Belarus

Consolidated Authoritarian Regime
3
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 2.98 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 1.18 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
5 100 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 2022

  • Civil Society rating declined from 1.75 to 1.50 due to a massive purge by the authorities, forcing the emigration or liquidation of several hundred CSOs and leading to repressions against civic activists, as Minsk acted upon threats to wipe out civil society in retaliation for Western sanctions.
  • Independent Media rating declined from 1.25 to 1.00 as independent coverage was equated with extremism, independent media systematically eradicated, and journalists and staff of media outlets faced criminal prosecution on politically motivated grounds.
  • Corruption rating declined from 1.75 to 1.50 due to politically motivated criminal prosecutions of political opponents under the pretext of corruption, and restrictions on public access to information on trade and exports as a means to circumvent sanctions as well as data on public officers’ income and assets.

As a result, Belarus’s Democracy Score declined from 1.29 to 1.18.

header2 Executive Summary

After the dramatic setback in the state of democracy in Belarus during 2020—a year in which Aliaksandr Lukashenka claimed to have won a new term as president after a deeply fraudulent election, then oversaw a vicious crackdown on the protest movement that arose in response to his power grab—there seemed to be little potential left for further deterioration. Yet 2021 proved otherwise, as the year witnessed an unprecedented erosion of the rule of law and a worrisome increase in the societal divide fueled by hate speech from authorities and state-affiliated media. Decried as “crooked” political opponents with “misguided” supporters, the opposition and protesters were variously portrayed by authorities as the betrayer (trained by the West), “Nazi” devotee, and bloodthirsty terrorist. Officials no longer shunned open calls for “purges,”1 “mop-up operations,” and extrajudicial “preemptive” vindication, both in Belarus and abroad,2 testifying to a remarkable escalation since calls for violence and repressions used to reach the broader public mostly through leaks.3

Mutual distrust continued to grow during the year: even with the COVID-19 pandemic again on the rise, suspicions that funds could be misused led the opposition to protest international relief aid.4 In the fall, as another wave of coronavirus hit Belarus and the official daily death toll doubled compared to the worst months of 2020,5 Lukashenka’s overt demonstration of COVID dissidence6 resulted in the lifting of public restrictions. While social networks responded with a “Wear a mask if you are against Lukashenka” flash mob, and the office of opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya attempted to negotiate the import of European vaccines to Belarus,7 the newly introduced mask mandate was promptly scrapped following criticism from Lukashenka.8

As street protests subsided over the winter and renewed protests in the spring failed to materialize, demonstrations as a social stress factor ceased to exist. Consequently, the government’s earlier promises of power redistribution and strengthening of local governance, made “under duress” in 2020, were no longer to be heard by early 2021. Even as the Kremlin showed signs of impatience with Minsk about the lack of promised reforms,9 the little progress made was devoid of direction and appeared to be a stall for time.

The year saw several changes related to power distribution, none of which was indicative of democratization. While the expansion of powers among Lukashenka’s special aides, particularly those with security backgrounds, pointed to a further empowerment of the security apparatus, experiments in institutional restructuring included establishment of the Council of Elders (as a consultative body within the parliament), strengthening the role of the Security Council (including the much-discussed Decree No. 2, see “National Democratic Governance”),10 and contradictory visions as to the mandate and status of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (ABPA).

Press releases by law enforcement became rife with “postponed justice” reports of identification and prosecution of 2020 protest participants11 as well as those charged with posting defamatory statements and comments about state officials (including in private chats).12 Increasingly, even neutrally formulated messages casting doubt on the heroism of law enforcement led to criminal prosecution, and more than 200 individuals were arrested for negative comments on the death of a KGB agent in late September.13 It was no coincidence that recipients of presidential awards overlapped with names on international personal sanctions lists, as judges and prosecutors, security apparatus members, public officers, and state propagandists were thus compensated for their loyalty to the Lukashenka regime.14

The year was marked by an absence of prominent corruption cases. Anticorruption activities stepped into the spotlight primarily as criminal prosecutions of political opponents.15 While 2021 saw the adoption of new and amended laws simplifying crackdowns on dissent, in most cases repressions were simply based on broader interpretation or questionable application of existing legislation. Whereas combatting corruption used to be part of Lukashenka’s election platform, the year saw a curb in monitoring enterprises owned by businesspersons from Lukashenka’s entourage as Minsk attempted to both circumvent Western restrictions and block the tracking of the impact of sanctions.16

Belarus’s relations with its neighbors (barring Russia) developed into a permanent diplomatic crisis marked by such emergencies as the repressions against Polish associations,17 the launch of an investigation against the Latvian Foreign Minister and the Mayor of Riga over a flag swap,18 the Tokyo Olympics scandal,19 and more. The diversion of Ryanair flight FR4978 to Minsk in May and the migration crisis on the Belarus-EU borders marked a point when the country’s internal problems transformed into a regional challenge: if, in 2020, Western sanctions were triggered by violations of rights and freedoms within Belarus,50 in 2021, they testified to the realization that Lukashenka’s rule had become a threat to regional security. The diversion of the Ryanair flight (en route from Athens to Vilnius)20 in order to arrest opposition activist Raman Pratasevich was recognized internationally as an assault on civil aviation norms, air piracy, and “hijacking”; the European Union reacted with a complete ban of Belarusian airlines in its airspace21 and the first ever package of sectoral economic sanctions.22

An abrupt rise in illegal Belarus-EU crossings over the summer and fall led Lithuania,23 Latvia,24 and Poland25 to introduce an emergency state and was condemned by European governments as “politically motivated people trafficking.”26 The migration crisis directly followed Lukashenka’s threats to suspend Belarus’s border-control obligations;27 in fact, a bill regulating Belarus’s withdrawal from the readmission agreement with the EU was unanimously adopted by the parliament in October.28 Meanwhile, dire living conditions of migrants who found themselves stuck at the border and instrumentalized in a political showdown resulted in health issues and fatalities.

Russia, on the other hand, remained among the few states maintaining working relations with Lukashenka’s government, the latter turning to Moscow for both financial support and military cooperation.29 Raising concerns over Belarus’s gradual loss of sovereignty, these close ties posed risks of intensifying anti-integration dissent and fueling protests.

Neither expressions of concern by the global community nor sanctions had the desired effect on Minsk. If anything, they provided the authorities with an opportunity to blackmail the West with the annihilation of Belarusian civil society.30 The negative trend continued throughout 2021 in waves of repressions referred to, with disarming honesty, as “purges” by Lukashenka himself.31 Both the scale and speed of these government actions were unprecedented,32 leading to an even greater aggravation of the human rights situation. Lukashenka’s hostile rhetoric was often followed with prompt implementation by law enforcement.33 Although detentions, raids, and interrogations used to be acceptable risks for some media, by mid-2021, the very possibility of choice had been eliminated with the inclusion of dozens of newspapers and news portals on the authorities’ list of prohibited extremist materials.

The state’s ambition to control dissent spread into the domain of religion, which was increasingly talked of as if it were an extension of state ideology. In what appeared to be an attempt to win the sympathies of conservative populations, the definition of marriage as a “union of man and woman” was included in draft constitutional amendments. Lukashenka voiced concerns that “state enemies” allegedly intended “to break the true Orthodoxy” and import church dissent, promising to combat autocephaly,34 while the Catholic church was warned against “looking for trouble.”35

The largest wave of repressions, however, took its toll in July and August following the fourth package of EU sanctions,36 wreaking havoc on Belarus’s media landscape and civil society and forcing their remnants into exile or underground. Indeed, by mid-2021, Minsk had embraced “scorched earth” tactics, with civil society condemned as an imported tool of “hybrid warfare,” a disseminator of democratic ideology alien to Belarus’s traditional norms and values—that is, an opponent to no longer tolerate but rather eliminate at once. Most of the CSOs under attack were far from any involvement in issues potentially conflicting with state policies and ranged from ecology, education, and the arts to HIV-awareness initiatives and support for the disabled. With nearly 300 CSOs shut down in 2021, international and regional cooperation in the spheres of culture, education, research, and the environment inevitably came to a halt. By October, not a single officially operating human rights organization had survived.37 This, coupled with the near complete annihilation of nonstate media, had a grave effect on the disclosure and documentation of human rights violations.

header3 At a Glance

During the year, Belarus’s national and local government systems remained highly dependent on the president and unaccountable to the public. Violations in the conduct and ballot count of the 2020 presidential election led to a lingering political crisis, with plans in sight to further cement rule by barring opponents from seeking office. Independent media were closed or driven into exile as pervasive censorship was replaced by the widespread application of extremism charges for independent reporting. Civil society faced excessive control and was referred to as a hostage, until it was nearly wiped out. With all high-ranking positions filled by the president or conditional on his consent, local executives are filtered based on loyalty to the president and the regime’s ideology. Rule of law remains subordinate to the authorities, while Belarusian law itself is changed to legitimize repressions. Allegations and prosecutions of corruption are used to discredit or remove political opponents, while public oversight of corruption is hampered by the lack of access to data.

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
  • The year 2021 was marked by frenzied legislative activity aimed at criminalizing and silencing dissent, the legitimization of repressive measures in practice, and further monopolization of power and public discourse.1 Acting under the pretext of “protection of national security,” penalties were introduced or enhanced for the publication of “false information discrediting Belarus,” libel, and collection of data constituting a state secret, as well as extremism, demonstrations, and resistance to police. As of late November, the human rights organization Viasna had counted 888 political prisoners in Belarus, 589 of whom were detained in 2021.2
  • Belarus’s legislature, judiciary, and law enforcement demonstrate a near complete lack of autonomy. In 2021, whatever was requested by Aliaksandr Lukashenka—who retained the presidency in practice despite the fraudulent nature of his 2020 reelection—quickly received rubber-stamp legitimization (such as enacting criminal prosecution on calls for sanctions against the regime),3 or was carried out in disregard of existing legislation (such as crackdowns on media, CSOs, and activists).4 Despite talk of a need to reinvigorate the party landscape, no new political parties were granted registration in 2021; meanwhile, the leadership of existing political parties faced prosecution for voicing criticism of the authorities.5
  • Presidential decrees and edicts, which allow existing legislation to be amended and thereby sidestepping parliamentary debate, constituted a significant share of the year’s legislative changes, covering a spectrum of issues from privatization of state property (see “Local Democratic Governance”) to the potential assassination of the president. Edict No. 2 dd. 9 May6 on protecting sovereignty and constitutional order provisioned a power transit to the Security Council in the case of the president’s assassination as well as the declaration of a state of emergency or martial law. While the constitution prescribes a temporary transfer of power to the prime minister for such scenarios, the edict endows the Security Council with presidential powers.
  • “In implementation of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly’s provisions,” Presidential Edict No. 1057 established the Constitutional Commission in March, which is charged with preparing the constitutional amendments proposal to be put to a referendum in February 2022.8 Both the ABPA (expected to become a governing body through the constitutional amendments) and the commission boasted non-transparently elected lists of participants:9 these rosters were composed mainly of loyal state and local officials, and leadership of state-run enterprises, state-affiliated unions, and organizations—the positions filled top-down from Minsk or by Lukashenka’s regional aides.10
  • The constitutional referendum expected in early 2022 seems to offer a choice between two versions of the constitution, both designed to Lukashenka’s liking—the version adopted in 1996 or the new amendments.11 Not only is the process designed so that Lukashenka may discard or send back for revision any amendments he rejects,12 the president may also openly demand that the amendments ensure his opponents are excluded from political competition.13 The draft amendments preserve a highly centralized hierarchy, with a president who wields the power to appoint all of the country’s key positions, and eliminate the possibility to recall deputies through public motions of no confidence (to “prevent destructive forces from exercising manipulative effect” on the House of Representatives) as well as limit the presidency to two five-year terms.14
  • The year 2021 saw a deepening15 of Belarus’s military cooperation with Russia, including a five-year partnership plan16 and establishment of joint combat training centers,17 as Minsk threatened further integration with Russia in response (or retaliation) to Western sanctions. By early September, agreement had been reached on all 28 Union State roadmaps (programs) aimed at deepening integration.18 While discussions took place behind closed doors and the texts of the programs remained secret, their gist was for the first time presented to the broader public.19
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
  • Although no elections took place in Belarus in 2021, nonrecognition of the previous year’s presidential election outcomes by the majority of the global community on the one hand,1 and prosecution of Lukashenka’s rivals and opponents on the other,2 pointed to a lingering political crisis.3
  • Lukashenka’s 2020 electoral opponents who were perceived as posing a risk to the political status quo faced either criminal prosecution or the launch of an investigation (for those in exile and out of reach). In July 2021, Viktar Babaryka, imprisoned in the run-up to the 2020 election and denied candidacy registration on questionable grounds, was sentenced to 14 years in prison on corruption charges he denied.4 In early September, Babaryka’s campaign manager Marya Kalesnikava and lawyer Maxim Znak, both of whom served as chairpersons of the ad hoc oppositional Coordination Council, were jailed for 11 and 10 years, respectively, following a year in pretrial detention. In February, Valery Tsapkala (also denied candidacy registration) faced a request for extradition from Latvia to Belarus, which was dismissed by Riga as politically motivated prosecution.5 Similarly, in July, Lithuania refused to extradite Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya against whom Minsk had launched a criminal investigation for organizing riots.6 The trial against her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, likewise denied registration and arrested in May 2020 for allegedly assaulting the police, is ongoing,7 with Tsikhanouski facing 4 criminal charges and up to 15 years in jail.8
  • Against ample evidence of 2020 election irregularities and downright violations,9 no investigations were launched into the work of election commissions.10 Instead, those who openly doubted the voting results and criticized the authorities for election fraud were often prosecuted on charges of contempt, defamation, libel, and instigation of hatred.11 Minsk has so far voiced no plans to carry out electoral reforms to remove the shortcomings identified by the opposition and international bodies such as OSCE and PACE.12
  • Despite plans13 announced during the 2021 ABPA to hold the constitutional referendum and local elections jointly in early 2022, a constitutional amendment postponing local elections from early 2022 to late 2023 was adopted by the National Assembly (parliament) in the second reading.14 Elections are now to be held on a single election day together with the parliamentary election.15 This postponement was widely interpreted as an attempt to avoid a protest trigger and strip the opposition of an opportunity for campaigning amidst the political crisis.
  • The constitutional amendment draft (unofficially published by Constitutional Commission member Yury Vaskrasenski)16 includes decorative changes to the political system that fail to guarantee fair conduct of elections, expand the role of political parties, or ensure real separation of powers. Other election-related proposals from the commission were a limit of two five-year presidential terms along with tighter qualifications for presidential candidates, including the requirement to have lived permanently in the country for 20 years prior to an election and a prohibition against individuals who have previously held foreign citizenship or a foreign residence permit. Neither the constitutional amendment draft nor the referendum were welcomed by the opposition, who believed both to be yet another regime gimmick to “create an illusion of legitimacy and justify the power grab” by forcing citizens to choose between two of “Lukashenka’s constitutions.”17 In response, joint democratic forces around Tsikhanouskaya’s office drafted a “people’s constitution,” launched an online platform for its discussion, and presented their final version in October.18 The document provisioned the decentralization of power and clear demarcation of government branches, including the transition from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, direct elections for all delegates, as well as the election of heads of local executive bodies by local delegates (instead of their appointment by Lukashenka).
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. 1.502 7.007
  • Sprawling grassroots groups1 were seen as a threat. Authorities launched a “mop up” operation banning local chats on such messenger services as Telegram and Viber as “extremist,”2 arresting their administrators3 and prosecuting active participants.4
  • New amendments to the Labor Code effective since June made activists and whistle-blowers particularly vulnerable;5 employers may now fire employees for participating in a strike or leaking information without consultation with the trade union. On September 23, Lukashenka commanded that “spies” at state industrial enterprises must be identified and “jailed for long,” referring to those allegedly collecting information on how enterprises circumvent Western sanctions.6 The command coincided with a wave of arrests and interrogations targeting the Rabochy Rukh (Workers Movement) strike initiative, which was classified as extremist on September 21.7
  • Repressions against student activists and organizations continued during the year. In March, police raided the Imaguru start-up hub in Minsk8 where a meeting of the League of Student Unions was underway, detaining almost 30 participants. On July 16, the “student case” trial against students and university staff activists resulted in prison terms of 2 to 2.5 years for all of the defendants.9
  • Opportunities for academic mobility grew even scarcer with the closing of international educational programs by Goethe Institut and DAAD,10 liquidation of independent schools and hubs, and even private kindergartens condemned as “hotbeds of color revolution.”11 Hostility against education abroad also increased, culminating in Lukashenka warning “brainwashed” students from returning to Belarus, labeling them “if not enemies, then opponents of the state.”12 To enhance the consistency of patriotic education of children and the “reeducation of parents” with state ideology,13 mandatory military-patriotic education in schools was introduced in September, accompanied by a network of military summer camps for children rolled out nationwide.14 A network of Polish language schools and cultural centers experienced intensive control and police raids,15 while an investigation16 into alleged rehabilitation of Nazism and arrests of several Union of Poles members led to mutual expulsion of diplomats and a near severance of diplomatic relations with Poland.17
  • While the Orthodox Church celebrated a “new strategy of cooperation” with the authorities and received approval to conduct religious education electives at public schools,18 the Catholic Church found itself under attack from officials and state media alike, from allusions to its affiliation with the West19 to a front-page caricature20 presenting the Catholic clergy as Nazis in a state newspaper. Although repressions against Orthodox clergy also continued, these efforts came from within the Orthodox Church in the form of removal or defrocking.21
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. 1.001 7.007
  • The previous year’s crackdown on independent media not only continued but intensified in 2021. Despite their remarkable resilience, virtually all major independent media outlets were gradually shut down, driven into exile or underground, or forced into self-censorship, particularly regarding topics that might irritate the authorities, which in turn led to greater polarization of the media and a decline in the quality of content and breadth of coverage.1
  • The year also witnessed the annihilation of all major independent journalism associations, including PEN Center2 and Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ),3 as well as numerous newspapers and media outlets.4 The regional press were not spared, with at least 38 cases of repression of local media, including police searches, arrests, and detentions targeting the few remaining independent regional press outlets on “black” Thursday and Friday, July 8–9, alone.5
  • Whereas access to web portals blocked by the Ministry of Information used to be impeded but was still viable via VPN, this inconvenience gave way in 2021 to risks and real cases of prosecution for the distribution of “extremist” materials, even in private correspondence. The list of banned materials grew by over 200 new entries, mostly independent media outlets and social network chats and channels (such as on Telegram, VK, and Viber). This represents a dramatic increase compared to the mere 21 and 19 entries in 2019 and 2020, respectively.6 The growing risks from placing advertisements with out-of-favor nonstate media has led to the sector’s struggle for financial survival.7
  • Media coverage of Raman Bandarenka’s death8 in November 2020 (see “Judicial Framework and Independence”) and subsequent protests led to three prison terms for journalists, with Daria Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyeva (Belsat) sentenced to two years for streaming from a memorial protest for Bandarenka, and Katsyaryna Barysevich (Tut.by) sentenced to six months in jail for “disclosure of medical secrets, which led to grave consequences.”9
  • In May, repressions against the press culminated in the crackdown on Tut By Media and a number of its affiliates,10 which deprived the Belarusian media landscape of its largest independent news portal. A criminal investigation of grand tax evasion is ongoing with suspects and their attorneys bound by a gag order. A similar repressive tactic was employed to target news agencies, such as BelaPAN11 and the Belarusian-language newspaper Nasha Niva,12 namely, through police raids, detentions, and arrests of staff and investigations into tax evasion; both BelaPAN and Nasha Niva also saw access to their websites restricted by the Ministry of Information.
  • Continuing a 2020 trend, state printing houses refused to print newspapers that had fallen out of favor, and the Belarusian Post unilaterally excluded them from subscription catalogues (Novy Chas, Intex Press, and Narodnaya Volya).13 Sellers canceled distribution agreements, draining subscription earnings and bringing dozens of large and local newspapers alike to the brink of bankruptcy.14
  • State media and state-affiliated social media channels played an ever larger role in spreading state propaganda, with state media not shying away from collaborations with and reposts from Telegram channels known for hate speech as well as racist, homophobic, misogynist, and anti-Semitic statements.15 By fall 2021, even media collaborations with law enforcement were no longer concealed: while the former published sensitive information obtained from seized equipment (such as screenshots of private correspondence) or from interrogations, which could only have been obtained from the police, the authorities ignored all violations and instead bestowed prominent propagandists with state awards.16 State propaganda contributed to the widening political divide in society by claiming that opponents had an adherence or even genetic predisposition to “Nazi” ideology, and instigating hatred by speaking of political opponents in dehumanizing terms (“snakes,” “parasites,” “rodents,” and “mortal foes”) or deriding them as prostitutes, homosexuals, and mentally challenged.17
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
  • The year 2021 saw no progress in the empowerment of local authorities, as governance in Belarus remained highly centralized. Subnational executive powers are directly accountable to the central government, have little to no say in decision-making, and are primarily tasked with implementing instructions from Minsk.1 Bodies of local governance (the executive) and self-governance (councils of deputies) de facto build joint entities; although the latter are formally elected by public vote, they in fact amount to a weak appendage to executive committees. Belarus remained the only European nation that is not a party to the European Charter of Local Self-Government.
  • No local elections took place in 2021. A constitutional amendment postponing local elections from early 2022 to late 2023 was adopted by the National Assembly, introducing a single election day for both local and parliamentary elections (see “Electoral Process”).2
  • While the few legislative acts of 2021 only somewhat broadened local economic decision-making, the possibility of meaningful participation in establishing the political agenda remained nearly nonexistent. Although two of the four presidential decrees concerned the mandate of municipal executive bodies, these merely introduced additional control over advertising (Decree No. 3 dd. 6 July)3 and delegated the coordination of privatizing agro-processing public corporations to local authorities (Decree No. 4 dd. 22 July).4
  • As had often been the case before,5 discussions of power decentralization presented by the state media during the year as evidence of modernization ultimately fell silent without any progress. Lukashenka continued to personally appoint and dismiss all heads and some members of the region, city, town, and district executive bodies as well as the leadership of major state enterprises and universities, explicitly setting, as prerequisites, adherence to state ideology and loyalty to the existent political system.6 Even those appointments at lower levels carried out by the local executive (such as at schools and hospitals)7 depend on approval from Minsk and can be promptly revoked if appointees fall out of favor.
  • Presidential Edict No. 503 (issued in December 2020)8 significantly expanded the mandate of Lukashenka’s personal “aides” (regional inspectors). The expansion officially concerned issues of national security and threats thereto, such as control over sociopolitical and socioeconomic developments, but also maintenance of domestic political stability. Since 2020, these positions have been filled primarily with high-ranking former security officers from the KGB and Security Council9 (some of whom are listed on international sanctions lists),10 adding to the further militarization of local executive authorities.11 In April, Lukashenka demanded that these regional authorities prioritize personnel policy and the economy.12
  • Thwarting expectations that the constitutional reform could bring stronger autonomy to local governance bodies, the little information revealed so far about the draft amendments shows no signs of real power decentralization.13 Belarus will remain a presidential republic with a rigid power vertical, and a lack of progress obscured by the illusion of stronger representation.
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
  • Although formally independent, Belarus’s judicial system is effectively subordinate to the executive branch. Lukashenka’s 2020 talk of judicial reform within the planned constitutional amendments, such as allowing local authorities to nominate municipal judges, has so far seen no results—or, at least, has not been mentioned by the Constitutional Commission. Presidential edicts continued to be used to appoint and dismiss judges at all levels,1 save for 6 out of 12 justices of the Constitutional Court nominated by the Council of the Republic (parliament’s upper house).
  • Despite ample evidence of arbitrary arrest, harassment, torture, and death in police custody,2 not a single investigation against law enforcement was completed in 2021.3 Numerous firsthand accounts of harassment and torture in prisons and detention centers were also reported during the year.4 In late August, the Investigation Committee dismissed legal complaints by persons detained during the 2020 protests and refused to launch investigations into violations by law enforcement.5 In the few cases where an investigation was launched, these processes were eventually suspended, as in September when the Prosecutor General’s Office suspended legal proceedings over the death of Raman Bandarenka (attacked in November 2020 by progovernment activists including, reportedly, the former head of the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association, Dzmitry Baskau, and Lukashenka’s spokesperson, Natallia Eismant) due to the “inability to identify the suspected offender.”6
  • The chances of acquittal in a criminal case in Belarus remained extremely low. While guilty verdicts were reached in 99.7 percent of cases in 2020,7 in the first half of 2021, this figure rose to 99.85 percent; of 16,134 court decisions, only 24 resulted in acquittals.8 According to a 2021 estimate by the Viasna Human Rights Center, roughly a thousand individuals were convicted on politically motivated criminal charges following the 2020 presidential election, almost half of whom were sent to prison.9 The principle of fair trial was systematically violated, and several dozen Belarusian judges and prosecutors appeared on international sanctions lists for reasons including, among others, violating the rights to a defense and a fair trial; sentencing journalists, activists, and whistle-blowers to long-term prison sentences; relying on statements from questionable anonymous witnesses; and undermining the rule of law in general.10 Unlike Belarus’s other neighbor states, Russia satisfied Minsk’s extradition requests in violation of European Court of Human Rights rulings.11
  • Whereas human rights organizations were the primary source of information on the detained and arrested in 2020, their capacities dramatically diminished over the course of 202112 due to intensified repressions against their staff and volunteers.13 Since statistics published by the Supreme Court do not specify this information, a public petition was launched for the police to provide data on detentions for participating in unauthorized mass events. In September, the Ministry of Interior announced that the petition had been rejected on the pretext that the requested information could “be used to discredit the law enforcement” and “negatively impact public order.”14
  • While “epidemiological measures” and denied accreditation were used to keep journalists, human rights advocates, and activists out of courtrooms, the new Code of Execution Procedure for Administrative Offenses, operative since March 2021, officially allowed closed court proceedings in administrative litigations. Most politically sensitive trials of criminal cases were conducted behind closed doors as well,15 which, in combination with forced nondisclosure agreements, severely limited public oversight of criminal proceedings. In August, United Civic Party leader Mikalai Kazlou—whose unwillingness to testify against himself and sign a nondisclosure agreement had previously been interpreted as noncompliance with police demands, resulting in 15 days of detention—was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison for disclosure of details in an investigation into the Coordination Council’s activities.16
  • The new attorney law, which came into force on November 1, bans private attorneys working individually or in private firms from participating in litigation processes, meaning that those seeking defense in court may resort only to state-created consulting chambers. Furthermore, dozens of lawyers working on politically sensitive cases saw their licenses revoked on dubious grounds.17
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. 1.502 7.007
  • In 2021, the presence of corruption in Belarus increased while the means for monitoring corrupt activities shrank with new restrictions on public access to data on trade and exports. While in previous years the war on corruption was emphasized and incorporated into Lukashenka’s election platform as a claim that Belarus would remain oligarch-free as long as he was in power,1 the year 2021 saw a curb in monitoring enterprises owned by businesspersons from Lukashenka’s entourage. Minsk aimed to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions as well as impede the ability of observers to track their effects, hiding foreign trade statistics for exports of potash, oil, oil products, and machine-building.2 With such sectors dominated by state monopolies and state-affiliated oligarchs, these steps significantly limit the potential for monitoring and thus enable corruption. In July, Lukashenka carried out a new reshuffle of personnel specifically in response to the fourth package of sanctions; Lukashenkaappointed a new head of the Belarusian Oil Company along with the demand that restrictions imposed by “Western thugs” be swiftly circumvented.3
  • Belarus remained one of the few countries with no public oversight of its public officers’ income. The war on corruption was again4 instrumentalized to enable prosecutions in politically motivated cases,5 which diminished international anticorruption cooperation. Neighbor states continued to reject extradition requests from Minsk, as in February 2021 when Riga rejected the extradition request for Lukashenka’s 2020 political opponent Valery Tsapkala, wanted by the Investigation Committee on charges of “a range of corruption-related activities” and bribery.6 In June 2021, Viktar Babaryka—the former head of Belgazprombank and a popular political contender arrested in June 2020 ahead of the presidential election—was sentenced in a closed trial to 14 years in jail for money laundering, bribery, and tax evasion. Babaryka denied the charges, asserting his innocence by pointing to the regular state controls and audits the bank had successfully passed before the election campaign.7
  • Since 2020, law enforcement specializing in anticorruption activities (namely, the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption, GUBOPiK) were directly involved in repressions and violence against protesters and dissidents. This, along with threats to use lethal force against protesters, led to the inclusion of GUBOPiK’s former head Mikalai Karpiankou on all lists of personal sanctions by Western states.8
  • While data on public officers’ income and assets were hardly transparent before, a new 2021 law on the protection of personal information now blocks any overview of real property. As a consequence, all data on immovables owned by officials has disappeared from public access.9
  • During the year, the state system not only remained the gatekeeper of corruption-related data but also further limited public oversight by concealing information on foreign trade in response to Western economic sanctions targeting state and state-affiliated companies.10 With secrecy crucial to the schemes to circumvent sanctions, a hunt for those suspected of leaking information was launched with Lukashenka’s command to identify “spies at state enterprises”11 (see “Civil Society”).

Authors:

Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst and head of Sense Analytics consultancy and a nonresident scholar with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hanna Hubarava, researcher at Sense Analytics.

On Belarus

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    8 100 not free
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    31 100 not free