Belarus is an authoritarian state in which elections are openly orchestrated and civil liberties are tightly restricted. After permitting limited displays of dissent as part of a drive to pursue better relations with the European Union (EU) and the United States, the government has more recently sought to increase control of the public sphere through restrictions on journalists, online media, and demonstrations. In an apparent attempt to mute criticism of the country’s rights record, penalties for dissent have increasingly taken the form of fines, or have been handed down after delays in order to avoid media coverage.
Key Developments in 2018:
- In June, the parliament passed legislation allowing the prosecution of anyone deemed to be spreading false information online, while amendments to the media law that took effect in December mandated bureaucratic registration requirements for online media outlets.
- The offices of two news outlets were raided in August, and three journalists were temporarily detained, as part of an investigation into whether the outlets had accessed news releases of the state-run information agency without a paid subscription. Authorities also attempted to recruit at least one journalist as an informant against his colleagues by threatening consequences for him and his family.
- In May, scores of activists were detained, put under administrative arrest, or fined in connection with protests against the opening of a restaurant near Kurapaty, the site of mass killings during the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s.
- In August, a court sentenced two leaders of the Radioelectronic Industry Union to four years of restricted freedom for tax evasion. The prosecution heavily relied on an informant recruited by the KGB who worked in the union as a secretary. Other witnesses said their initial statements were obtained through coercion.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 5 / 40 (−1)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 0 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
The president is elected for five-year terms without limits. Alyaksandr Lukashenka was first elected in 1994, in the country’s only democratic election. He has since extended his rule in a series of unfair contests, and secured his fifth consecutive term in a noncompetitive presidential race in 2015. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors noted that longstanding deficiencies in Belarusian elections had not been addressed, including a restrictive legal framework, media coverage that fails to help voters make informed choices, irregularities in vote counting, and restrictions on free expression and assembly during the campaign period. The group concluded that the elections fell considerably short of democratic standards.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
The 110 members of the Chamber of Representatives, the lower house of the rubber-stamp National Assembly, are popularly elected to four-year terms from single-mandate constituencies. The upper chamber, the Council of the Republic, consists of 64 members serving four-year terms: 56 are elected by regional councils, and 8 are appointed by the president.
An OSCE observation mission assessing the 2016 parliamentary elections concluded that the polls took place in a restrictive environment, and that electoral procedures lacked transparency. Local elections held in February 2018 took place in a similarly controlled environment.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0 / 4
The legal framework for elections fails to meet democratic standards. Among other problems, electoral commission members of all levels are politically aligned with and dependent on the government, and independent observers have no access to ballot-counting processes.
Early in 2018, the chairperson of the Central Election Commission indicated that electoral reforms could be a component of Lukashenka’s previously stated intention to “modernize” the Constitution. However, in an April address, Lukashenka indicated that no constitutional referendum was forthcoming.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 3 / 16 (−1)
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1 / 4
There is no official progovernment political party, and very few lawmakers are affiliated with any party. Political parties face formidable challenges when seeking official registration. While the Tell the Truth movement was finally registered in 2017 after six failed attempts, authorities have repeatedly blocked registration of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, which has now been seeking official status for almost a decade. Most recently, the Justice Ministry said in March 2018 that its latest attempt to register had been suspended, without offering any justification. Such futile attempts to gain official status serve to discourage other politically active Belarusians from organizing and attempting to gain formal party recognition.
Involvement in political activism is considered risky in Belarus, and can result in a loss of employment, expulsion from educational institutions, smear campaigns in the media, fines, and the confiscation of property.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4 (−1)
Belarus has never experienced a democratic transfer of power, and there is effectively no opportunity for genuine opposition candidates to gain power through elections. While two candidates not aligned with Lukashenka became members of parliament in 2016, many analysts have dismissed their election as immaterial and designed to placate the opposition, or democratic European countries with which the government seeks to better relations.
Registered opposition candidates made up about 2 percent of all candidates in 2018 local elections. And, in some 18,000 races, just two opposition candidates won seats—one of whom was an independent, and another of whom belonged to an unregistered party.
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because of repression conditions that allowed the victory of just two opposition candidates in the roughly 18,000 races in 2018 local elections.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 1 / 4
While private citizens and political candidates have some limited opportunities to express their views and make political choices, Lukashenka’s regime is unaccountable to voters, and meaningful participation in politics is generally not possible.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4
No registered party represents the specific interests of ethnic or religious minority groups. Women formally enjoy equal political rights but are underrepresented in political leadership positions. Women’s advocacy groups have diverging positions on promoting the political rights of women, with some such groups taking the position that there is no need for gender equality initiatives in Belarus. There has been some visible activism by women’s groups seeking to raise awareness of violence against women.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 2 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4
The Constitution vests power in the president, stating that presidential decrees have higher legal force than legislation. Lukashenka, who was not freely elected, considers himself the head of all branches of government.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
The state controls an estimated 70 percent of the economy, and graft is encouraged by a lack of transparency and accountability in government. There are no independent bodies to investigate corruption cases, and graft trials are typically closed. Presidential clemency is issued frequently to free convicted corrupt officials, some of whom Lukashenka puts back into positions of authority.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
Governmental institutions for the most part fail to adhere to legal requirements providing for access to information. However, in recent years, authorities have moved to make some basic information about government operations available online. Additionally, in 2017, authorities announced that all websites will publish information in both Belarusian and Russian, and other languages as necessary, beginning in 2019.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 14 / 60 (−1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 2 / 16 (−1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 0 / 4 (−1)
The government exercises unrestricted control over mainstream media. The 2008 media law secures a state monopoly over information about political, social, and economic affairs. Libel is both a civil and criminal offense, and the criminal code contains provisions protecting the “honor and dignity” of high-ranking officials. The government owns the only internet service provider and controls the internet through legal and technical means. The official definition of mass media includes websites and blogs, placing them under Information Ministry’s supervision. Most independent journalists operate under the assumption that they are under surveillance by the Committee for State Security (KGB).
In 2018, the state enacted measures that effectively impose restrictions on independent online media. In June, the parliament passed legislation allowing the prosecution of anyone deemed to be spreading false information online, while amendments to the media law that took effect in December mandated highly bureaucratic registration requirements for online media outlets.
In another development, authorities launched a criminal investigation into the so-called BelTA case, in which journalists from the online portal TUT.by, the information agency BelaPAN, and other outlets were accused of receiving access to news releases of the state-run BelTA information agency without a paid subscription. The offices of TUT.by and BelaPAN were raided in August, and three journalists were temporarily detained as part of the investigation. Authorities also attempted to recruit at least one journalist as an informant against his colleagues by threatening consequences for him and members of his family.
Authorities also continued to impose disproportionately heavy fines on journalists for trumped-up or minor violations, including working for foreign media outlets that had been denied official accreditation. In 2018, journalists were fined 106 times for “illegal production and distribution of media products.” Numerous journalists were detained and fined for live streaming demonstrations at Kurapaty, where protests broke out against the opening of a restaurant near a site where thousands of people had been executed as part of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s purges.
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 due to a crackdown on journalists that included new restrictions on online media, a criminal case against journalists accused of illegally obtaining content from the state news agency, and the frequent detention and issuing of fines against reporters in connection with their work.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1 / 4
Despite constitutional guarantees of religious equality, government decrees and registration requirements maintained some restrictions on religious activity. Legal amendments in 2002 provided for government censorship of religious publications and barred foreigners from leading religious groups. The amendments also placed strict limitations on religious groups active in Belarus for less than 20 years. In 2003, the government signed a concordat with the Belarusian Orthodox Church, which is controlled by the Russian Orthodox Church, giving it a privileged position.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 0 / 4
Academic freedom remains subject to intense state ideological pressures, and academic personnel face harassment and dismissal if they use liberal curriculum or are suspected of disloyalty. Students and professors who join opposition protests face threat of dismissal and revocation of degrees.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1 / 4
The use of wiretapping and other surveillance by state security agencies limits the right to free private discussion. Private citizens often avoid discussing sensitive issues over the phone or via internet communication platforms, for fear that state security agents are monitoring conversations.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 3 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4
The government restricts freedom of assembly. Protests require permission from local authorities, who often arbitrarily deny it. In the past, police routinely broke up public demonstrations and arrested participants. The pursuit of better relations with democracies in the region has more recently prompted authorities to rely on fines as a means of punishing demonstrators. However, arrests and the use of force to disperse protests still sometimes occur.
In May 2018, activists peacefully protested against the opening of a restaurant near Kurapaty, the site of mass executions during the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s. Authorities, often represented by law enforcement officials in plain clothes, placed themselves on the side of restaurant owners, and scores of activists were detained, put under administrative arrest, or fined. Punitive measures were often implemented long after protests, when the attention of media was diverted.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights and governance-related work? 1 / 4
Freedom of association is severely restricted. Registration of groups remains selective, and regulations ban foreign assistance to entities and individuals deemed to promote foreign meddling in internal affairs. A few human rights groups continue to operate, but staff and supporters risk prosecution and fines for their activism.
Participation in unregistered or liquidated organizations, which had been criminalized in 2005, was decriminalized in 2018. Instead, the Criminal Code introduced the prospect of large fines which, like recent efforts to fine rather than detain protesters, make civil liberties infringement less visible to rights watchdogs and democratic governments.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1 / 4
Independent labor unions face harassment, and their leaders are frequently fired and prosecuted for engaging in peaceful protests. No independent unions have been registered since 1999, when Lukashenka issued a decree setting extremely restrictive registration requirements.
In August 2018, a court sentenced two leaders of the Radioelectronic Industry Union for allegedly evading taxes to four years of restricted freedom. Notably, the prosecution heavily relied on an informant recruited by the KGB who worked in the union as an office secretary.
F. RULE OF LAW: 2 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4
Courts are subservient to the president, who appoints Supreme Court justices with the approval of the rubber-stamp parliament.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4
The right to a fair trial is not respected in cases with political overtones. In a departure from international norms, the power to extend pretrial detention lies with a prosecutor rather than a judge. The absence of independent oversight allows police to routinely and massively violate legal procedures. The vast majority of people convicted of administrative offenses in connection with their participation in protests in Kurapaty were convicted in summary trials.
The government regularly attacks attorneys, who often remain the only connection between imprisoned activists and their families and society. A number of witnesses in the 2018 trial of the Radioelectronic Industry Union leaders said their initial statements had been obtained through coercion.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4
Law enforcement agencies have broad powers to employ physical force against suspects, who have little opportunity for recourse if they are abused. Human rights groups continue to document instances of beatings, torture, and pressure during detention.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4
Authorities have sought to increase the dominance of the Russian language, and the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognizes Belarusian as “vulnerable.” The regime in recent years has been less wary of issues involving Belarusian national identity, though official usage of Belarusian remains rare. Ethnic Poles and Roma often face undue pressure from authorities.
Widely accepted societal values hold that women should be mothers, and while this has helped maintain social benefits including generous maternity leave, the prevalence of these views in practice restrict the opportunities of women.
LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people face widespread societal discrimination, and law enforcement authorities are reluctant to investigate and prosecute attacks against them. In May 2018, the Ministry of Internal Affairs accused the British Embassy in Belarus of “causing problems” after it flew an LGBT flag on the International Day against Homophobia, adding that same-sex relationships were “fake” and not supported by a majority of Belarusians.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 7 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2 / 4
Opposition activists are occasionally detained at the border for lengthy searches. Passports are used as a primary identity document in Belarus, and authorities are known to harass people living in a different location than indicated by domestic stamps in their passport.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or non-state actors? 2 / 4
Limits on economic freedom have eased in recent years, allowing for greater property ownership and small business operations. However, state interference in the economy still affects larger businesses, and large business owners are never secure from arbitrary government pressure and harassment.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
The constitution explicitly bans same-sex marriage. The Belarusian government led an effort in 2016 to block LGBT rights from being part of a UN international initiative focused on urban areas.
Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in Belarus. Some ostensibly protective mechanisms can make finding help more difficult for victims, who are usually women. For example, families with minor children can be deemed to be in a “socially precarious” situation if a parent reports domestic violence, a designation that can allow social services to take any children into custody.
In October 2018, Lukashenka blocked a draft law on the prevention of domestic violence jointly developed by the law enforcement agencies and civil society representatives. Specifically, he called attitudes against the corporal punishment of children “nonsense from the West” and insisted that “good” punishment of children could be useful to them.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
Mandatory unpaid national work days, postgraduate employment allocation, compulsory labor for inmates in state rehabilitation facilities, and restrictions on leaving employment in specific industries have led labor activists to conclude that all Belarusian citizens experience forced labor at some stage of their life. The lack of economic opportunities led many women to become victims of the international sex trade.
In 2018, based on a presidential decree, the government effectively revived a plan to tax the unemployed (the so-called social parasite tax) by mandating full payment for housing and utility services starting in 2019. An attempt to impose the tax in 2017 was met with mass protests that were brutally suppressed.