Belarus

Consolidated Authoritarian Regime
5
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 4.76 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 1.29 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
7 100 Consolidated Authoritarian Regime
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

header1 Score changes in 2021

  • National Democratic Governance rating declined from 1.25 to 1.00 due to the state’s abandonment of democratic governance principles coupled with numerous accounts of in-custody harassment, torture, and other forms of police brutality, resulting in the deaths of protesters.
  • Electoral Process rating declined from 1.25 to 1.00 due to the state’s increasing intolerance of political competition and a sharp rise in the number of irregularities during the election campaign, voting, and ballot counting.
  • Corruption rating declined from 2.00 to 1.75 due to the misuse and abuse of the state’s anticorruption apparatus to neutralize President Lukashenka’s political opponents, namely, Viktar Babaryka and Valery Tsapkala.

As a result, Belarus’s Democracy Score declined from 1.39 to 1.29.

header2 Executive Summary

By Artyom Shraibman and Hanna Hubarava

The year 2020 saw some of the greatest setbacks for democracy in Belarus since it gained statehood after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In stark contrast to the less eventful 2019, the country felt shockwaves of the presidential election campaign in all spheres of national life and even beyond in its foreign relations. Further consolidation of President Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule was accompanied by an unprecedented erosion of human rights and civic freedoms, while most of the year’s events pivoted around the much-criticized presidential election held on August 9.

The year began with growing civic mobilization and demonstrations against the corruption, authoritarianism, and poor local governance in Belarus, most notably in regional centers,1 as well as a rising level of self-organization in the wake of the state’s dismissive attitude toward the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring.2 In May, as the presidential election campaign ramped up and such opposition candidates as Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Viktar Babaryka, and Valery Tsapkala were denied registration, the dramatic upsurge in civic participation revealed the scale of public dissent.3 Following Lukashenka’s reelection victory—with a highly unlikely 80.1 percent of votes—protests erupted with unprecedented force, clashing with the president’s reluctance to allow any meaningful citizen participation in political processes.4

For the first time in the history of independent Belarus, the scale and stamina of the protests, which continued largely unabated through the end of the year, posed a real threat to the regime’s stability. The predominantly peaceful demonstrations were met with rubber bullets, stun grenades, water cannons, and tear gas.5 Against all evidence of torture and at least four officially confirmed deaths, the country’s security forces enjoyed total impunity. In fact, Lukashenka publicly celebrated their loyalty in the state-run media and bestowed official commendations “for immaculate service” upon members of the security apparatus.6 The lists of those who received awards and promotions showed striking overlaps with individuals sanctioned by the European Union (EU), United States, and others, suggesting that public honors were intended as a symbolic compensatory measure for those who had fallen into disgrace with the international community. Still, involvement in the protest movement by a broad group of economic actors within and outside the state apparatus was itself indicative of the governance system’s ongoing erosion.

By mid-summer, the Lukashenka regime had dropped the facade of adhering to democratic norms. In December, brutal rhetoric and calls for the disproportionately violent suppression of protests became so abnormally mundane that although leaked plans to construct concentration camps for active protesters caused public outrage, these moves were perceived as a logical continuation of the state’s crackdown on dissent.7 Without any reservation, the state-affiliated media broadcast open threats to “cut hands off” or use lethal weapons against protesters.8 If the separation of powers enshrined in the constitution was barely functional before 2020, it effectively ceased to exist and yielded to the near total control of the executive during the year. Rule of law was severely compromised by politically motivated trials aimed at neutralizing political opponents and denying the basic rights of legal representation and due process.9 A number of appointments aimed at subordinating the judiciary were carried out by Lukashenka, who attempted to further solidify the authoritarian regime’s structure by installing loyalists. Nothing could better illustrate the crisis of the legal system than Lukashenka himself, who, when speaking on the occasion of the Prosecutor General’s nomination, stated, “Sometimes there isn’t time for laws.”10

Interestingly, the presidential election reversed some key trends in the country’s foreign policy. The first half of the year was marked by growing tensions and increasingly hostile rhetoric towards Russia.11 Yet, when faced with continuing protests, Lukashenka turned to Moscow expecting financial, political, and, should the situation require, military support. Past tensions were swiftly shelved as provocations from the West and plans of bilateral integration were back on the table, with Moscow gaining leverage as the regime’s nearly sole remaining ally. The mutual military liabilities in case of a threat to national security and Russia’s readiness to provide backing were actively pitched by the state media.12

President Lukashenka’s threats to use Russian forces against protesters under the pretext of “hybrid wars” waged by the West caused outrage but did nothing to abate the demonstrations. Meanwhile, Belarus’s relationships with its Western neighbors suffered major damage. In response to sanctions issued by the EU targeting key members of the state apparatus, judiciary, and media,13 Minsk resorted to retaliatory measures such as “symmetric” sanctions towards EU officials, reduction of diplomatic missions, and downgrading Belarus’s participation in the Eastern Partnership to the expert level (although this had already been done on the EU side).14 Belarus’s diplomatic corps was hit hard by a purge of the apparatus. Those who dared to voice concerns over election integrity and condemn police brutality were immediately removed from office and deprived of diplomatic rank.15 By late September, many political opponents and prominent regime critics had been jailed, expelled from the country, or fled persecution to neighboring countries.16

The year saw new political opposition structures emerge and overshadow previous ones. Failing to choose a presidential candidate in May, the “old” opposition played a progressively minor role, its members either supporting Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya17 or running on their own with marginal success.18 The Coordination Council, established on August 14 for the peaceful transition of power and formed around Tsikhanouskaya’s team, on the other hand, became a magnet attracting prominent dissidents and representatives of the opposition.19 Already by August 18, Lukashenka had commissioned an investigation that classified the council’s activities as harmful to national security and aimed at seizing power,20 which led to the forced exile of the council’s core members to Lithuania. Although domestically the fragmentation of oppositional structures, arrests, and forced exiles gradually diminished the council’s sway, and Tsikhanouskaya’s role remained symbolic, her growing recognition in the West stood in stark contrast with President Lukashenka’s increasing isolation. As evidence, the president’s secret inauguration on September 23—which, uncharacteristically, was neither announced beforehand nor broadcast live on national TV or radio21—failed to strengthen his legitimacy. However, as time went by, the number of states recognizing his reelection grew, as did the list of foreign-sanctioned persons from his entourage.

The judiciary’s subservience to the needs and requests of the regime resulted in over 900 politically motivated criminal cases.22 While the examination of witnesses via video, introduced in 2016, was widely used in politically sensitive trials, the combination of poor internet connectivity and the appearance of police witnesses disguised in balaclavas to testify rendered trials all the less transparent.23 Despite leaving the population to its own devices in tackling COVID-19, the state did not miss the opportunity to instrumentalize the pandemic in further eroding political rights and civil liberties. First, the Central Election Commission drastically limited the number of observers at polling stations during the presidential election, and then it infringed on the right of the detained to an attorney due to the “difficult epidemiological situation” while also worsening detention conditions.24

Meanwhile, Lukashenka continued to reinforce his image as a corruption fighter and urged the electorate to protect the country from oligarchs by voting for him.25 Although Belarus still has no official public oversight of civil servant incomes,26 trumped-up investigations into financial declarations were used to neutralize political opponents, with two of Lukashenka’s potential rivals, Babaryka and Tsapkala, knocked out of the presidential race on corruption-related grounds.27

No significant legislative reforms took place in 2020. But, as is typical in election years, projects for the coming five-year presidential term were actively discussed. Talk of a possible constitutional reform and redistribution of power took a somewhat more tangible form than in previous years. For example, Belarusian citizens were invited to submit their proposals for constitutional reforms,28 with so-called dialogue platforms established throughout the country. Yet, eligibility for participation in the dialogue platforms was no better defined than the mechanisms to ensure citizen input was in fact considered, therefore the project ultimately remained in the president’s hands. Consequently, the opposition perceived this move as yet another gimmick and an attempt to stall for time in hope that the imitation of dialogue would see protests gradually subside, allowing a return to the status quo.29

Although steps taken by the regime to silence alternative voices through tight control of the independent media space were not new, the scale of these repressions was unprecedented. Having blurred the distinction between reporting and participation in unauthorized mass events, the authorities went on to strip the accreditation of all foreign media working in the country.30 In addition to direct interference in the work of journalists, the state went to great lengths to cap the free flow of information: after the presidential election on August 9, the nearly complete shutdown of the internet plunged the country into information darkness for three days,31 and blocks of mobile internet service during Sunday marches continued in Minsk throughout the autumn.

For the first time in the history of independent Belarus, churches were directly affected by the political crisis. First, following his appeal to Lukashenka to stop repression, the Head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church was relieved of his post by the Holy Synod in late August.32 Shortly after, the Head of the Belarusian Catholic Church found himself barred from entering the country despite holding Belarusian citizenship.33 An unusually strong civic stance by high-ranking members of both churches prompted severe backlash from the state, with church leaders condemning violence by the state and officials criticizing those same leaders for “igniting hatred towards the state and law-enforcement agencies,” resulting in official warnings.

The year demonstrated that, without systemic political reforms, expectations of a positive trend in the state of democracy and human rights in Belarus are most likely to be thwarted. If the Lukashenka regime manages to maintain its rule in the country, an even more precipitous antidemocratic slide might become a real possibility in the near future.

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 1.001 7.007
  • In 2020, the further consolidation of authoritarian rule, coupled with a dramatic erosion of human rights, resulted in the worst setbacks for democracy in Belarus in the past two decades. Most of the events and tensions during the year turned around the presidential election held on August 9. Winning a very unlikely 80.1 percent of the vote, incumbent Aliaksandr Lukashenka continued to rule the country after 26 years in office, despite evidence of electoral misconduct.1 On September 23, in contradiction of the state’s inauguration protocol, Lukashenka entered office in a secret ceremony.2
  • The year began with atypical civic mobilization, mostly in regional centers, over the country’s extraordinary degree of corruption and poor governance, propelling activists into political prominence, like the YouTube-blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski. As the presidential campaign kicked off, Tsikhanouski and two other eminent figures—Viktar Babaryka, a Belarusian philanthropist and top banker, and Valery Tsapkala, former ambassador to the United States and head of Belarus’s Hi-Tech Park in Minsk—announced their plans to run for president, and the three attracted enormous media attention and a popular following. While civic mobilization and interest in the election increased after the jailing of Tsikhanouski and Babaryka, it wasn’t until after registration was officially denied to all three prominent candidates3 that public outrage began to translate into street protests.4
  • Following the election results on August 9, demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people erupted all over the country demanding Lukashenka’s resignation. These movements were met by police with rubber bullets, stun grenades, water cannons, and tear gas.5 By early September, United Nations (UN) human rights experts reported 450 documented cases of torture and abuse in police custody, including reports of violence towards children, sexual abuse, and threats thereof.6 If there were any doubt about the officers’ abusive actions, conversations among top security chiefs were leaked that implicated them in the cruel crackdown on dissidents and the protests; building on a long history,7 their approach was revealed to be prepared in advance, commanded from the top down, and personally endorsed by President Lukashenka himself.8
  • Following the disputed election results, the Coordination Council was formed by opposition forces rallying around Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other leaders of a united campaign (including Veranika Tsapkala and Maryia Kalesnikava) to secure an ordered transfer of power. The council quickly attracted well-known artists, lawyers, former diplomats, and other prominent figures, which led to Lukashenka’s condemning the opposition’s united campaign as a major threat to national security and commissioning a criminal investigation into an alleged unconstitutional attempt to seize power.9 By October, not a single member of the council’s presidium remained at large in Belarus; those who had not fled the country were prosecuted and jailed.
  • Confronted with unabated protests, Lukashenka confirmed that work on reforms to the constitution was underway, with a realignment of power between the branches of government and strengthening of local governance on the agenda.10 Lukashenka touched upon the possibility of delegating the formation of municipal courts to the local level, but the nomination of Supreme Court justices would remain in the president’s power. In October, the National Assembly invited the citizens of Belarus to submit their visions of constitutional reform, and Lukashenka paid a puzzling visit to the KGB prison to discuss the reform with jailed opposition members, both events perceived as attempts to soothe protests by imitating dialogue.11
  • The reshuffle in the executive and judicial branches exemplified the country’s poor state of checks and balances and promoted further consolidation of the president’s unconditionally loyal entourage, made up predominantly of individuals with security backgrounds. In early June, Lukashenka dismissed the government and replaced the reform-oriented Prime Minister Siarhei Rumas12 with Raman Halouchanka, who previously served as head of the State Military-Industrial Committee.13 A post-election purge of the apparatus affected the diplomatic corps; ambassadors to Argentina, Latvia, Slovakia, and Spain, who had all voiced concerns over election integrity and condemned the violence against protestors, were dismissed and deprived of diplomatic rank.14
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 1.001 7.007
  • Previous OSCE/ODIHR reports criticized Belarusian elections for their lack of transparency, discriminatory attitude toward the opposition, and the executive’s total control over the electoral process. None of the OSCE’s recommendations have ever been addressed, and the undemocratic conduct of the 2020 presidential election lowered the bar even further as the country witnessed increasing intolerance of political competition and a sharp rise in the number of irregularities during the election campaign, voting, and ballot counting.
  • In advance of the election, on May 21, there were 15 out of 55 initiative groups who were registered by the Central Election Commission (CEC) and given a month to pass the required threshold of 100,000 signatures,1 after which only five nominees were announced to have passed the registration. When detention prevented blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski from appearing in person to register his candidacy, the CEC denied his wife the right to act on his behalf. In desperation, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya registered herself.2 The official process of verifying collected signatures was nontransparent and disproportionately targeted opposition candidates, leaving Valery Tsapkala with fewer than the mandatory 100,000 signatures.3 Viktar Babaryka passed the threshold but was denied registration due to pending corruption-related charges.4 Frivolous arrests of campaign members and uneven campaigning opportunities were endemic throughout the election.5
  • According to official results, with voter turnout at 84.28 percent, Lukashenka secured his reelection by an astounding, and unlikely, margin of 80.1 percent of votes. He was followed by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (10.12 percent), and none of the three other candidates collected more than 2 percent.6
  • The CEC’s independence is fundamentally compromised given that the president appoints half of the commission’s 12 board members, including the chairperson. Further, the Election Code does not guarantee the representation of all candidates in lower election commissions formed by local executive and representative bodies.7
  • CEC members who refused to partake in falsifications were subject to intimidation and persecution.8 Circumstances surrounding the death of a commission member in Vaukavysk, who refused to sign the vote protocol and claimed that it was rigged, have not yet been clarified.9
  • In violation of the Election Code, the CEC instrumentalized the pandemic to limit the number of observers at any given polling station to a maximum of five on election day and three during early voting.10 This quota effectively blocked 94.5 percent of the accredited observers from performing their functions and gave a wildcard to observers from proregime associations.11 As observer reports of fraud and irregularities mounted, the authorities resorted to intimidation and arrests.12
  • Both OSCE/ODIHR and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) informed Belarus that the lack of timely invitation precluded them from observing the campaigning and candidate registration stages of the election.13 The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observation mission reported no serious violations that would cast doubt on the outcome of the election.14
  • The final report of the public initiatives Honest People, Zubr, and Golos documented falsifications at one third of polling sites and cited statistical discrepancies between polling stations that made final vote protocols public, showing an average of 13 times more votes for Tsikhanouskaya, than polling sites that did not.15 Early voting, infamous for a lack of transparency, set an all-time turnout record of 41.7 percent.16
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 1.752 7.007
  • The year 2020 witnessed an onslaught on civil society in Belarus. Most nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and public initiatives found themselves operating in an increasingly hostile environment, and the mobilization of the civic sector occurred in response to the regime’s repressive course. While official accusations of a “Western trace” in the financing, training, and coordination of the protest movement effectively equated foreign funding with meddling in Belarus’s internal affairs,1 the regime’s forced deportations and threats of persecution resulted in the formation of oppositional structures in exile.2
  • The regime’s dismissive response to the COVID-19 pandemic fueled public dissent and prompted self-organization3 in such forms as crowdfunding initiatives, cooperation with hospitals, and awareness campaigns.4 With the start of the presidential campaign in May, the surge in public participation transformed into growing politicization of the society. The fact that women played key roles in the protest movement along with the upsurge in political activism in non-metropolitan areas were novel phenomena for Belarus,5 as were local chats and unions, which first appeared in August in the form of concerts, lectures, and solidarity initiatives, and grew in significance along with the decentralization of protests. From November on, neighborhood marches as a safer and more mobile protest format came to entirely replace centrally coordinated demonstrations.6
  • In late August, Lukashenka proclaimed the principle of “state education, state schools, state ideology,” demanding that dissidents be barred from teaching.7 On September 1, over 40 students were detained as student communities joined the protests.8 In response, anti-riot police stormed the Linguistic University in Minsk on September 4, where students gathered to sing in solidarity with the protests, and arrested five individuals.9 Student demonstrations and arrests continued throughout the autumn,10 and Lukashenka’s threats to expel and draft student protesters materialized in October.11
  • The formation of strike committees was met with arrests and intimidation campaigns across state enterprises. On September 11, the Minsk Regional Court set a dangerous precedent by ruling the miners’ strike at Belaruskali12 illegal and warning that interruption of manufacturing processes would meet with an immediate response from the public prosecution service.13
  • The Ministry of Justice issued a warning that crowdfunding platforms and initiatives were illegal unless authorized by the state.14 At the same time, it was declared unlawful to support protesters, which forced the initiatives to operate either from abroad or without registration.15 On September 2, four employees of PandaDoc, whose founder launched a financial and occupational retraining initiative aimed at security officers unwilling to partake in the state’s repression or fired for their position, joined the ranks of political prisoners as the company’s office was raided by the police on fraud charges.16 On September 17, the coordinator of volunteer services of Viasna Human Rights Center was detained for “preparing persons for participation in mass riots, or financing thereof.”17 Amendments to the law on foreign financing of civil society18 made it even harder for Belarusian NGOs to survive, and on December 22, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) threatened to further tighten regulations in retaliation for EU sanctions.19 Due to its denied registration, nearly $35,000 collected by the “Imena” project for rehabilitation of police brutality victims had to be returned to the benefactors in December.
  • For the first time, churches and their leadership were directly affected by political developments. Following his appeal to the president to stop repression and investigate allegations of torture,20 the Head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), Metropolitan Pavel, was relieved of his post by the Holy Synod in late August.21 As for the Catholic Church, Lukashenka assured it would not face persecution “despite spreading anti-Lukashenka, anti-state propaganda,”22 but the president demanded that the church keep out of politics.23 On August 26, riot police blocked the doors of the Church of Saints Simon and Helena in Minsk, holding inside several dozen people, believers and fleeing protesters alike.24
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 1.251 7.007
  • The year saw a major backslide in media freedom, with the government justifying censure as a reaction to national security threats and essentially waiving the distinctions between reporting and protesting. The police routinely charged journalists with participation in unauthorized mass events, and the obligatory press vests and badges made them easy targets. Arbitrary security controls thwarted independent reporting, with at least 477 journalists arrested, 97 put in detention, and 9 currently suspects or accused in criminal cases.1 During the election campaign alone, the Belarusian Association of Journalists counted 133 cases of rights violations, including beatings, penalties on trumped-up charges, seized or damaged equipment, and unfair trials.2 Despite all that, the independent press showed extraordinary resilience and the ability to adapt and cooperate.
  • In the run-up to the presidential election, about 30 foreign journalists did not receive accreditation within the designated 20 days, which the MFA explained was due to the epidemiological crisis.3 On August 18 alone, 17 foreign journalists were stopped at the Minsk airport and barred from entering Belarus.4 On August 29, accreditation of journalists working for the BBC, Associated Press, Radio Liberty, Reuters, and numerous others was revoked.5 At least eight ARD, Associated Press, Current Time TV, and Dagens Nyheter journalists were deported with a five-year ban from entering Belarus.6 On October 2, the attacks on foreign media culminated in the MFA withdrawing the accreditation of all foreign media under the pretext of a modified accreditation procedure.7
  • Beyond regulatory ploys, some journalists became targets of police brutality, as was the case with Meduza correspondent Maksim Salopov. Following a brutal arrest on August 10, he went missing for 40 hours before interference from the Russian MFA led to his release.8 No investigation was conducted into police actions when Nasha Niva journalist Natalia Lubneuskaya was shot in the leg on August 10.9
  • From July onward, localized internet shutdowns accompanied demonstrations. To escape website blocks and unstable internet access, many websites resorted to working in a limited format on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which increasingly played a role in protest coordination.10 On August 9, a nearly complete internet shutdown followed the presidential election, plunging the country into information darkness for three days;11 until December, local internet blocks accompanied all Sunday marches and major protest events in Minsk.12
  • On August 21, the Ministry of Information attacked the already tight media space, simultaneously blocking over 70 news and civil society websites.13 Independent oversight was severely limited since there was no public access to the list of blocked media and the nontransparent blacklisting mechanism. Appeals of these decisions were hampered because the authorities provided no accounting of the alleged violations they had identified. The persecution of local nonstate newspapers through canceled printing contracts, confiscation of equipment, criminal charges, or threats thereof intensified as the protests grew increasingly decentralized, leading to the near extinction of regional printed press.14
  • Dozens of state TV and radio broadcaster staff joined the workers’ strike on August 15 in protest against state interference and demanded more balanced coverage.15 In addition to sacking those siding with the protests, the authorities carried out “instructive” arrests of defectors, as was the case with TV presenters Dzmitry Kakhno and Dzianis Dudzinski, who were penalized with 10-day detentions for participation in an unauthorized demonstration.16
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 1.251 7.007
  • Governance in Belarus is based on a high level of centralization. Since the adoption of the new constitution in 1996, all three levels of subnational executive powers are directly accountable to the central government; they have little say in decision-making and are primarily tasked with implementing instructions from above.1 Local governance (the executive) and self-governance (councils of deputies) de facto build joint entities. Self-governance bodies are elected in a public vote but act rather as an appendage to executive committees. While dependent on tax revenues for their financial well-being, local government officials have minimal influence on local taxation.2
  • The year 2020 passed without significant changes at the local governance level. Amendments to the Local Government Act came into force in March, but they brought about little practical impact and only somewhat broadened local decision-making in the domain of investment plans.3 In September, an inter-agency working group met to draft proposals on expanding the autonomy of local government and local authorities, and to analyze the relevant legislation.4 Yet, all heads of regional and district executive bodies, as well as major state enterprises and universities, continued to be nominated and dismissed by the president.5 Belarus remained the only European nation that is not a party to the European Charter of Local Self-Government.6
  • The presidential campaign demonstrated the dependency of local executive entities on the political and security policies advanced by the top levels of government. Following the disputed voting outcome, the heads of the Brest7 and Zhodzina8 executive committees conceded to pressure from protesters and held meetings with local citizens. Confronted with their demands to investigate the misconduct of locally appointed election committees and abuse of power by the police, local leaders admitted that these decisions were beyond their mandate.
  • On August 18, the Hrodna City Executive Committee and Council of Deputies published a joint address guaranteeing the right of peaceful assembly, access to media exposure, release of the detained protesters, and investigations into civil violations.9 These autonomous decisions provoked harsh criticism from Lukashenka and led to the dismissal of the Hrodna regional governor Uladzimir Krautsou. On August 21, the president, in an apparent attempt to shift focus from local grievances to national security, alluded to a planned annexation of Hrodna by NATO states.10 On August 22, the gubernatorial appointment of former health minister Uladzimir Karanik, infamous not only for his controversial handling of the COVID-19 pandemic but also for suppressing protests by medical students and workers, was “strongly suggested” by Lukashenka and unanimously approved by the members of the Hrodna Regional Council of Deputies.11
  • In June, Lukashenka announced that the time for power decentralization was ripe, and that the planned constitutional reform should bring greater autonomy to local governance bodies.12 On August 17, the president hinted at the possibility that new parliamentary and local elections could be held once the constitutional changes had been adopted.13 It was far from the first time such plans had been announced but not followed through. Indeed, a reverse trend could be observed, and a December 29 presidential decree further expanded the mandate of Lukashenka’s personal regional aides, who now focused on the issues of national security and political stability.14 Several high-profile security officers, including former internal affairs minister Yury Karaeu, were appointed to these roles amid the protests.
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 1.001 7.007
  • While formally independent on paper, Belarus’s judicial system is effectively subordinate to the executive branch. No judicial reforms took place in 2020, but the possibility of reforms was alluded to in the context of eventual constitutional changes.1 Echoing the plans to empower local governance, Lukashenka promised to delegate the nomination of judges in town, district, and regional courts to local authorities, but he insisted that appointments to the Supreme Court must remain a presidential prerogative. Presidential decrees have appointed and dismissed judges at all levels, save for 6 out of the 12 justices of the Constitutional Court, whose nomination by the National Assembly’s upper house supposedly embodies a separation of powers.
  • Apart from the appointment of Alena Murantsova as justice and a reshuffle within the Supreme Court, most of the judicial personnel changes during the year were limited to regional and municipal levels.2 Valiantsin Sukala, President of the Supreme Court, has retained his position since 1997.
  • In early September, the appointment of a new Prosecutor General showcased the subservience of the judicial branch to the executive.3 Not only did President Lukashenka bluntly demand more aggressive methods of suppressing protests,4 he also explicitly justified unlawful measures as helping to preserve stability and foil external political intervention.5
  • A lack of impartiality brought about a crisis within the legal system. Human rights experts reported at least 450 cases of torture and harassment in police custody in August alone6 and nearly 1,000 cases by the end of 2020, yet not a single criminal investigation into police actions was launched by the end of the year.7 Prisoners’ due-process rights and right to an attorney were impeded or neglected.8 The “epidemiological situation” and “technical reasons” were used to thwart opposition candidate Viktar Babaryka’s right to an attorney for a week following his arrest on June 18.9 Over 900 politically motivated criminal cases were launched in the post-election period, and human rights organizations objected to the classification of peaceful demonstrations as mass riots in which participation was designated a criminal offense.10 Between May and December, 33,000 were detained in connection with protests.11
  • Neither military nor security services were subject to public oversight, and no investigations into abuse of power by police were launched despite numerous requests by human rights organizations, the UN, PACE,12 the EU, and individual states.13 At least four protesters were killed by the police or died in police custody. While testimonies of torture, rape, threats thereof, and abduction-like arrests kept mounting,14 a list of over 300 security apparatus members to be commended for “immaculate service” was published in late August.15
  • Escalating the campaign of legal impunity, the state moved from torturing the detained to arresting those reporting torture,16 and from persecuting political opponents to arresting their attorneys. On September 9, Maksim Znak, a lawyer and board member of the Coordination Council, was arrested and charged with harming national security.17
  • In compliance with Lukashenka’s directives of 2019, the judiciary reported that it had achieved full digitalization of the Supreme Court and regional courts by September 1.18 Introduction of digital justice occurred in the form of audio and video recording of trials and the implementation of data management systems. According to the Supreme Court’s deputy president, this step was aimed primarily at protecting judges from complaints and inappropriate behavior.19 The examination of witnesses via video, introduced in 2016, saw broader use in politically sensitive trials. On many occasions, police witnesses remained disguised and testified in balaclavas or face masks.20
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 1.752 7.007
  • Despite some moves taken in 2019 towards transparency, including digitalization in public procurement, the state remained the nearly exclusive gatekeeper of corruption-related data. The limited public oversight of corruption renders official numbers virtually unverifiable. Following the trajectory of the two previous years, official data pointed to a slight decline in corruption-related crimes, with 837 cases within the first five months of 2020 against 854 in 2019.1 Belarus remained one of the few countries in its region with no public oversight of civil service incomes.2
  • Anticorruption efforts enjoyed traditionally broad coverage by the state media and were invariably supervised and commented upon by Lukashenka himself. The first presidential decree of 2020 brought amendments to the anticorruption legislation, including the introduction of five-year employment monitoring by local executive bodies of individuals dismissed in connection with discreditable conduct.3
  • Having first stepped into the political arena as head of the anticorruption commission in parliament,4 Lukashenka has continually reinforced his image as a corruption fighter, and 2020 was no exception. The war on corruption was emphasized and instrumentalized in Lukashenka’s election platform as an example of his successful governing ability.5 In particular, he guaranteed that Belarus would remain oligarch-free as long as he is in power.6
  • Most notably during the year, the state’s anticorruption activities were used as a tool to neutralize Lukashenka’s political opponents. Two of the president’s potential rivals, Viktar Babaryka and Valery Tsapkala, were disqualified from the presidential election on the trumped-up grounds of misstatements in their asset and income declarations, among other reasons.7 By that time, Babaryka, former head of the local unit of Russia’s Gazprombank, had already been arrested on tax evasion charges and denounced by Lukashenka as a “scoundrel,” with little respect for the legal presumption of innocence.8
  • Despite an overall decline in the rate of corruption crimes, a number of high-profile cases rocked the country, owing in part to incriminating spots on state TV.9 In the “sugar mafia case,” managing directors of all four state-controlled sugar factories in the country were arrested on bribery charges.10 The involvement of a key official at the Internal Affairs Ministry’s Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption made the case stand out.11 As revealed in late August, the official had at some point been released on his own recognizance.12 Additionally, in the major “bankers case,” the former undersecretary of the Security Council, Andrei Utsiuryn, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for bribery, with 15 more defendants fined or imprisoned for lengthy terms.13
  • The planned “humanistic turn” in the anticorruption legislation included the shift of focus from harsh penalties to complex bribery prevention measures, such as exemption from criminal liability in case of voluntary admission of guilt, yet also better protections for whistleblowers.14 Similar to other planned reforms, however, this project did not reach its execution stage.

Authors: Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst, is head of Sense Analytics consultancy and a nonresident scholar with Carnegie Moscow Center. Hanna Hubarava is a researcher at Sense Analytics.

  • 1. “Число коррупционных преступлений за январь-май снизилось - Генпрокуратура,” [Corruption rate decreased within January-May - Prosecutor-General’s Office], Belta, September 11, 2020 https://www.belta.by/society/view/chislo-korruptsionnyh-prestuplenij-za…
  • 2. “«На что живут, какие у них машины». Почему у нас не публикуют зарплаты правительства (а у соседей — да),” [“How they live, what cars they have”. Why we do not publish government’s salaries (and our neighbours do)], Tut.by, October 13, 2020, https://finance.tut.by/news670187.html
  • 3. “Декрет Президента Республики Беларусь 9 апреля 2020 г. № 1,” [Decree of the President of the Republic of Belarus April 9 2020 No. 1], National Legal Internet Portal of the Republic of Belarus, October 13, 2020, https://pravo.by/document/?guid=12551&p0=Pd2000001&p1=1
  • 4. “Человек-скандал. Как Лукашенко шел к победе на выборах 1994 года,” [Surrounded by scandals. Lukashenka’s road to victory in 1994 elections], Alena Spasiuk, Naviny.by, September 29, 2020, https://naviny.media/article/20200809/1596949259-chelovek-skandal-kak-l…
  • 5. “Lukashenko: Officials seeking bribes should not vote for me,” Belarusian Telegraph Agency (BelTA), October 1, 2020, https://eng.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-officials-seeking-bribes…
  • 6. “Lukashenko: There are no oligarchs in Belarus and there will be none as long as I am the president,” Belarusian Telegraph Agency (BelTA), September 10, 2020, https://eng.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-there-are-no-oligarchs-i…
  • 7. “Бабарико и Цепкало не зарегистрированы кандидатами в президенты. Тихановскую зарегистрировали,” [Babaryka and Tsapkala were not registered as presidential nominees. Tsikhanovskaya was], Alena Taukachova,Tut.by, October 13, https://news.tut.by/economics/692651.html?utm_source=news.tut.by&utm_me…
  • 8. “Belarus president accuses election rival of corruption after raid,” Andrei Makhovsky, Reuters, October 2, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/belarus-election/belarus-president-accu…
  • 9. “"Сахарное дело" на российской "прокладке". Как Лукашенко борется с коррупцией,” [“Sugar case” with Russian “filling”. How Lukashenka combats corruption], Vitalyi Tsyhankou, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, October 14, 2020, https://www.svoboda.org/a/30418876.html
  • 10. “«Сотни тысяч долларов». КГБ показал, как директора сахарных заводов брали взятки,” [“Hundreds of thousands of dollars”. KGB explains how heads of sugar factories took bribes], Tut.by, October 14, 2020, https://news.tut.by/society/671340.html
  • 11. “Бывший замначальника ГУБОПиК давал фигурантам "сахарного дела" советы по конспирации,” [Former Deputy Head of MIA’s Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption teaches persons involved in the “sugar case”clandestine security], Belta, October 1, 2020, https://www.belta.by/incident/view/byvshij-zamnachalnika-gubopik-daval-…
  • 12. “На свободу вышел фигурант «сахарного дела» Владимир Тихиня,” [Uladzimir Tsikhinya, defendant in the “sugar case”, set free], Katsiaryna Barysevich,Tut.by, October 5, 2020, https://news.tut.by/society/698008.html
  • 13. “Фигуранты "дела банкиров" Касперович и Подгорный получили 7 с половиной лет колонии,” [Defendants in the “bankers case” Kaspiarovich and Padgorny sentenced to 7,5 years of settlement], Belta, October 14, 2020, https://www.belta.by/incident/view/figuranty-dela-bankirov-kasperovich-…
  • 14. “В Генпрокуратуре предлагают изучить возможность освобождения взяткополучателя от уголовной ответственности,” [Prosecutor-General’s Office to consider relieving bribetakers of criminal responsibility], Sviatlana Isaenak, SB, October 1, 2020, https://www.sb.by/articles/metody-protiv-mzdoimstva.html

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    11 100 not free
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    38 100 not free