterion in selecting members of local election commissions would be previous experience in the commissions' work. All previous elections were organized with almost no presence of the opposition in the commissions.
Civil Society (Score: 6.75)
The Lukashenka government views the independent civil society sector as a source of political and social opposition to the regime and pursues a consistent policy to eliminate it. As a result, the authentic NGO sector in Belarus has turned into an underground network of individuals and banned groups opposed to the government. A modest space for legitimate existence is allowed for nonpoliticized NGOs loyal to the regime.
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 Minsk. 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.
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 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. 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.
NGOs can be liquidated at the whim of the government. In 2003-2004, more than 100 NGOs were closed down by the authorities or forced to self-liquidate, mostly for technical reasons, such as incorrectly designed official forms used by organizations or failure to locate premises at the official legal address. Aimed at neutralizing political and social opposition to the regime in the run-up to the constitutional referendum of October 2004, this campaign targeted the strongest and most internationally connected NGOs, such as human rights organizations, regional resource centers providing assistance to smaller NGOs, and independent research institutions. The campaign continued in 2005: More than 10 NGOs were closed down by the Ministry of Justice in the first quarter of 2005, including the Women's Movement Renewal of the Motherland, and the Union of Belarusian Scouts. Five NGOs were forced to self-liquidate by September 2005, and more than 30 were in the process of "self-liquidation," according to the Ministry of Justice.
New amendments to the Law on Public Associations adopted by the House of Representatives in 2005 introduced further obstacles to NGO work. Civil society groups have been banned from conducting business activities. All audits will be conducted by state agencies, which will likely increase the possibilities for closing down NGOs at the whim of the authorities. Further restrictions have been introduced by the presidential Decree on Some Measures to Combat Human Trafficking, which has nearly delegalized educational exchanges and studies abroad, and by amendments to the presidential decree of 1999 regulating foreign assistance, promulgated by Lukashenka on August 16,2005. The new rules of foreign assistance forbid using foreign aid for activities that advocate violent subversion of the government (a deed broadly understood by the authorities to include advocacy of any political change) and "meddling into the internal affairs of Belarus" (a definition that can include any analytical work, human rights advocacy, and educational and scientific cooperation unapproved by the government and any information exchange). The decree also mandated that any foreign assistance to NGOs must be registered with the government.
Liquidation of NGOs seriously disorganized the civil society sector but did not end its existence. According to some estimates, about 2,000 NGOs functioned in Belarus in 2005 without registration, either underground or on the premises of registered groups. Avoiding strict rules that heavily punish anyone working on behalf of or reporting about unregistered organizations, many groups advertised themselves not as NGOs, but as "civic initiatives." In September, the Ministry of Justice issued an order forbidding the activities of any unregistered group, including civic initiatives, which some groups have heeded out of fear of repression.
Amendments to the criminal code adopted by the House of Representatives in November 2005 criminalized activities of any group whose agenda does not correspond to the government policy or ideology. The amendments provoked sharp criticism in both Belarus and abroad. The International Helsinki Federation declared that the Belarusian authorities "equated human rights defense to crime," whereas Tadeusz Iwinski, deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, noted that the amendments "block those sources of free information in Belarus and from Belarus that still exist."
International contacts with Belarusian NGOs are curtailed through visa denial and the deportation of Western NGO representatives. Most contacts are carried out in neighboring countries, primarily Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Those who make it to Belarus face harassment and even imprisonment. On August 24, Giorgi Kandelaki and Luka Tsuladze, two activists of the Georgian organization Khmara, were detained by the authorities for "improper data in the passport." The official TV announced that they would be deported from Belarus; however, Kandelaki and Tseladze were sentenced to 15 days in jail for "petty hooliganism."
One of the largest NGOs functioning in Belarus, the Belarusian Union of Poles, was taken over by the government in 2005 after the union's congress elected a new chairperson, Anzelika Borys, whose loyalty was questioned by the authorities. Although neither the union nor its leadership could be considered opposition minded before the takeover, the crackdown was presumably carried out to reduce Poland's influence in Belarus through its educational, cultural, and academic projects. The government continued to attack the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC), the last legally operating human rights NGO, in 2005. On December 20, the Supreme Economic Court mandated that the organization pay taxes for grants received under state-approved, tax-free assistance programs. The authorities have tried to extort tax payments from the BHC for several years, but three previous suits have been rejected by the courts, including the Supreme Economic Court.
The government continues to persecute Protestant Christians based on the highly repressive religion law adopted in 2002. The Belarusian Gospel Church and the Calvinists were liquidated in 2005. Church "New Life" in Minsk came under attack for improper use of property. The church is a reconstructed pig farm, and the authorities claimed that the community had no right to use it for ecclesiastical purposes, even though the law bans the continued use of the building as a farm since it is located within city limits. The authorities also refused to extend the visa for Father Robert Krzywicki, a Roman Catholic priest and Polish citizen, and expelled him from the country in December.
The government systematically attacks think tanks and research-oriented NGOs, as 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. In April 2005, the court closed the IISEPS, the only think tank providing independent sociological information to the public. The consolidation of political control over the education system continued in 2005. The government closed down three branches of the Institute of Modern Knowledge (a Minsk-based humanitarian college with branches around the country) after inspections found that its courses did not correspond to official regulations. The government actively promotes and sponsors loyal organizations that help to transmit its propaganda, such as the Belarusian Republican Youth Union.
Independent Media (Score: 6.75)
In 2005, Freedom House ranked Belarus among countries with the lowest respect for freedom of speech (185th out of 194 countries and territories). Only Turkmenistan received a lower ranking among the former USSR countries. Although Article 33 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, this civil right hardly exists in practice, as the independent press is close to extinction. The Ministry of Information controls the licensing of media and effectively acts as a tool of repression against criticism of the government in the press. 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. The ministry suspended 25 newspapers and issued 160 warnings to 61 periodicals in 2004 alone.
In 2005, the list of closed independent periodicals included Molodezhnyi Prospekt, Navinki, and Kur'yer iz Borisova. The content of publications is officially censored; for example, newspapers cannot inform about the activities of or even refer to unregistered organizations or inform about an unauthorized rally. Several leading independent newspapers, such as Narodnaja Volja, Barysau-based Borisovskiye Novosti, and Hlybokaje-based Vol'naje Hlybokaje, received warnings in April 2005 for reporting about the initiative Will of the People, headed by former rector of the Belarusian State University Alexander Kazulin, and the group Defenders of the Fatherland, led by the opposition veteran Aleh Vouchak.
President Lukashenka issued a decree on May 31,2005, banning nonstate newspapers and civic associations from using the words Belarusian and National in their titles. The minister of information, commenting on the decree, declared that these adjectives will be reserved only for groups and papers that "deserve it." The decree destroyed the brands of three leading independent newspapers, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, Belorusskaya Gazeta, and Belorusskiy Rynok, which were forced to rename themselves, correspondingly, BDG-Delovaya Gazeta, Belgazeta, and Belorusy I Rynok. The presidential Decree on Some Measures to Combat Human Trafficking, signed on March 9, created new pretexts for harassing independent media. Some publishers have been pressed throughout the year by the authorities to prove that models featured in advertisements are Belarusians, even when only a part of the body was displayed in the ad.
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, regularly refuses distribution of the independent press. The majority of leading independent nationwide and regional newspapers, including Nasha Niva, Narodnaja Volja, BDG-Delovaya Gazeta, Salidarnasc', Rehijanalnaja Hazeta, Intex-Press, Gazeta Slonimskaya, Vitebskiy Kur'jer, and Brestskij Kur'jer, were denied distribution by Belsajuzdruk in November. Most of them were also denied distribution by Belposhta, the national postal service. The International Federation of Journalists considered denial of subscription "a part of a cynical and merciless campaign to stifle independent media before the presidential elections." Alternative sources of distribution, such as supermarkets or bookstores, hardly exist owing to increasing pressure by authorities to stop the sale of nonstate press. Private distributors may be mandated to report the periodicals they sell to regional and district ideology departments. Independent distributors of nonstate press are subject to arbitrary arrests and searches.
State-owned media are extensively subsidized, and mandatory subscription to leading official outlets, such as the daily Sovetskaya Belorussiya, is commonplace at many institutions and state-run companies. Meanwhile, 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, difficulties in attracting advertisements from state-owned companies, and prohibitively high fines from libel suits or other punishments. Regional governments openly issue bans on advertisements by state companies in the independent media.
The authorities failed in 2005 to effectively investigate the death of Veranika Charkasava, a veteran independent journalist who was brutally murdered on October 20,2004, in unknown circumstances. 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 and tried to frame her teenage son, Anton Filimonau, as a murderer. The boy was forced to go through psychiatric examinations before he was taken by his relatives to Moscow; Belarusian police tried unsuccessfully to extradite him back to Belarus. Filimonau was finally arrested in Belarus in December after returning home. Also, Vasil Hrodnikau, a veteran journalist and longtime reporter of Narodnaja Volja, was found dead on October 18,2005, in his house in Zaslauje. The police refused to start criminal proceedings, as it doubted that the death could have been violent.
Independent journalists are subject to official harassment and have 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. Leading independent newspapers and their journalists faced prohibitively high fines for libel throughout 2005. Iryna Khalip, journalist of Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, was fined more than US$4,000 in a libel suit brought by the U.S. citizen Arkady Mar, who claimed to be editor in chief of the U.S.-based newspaper Russkaya America. Khalip claimed Russkaya America was a faux newspaper. In the same libel suit, the publisher of Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta was fined US$20,000. Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (now BDG-Delovaya Gazeta) was slapped with a US$23,000 fine again in September 2005 in a libel suit by an officer of the riot police, who claimed that the newspapers misinformed on the investigation of a crime pursued by his department.
The libel suit against the largest independent daily, Narodnaja Volja, by the pro-regime MP Siarhej Hajdukevich resulted in a verdict awarding more than US$50,000 in June. Hajdukevich sued Narodnaja Volja for its reporting of his dealings with the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (a clone of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party in Russia). Narodnaja Volja claimed that Hajdukevich received generous sums of money from Hussein in 2001-2002 as loans and payments for facilitating business transactions in Minsk and failed to pay the debts in anticipation of the U.S. invasion into Iraq. The claims made by Narodnaja Volja were confirmed by Hajdukevich's former deputy Alexander Rabataj, but the court failed to take into account his testimony. Financial difficulties all but stopped publication of Naronaja Volja in September, but the newspaper was saved by donations, mostly from readers. Aliaksiej Karol, editor in chief of the newspaper Zhoda, was fined more than US$1,000 in September for publishing cartoons satirizing President Lukashenka. Zhoda was subject to searches and confiscation of its equipment in February 2005.
Foreign journalists critical of the government are not welcomed in Belarus. Mikhail Romanov, journalist of the Russian newspaper Moskovskiy Komsomolets, was arrested during the Chernobyl anniversary rally on April 26 and sentenced to eight days in jail. Polish journalists covering the conflict around the Belarusian Union of Poles were routinely detained, searched, intimidated, and extradited from Belarus throughout the year.
At the local level, state-controlled regional newspapers remain the most important source of printed information on regional events. Regional independent newspapers do exist, and some hold a significant share of the information market. However, the regional independent press was particularly hard hit by the closures and liquidations enforced by the Ministry of Information in the run-up to the October 2004 referendum. Repression of regional press continued throughout 2005. Anatol Bukas, editor in chief of the Barysau-based newspaper Borisovskiye Novosti, was sentenced to a fine and forced to pay a US$2,000 award in a libel suit pursued by the editor in chief of Barysau's official newspaper, Edinstvo, for defamation and insults (the court, however, refused to consider insults and slander published by Edinstvo against Bukas). Another Barysau-based independent newspaper, Kur'yer iz Borisova, was closed down. Smaller publications with a circulation of up to 300 copies exist in many provincial towns, as they do not require registration.
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 from Russian TV networks. None 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 First National Channel (BT-1) is the undisputed leader in pro-regime propaganda and is distinguished by uninhibited bias and slander in its reporting. Media attacks on the opposition, NGOs, foreign diplomats, and Western leaders are common on all TV channels. In 2005, Belarus launched its first satellite TV channel, which is essentially a rebroadcast of BT-1.
Russian TV networks have gradually lost their influence as they have been replaced by Belarusian outlets. Moreover, owing to tightening state control and censorship of the media in Russia, Russian TV networks are no longer a substantial source of alternative opinion for Belarusians. For example, both countries' state-controlled propaganda tirelessly attack the governments of the post-Soviet states that recently underwent democratic revolutions (such as Georgia and Ukraine) rather than actually report on social and political problems in these countries.
External sources of information are limited to the shortwave broadcasts of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Belarusian Service. Deutsche Welle began its broadcast in Belarus in September 2005 with two daily 15-minute programs in Russian provided by its Russian service and dedicated to Belarusian affairs. The Deutsche Welle broadcast caused a fierce discussion inside Belarus owing to the broadcast's short length and language (Russian only), which was regarded by some as an endorsement of the Russification policy pursued by the Lukashenka regime.
The Ministry of Information maintains tight control over FM radio broadcasting. Belarusian-language rock and folk groups that took part in the opposition rally on July 21,2004, have been banned from the airwaves. The ministry has enforced its directive issued in November 2004 requiring that 75 percent of broadcasts be filled with music produced in Belarus or by Belarusian performers. This rule, together with the bans, destroyed the formats of many stations, as all of them had to broadcast the same, mostly Russian-language, pop music.
Internet sites within the country are under the control of the government's State Center on Information Security, which is part of the Security Council of Belarus. Less than 10 percent of the population has some access to the Internet, while other estimates suggest that only 2 percent of the population enjoy regular Internet access. Nevertheless, the impact of the Internet is gradually expanding, which prompts censorship and restriction of access at universities and government offices. In August 2005, the security services attacked producers of the independent site Third Way (www.3dway.org), which published political cartoons criticizing Lukashenka, confiscated their equipment and passports, and launched criminal proceedings for defaming the president. Internet controls in student dormitories and state institutions are particularly strict to prevent unauthorized visits to opposition Web sites.
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 summary 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 makes them vulnerable to coercion.
Although the Constitution provides for basic human rights, including freedom of expression, association, religion, and business and property rights, they 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.
The Constitutional Court issued a ruling in 2002 outlawing permission stamps for traveling abroad, a procedure used by the security forces to impede foreign travel of citizens suspected of committing crimes, those having debts or unpaid taxes, and politically active opposition figures. Although the Court authorized a three-year period to phase out the stamp practice, the authorities did nothing to end it. Instead, the Ministry of the Interior pressured the Constitutional Court to revise its decision. As a result, the Constitutional Court issued a new ruling on October 4 allowing the stamp issuing to continue indefinitely, "recommending" that the ministry cancel it and duly inform citizens about the change of practice. The authorities routinely used the prerogative to deny or postpone the issue of the stamp to prevent foreign travel of opposition and civil society activists in 2005. Those affected included activists of the Union of Poles of Belarus prosecuted during the government's takeover of the organization and activists of the unregistered Zubr (Bison) youth movement.
The courts routinely refuse libel suits filed by the opposition and civil society activists who were slandered by the official media. Civil society activists and independent newspapers do manage occasionally to annul the unlawful decisions of courts or tax authorities, but new retributive charges and recriminations may follow. The Minsk City Court annulled on November 9 the decision of the Pershamajski City Court authorizing Belarusian TV and Radio to publicly apologize for slandering the regional organization Will to Development from the city of Slonim. BT-1 accused the NGO of financing the opposition and engaging in other illegal activities, such as tax evasion. The Pershamajski City Court found no evidence supporting the claims, whereas the Minsk City Court decided that the information distributed by BT-1 "just expresses opinions" of the authors. On a positive note, the Minsk Economic Court issued a ruling on November 17 declaring it illegal for state printing houses to cancel publishing agreements with the largest independent newspaper, Narodnaja Volja.
It is possible to receive a fair trial in Belarus. However, legal procedures can be violated in politically sensitive cases. Arrests and prosecution of opposition activists are conducted with gross violations of the law. Political prisoners are often denied their rights by the prison administration. Mikalaj Statkevich, who was sentenced to two years of forced labor for staging antireferendum protests in October 2004 and is serving his term in the provincial town of Baranavichy, was denied approval to vacation at home with the vague explanation "Complicated situation in the capital" from the police. Anatol Shumchanka, leader of the strike of private entrepreneurs, was sentenced to 10 days in jail in March 2005 for staging an unauthorized rally but was detained for several additional days after serving his time. Valery Levaneuski, sentenced to two years in jail for insulting the president in 2004, was denied permission to travel to his father's funeral in December 2005. Several activists of the youth movement Zubr, arrested in December on drug possession charges, claimed they had been framed by the police. Opposition activist Alaxej Darafeeu was detained in Viciebsk in December on suspicion of organizing explosions in the city in September, even though the authorities initially declared that the incidents had no signs of terrorism or political violence.
Independent law practice is restricted in Belarus, as all attorneys must register with state-controlled bar chambers. New regulations adopted in 2005 mandate the introduction of ideology commissioners in every bar chamber, whereas attorneys have been forbidden from speaking at international human rights conferences without the approval of authorities.
The Constitution prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. In practice, however, the rights of the convicted may be violated; suspects and convicts have reported being beaten by police and prison guards. Mikhail Marynich, the opposition leader sentenced in 2004 to five years in jail on highly dubious charges (the term was subsequently reduced by pardon and amnesty), was routinely denied treatment while in jail. Marynich suffered a brain hemorrhage in prison and was treated only after his wife used the right of visitation to pass him medicine. "Prosecution of Mikhail Marynich is the new evidence of the absence of judiciary independence in Belarus, which reflects the common absence of respect to the rule of law and the general atmosphere of political repression," declared the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Opposition activists are routinely arrested and beaten for staging rallies and distributing literature. Dozens of participants were severely beaten and arrested during the unauthorized opposition rallies on March 25 and April 26 and during actions to commemorate opposition leaders who disappeared in 1999. , The riot police beat Sviatlana Zavadskaja, wife of independent journalist Dzmitry Zavadski (abducted by former riot police and presumably assassinated in 2000) during the rally commemorating the fifth anniversary of her husband's disappearance. State prosecution refused to carry out a criminal investigation of the beating.
The courts confiscate property, freeze assets, and issue heavy tax punishments in cases that have obvious political underpinnings or involve the interests of the bureaucracy. The government implemented de facto nationalization of several private clinics in Minsk, having deprived them of licenses. The doctors were offered positions at high-profit state hospitals.
Corruption (Score: 6.25)
Belarus continued its precipitous decline in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index in 2005; its rating deteriorated to 107th place, down from 36th place in 2002. The reason for such a decline is the continuous spread of low- and high-level corruption. A series of high-profile corruption cases involving high-ranking government officials further put in doubt the claim of Lukashenka's regime that it remains corruption-free. Also, deepening bureaucratization and etatization of the economy has created a nourishing environment for bribery and the abuse of power.
Excessive and unstable regulation of business have created pervasive opportunities for corruption at all levels. Likewise, the tax system is complicated and cumbersome. According to a World Bank survey, businesses make 113 tax payments per year, which account on average for 121 percent of their gross profits. The World Bank regards Belarus as the worst country in the world to pay taxes (with regard to complication, regulations, etc.) Moreover, opening a private business in Belarus is an arduous undertaking that requires passing 16 legal procedures (which can take 79 days on average) and costs an equivalent of 25 percent of the annual gross domestic product per capita. These nearly unenforceable regulations create opportunities for tax evasion and bribery. Additionally, the government is selective in punishing noncompliant businesses and persons either for political reasons or to eliminate competition for those companies placed under the patronage of bureaucracies.
Allegations of wrongdoing in the highest echelons of power are abundant, even though such allegations are often politically motivated. The 2004 arrest and imprisonment of Halina Zhuraukova, head of the PDA, and Yahor Rybakou, head of Belarusian TV and Radio, confirmed many of the opposition's claims. The PDA is a state-owned business empire directly accountable to the president. At one time, it was involved in the nation's most lucrative businesses, such as the cigarette trade and exploitation of national parks, and enjoyed a monopolistic status conferred by the president. 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.
Although the reason for Zhuraukova's arrest could have been revenge from law enforcement officers who competed with the PDA for access to administrative rents, the investigation unmasked huge legal violations and revealed that Zhuraukova was responsible for stealing several million dollars from the state. She was sentenced in 2005 to four years in jail but was eventually pardoned by the president. Critics of the government compare the fate of Zhuraukova with that of Mikhail Marynich, the opposition leader sentenced to five years (subsequently reduced to three and a half years) in jail for allegedly stealing several computers from his own NGO. Additionally, the PDA's principal business, Belaya Rus, was forced to file for bankruptcy after it lost its "untouchable" status following Zhuraukova's arrest.
Yahor Rybakou, another former high-profile official found guilty of corruption in 2005, was sentenced to 11 years in jail and is serving his term in a high-security prison. Former managers of another institution that enjoyed business privileges from the Presidential Programs Fund were sentenced to long jail terms in March 2005 after being found guilty of pocketing profits from the fund's business operations. Although this trial had no political implications, it reflects deficiencies in the system of privileges and administrative rents that is thriving in Belarus.
Corruption charges in Belarus are a useful tool for settling political scores with regime opponents; many cases involve representatives of the establishment who switched to the opposition. In 2005, Siarhej Skrabets, leader of the opposition faction in the previous convocation in the House of Representatives, was charged with illegal solicitation of a bank loan, and his arrest was preceded by a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and defamation in the official media. At the same time, several high-profile arrests in 2005 – including the former head of the State Aviation Committee, managers of the Brest liquor plant and the country's largest oil refinery Naftan, and the head of the Ministry of Sports – were not politically motivated.
The Law on Public Service, signed on June 14,2003, establishes conflict-of-interest rules. Civil servants (including MPs) 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.
Owing to comprehensive state control over the economy in Belarus, the most lucrative private companies are either being destroyed by tax penalties and the revocation of licenses or being forced to renationalize under the patronage of the state. A series of high-profile cases in 2005 involved attacks on private health care establishments and the monopolization of the car insurance business, which was ordered in October 2005 by Lukashenka. Experts believe that such monopolization will create ubiquitous corruption opportunities for both the insurers and bureaucrats, who would decide which company would be allowed to remain in the market.
Whereas top state officials, including the president, regularly declare fighting corruption as the top priority of the state, the opposite occurs in practice. The draft anticorruption legislation introduced in the House of Representatives in 2005 demands that all civil servants declare their incomes. Declarations by higher-ranking officials must be submitted to the president, thus bypassing tax authorities. The bill does not require declarations to be publicized and foresees only selective review of the correctness of the declarations. If adopted, the law will create ubiquitous opportunities for its selective enforcement at the discretion of state officials.
Vitali Silitski is a Minsk-based independent analyst. In 2006, he will be a fellow at the Center for Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law at Stanford University.
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 these prerogatives, local governments have little control over their finances. Village and township governments are particularly impotent since the territory they cover is generally small, usually a collective farm whose head serves as the territory's de facto administrator.
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 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. 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 ntrepreneurial associations, women's groups, and so forth is often merely ceremonial. Local authorities must be responsive to independent groups in emergency situations such as strikes and organized protests. In 2005, the strike by private entrepreneurs protesting the new VAT led to negotiations between the strikers and the Minsk mayor, which failed, however, as local authorities had no prerogative to decide on the tax.
Protests emerged in 2005 in Minsk after President Lukashenka renamed two central avenues in the city previously named after celebrated figures in Belarusian history: 15th-century Bible scholar Francishak Skaryna and popular Soviet-era leader of the republic Piotr Masherau. The authorities, however, rejected a popular initiative to carry out a referendum on returning the previous names, citing that the local population has no right to overrule presidential decrees, even though the law stipulates that local authorities have the exclusive right to designate street names.
The local press covers the activities of local authorities extensively. The state press, however, enjoys privileged access to information and officials and internal regulations in some districts, 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. Independent local media face attacks from the executive authorities whenever they voice criticism of official decisions.
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.
National Governance (Score: 7.00)
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. Presidential decrees have priority over laws adopted by the Parliament, whose 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 Parliament 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.
Major legislation is available to the public in printed and free Internet versions. However, no rules exist for disclosing the budgets of the central and local governments. Data on international treaties, military and defense spending, and state-sponsored research and development programs are designated top secret. There is no specific regulation authorizing the Parliament to make its records public. Likewise, citizens have no opportunity to view their representatives' voting records.
The constitutional referendum on lifting presidential term limits conducted on October 17,2004, opened the possibility for a lifelong presidency for Lukashenka. There were violations of electoral law at every stage of the referendum, and the smallest sign of protest resulted in fines, imprisonment, arbitrary searches, break-ins, and hit-and-run attacks. Allegations of vote fraud were widespread and well documented. According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), 90 percent of eligible voters took part in the referendum and elections; 79 percent voted in favor of lifting the term limits. However, exit polls conducted by the Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys Center and postelection polling conducted by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) showed that only 49 percent of respondents declared a vote in favor. 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. The IISEPS was closed down by court order in April 2005, apparently for its role in unmasking vote fraud during the referendum.
The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which unfolded only five weeks after the constitutional referendum in Belarus, was a wake-up call for the Lukashenka regime. Although the possibility of an electoral revolution in Belarus is minimal, Lukashenka responded actively to the events just south of the border in order to preempt the development of a potential opposition. He immediately warned those in his inner circle that "modern political techniques and a weakly managed country are pregnant with serious consequences," and he vowed resistance against "acts of banditry" (his own definition of electoral revolution) in Belarus.
The legal space in which opposition parties can operate in Belarus is steadily shrinking. Opposition and civil society groups are no longer allowed to rent state-owned property, so many party conferences and NGO meetings take place in restaurants, Western embassies, private apartments, and even forests. The use of new police tactics to disperse a few small demonstrations in early 2005 made it clear that the country's security forces have been specifically trained to stop street protests.
The political field has been cleansed in the run-up to the July 2006 presidential election. Mikalaj Statkievich, former chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, and Paval Seviarynec, leader of the unregistered organizationYoung Front movement, were both sentenced to two years of forced labor for organizing antireferendum protests in October 2004. Since both had a long record of mobilizing street rallies, their indictments may have been a disguised attempt to forestall street protests following the 2006 election. Another veteran politician, former member of Parliament (MP) and political prisoner Andrej Klimau, was sentenced to two years of forced labor in May 2005 for staging unsanctioned rallies two months earlier that he'd advertised as the beginning of the democratic revolution in Belarus.
Several politicians who could be potential challengers in the forthcoming presidential elections have been kept behind bars. Siarhej Skrabets, leader of Respublika – the only opposition faction in the House of Representatives from the previous convocation – was arrested in May 2005 on charges of bribery and illegal soliciting of a loan. Skrabets held a 40-day hunger strike in protest of his imprisonment but was not released. He was eventually sentenced to two and a half years in jail. Before the launch of criminal proceedings against them, Statkievich and Skrabets had to pay heavy fines for participating in opposition protests in 2005. 3 Another potential challenger, Mikhail Marynich, former minister of foreign trade and ambassador to Latvia, who was sentenced to five years in jail in December 2004 for allegedly stealing computers from the NGO he heads, had his sentence reduced to three and a half years in 2005. The authorities refused to pardon Marynich despite his poor health.
Belarus's defense and security structures are controlled by the president. Law enforcement agencies – such as the State Security Committee (KGB), Ministry of the Interior, Office of the Prosecutor, State Control Committee, and Security Council – have grown in size and influence over the last decade and enhanced their role in virtually all spheres of public life. In the past year, Lukashenka has also boosted the law enforcement agencies and purged their ranks of potential dissenters. Viktar Sheiman, the former prosecutor general who was appointed head of the presidential administration in December 2004, has stated that his goal is to "consolidate the power systems, unify the command structure, and avoid situations such as those that had occurred south of the border." The security forces have received an implicit order to fight the opposition, and the rules for opening fire in peacetime have been amended to allow the use of firearms not only in cases enumerated in the law, but also "in other cases determined by the president." The amendment may thus be used to justify a crackdown on any protest, violent or peaceful.
The Heritage Foundation rates the Belarusian economy among the most repressive in the world.
Although the government does pursue relatively prudent macroeconomic policies, 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. Labor regulations provide a wide range of pretexts for firing anyone at any time 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. Fourth, the Belarusian economy allows for the maintenance of acceptable living standards. According to a September 2005 poll by the IISEPS, about 47 percent of the population would support Lukashenka if he chooses to run for presidential elections. Meanwhile, about 40 percent believe that free and fair elections are impossible in Belarus.