Freedom in the World
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Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka has declared, "Our people live quietly and live well"; however, his statement is deceiving. On the whole, Belarusian citizens indeed live quietly, but they do so in fear of a regime that systematically disregards the most basic political rights and civil liberties. In certain respects, it also appears that Belarusians live well. Official unemployment hovers around 2 percent, and spending on health and education as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is approximately 7 percent. Yet the economy of Belarus today remains largely indistinguishable from its economy under the former Soviet command system. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the country's private sector share of GDP, at 20 percent, is the lowest of all the post-Communist countries. World Bank data also show that more than a quarter of the population lives below the national poverty line.
The year 2002 saw no positive change in this situation. Rather, the year was marked by retaliation against individuals and institutions that opposed the president's reelection the year before. Lukashenka also signed into law two pieces of legislation that further threaten civil liberties. The first, consisting of amendments to the Law on Religion, bans unregistered religious activity and places severe limits on the work of minority faiths. The second, the Law on the Fight Against Terrorism, threatens freedom of expression by allowing government authorities to take control of the media during so-called counterterrorism operations. According to the U.K.-based group Article 19, which monitors censorship around the world, the new law "[goes] beyond what is necessary to combat terrorism."
In response to Lukashenka's postelection behavior and reports that since September 11, 2001, Belarus has been a regular supplier of military equipment and technicians to rogue states like Sudan and Iraq, Western leaders have grown more assertive in expressing their disapproval of Europe's last dictatorship. The Czech government, for example, refused to grant Lukashenka a visa so that he could attend a historic summit in Prague on NATO enlargement. Days later, 14 members of the EU imposed a complete travel ban on the president in response to the country's poor human rights record. Only Portugal abstained from the ban, which came just prior to an OSCE meeting in Lisbon that Belarus was expected to attend. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is generally supportive of Lukashenka's regime, angered the Belarusian leader when he proposed absorbing Belarus into the Russian Federation as an alternative to their existing union treaty.
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 his election.
In a 1996 referendum, Belarusian citizens favored constitutional amendments that extended Lukashenka's term through 2001, broadened presidential powers, and created a new bicameral parliament. When the president ignored a court ruling that the referendum was nonbinding, Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir resigned in protest. Since July 1999, when the president's original mandate expired, most Western nations have refused to recognize him as the legitimate head of state. Instead, they recognize the pre-1996 Supreme Soviet as the legitimate legislative body.
The year 2001 marked Belarus's tenth anniversary of post-Soviet independence, but the country had little to show for it. That year, despite accusations that the president was directing a government-sponsored death squad aimed at silencing his opponents, Lukashenka proved victorious in a controversial bid for reelection. Western nations declared the vote unfree and unfair, while domestic supporters of opposition candidate Vladimir Goncharik accused the government of falsifying the results. If one could glean anything positive from the election, it was 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 2002, anyone who had opposed Lukashanka during the campaign became a potential target of the president's revenge. In June, for example, a Belarusian court sentenced Mikola Markevich and Paval Mazheika of the independent newspaper Pahonya to two-and-a-half and two years of hard labor, respectively, for libeling Lukashenka during the campaign. That same month, journalist Viktar Ivashkevich, the editor-in-chief of the independent paper Rabochy, was charged with defaming Lukashenka in an article that accused the president and his administration of corruption. Ivashkevich was convicted in September and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Also, in November, Anatoly Lebedko, the chairman of the opposition United Civic Party, was detained by Belarusian KGB agents after visiting the U. S. embassy in Minsk. Democratic activists found this incident particularly disturbing because Belarusian authorities threatened to charge Lebedko with treason for simply meeting with foreign diplomatic officials. The move, some said, harked back to the Soviet period.
Despite a constitutional guarantee of universal, equal, and direct suffrage, citizens of Belarus cannot change their government democratically. Although Belarusian citizens had three candidates from whom to choose on September 9, 2001, the outcome of the country's presidential election was never in doubt. During the campaign, the government and its supporters harassed would-be candidates and independent media outlets. They also sought votes in exchange for promises of better wages. On election day, incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka declared himself the victor with 78 percent of the vote over candidates Vladimir Goncharik (12 percent) and Sergei Gaidukevich (2 percent). However, opposition parties claimed that Lukashenka received only 47 percent of the vote and Goncharik 41 percent--an outcome that by law would have forced a second round.
In October 2000, Belarus held elections to the Chamber of Representatives, parliament's lower house. State media coverage of the campaign was limited and biased, and approximately half of all opposition candidates were denied registration. Nongovernmental organizations reported irregularities such as ballot-box stuffing and tampering with voter registration lists. Seven opposition parties boycotted the elections when the government failed to ensure a fair campaign and to give parliament more substantial duties. Some opposition candidates participated in the election, but only three received a mandate.
The year 2001 marked the five-year anniversary of Belarus's union treaty with Russia. However, Russian enthusiasm for the union appears to have waned, and progress has slowed in implementing the treaty's provisions. In 2002, Putin angered Lukashenka when he put forth two new proposals on future ties. Lukashenka categorically rejected Putin's ideas, particularly on the creation of a union state that folds Belarus into the Russian Federation.
The Lukashenka regime systematically curtails press freedoms. State media are subordinated to the president, and harassment and censorship of independent media are routine. Libel is both a civil and a criminal offense. The State Press Committee can issue warnings to publishers for unauthorized activities such as changing a publication's title or distributing copies abroad. It also can arbitrarily shut down publications without court orders.
In 2002, Lukashenka oversaw a systematic crackdown on journalists and media outlets that criticized or opposed him during the 2001 presidential election. A popular method of harassment was the use of libel and defamation laws to try to cripple the finances of media outlets and silence reporters. Also during the year, according to Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, the state replaced the editors of four state-supported journals with individuals loyal to Lukashenka and issued a list of "undesirable" writers and poets. RFE/ RL itself, a chief source of independent reporting in the country, came under increased harassment by the regime as well.
Despite constitutional guarantees that "all religions and faiths shall be equal before the law," Belarusian government decrees and registration requirements have increasingly restricted the life and work of religious groups in Belarus. In 2002 alone, uniformed troops bulldozed a new Autocephalous Orthodox Church on its day of consecration; police fined Hindus for meditating in a public park; and authorities took members of the Baptist Church to court for singing hymns in public. President Lukashenka also signed into law amendments to the Law on Religions that provide for government censorship of religious publications and prevent foreign citizens from leading religious groups. The amendments also place strict limitations on religious groups that have been active in Belarus for less than 20 years.
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. When public demonstrations do occur, police typically break them up and arrest participants.
Although the country's constitution calls for judicial independence, 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.
The constitution outlines a range of personal liberties and freedoms, but the government honors them selectively. Wiretapping by state security agencies limits 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. The country's command economy also severely limits economic freedom.