In the pre-perestroika Soviet Union, the right to freedoms of conscience, information and expression were severely restricted. The government used its monopoly on the media to disseminate carefully selected and censored information and propaganda. Attempts to express views that differed from official policy met with harsh repression. Similarly, freedom of association was seriously limited. Indeed, many forms of private initiative were not just actively discouraged but made largely impossible. In the prevailing atmosphere of intimidation and fear, only the most courageous dared publicly to challenge government policies. Discussion of policy matters took place behind closed doors by a small group of the Communist Party elite, while the Supreme Soviet, the parliament, was a rubber stamp institution where real discussion was not possible. Wherever the authorities thought it necessary, the judiciary administered justice de facto according to Communist Party instructions.
The early 1990s witnessed an improvement in the human rights situation. Independent newspapers began to emerge and open discussion on hitherto forbidden subjects and criticism of government policy became more frequent. Consequently, Belarusian citizens started openly expressing their views and ideas, and founded or joined non-governmental organizations, independent media outlets, and similar institutions of civil society. In government, theSupreme Soviet became a forum for discussion among parties with differing political platforms. The judiciary began to function more independently.
On July 10, 1994, only a few months after the adoption of a new constitution, voters in Belarus elected Lukashenka to the presidency, in quickly organized but relatively free and fair elections. Since his election, Lukashenka has sought to subordinate and control most aspects of public life, both in government and in civil society. This effort began with the media: though he campaigned on a broad anti-corruption platform, in December 1994, President Lukashenka barred from publication a report on corruption that he had commissioned, which reportedly implicated a number of government aides. The year 1995 saw the state media brought to heel with the dismissal of several editors of state newspapers, public warnings were issued to the independent press to be more objective and to refrain from criticizing the president, and printing and distribution contracts with the independent press were annulled.
In July 1996, President Lukashenka set out on a course to institutionalize the broadening of his powers and to weaken parliament.7 He demanded that the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet (parliament) extend his term of office from five to seven years and adopt legislation creating a second legislative chamber - whose members he would appoint - and limiting the powers of the Constitutional Court. When the Supreme Soviet refused to meet his demands, President Lukashenka called for a public referendum on this issue and on amending the constitution to broaden the powers of the executive. According to official results, the referendum, held on November 24, 1996, yielded a large majority of votes favoring the presidential proposal for an amended constitution. As a result, the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet was dissolved and the new constitution adopted. The circumstances under which the referendum was held have been widely criticized8 and many countries, including the U.S. and E.U. members, have not recognized its results.9
The constitution as amended sealed President Lukashenka's quasi-dictatorial powers. Although formally the separation of powers still exists in Belarus, under the new constitution the president overwhelmingly dominates other branches of government. Indeed, through a combination of the new constitution's provisions and political strong-arm methods, President Lukashenka was authorized to hand-pick the lower chamber of the National Assembly (the new parliament), gained substantial influence on the upper chamber, and can often bypass the legislature altogether and rule on his own. The president also has broad legislative powers in his own right.10
President Lukashenka sought also to weaken the judiciary. Under the amended constitution, the judiciary, including both the Constitutional Court and the courts of general jurisdiction, are subject to strong presidential pressure and the judiciary does not exercise control over the actions and decisions of the executive. Prior to the referendum, President Lukashenka treated the Constitutional Court as a political opponent rather than an independent judicial body,systematically ignored some of its key rulings declaring presidential decrees unconstitutional,11 and ordered the Cabinet of Ministers and other government institutions to ignore such rulings. The amended constitution ended the independent position of the court and placed it under presidential control.12 On March 4, 1997, the "new" Constitutional Court justices were sworn in, a majority of whom were presidential appointees.13 Unsurprisingly, in its first decision after the November 1996 referendum, the court ruled that the presidential decree declaring the results of the referendum legally binding was issued in accordance with the constitution.14
Courts of general jurisdiction also fall under presidential influence. The amended constitution does not regulate the tenure of judges, but a general statement in Article 6 enshrines the independence of the judiciary. Article 111, on the appointment and dismissal of judges states that "Grounds for electing (appointing) judges and their dismissal shall be determined by law." Given the highly politicized environment in which judges serve, Articles 6 and 11 taken together do not constitute adequate protection to judges from politically motivated dismissals.15
Further, the Belarus Law on Judges authorizes local governments to request court qualification commissions to investigate judges for procedural or other violations, which may result in sanctions. If the qualification commission finds merit in charges against a judge, the president can dismiss him or her by decree. Given the country's overburdened court system, procedural violations might be found in the practice of almost any judge in Belarus. In selecting which judges to sanction, therefore, local governments and commissions can easily be swayed by political considerations.
As in other republics of the former Soviet Union, the judiciary in Belarus was never truly independent. Bias is currently evident in cases that have political overtones in ordinary courts, notably in cases involving people accused of participating in unsanctioned demonstrations and disturbing public order in Minsk.
The Lukashenka administration's attempt to weaken parliament and the judiciary was coupled with a concerted campaign to weaken key institutions of civil society - in particular the independent press, non-governmental organizations, and political parties and movements. Beginning in December 1994, the government attacked and sought to control the independent media with the clear aim of driving such outlets out of business. Independent radio and television stations in Belarus were closed by the authorities for political reasons, and independent print media were marginalized and harassed. Russian television stations, which are widely received in Belarus and which are now the principal source of critical information on President Lukashenka and the Belarusian government in the broadcast media, came under focused attack. In 1997, correspondents for Russian television stations were stripped of their accreditationbecause of their alleged "unobjective reporting." One of these correspondents, Aleksandr Stupnikov, was expelled from Belarus. Finally, numerous journalists were arrested and beaten while covering demonstrations.
Another facet of the government's attack on civil society has been its campaign to control or destroy non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In 1996 and 1997, tax inspectorates conducted questionable audits of some organizations, while others housed in government-owned buildings have faced disproportionately high questionable rent hikes. The imposition of a U.S.$3 million fine on the Belarusian Soros Foundation in 1997 can be interpreted only as an attempt to force the foundation to close its office in Minsk and, in consequence, to deprive numerous NGOs of their main source of financial support.16
The government's attempts to marginalize or discredit political parties focused on the Belarusian People's Front (BPF). The BPF is the most visible opposition political party in Belarus. It has pursued a policy of taking its protests against the government to the streets in the form of organized and officially sanctioned demonstrations, in part to publicize its concerns but also in response to government restrictions on political expression in the media. Indeed, most demonstrations are organized by the BPF, sometimes together with the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (BDSP) and the United Civic Party (UCP).17 The BPF's leader, Zenon Pazniak, together with senior member Sergei Naumchyk, fearing arrest and persecution, fled the country in mid-1996 to the United States, where they received political asylum.
The BPF's organizational committee was established in 1988 and the party held its first congress in 1989. Its charter puts forth two main objectives: "the attainment of democracy and independence through national rebirth and rebirth of civil society."18 The BPF's political platform advocates democracy, respect for human rights and "traditional conservative values," comparing itself with Western "centrist-conservative and Christian-democratic" parties.19 The BPF calls itself "a national liberation movement" and vigorously promotes the use of the Belarusian language, which it perceives as threatened - along with Belarus' independence - by President Lukashenka's openly stated goal of greater integration with Russia.20 The BPF openly attacks what it sees as Russian imperialism and views the Lukashenka administration as a "puppet rule" that represents the "geopolitical, economic and military interests of Russia."21 The party sees Belarus' future as part of Europe and seeks greater integration "into its political, legal, economic, civilizational, cultural and defense space."
The party rejects participation in parliamentary elections under the reforms following the November 1996 referendum and has stated that it will participate in such elections only under the auspices of the pre-referendum 1994 constitution. There were no BPF deputies to the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet.
The Youth Front was formed in September 1997 following widespread BPF-led demonstrations in the first quarter of 1996.22 The group brought together various youth organizations of similar political beliefs across Belarus. Although not registered as a separate organization, it maintains a separate leadership structure from the BPF, with chairs in Minsk, Mogilev and Grodno. Pavel Syverinets heads the Minsk section, which is the de facto national headquarters of the organization and is based at the BPF's head office. The Youth Front shares the same political platform as the BPF, although membership in the Youth Front does not automatically confer membership in the BPF.
The U.S. Embassy in Minsk has taken on an active role in highlighting human rights abuses and raising these abuses with the Belarusian government. The embassy sent an observer to the trial of ORT journalists Pavel Sheremet and Dmitri Zavadsky in December/January 1998, as well as to the trial of Alexei Shidlovsky and Vadim Labkovich, two teenagers charged with graffiti-writing, in February 1998. The guilty verdicts handed down in the latter trial prompted the State Department to issue a press statement on February 26, 1998 that severely rebuked the Belarusian government for Shidlovsky and Labkovich's "unwarranted and inhumane pre-trial detention, the criminalization of what should be a minor offense, and the disproportionate nature of the sentences [which] are reminiscent of the worst abuses of the Soviet era."
On March 5, 1998, Congress entertained a resolution sponsored by Representative Christopher H. Smith condemning human rights violations in Belarus and recommending the withdrawal of Belarus' Most-Favored-Nation status "if sufficient improvements are not undertaken." Among other recommendations, the resolution called on the president of Belarus to "follow the principles in the 1994 Constitution both in practice and intent" and "to restore the rights of the Supreme Soviet," and declared its support for the non-governmental organizations that work for the promotion of democracy and "respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms."
The United Kingdom embassy in Minsk, which held the rotating presidency of the E.U. from January to July 1998, sent an observer to the Shidlovsky-Labkovich trial. The E.U. subsequently released a declaration expressingconcern at the treatment of the teenagers and describing the length of their pre-trial detention, the armed police presence at the trial and sentences as being "disproportionate to their crime," and urged the Belarusian government to show clemency. In February 1998, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning arbitrary arrests, which expressed concern at the trial of Shidlovsky and Labkovich (and called for their release), threats of violence against and intimidation of journalists, the beating of film director Yury Khashchevatsky, expulsions of students from universities, and at the number of young people seeking political asylum abroad.
On March 10, 1998, the E.U. announced that five million European Currency Units (ECU, approximately U.S.$5.5 million) had been earmarked for distribution under the Civil Society Development program. The aim of this project is to provide assistance primarily to the non-state media, human rights non-governmental organizations and higher educational institutions. The distribution of these funds is dependent on approval from the Belarusian government, which, at time of writing, had yet to be given.
The report expressed concern "about numerous allegations of ill-treatment of persons by police and other law enforcement officials during peaceful demonstrations" and that "investigations of such abuses are not conducted by an independent mechanism....That the number of prosecutions and convictions in these cases is very low...may lead to impunity for members of the police and other security officials." The report called for such abuse to be investigated by an independent body and for the victims to be compensated.
Excessive periods of pre-trial detention came under criticism in the report, as did overcrowding in prisons, the use of "punishment cells," and the fact that the period of pre-trial detention is determined by a prosecutor and not a judge. The report also criticized the judiciary's lack of independence in Belarus and the requirement for lawyers to join government-run bar associations, stating that this system undermines the independence of lawyers. The report detailed concerns over restrictions on freedom of assembly and of expression, including decree 218 restricting the import and export of information deemed damaging to the interests of the country.
February 27, 1998, saw the much-delayed opening of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Advisory and Monitoring office in Minsk. Foreign Minister Ivan Antanovich reportedly expressed delight at the office's opening, stating that "with good advice we will reach a compromise in our society."25 However, President Lukashenka's reaction to the opening was markedly different: Lukashenka reportedly accused OSCE officials of acting as "opposition defense attorneys," stating that "when opposition activists are tried, in particular for attending an unauthorized rally or march, OSCE missionaries immediately arrive in Belarus."26
The OSCE has repeatedly stated that neither it nor other Western institutions recognize the legitimacy of the National Assembly of Belarus and that after July 1999, President Lukashenka will no longer be recognized as the legitimate president of Belarus (the November 1996 referendum had extended the presidential term of office from five to seven years).
On a positive note, Russia is widely credited for having persuaded Belarus to permit the opening of the OSCE's Advisory and Monitoring office in Minsk (see above).
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