Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Harsher press restrictions, the possibility of food shortages, threats to evict foreign diplomats from their residences, and renewed calls for the recreation of the Soviet Union marked the 1998 rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Since assuming power in 1994, Lukashenka has harassed and expelled dissidents, repressed the news media, reintroduced a command economy, and obtained passage of a constitution to strengthen his one-man rule.
Belarus was part of the tenth-century Kievan realm. After a lengthy period of Lithuanian rule, it merged with Poland in the 1500s. It became part of the Russian Empire after Poland was partitioned in the 1700s and became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union in 1922. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, nationalist leader Stanislaw Shushkevich became head of state. A pro-Russian parliament ousted Shushkevich in 1994, and the newly created post of president was won by Lukashenka, a former state farm director and chairman of the parliament’s anti-corruption committee. After his election, Lukashenka gradually reintroduced censorship and Soviet-era textbooks and national symbols, banned independent trade unions, ignored the Supreme Court when it overturned his decrees, limited the rights of candidates in parliamentary elections, and sought reintegration with Russia. In 1996, Lukashenka extended his term and amended the country’s constitution by referendum to enable the president to annul decisions of local councils, set election dates, call parliamentary sessions, and dissolve parliament. Parliament was restructured into a bicameral legislature consisting of a house of representatives with 110 deputies and a senate, with the president appointing one-third of the senators.
In 1998, the government implemented new restrictions on media and free expression. In June, it announced that it would evict diplomats from 22 houses in the Drozdy compound outside Minsk in order to conduct urgent repairs. The dispute led Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the United States to recall their ambassadors. In October, Lukashenka called for direct elections to the parliament of the Russian-Belarus Union and for single citizenship within the union. Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Lukashenka signed a union agreement for a single state in December.
The citizens of Belarus cannot change their government democratically. President Lukashenka has instituted de facto presidential rule.
Freedom of the press is strictly curtailed. In 1998, greater restrictions were introduced to limit access to government officials and documents, and prison terms were introduced for defaming the president. Under a 1997 law, the State Committee for the Press has the right to suspend the activity of a media organ for a period of three months to one year without judicial recourse. The law also bars the importation of newspapers that “include reports that may do harm to the political and economic interests” of the country. The law was aimed at several major opposition newspapers that had been forced to move their printing operations to Lithuania in 1995. In June, the independent news agency Belapan was denied accreditation during the visit of the Russian prime minister. The State Press Committee also warned the weekly Zdravy Smysl for reporting on the edict banning government officials from providing edicts to independent media. The State Committee on Television and Radio controls broadcasting. A number of small, local, privately-owned television stations broadcast entertainment programming.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by law and usually respected in practice. Roman Catholics and Jews have complained of governmental delays in returning church property and synagogues. Even though 80 percent of the population is ethnic Belarusian, the Belarusian language educational system is being dismantled. Russian was restored as an official language in 1995. In September 1998, approximately 200 parents and public activists rallied in Minsk to protest the increasing use of Russian as the primary language for educating children.
Public rallies and demonstrations require government approval. A 1997 presidential decree curtailed freedom of assembly. In 1998, several unsanctioned demonstrations were halted by police, and marchers were detained.
There are nearly 2,000 nongovernmental organizations registered in Belarus, including educational, women’s, cultural, environmental, and business groups. Even charitable organizations have faced government pressure. Arbitrary and contradictory tax policies have led several international humanitarian groups to cease operations in Belarus.
In 1995, the president banned the Independent Free Trade Union of Belarus, the Minsk Metro Trade Union, and the Railroad and Transport Facilities Workers’ Union. In response to international pressure in 1997, the government ordered the Ministry of Justice to reregister the Free Trade Union of Belarus and register the Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (CDTU), which had earlier been denied registration. The Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus, a successor to the Soviet-era federation, claims five million members. In June 1998, the CDTU held an authorized rally to protest reduced living standards and price increases.
The judicial system is essentially the same three-tiered structure that existed during the Soviet era. Judges continue to be influenced by the political leadership. They are dependent on the Ministry of Justice for sustaining court infrastructure and on local executive branch officials for providing their personal housing. The president appoints the chairman and five other members of the Constitutional Court. The remaining six members are appointed by the Council of the Republic, which itself is composed partly of presidential appointees and partly of loyalists chosen by the Minsk City Council and six oblast councils, which are pro-government. The Criminal Code includes many provisions that are susceptible to political abuse, including a host of anti-state activities. In 1997, parliament approved new codes on criminal procedure and corrective labor. The Corrective Labor Code introduced a new form of punishment called “arrest,” which allows a suspect to be held for 30 days without charge. Security forces routinely enter homes without warrants, tap telephones, and conduct unauthorized searches.
All citizens must still carry internal passports, which serve as primary identity documents and are required for travel, permanent housing, and hotel registration. While protected by law, the right to choose one’s place of residence remains restricted in practice. All citizens are required to register their places of residence and may not change them without official permission.
The constitution guarantees property rights, but land ownership, with few exceptions, is not allowed. There are no legal restrictions on the participation of women in government, business, or education.