Freedom in the World
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Belarus received a downward trend arrow for the government's failure to ensure free and fair presidential elections and for its continued suppression of independent media and civil society.
The year 2001 marked Belarus's tenth anniversary of post-Soviet independence, but the country has little to show for it. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka heads an autocratic regime that disregards basic political rights and civil liberties, and the country's economic system is indistinguishable from that of the former Soviet command system. If President Lukashenka succeeds in reuniting Belarus with Russia in the coming years, independence could prove fleeting.
Despite accusations that the president has directed a government-sponsored death squad aimed at silencing his opponents, Lukashenka proved victorious in the 2001 presidential election. Western nations declared the vote unfree and unfair. Domestic supporters of opposition candidate Vladimir Goncharik accused the government of falsifying the results and claimed that no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote--an outcome that, by law, would have forced a second round of voting.
When Belarus declared independence in 1991, it ended centuries of foreign ascendancy by Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and ultimately the Soviet Union. Stanislaw Shushkevich, a reform-minded leader, served as head of state from 1991 to 1994. That year voters made Alyaksandr Lukashenka the country's first post-Soviet president. He has pursued a close union with Russia, subordinated the government and courts to his political whims, denied citizens basic rights and liberties, and ruled by decree ever since.
In a 1996 referendum, Belarusian citizens favored constitutional amendments that extended Lukashenka's term by two years, broadened presidential powers, and created a new bicameral parliament. When the president ignored a court ruling that the referendum was nonbinding, Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir resigned in protest. Most Western nations have refused to recognize the 1996 Constitution or the new parliament. Instead, they recognize the pre-1996 Supreme Soviet as the legitimate legislative body.
Seven opposition parties boycotted the October 2000 parliamentary elections when the government failed to ensure a fair campaign and to give parliament more substantial duties. Some opposition candidates participated in the election, but only three received a mandate. The election commission reported voter turnout at 60 percent, but the opposition accused the commission of falsifying the number and declared the election invalid.
Although Belarusian citizens had three presidential candidates from which to choose on September 9, 2001, the outcome was never in doubt. During the campaign, the government and its supporters harassed would-be candidates and independent media. They also sought votes in exchange for promises of better wages. On election day, the president declared himself the victor with more than 70 percent of the vote.
If one can glean anything positive from the election, it is the role played by opposition parties and civil society. Although the opposition parties backing Vladimir Goncharik represented a broad political spectrum, they agreed on one thing: defeating Lukashenka. Their decision to rally around a single candidate represented an important step in their development. In 2000, they could not even agree on whether to participate in the parliamentary elections. Likewise, although Belarusian civil society is still weak, large numbers of citizens worked together to educate voters about their constitutional rights and alternatives to the current regime. Throughout the country, small groups led programs to encourage high voter turnout, especially among the country's younger generation.
Despite a constitutional guarantee of universal, equal, and direct suffrage, citizens of Belarus cannot change their government democratically. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe considers Belarus' electoral framework "fundamentally flawed" because the president rules by decree, voting and tabulation processes lack transparency, restrictions on campaigning are excessive, electoral commissions lack sufficient independence, the work of independent observers is limited, and the opportunities to challenge decisions of the Central Election Commission are few. These flaws characterized the September 2001 presidential election in which President Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a decisive victory, with 78 percent of the vote, over candidates Vladimir Goncharik, 12 percent, and Sergei Gaidukevich, 2 percent. Opposition parties claimed that Lukashenka received 47 percent of the vote and Goncharik 41 percent. Since the election, there have been reports of arrests and firings of state employees and bureaucrats who cooperated with the opposition.
In October 2000, Belarus held elections to the Chamber of Representatives, parliament's lower house. State media coverage of the campaign was limited and biased, and approximately half of all opposition candidates were denied registration. Nongovernmental organizations reported irregularities such as ballot box stuffing and tampering with voter registration lists. In November 2000, delegates from local councils elected senators to the Republic, parliament's upper house.
The year 2001 marks the five-year anniversary of Belarus's union treaty with Russia. The two countries have signed several treaties calling for a single currency, uniform tax laws, a shared securities market, and a common defense policy. They also plan to create a supreme council, a cabinet of ministers, a parliament, and a court. Progress in implementing these plans has slowed, however, and Russian enthusiasm for the union has waned. In 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to give Lukashenka a clear endorsement in the presidential election and made clear that "a necessary precondition of [the union] is commitment to . . . freedom and democracy."
The Lukashenka regime systematically curtails press freedoms. State media are subordinated to the president, whose administration controls decisions on content and the appointment of senior editors. Harassment and censorship of independent print media are routine. Some independent electronic media do exist. The Law on Press and Other Media prohibits media coverage of any association not registered with the state, and severely limits the media's ability to criticize public officials. The State Press Committee can issue warnings to publishers for unauthorized activities such as changing a publication's title or distributing copies abroad. It also can arbitrarily shut down publications without court orders.
Suppression of the media did not abate in 2001. During the presidential election campaign, in particular, government authorities confiscated equipment from Magic, an independent printing house, and from the newspapers Volny Horad, Belaruska Ushod, and Narodnaya Volya. They also seized 400,000 copies of a special election issue of Nasha Svaboda. Parliament is considering a draft law on information security that, critics claim, will place even more restrictions on the media.
Although the constitution guarantees religious freedom, government decrees and registration requirements limit the activities of many religious groups. In 2001, for example, the Keston Institute reported that the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs had denied Ukrainian pastor Veniamin Brukh permission to serve the Church of Jesus Christ in Minsk. Although the church filed all necessary paperwork, a representative of the state committee declared that Belarus was educating enough native pastors and, therefore, had "no need for [Brukh]." The government openly favors the Belarusian Orthodox Church.
The Lukashenka government rigorously limits freedom of assembly and association. Protests and rallies require authorization from local authorities, who can arbitrarily withhold or revoke permission. Police regularly break up and arrest participants in public demonstrations, particularly those sponsored by journalists or opposition groups. In advance of the 2001 presidential election, the government took several steps against civil society. One presidential decree banned foreign contributions to nongovernmental organizations that engage in political activities, and another placed tighter restrictions on public gatherings and demonstrations involving more than 1,000 people. Parliament also amended the civil code in an effort to limit the work of foreign organizations that have offices in Belarus. In December 2001, when the supreme court shut down the Union of Belarusian Students (ZBS), the group's leader accused Lukashenka of "persecuting students ... [who] voted against him."
Belarus has a three-tiered judiciary and a constitutional court. The constitution calls for judicial independence, but courts are subject to weighty government influence. Opposition members, independent journalists, and other persons who oppose government policies experience arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. The right to a fair trial is not always respected. In 2001, police arrested Alyaksandr Chyhir, the son of former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, on charges of automobile theft. According to the younger Chyhir, the government trumped up the charges on him and two other men in retaliation for his father's opposition to the Lukashenka regime.
The constitution outlines a range of personal liberties and freedoms, but the government honors them selectively. Wiretapping by state security agencies limit the right to privacy; arbitrary search and seizure compromises the inviolability of the home; and the internal passport system controls freedom of movement and choice of residence. In 2001, the government oversaw a six-month economic liberalization program that was designed to attract assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, the IMF noted late in the year that the government had only partially implemented the plan. To date, Belarus's Soviet-era economic system remains in tact, and living standards are still low.
During the 2001 presidential campaign, President Lukashenka raised average monthly salaries to $100 and promised to increase them to $250 over the next five years. At the same time, though, he threatened foreign companies and the country's few wealthy citizens with serious reprisals if they failed to donate a portion of their profits and incomes to collective farms. Some local authorities required public and private workers to donate their labor and/or a portion of their salary to the spring planting.