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.
On 27 February 2022, the government of the Republic of Belarus held a nationwide constitutional referendum. Voters were asked to respond to a single “Yes” or “No” vote to the question “Do you accept the amendments and additions to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus?” The amendment would also allow Russian troops and nuclear weapons to be permanently stationed in Belarus. During the ongoing Russian attack on Ukraine, Moscow has used Belarusian territory as a base for military operations.
Belarusian citizens approved amendments to the constitution that would pave the way for long-standing president Alexander Lukashenko to leave office. "65.16% of the participants of the referendum that were in the voting lists have voted in favor of accepting changes and amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus", the head of the election commission Igor Karpenko announced on Monday night. Critics claimed that the process was not conducted democratically. According to authorities, 10.07% of the voters were against the amendments. They also stated that more than 78% of voters attended polling stations during the main stage of voting, making the referendum legally valid. A former head of state could become a lifetime member of the parliament’s upper house and would be provided with immunity for actions taken during their terms in office. There are also some changes concerning the president's right to impose a state of emergency, as well as some family law amendments and a "non-aggression" pledge. Russia said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed he plans to change the constitution as the two leaders held talks in Sochi on 14 September 2020. The meeting came as Lukashenko faced mass protests at home following a presidential election on August 9, which the opposition claims was rigged. Lukashenko, who had been in power for 26 years, began raising the question of changing the constitution several years earlier. He has since presented this as a way to respond to public desire for social change. He had also proposed holding the next presidential polls early. Lukashenko has previously changed the constitution to increase his presidential powers. The opposition wanted to change the constitution back to its original form, but Lukashenko said this would be a backward step. To implement this idea, a corresponding structure has already been created, headed by the Deputy Chairman of the Constitutional Court of Belarus.
Speaking at the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly on 12 February 2021, President Alexander Lukashenko promised a referendum for a new constitution, which, he noted, would redistribute powers, but he did not elaborate on it any further. He named peace and order and no protests nationwide along with protection for his current supporters, as the main conditions for him to potentially give up the presidency. Lukashenko was trying to gear himself up for a new role in the country’s political system in the future. Adopting a new constitution does not mean early presidential elections in Belarus. The constitution would be adopted in 2022, and it will come into effect in 2025, when Lukashenko’s current presidency ends.
Belarus unveiled its proposed new constitution 27 December 2021, opening up the possibility of the country stationing nuclear weapons on its territory and potentially enabling veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko to stay in office until 2035. The changes, which were promised in the wake of the unrest that followed last year’s disputed presidential election, were released for public debate.
Among the proposed changes, a passage in the current constitution that requires the country to stay out of major geopolitical conflicts appears to have been removed. According to the existing version, last modified in 2004, Belarus “aims at making its territory a nuclear-free zone, and the state – neutral.” However, in the latest draft the section has been replaced by a pledge that “rules out military aggression from its territory against other states,” opening up speculation that Minsk could allow atomic weapons to be deployed within its borders.
In addition, if approved, the new constitution would bring in term limits for presidents, restricting them to two five-year stretches in office. However, a clause in the text stipulates that this only applies to “newly elected presidents,” which would potentially allow Lukashenko to stay in office for another decade after his current term expires in 2025. Lukashenko has governed the Eastern European nation for more than 27 years.
The amendments, which are subject to public consultation, tighten up requirements for Belarusian citizens seeking to be elected as the country’s president, bumping the minimum age from 35 to 40 years, as well as increasing the required period of permanent residency from 10 to 20 years ahead of the election. Individuals who have held, or hold, dual citizenship or residency permits in foreign countries would be disqualified from running for office. The draft document also envisions immunity for former presidents, and grants them the perk of becoming a lifetime senator.
The process of reforming the constitution has been repeatedly presented by Lukashenko as a precursor to him stepping down from the country’s top job. According to him, the task “cannot be given to an unknown president,” as it would be a “disaster.” However, a number of opposition figures have claimed that the changes amount to little more than a delay tactic, designed to shield him from calls to resign following widespread street protests after he was declared the victor in last summer’s election, with around 80% of the vote. The opposition, and many international observers, insist the poll was rigged.
The constitutional changes would also empower the so-called All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, which is currently a general meeting of the Belarusian government with top officials and industry leaders held every five years. The assembly lacks any real powers, with its critics claiming it only serves to demonstrate the alleged universal support for the Belarusian leadership.
Under the new constitution, however, the assembly would get a vast number of different powers. It would be able to depose a president found guilty of “systematic” violation of the constitution or other “serious offense,” establish guidelines for foreign and internal politics, set military doctrine, and adopt other program documents.
The assembly would also be able to throw out any act by any governing body or official – except for court rulings – should it consider them unfit for the interests of “national security.” The draft also defines marriage as a “union between a man and a woman.” Following the public debate and any potential revisions, the changes will be put to a referendum, expected to be held in February next year. The amendments need to garner the support of more than 50% of voters, with at least half of all citizens turning out to vote.
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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