Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 6
Status: Not Free
Population: 9,900,000
GNI/Capita: $1,290
Life Expectancy: 69
Religious Groups: Eastern Orthodox (80 percent), other (20 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Byelorussian (81.2 percent), Russian (11.4 percent), other including [Polish and Ukrainian] (7.4 percent)
Capital: Minsk


The year 2003 witnessed intensified legal pressures on newspapers, punishments meted out to opposition demonstrators, the disbanding of human rights and civic organizations, and efforts at total state control over independent schools. Harassment of political activists continued with routine arrest, detention, and interrogation of student and civic activists for activities such as the distribution of brochures and leaflets. The closure and suspension of several of the country's dwindling number of independent newspapers forced more independent publications to work outside Belarus's borders.

Belarus declared independence in 1991, ending centuries of foreign control by Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and, ultimately, the Soviet Union. Stanislau Shushkevich, a reform-minded leader, served as head of state from 1991 to 1994. That year, voters made Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a member of parliament with close links to the country's security services, the country's first post-Soviet president. Lukashenka has pursued efforts at reunification with Russia and subordinated the government, legislature, and courts to his political whims while denying citizens basic rights and liberties.

In a 1996 referendum, Belarusian citizens backed constitutional amendments that extended Lukashenka's term through 2001, broadened presidential powers, and created a new bicameral parliament. When the president ignored a court ruling that the referendum was non-binding, Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir resigned in protest. Since July 1999, when the president's original mandate expired, many Western nations have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate head of state. Instead, they recognize the pre-1996 Supreme Soviet as the legitimate legislative body.

In October 2000, Belarus held elections to the Chamber of Representatives, parliament's lower house. State media coverage of the campaign was limited and biased, and approximately half of all opposition candidates were denied registration. Nongovernmental organizations reported irregularities such as ballot-box stuffing and tampering with voter registration lists. Seven opposition parties boycotted the elections when the government failed to ensure a fair campaign and to give parliament more substantial duties. Some opposition candidates participated in the election, but only three received a mandate.

Lukashenka won a controversial reelection in September 2001 amid accusations from former security service officials that the president was directing a government-sponsored death squad aimed at silencing his opponents. Formally, Belarusian citizens had three presidential candidates from which to choose. However, the outcome was predetermined, and Western observers judged the election to be neither free nor fair. During the campaign, the government and its supporters harassed wouldbe candidates and independent media outlets, and state television was used as the exclusive instrument for propaganda on behalf of Lukashenka. On election day, Lukashenka declared himself the victor with 78 percent of the vote over candidates Vladimir Goncharik (12 percent) and Sergei Gaidukevich (2 percent). However, opposition exit polls showed that Lukashenka received 47 percent of the vote and Goncharik 41 percent – an outcome that by law should have forced a second round. At the same time, opposition parties and civil society managed to play an energetic role in the election process. Although the opposition parties backing Goncharik represented a broad political spectrum, they agreed on defeating Lukashenka, a decision that represented an important step in their development. The following year, Lukashenka engaged in political retribution against anyone who had opposed him during the 2001 presidential campaign, including independent journalists and political opposition members.

In 2003, the Lukashenka regime pursued a policy of systematic legal persecution and physical intimidation of its democratic opponents, with courts banning or liquidating nongovernmental organizations, closing down or suspending publication of independent newspapers critical of the Lukashenka government, and harassing independent civic activists and protestors. The year also saw relentless state political pressure on educational institutions and programs, government attacks on academic freedom, and dismissals of educators at a journalism school and an elite secondary school. The government announced the introduction of teaching that will incorporate the "ideas" of President Lukashenka into the national educational curriculum.

The year 2001 marked the five-year anniversary of Belarus's union treaty with Russia. However, Russian enthusiasm for the union has since waned, and there is no serious movement toward implementing the treaty's provisions for the creation of a confederal state.

According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the country's private sector share of Gross Domestic Product, at 20 percent, is the lowest of all the post-Communist countries. World Bank data also show that more than a quarter of the population lives below the national poverty line.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Despite a constitutional guarantee of universal, equal, and direct suffrage, citizens of Belarus cannot change their government democratically. The 2001 parliamentary election was marred by serious and widespread irregularities, and most Western governments refused to recognize the results. Western nations declared the 2001 presidential vote, in which Alyaksandr Lukashenka was reelected by a wide majority, to be neither free nor fair. Domestic supporters of opposition candidate Vladimir Goncharik accused the government of massively falsifying the results.

The Lukashenka regime systematically curtails press freedom. State media are subordinated to the president, and harassment and censorship of independent media are routine. Libel is both a civil and a criminal offense. The State Press Committee can issue warnings to publishers for unauthorized activities such as changing a publication's title or distributing copies abroad. It also can arbitrarily shut down publications without a court order.

Harassment and legal attacks against independent newspapers and broadcast journalists continued unabated in 2003. A politically motivated audit of the Soladarnasts weekly resulted in significant fines. The newspaper's officials were denied the benefit of independent legal counsel during the proceedings. In 2003, the government brought cases of libel against the Marat independent publishing house and the newspaper Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, whose publication was suspended for three months. Periodicals that sought to print materials by the newspaper's staff were prevented from publishing. When the banned newspaper resumed publication in Russia, shipments of its print run were confiscated or blocked by Belarus authorities at the border, and distributors were arrested and detained by authorities. An economic court in the city of Grodno stripped the founder of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta of the right to run his business. The local government in Grodno also refused to provide a second independent newspaper with a certificate attesting to its location in the city. Without such attestation, registration of the newspaper was not possible. In June 2003, the country's Ministry of Information promulgated new regulations that required the heads of all FM radio station to provide a complete daily printout of news bulletins and daily playlists to ensure monitoring of content. In 2003, the contents of a draft law on the press were kept secret from the public.

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. Independent information, however, is posted by some opposition groups and journalists in Belarus and abroad. The government at times censors and blocks independent sites, particularly during preelection periods. The impact of independent Internet sites is limited. According to the International Telecommunications Union, 8.1 percent of the population has some access to the Internet, while other estimates suggest that only 2 percent of the population enjoys regular Internet access.

Despite constitutional guarantees that "all religions and faiths shall be equal before the law," Belarusian government decrees and registration requirements have increasingly restricted the life and work of religious groups. The government pressures and intimidates members of the independent Autocephalous Orthodox Christian Church, harasses Hindus for public meditation, and represses Baptists for singing hymns in public. Amendments to the Law on Religions, signed into law by President Lukashenka in 2002, provide for government censorship of religious publications and prevent foreign citizens from leading religious groups. The amendments also place strict limitations on religious groups that have been active in Belarus for fewer than 20 years.

Academic freedoms are subject to intense state ideological pressures. In July 2003, the entire staff of the Modern Studies Institute's journalism faculty, some of them active in an independent journalist association, were dismissed after criticism leveled at them by a presidential commission and the Ministry of Education. The leader of the country's most highly regarded secondary school, the National State Humanities Lyceum, was dismissed and a Lukashenka loyalist was appointed in his place, prompting a walkout by students and faculty. In July, the country's education minister announced that in 2004 the educational curriculum would include a new subject – "Belarusian state ideology" – based on the ideas of President Lukashenka. Wiretapping by state security agencies limits the right to privacy.

The Lukashenka government limits freedom of assembly and association by groups independent of and critical of his regime. Protests and rallies require authorization from local officials, who can arbitrarily withhold or revoke permission. When public demonstrations do occur, police typically break them up and arrest participants.

In June, the Supreme Court liquidated the Christian Youth Union for "lack of conformity of the organization's program and statute" with national law. In October, the Supreme Court disbanded and declared illegal the activities of the Vyasna human rights organization, in part based on claims that the organization had violated the law during election monitoring activities in 2001. Other nongovernmental organizations were closed in 2003, including the Legal Assistance to the Population group and the Women's Response organization. In August, a local court in Grodno disbanded the independent civic group Ratusha. Other civic groups, including the Lev Sapega Foundation and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, were issued warnings and subjected to government investigation, steps that are usually a prelude to banning. There were also numerous instances of harassment of the country's independent labor unions, including the confiscation of computer and printing equipment. Leaders of the nationwide protest "To Live Better," in which more than 100,000 citizens took part in March 2003, were sentenced to short-term imprisonment. Among those sentenced were leaders of the civic group Charter 97, a leader of the pro-reform Private Property organization, and a leader of the Strike Committee of Entrepreneurs.

Although the country's constitution calls for judicial independence, courts are subject to heavy government influence. In the last year, numerous independent civic leaders, opposition political activists, independent journalists, and other persons who oppose government policies experienced arbitrary persecution, arrest, and imprisonment. The right to a fair trial is often not respected in cases with political overtones. Human rights groups documented instances of beatings, torture, and inadequate protection during detention in cases involving leaders of the Belarusian Popular Front, members of the student civic group Zubr, and the head of the Belarusian Sociology Association.

An internal passport system that is required for domestic travel and securing permanent housing controls freedom of movement and choice of residence. The country's command economy severely limits economic freedom.

Women are not specifically targeted for discrimination, but there are significant discrepancies in incomes between men and women, and women are poorly represented in leading government positions. Amid extreme poverty, many Belarusian women have become victims of the international sex trafficking trade.

Trend Arrow

Belarus received a downward trend arrow due to increased state attacks on a dwindling number of independent media outlets, intensified state banning of independent civic groups, and increased government pressures on academic freedom.

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