Written by Naja Bentzen,
After 22 years in power, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s camp can expect yet another victory in the 11 September parliamentary elections. The weary Belarusian opposition is no threat to the iron-fisted president, who represents stability in uncertain times. What is new, however, is that Lukashenko, who is increasingly trying to balance his relations with the West and Russia amid on-going economic woes, seems worried about the growing presence of pro-Putin forces in Belarus.
Belarus’s presidential autocracy: continuous repression
Belarus became an independent republic following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to the country’s 1994 constitution, it is a presidential democracy. The bicameral National Assembly consists of a 64-seat Council of the Republic (upper house) and a 110-seat Chamber of Representatives (lower house). The lower house is directly elected for four years in a majoritarian system. The upper house is predominantly elected from regional councils; eight of its members are appointed by the president, who also appoints the prime minister and cabinet of ministers. The president is elected directly every five years, most recently in the flawed October 2015 elections, when Lukashenko (whose popularity as a figure of stability has grown amid the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine) won yet another landslide victory with 83.3% of the votes.
A dictatorship preparing for dynastic succession?
Lukashenko has ruled the country autocratically, mostly by decree, since he was first elected president in 1994. The constitution grants the president broad executive and legislative powers which he uses extensively. Criticism of the regime and/or the president is considered a criminal offence under Belarusian law; freedom of expression in Belarus is de facto non-existent; and the Information Ministry regularly uses politicised court rulings to harass independent media. Since 2004, the president has had the right to run for office an unlimited number of times and has quashed all dissent. Internal conflict within the ruling elite is unlikely, and ‘Batka’ (‘Father’, as Lukashenko calls himself) has previously indicated that his now 12-year-old son Nikolai could succeed him. However, as one needs to be at least 35 to become president, Lukashenko (who turned 62 in August) would have to stay in power until 2039, a prospect even ‘Batka’ himself questions.
All the president’s men: Lukashenko’s pocket parliament
Critics claim that parliamentary elections in Belarus are in fact a one-man show, as the Parliament is completely dominated by Lukashenko loyalists. Inspired by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, in 2007 ‘true supporters’ of Lukashenko and his policies founded the Belaya Rus public association to boost his grip on power. In the most recent parliamentary elections held in 2012, Lukashenko supporters won – as always – every single seat in the 110-seat lower house. Some 105 seats are occupied by ‘independent’ pro-Lukashenko MPs, either from labour collectives (allowed to nominate candidates under the Electoral Code) or from Belaya Rus. Only five MPs – three from the Communist Party of Belarus (the successor of the Soviet-era monolithic Communist Party), one from the Agrarian Party and one from the Republican Party of Labour and Justice – are formally affiliated with (pro-Lukashenko) political parties.
Batka’s obedient and ‘unpoliticised’ MPs
The Parliament plays a peripheral role in the ‘super-presidential’ system. Critics say that the main task of MPs is to obediently rubber-stamp laws that have been decided upon in advance. In the past legislature, the Parliament reportedly drafted one single law independently. Lukashenko stated in 2012 that he would modernise the political system, allow political parties to play a bigger role and convert Belaya Rus into a ‘centrist party’. However, his failure to do so does not seem to vex him: during the election campaign, Lukashenko praised his ‘unpoliticised’ MPs for working ‘professionally and quietly, without quarrelling and shouting’, unlike their colleagues from ‘other countries‘ in the neighbourhood.
The battered opposition provides no convincing alternative
In theory, opposition parties are permitted in Belarus. In practice, brutal crackdowns on opposition leaders have forced dissidents underground or abroad, further isolating their groups from one another. This has also further distanced the opposition from the risk-averse citizens, who, besides showing little interest in elections for a parliament that holds limited power, generally distrust the election process (not least because of Lukashenko’s total control over the vote count). In addition, the 2014 amendments to the elections law, stipulating that information on candidates with a criminal record be made public, affect many opposition leaders convicted of ‘hooliganism’ after the 2010 protests. The law also criminalises the boycotting of elections, which some opposition figures support in response to prior cases of blatant vote-rigging.
Some 630 candidates have been nominated (by political parties, labour collectives or signature collection) to stand in the 2016 elections. Four opposition parties registered formally: the left-wing Fair World (member of the European Left) named 50 candidates, the Belarusian Social-Democratic Party Gramada (BSDP-G), 34. Belarus Popular Front (BPF) and United Civic Party of Belarus (UCP) — both observer members of the European People’s Party — named 72 and 70 candidates, respectively. Candidates from the Tell the Truth and For Freedom movements collected signatures for their registration. However, most observers see slim chances for opposition leaders to enter Parliament unless Lukashenko decides to reveal his soft side to the outside world as part of his on-going pragmatic flirt with the West. Voters fear destabilisation, which could lead to another Ukrainian scenario. At the same time, critics accuse the disunited opposition of focusing more on personal differences than on ideological goals, thus failing to provide a convincing alternative.
Balancing relations with Russia and the West: an increasingly difficult task
Belarus — the only country in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) that has full territorial integrity — has traditionally relied heavily on Moscow as its key ally, trading partner and energy provider, but the on-going economic crisis in both Belarus and Russia has forced Lukashenko to turn to the West for support. Belarus has repeatedly underlined that it remains a loyal ally of Russia while also reiterating its right to maintain relations with NATO. Minsk and Moscow maintain close military ties, and Belarus is crucial to Russia’s defence. Since Russia’s 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, openly criticised by Lukashenko, Belarus has boosted its military forces, updated the military doctrine and defence plan, and passed a new Martial Law. In 2015, Belarus resisted pressure from Moscow to establish a Russian military base on its territory.
Lukashenko responds cautiously to increasing Russian ‘non-governmental’ pressure on Belarus
While Lukashenko may have the pro-democratic opposition under control, his country’s economic woes risk sparking public protests. Some observers argue that the Kremlin could use situations of unrest to meddle in Belarusian internal affairs, aided by pro-Putin Russian and Russia-founded NGOs that have mushroomed in Belarus since 2014. Russian state-run media, which dominate the Belarusian media landscape, confronted Minsk’s efforts to increase the use of the Belarusian language (spoken by only 23% among a population of 10 million, more than 70% of which speaks Russian) with campaigns accusing Minsk of tolerating ‘Nazis’ and ‘Russophobes’. In response, Lukashenko has reportedly asked his staff to draw up criteria gauging candidates’ loyalty to Belarusian independence, to prevent supporters of Putin’s Russian World foundation (aiming to unite Russian speakers in the former Soviet Union) from entering parliament.
The EU first imposed sanctions on Belarus in 2004 in response to the disappearance of four opposition activists. It also imposed restrictive measures on the country over violations of electoral standards and human rights, as well as over crackdowns on demonstrators in 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2012. However, Belarus played an important role as a venue for EU-mediated talks over the Ukraine conflict, and EU-Belarus ties improved ahead of the October 2015 presidential elections. The EU hailed Lukashenko’s release of six political prisoners in August 2015 as ‘a long-sought step forward’ and lifted sanctions on Lukashenko, 169 other Belarusian officials and three companies in February 2016. On 7 July, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei announced that Belarus was ready to start working toward a ‘basic agreement with the EU on partnership and cooperation’.
In its September 2015 resolution on Belarus, the EP expressed deep concern over the shortcomings during previous elections and the active persecution of the opposition leaders after the elections. In its resolution on the 2012 elections in Belarus, the EP criticised ‘the persistent failure to organise free and fair elections’.
Belarus does not take part in the activities of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly (consisting of the EP delegation and delegations of most EaP countries) ‘due to political reasons’. However, Belarus will be welcomed once ‘political requirements’ have been fulfilled, Euronest states on its website.
Download this at a glance note on ‘Belarus’s parliamentary elections‘ in PDF.