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Belarus - Government

Belarus is an authoritarian state. The country’s constitution provides for a directly elected president, who is chief of state, and a bicameral parliament, the national assembly. A prime minister appointed by the president is the nominal head of government. In practice, however, power is concentrated in the presidency. Since his election as president in 1994, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated his power over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees.

The national government consists of three branches: legislative, executive, and judiciary. Independence brought little or no change in the country's political structure. A new Belarusian constitution was submitted to the Supreme Soviet in three different versions before it was finally adopted on March 28, 1994, and went into effect on March 30, 1994. The new basic law declares the Republic of Belarus a democracy that operates on the basis of a diversity of political institutions, ideologies, and opinions, with all religions and creeds equal before the law. The official language is Belarusian, although Russian is retained as the language of interethnic communication. Belarus is declared a nuclear-free, neutral state. All persons are equal before the law and are to have their rights, legitimate interests, and freedom protected equally; suffrage is granted to citizens who have reached eighteen years of age. The state also pledges itself to create "the conditions for full employment."

A revised constitution took effect November 27, 1996 granting the presidency greatly expanded powers at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. The new authority included the power of decree (independent legislative authority) and extensive appointment authority in the other branches of government. The November 24, 1996 national referendum on the revisions was not recognized internationally.

With the exception of the new office of the president, the government structure of independent Belarus had changed little from that of the Belorussian SSR. Within the government, the communist-era mindset also persisted, even though the names of office-holders were often different. Because Lukashyenka and the legislature were frequently at odds, there was little agreement or initiative in changing or improving the government.

Under the constitution, the size of the Supreme Soviet (elected for a term of five years) was reduced from 360 to 260 members. It is the highest legislative body of state power. Its functions include calling national referenda; adopting, revising, and interpreting the constitution; scheduling parliamentary and presidential elections; electing members of high-level courts, the procurator general, and the chairman and members of the board of the National Bank of Belarus; determining guidelines for domestic and foreign policy; confirming the state budget; supervising currency issues; ratifying international treaties; and determining military policy. The role of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was reduced to that of an agenda-setting and administrative body. The legislature's two subordinate state committees are the State Customs Committee and the State Security Committee. Any Belarusian citizen who has the right to vote and is at least twenty-one years old is eligible to stand for election as a deputy. The parliament is elected by universal suffrage.

The bicameral “parliament”, which was formed as a result of a flawed 1996 referendum and which the U.S. Government does not recognize, consists of the 64-seat “Council of the Republic” and the 110-seat “House of Representatives”. The “Council of the Republic” is the house of territorial representation. Eight members of the “Council” are appointed directly by the president of the Republic of Belarus, while local regional councils, whose heads are appointed by the president, elect the rest. The deputies to the “House of Representatives” are elected directly by the voters. The president appoints the prime minister, who is the head of government.

The president, a position created by the new constitution, is elected by popular vote for a five-year term of office and is the head of state and of the executive branch of government. He or she adopts measures to guard the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity, appoints and dismisses the chairman and members of the Cabinet of Ministers, appoints judges, heads the country's National Security Council, and serves as commander in chief of the armed forces. The president can be removed by a two-thirds vote in the parliament under certain circumstances, such as violating the constitution or committing a crime. However, the president cannot dismiss the parliament or other elected governing bodies.

Since his election in July 1994, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated power steadily in the executive branch through authoritarian means, destroying checks and balances and thereby dominating all branches of government. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) monitors have never determined that an election in Belarus meets OSCE standards for free and fair elections. Lukashenka used a non-democratic referendum in November 1996 to amend the 1994 constitution to broaden his powers and illegally extend his term in office. He began to count his 5-year term in 1996, thereby adding 2 years to his first term in office. Based on the unrecognized 1996 constitution, Lukashenka announced that presidential elections were to be held in 2001. In 2004, he engineered a fraudulent referendum that removed term limits on the presidency. Independent exit polling of the referendum showed results far different from those officially announced.

The executive branch also includes the Cabinet of Ministers, composed of the heads of Belarus's twenty-six ministries: administration of state property and privatization; agriculture; architecture and construction; CIS matters; communications and information technology; culture and the press; defense; economy; education and science; emergency situations and the protection of the population from the aftermath of the Chornobyl' nuclear power station disaster; finance; foreign affairs; foreign economic relations; forestry; fuel and energy; health care; housing and municipal services; industry; information; internal affairs; justice, labor; natural resources and environmental protection; social protection; statistics and analyses; trade; and transportation and communications.

Judicial power is vested in a court system headed by the Constitutional Court, which consists of eleven judges who are nominated by the president and appointed by the Supreme Soviet. The Constitutional Court receives proposals from the president, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, the permanent committees of the Supreme Soviet, at least seventy deputies of the Supreme Soviet, the Supreme Court, the Supreme Economic Court, or the Procurator General to review the constitutionality of international agreements or obligations to which Belarus is a party. The Constitutional Court also reviews the constitutionality of domestic legal acts; presidential edicts; regulations of the Cabinet of Ministers; the constitution; laws; legal documents; and regulatory decisions of the Supreme Court, the Supreme Economic Court, and the Procurator General. The Constitutional Court's decisions are final and not subject to appeal.

The mid-level courts are regional courts, and below them are district courts. These are presided over by judges appointed directly by the president. Trials in all courts are open. The parties involved in a case have the right to appeal judicial decisions, sentences, and other rulings. However, the appeal consists merely of a higher court's review of the protocol and other documents of the original trial. In actual practice, decisions are rarely overturned.

There is a separate system of military courts. Military judges are appointed directly by the president.

The Procuracy functions like a cross between a police investigative bureau and a public prosecutor's office. It investigates crimes, brings criminals to trial and prosecutes them, supervises courts and penal facilities within its jurisdiction, reviews all court decisions in both civil and criminal cases, supervises investigations conducted by other government agencies, and ensures the uniform application of law in the courts.

The Procuracy is headed by the procurator general, who is appointed by the Supreme Soviet. The procurator general then appoints each officer of the Procuracy, known as a procurator. The constitution states that the procurator general and his subordinate procurators are to function independently, yet the procurator general is accountable to the Supreme Soviet. Procurators are independent of regional and local government bodies because they derive their authority from the procurator general. Procurators are generally quite influential because they supervise all criminal investigations; courts are extremely deferential to the procurators' actions, petitions, and conclusions.

Belarus's local government was arranged in three tiers: six voblastsi (sing., voblasts'); 141 rayony (sing., rayon--see Glossary) and thirtyeight cities; and 112 towns and 1,480 villages and settlements. Large cities were also divided into rayony.

Under Belarus's new constitution, local councils of deputies are to be elected by the citizens of their jurisdictions for four-year terms and are to have exclusive jurisdiction over economic and social development programs, local budgets and taxes, management and disposal of local government property, and the calling of referenda. In October 1994, Lukashyenka convinced the Supreme Soviet to amend the law on local self-government, much to the dismay of the opposition, who saw the country's administration come under his control in a single stroke. The local councils in villages, towns, and city districts were to be disbanded and placed under the supervision of local administrations. The head of the regional executives was to be appointed by the president, and the local executives were to be nominated by the regional executives (and approved by the president). Thus, the chain of command ran from the top down, as it had in the days of the Belorussian SSR.





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