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Belarus - Politics

Voting in Belarus was held 11 September 2016, with turnout surpassing the threshold for the parliamentary election to be valid. Although the authoritarian government had introduced some reforms, doubts existed over the vote's credibility. Polling stations closed with officials declaring that the level of voter participation exceeded the 50-percent threshold for the election to be valid. Most of the 110 lower house seats up for grabs were expected to go to pro-government candidates, with 484 candidates vying for a place in the assembly. This time, critics allege, Lukashenka has allowed two candidates with opposition sympathies to be proclaimed winners because of pressure from the West.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which put in place some 400 monitors to observe the elections, said it would report on 12 September 2016 as to how the election had been conducted. After the last election in 2012, the OSCE called for measures such as including increasing transparency of the vote count and improvement of the right to free expression.

Belarus implemented a number of reforms in recent years in an effort to seek rapprochement with the West. The country was seeking a possible $3 billion (2.7 billion-euro) loan from the International Monetary Fund. Political prisoners were released in 2015r, prompting the EU to lift nearly all of its sanctions and the US to partially scrap its trade restrictions imposed over a perceived lack of democracy.

The former Soviet republic has been labeled Europe's last dictatorship,. Belarus has a strong presidential system, governed by the president who has extensive powers, including the authority to dissolve the lower and upper houses of parliament, to issue presidential decrees which have the force of law when the legislature is in recess, to declare a state of emergency or to impose martial law. The president appoints the prime minister and the government, as well half of the judges of the Constitutional Court, and has the power to dismiss any of them. Furthermore, the president is empowered to appoint and dismiss the judges of all other courts, including the Supreme Court.

The Belarusian state controls all media outlets, meaning that only officially approved views are heard by most of society. At least eight new non-state newspapers were refused registration in 2010. Independent publications still have no possibility of being distributed through the state press distribution system. Independent journalists are frequently harassed. Following the presidential election of 19 December 2010, the independent media was specifically targeted, with premises raided, equipment seized, journalists interrogated and in some cases beaten up. Foreign media outlets have faced problems getting their correspondents accredited.

Arrest and violence are often used to impede assembly, often by individuals in civilian clothes who present no law enforcement identification to the individual being arrested. Pressure against families of those involved in opposition politics can include restricting their right to free movement, threatening removal from jobs, and, in one notable example, threatening to seize the child of Andrei Sannikau, an imprisoned opposition presidential candidate and his wife, Irina Khalip, also a political prisoner.

The media landscape includes a wide range of national and local television and radio broadcasters, as well as a number of print media outlets. State owned media dominate the media landscape and the state controls the distribution networks. Official media -- including the main newspaper, Sovietskaya Belorussia, which belongs to the presidential administration -- invariably portray Lukashenka in a positive light. Nevertheless, there are some media that constitute alternative sources of information, including the Internet. The overall media environment has deteriorated in the recent years due to intimidation, detentions, defamation lawsuits and administrative sanctions imposed on journalists and media outlets.

The party system in Belarus is weak, notwithstanding the number of parties registered. The majority of the 15 registered parties support the President and the political opposition to the incumbent is not represented in the parliament. The 2012 parliamentary elections resulted in only five representatives being elected from political parties. Amendments to several laws related to activities of political parties and public associations as introduced in February 2014 were, according to interlocutors in state institutions, intended to simplify the procedure for registration of public associations. In particular, the requirement of securing regional representation in order to be registered was lifted and public associations were allowed to become political parties, provided they did not receive state or foreign financial support up to six months prior to the transformation.

The most significant human rights problems continued to be: citizens were unable to change their government through elections; in a system bereft of checks and balances, authorities committed abuses; and former political prisoners’ political rights remained restricted while the government failed to account for longstanding cases of politically motivated disappearances. Other human rights problems included abuses by the security forces, which reportedly mistreated suspects during investigations and in prisons. Prison conditions remained poor. Authorities arbitrarily arrested, detained, and imprisoned citizens for criticizing officials, participating in demonstrations, and other political reasons. The judiciary experienced political interference and a lack of independence; trial outcomes often appeared predetermined, and trials occurred behind closed doors or in the absence of the accused. Authorities infringed on the right of privacy. The government restricted civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion.

The government seized printed materials from civil society activists and prevented independent media from disseminating information and materials. The government continued to hinder or prevent the activities of some religious groups, at times fining them or restricting their services. Official corruption in all branches of government remained a problem. Authorities harassed human rights groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and political parties, refusing to register many and then threatening them with criminal prosecution for operating without registration.

State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television. The state-owned postal system, Belposhta, and the state distributor of printed publications, Belsayuzdruk, allowed the distribution of at least nine independent newspapers and magazines that covered politics, including Novy Chas, Borisovskie Novosti, and Intexpress, which have been banned from distribution for 11 years.

The exclusion of independent print media from the state distribution system and the requirement that private stores secure registration to sell newspapers and magazines effectively limited the ability of the independent press to distribute their publications.

International media continued to operate in the country but not without interference and prior censorship. Euronews and the Russian channels First Channel, NTV, and RTR were generally available, although only through paid cable services in many parts of the country and with a time lag that allowed the removal of news deemed undesirable.

The government exerted pressure on the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship, warning them not to report on certain topics or criticize the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to air at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and reported local news, although most were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive issues or risk censorship.

Violence and discrimination against women were problems, as was violence against children. Trafficking in persons remained a problem, although prosecution and victim identification slightly improved. There was discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; those with disabilities; Roma and other ethnic minorities; persons with HIV/AIDS; and those who sought to use the Belarusian language. Authorities harassed and at times dismissed from their jobs members of independent unions in state-owned enterprises, severely limiting the ability of workers to form and join independent trade unions and to organize and bargain collectively. Authorities also employed various means of forced labor.

A crackdown on free speech is the latest worrying development amid the deteriorating, “wholescale oppression” of human rights in Belarus, an independent expert told the UN General Assembly 25 October 2018. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Miklós Haraszti, referred to the “sad fate of freedom of expression” specifically pointing to legal amendments ending anonymity of publications in online media and forcing state registration of all online platforms.

Haraszti, who was concluding his six-year tenure, said human rights abuses that had prompted international scrutiny when he took up his role were worsening in important areas. “The online restrictions close down the last public space where free speech was relatively possible, given the practically total control over speech in the mostly state-owned offline media. The amendments introduce chilling financial liabilities, blocking, or de-licensing without any judicial oversight,” Haraszti said.

The “permission-based” regime remains unchanged, with a legal system and a State apparatus organized to suppress any expression of opinions other than those of the Government. For more than 20 years, the Belarusian governance system has remained based on an all-powerful State, driven by presidential decrees and controlling more than 80 per cent of the economy and the totality of the judicial and information systems.

For the bulk of Belarusians, Lukashenka represented stability. During his two decades in power, Lukashenka has systemically quashed opposition parties, independent media, and civil society groups. Outbursts of political protests have been met with violence.





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