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Country Report: Belarusian Democracy

Written by Collin Boyd


History and Background Information

In the early 1990s, the Republic of Belarus, along with many of the former Soviet states, declared its independence. Despite initial hesitation, like many Soviet republics that held a referendum on whether or not the USSR should remain, Belarus became an independent state on August 25, 1991. Later, on December 8, 1991, leaders of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, met in Belarus and agreed on the Belovezha Accords, formally dissolving the Soviet Union.


Democratization of the post-Communist space played out differently in the former Soviet states. The political foundation of the Belarusian system came from constitutional reform in 1994. The president has the power to dissolve parliament, issue decrees with the force of law, appoint the prime minister and the members of government, call referendums, and more. Under this system, the president had de facto greater powers than the legislative branch. This political arrangement over the past two and a half decades, with tremendous power accrued strongly at the top of the pyramid, has led many observers, such as Freedom House, to declare Belarus as “not free.”


Lukashenko’s Legacy

Despite the appearance of being a democracy, Belarus is often described as Europe’s last dictatorship. The country had its first presidential election in 1994 and elected its first president, Alexandr Lukashenko, in all six elections since. Described as an “electoral autocracy,” there is little doubt in the results of a Belarusian election. Over the past twenty years, the practices of Lukashenko and the presidential branch, such as pressuring election officials to manipulate election results and to arrest legitimate political opponents, have led to political apathy and a dearth of substantial opposition.


The power imbalance of the Lukashenko regime left the parliament effectively useless in holding the president in check. All political opposition is set within the limits set by the president and the authorities; they choose who gets to participate, how and when they get to share their message, and even an opposition “win” is largely seen as fraudulent and toothless. Institutional change brought from the legislative branch is highly unlikely due to the purposeful lack of opposition as well as a lack of parliamentary tools to be wielded. The legislature does have latitude for evolving should Lukashenko ever hand off power to a successor.


The presidential and legislative elections are offset due to different term lengths, 4 years for the legislature and 5 years for the president. While Lukashenko has an interest in holding all elections purely for the sake of appearing as a modern democracy, international legitimacy has been waning over the past decade, especially when focusing on presidential elections. There are many cases of election workers who have reported pressure from officials to vote for Lukashenko and pro-regime candidates. Over the past few decades, protests and political opposition have resulted in hundreds to thousands of arrests, which has had a substantial cooling effect on future protests. The elections have long since stopped being free and fair.


2020 Changes

Across the globe, the year 2020 brought many changes due to the international COVID-19 pandemic. Belarus should have been no different. However, with an authoritarian president, who had waning popularity figures, and an upcoming election, his handling of the beginning of the election directly influenced his handling of political opposition and the results of the election overall. Despite widespread COVID infections across all of Europe, Belarus was never placed in lockdown, nor were effective countermeasures put in place. Like other authoritarian presidents around the world, Lukashenko used his personal judgment, not the judgment of scientific experts, to declare that COVID-19 was not much of a threat, leaving the population of Belarus underprepared and vulnerable.


Discontent over the regime’s COVID response and the decades of authoritarian rule culminated in a summer of political protests and opposition. The opposition led to a crackdown by the regime. Many other opposition leaders were arrested during the summer of 2020. For example, a political activist and blogger, Sergei Tichaniovsky, declared his intention to run for president in May 2020 but was arrested 2 days later for his work in organizing protests. The wife of jailed opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was able to gather enough signatures to be placed on the ballot and was able to accrue support to mount an actual challenge to the long-time leader.


However, after what many view as one of the most fraudulent elections in Belarusian history, Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania in fear of imprisonment from a crackdown on election protests and is now living in exile. The Council of the European Union has imposed numerous sanctions for this excessive crackdown on protestors. To try to assuage political discontent, Lukashenko promised in January that there be a commission to look at rewriting the Belarusian constitution, but no such commission has convened. The crackdowns on political activism and political journalism continued throughout 2021. The most egregious display of regime power came in May 2021, when a RyanAir flight was grounded in order to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich. Officials told the pilots that there was a bomb on board to force the landing in Belarusian territory. Even more sanctions have been placed on Belarus for this action. Growing calls to release political prisoners have been coming from all over the world. However, despite becoming more and more isolated from the global community, Lukashenko’s close relationship with Russian President Putin gave Lukashenko the breathing room to act in such extreme ways.


Conclusion

Belarus, like many of its post-Soviet neighbors, has had many struggles to fully embrace and utilize democratic institutions to better the lives of its citizens. On the far end of the political spectrum, Belarus is considered by many to be an authoritarian dictatorship with the appearance of a democracy. The past two decades, but especially the events of a turbulent 2020 in Belarus, show that democracy is messy and difficult, but is directly impacted by who writes the rules and how they enforce them. The United States needs to encourage a full-scale deep dive into the Belarusian constitution and encourage non-partisan avenues for Belarusian professionals to make suggestions for changes to the constitution to then be put to the Belarusian people in a free and fair referendum. In addition, events in Belarus make clear that democracy in America is also vulnerable to similar forces. With dozens of states enacting elections laws that affect how elections transpire, there is clearly an interest in controlling the levers of political involvement to favor one side. The ideals of democracy cannot be taken for granted. National election legislation, such as the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act, should be debated in Congress and passed for the preservation of democracy. Otherwise, the United States risks backsliding into political territory like that of electoral autocracy or less.


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