||Focus: Human Rights||
The past decade in Belarus has witnessed great changes: the collapse of the Soviet Union; the birth of democracy; and the emergence of President Aleksandr Lukashenka as a neo-authoritarian leader. The fall of the Soviet Union was accompanied by an explosion of private universities as the state monopoly on higher education was broken. However, all of the sectors of civil society that emerged in the Soviet Union's wake, including the education sector, have been under attack since President Lukashenka's election in July 1994. Independent newspapers have faced a withering state-sponsored campaign of vilification, intimidation, and legal action for publishing articles critical of the government. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are persistently threatened with closure, harassed by new requests for registration, or are hounded out of their premises. Opposition political parties exist, but are currently in their third year of a state media blackout, greatly limiting their access to the Belarusian people. Opposition leaders are continually harassed. President Lukashenka has introduced legislation that has granted him sweeping authoritarian powers while also greatly restricting citizens' right to hold public meetings.
Belarus boasts some forty-two state universities, academies, and institutes, and thirteen private, fee-based universities, institutes, and academies.2 Of the state universities, by far the largest are the Minsk-based Belarusian State University (BGU), with approximately 15,000 students; the Belarusian State Polytechnic Academy, with some 16,000 students; the Belarusian State Economic University, with 11,000 students; and the Belarusian Teacher Training College, with 13,000 students. The BGU is the best known and most prestigious of the state universities and offers courses in all major academic subjects. Of the private enterprises, the Minsk-based European Humanities University enjoys a solid reputation, offering among other subjects courses in law, economics and social sciences. Other private institutions focus mainly on "newer" subjects, such as the market economy, business, and management.
Although the Belarusian language shares many similarities with Russian, it is a separate language in its own right. The 1994 constitution established Belarusian as the official language of the country, reflecting the country's newfound independence, while the November 1996 referendum on constitutional amendments, on paper, established parity between Belarusian and Russian. However, since this referendum, Russian has become the preferred and predominant language of government officials with the president, for example, rarely if at all speaking in Belarusian in public. Similarly, the state media operates almost exclusively in Russian. A large number of independent newspapers and organizations use Belarusian, which has served to highlight not just the difference between state and non-state structures, but led to the politicizing of the language question.
A feature of the immediate post-Soviet period was the resurgence of interest in Belarusian language, history, culture, and national symbols. Free of Soviet restrictions, previously forbidden subjects were reintroduced into public life in 1991, when schools and universities nationwide began to teach in the Belarusian language for the first time and academics poured over Soviet archives and began to publish their findings. New textbooks appeared in Belarusian, while history classes for the first time began to feature discussion of issues such as the Belarusian independence movement, including repression of the same under the Soviet Union. President Lukashenka has since reversed almost all of these initiatives: Russian language now eclipses Belarusian in almost every sphere; the Soviet version of history is now taught in schools and universities; research into themes such as Stalinist repression is discouraged, not funded, and pulled from publication lists; and politically active or outspoken lecturers and students are pressured, fired, or expelled.
The November 1996 Referendum
President Lukashenka's grip on power was consolidated through a November 1996 nationwide referendum on amendments to the 1994 constitution. The referendum was called following a dispute between President Lukashenka and the elected parliament, the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet, over the president's proposal to amend the constitution to extend his term of office from five to seven years, create a second legislative chamber whose members would be appointed by the president, and limit the power of the Constitutional Court. Following the Supreme Soviet's refusal to agree, the president called a nationwide referendum on November 24, 1996. Officially, the public voted in favor of the amendments by a wide majority, although many countries, including European Union member states and the United States sharply criticized the conditions under which the referendum was held and refused to recognize its results. The referendum resulted in the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet, which was replaced by a new, bicameral parliament. The president handpicked the members of the lower chamber and gained substantial influence over the upper chamber. The net result was the effective removal of all representatives of opposition parties from government.
In response to the president's extension of his term of office, which under the 1994 constitution had been due to expire on July 20, 1999, opposition parties in Belarus organized an alternative presidential election on May 16, 1999. Two candidates were fielded: the leader in exile of the opposition Belarusian People's Front, Zenon Pazniak, and former Prime Minister, Mikhail Chygir. Their efforts were marred by the arrest of the organizers, the arrest of Chygir on embezzlement charges, warnings issued to independent newspapers for advertising the elections, and the "disappearance" of two prominent opponents of the president: Tamara Vinnikova, former chair of the National Bank, who disappeared from under KGB house arrest on April 7, and Yury Zakharenka, former interior minister, who was last seen on May 7 being bundled into a car by five men in plain clothes. As of this writing, there has been no further news or confirmation of their whereabouts, while Chygir remains in jail, awaiting trial. Human Rights Watch takes no position on the legitimacy of the November 1996 referendum or the length of President Lukashenka's term of office; our concern lies with the government's use of the amended constitution that continues to undercut human rights in Belarus.
With other avenues for the public expression of opposition sentiment closed under Lukashenka, street demonstrations have emerged as an important means of expressing dissent. As students often participated in opposition demonstrations in large numbers, they often have faced the brunt of the state's violent suppression of public dissent. Since 1996, the government has sought to intimidate and dissuade opposition activists from protesting through a variety of means, including threats to these demonstrators' physical well-being and threats at the work place or place of study. Arbitrary and violent arrests of demonstrators, without regard to age or infirmity, have become commonplace during peaceful protests in Belarus. In violation of the terms of both the Belarusian constitution and international instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Belarus is a state party, Lukashenka issued a draconian decree in March 1997, codified into law later that year, which severely limits the right to citizens to demonstrate, regulating the even the types of symbols, flags, and banners participants may use.3
Belarus and the International Community
President Lukashenka has persistently flouted domestic and international law, and Belarus has largely been isolated by the international community. The governments of the European Union and the United States have strictly limited ties and economic aid to Belarus as a direct response to deepening authoritarianism in that country. These governments, however, continue to support civil society projects that include, for example, financial support and training programs for the independent media and the sponsoring of seminars on democracy and respect for human rights. A notable exception from Belarus' isolation is the Russian Federation (Russia), which on one level enthusiastically embraces President Lukashenka and his pro-integration foreign policy and, on another, touts the policy of integration with Belarus as a means to appeal to the electorate's nostalgia for the Soviet Union. While numerous integration agreements betweenBelarus and Russia have been signed, there has been little effort at implementation. Disturbingly, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, presumably for fear of upsetting Russia's largely pro-integration electorate, has resolutely declined to use his country's power and influence over Belarus to improve that country's poor human rights record.
To its credit, the Lukashenka administration permitted the opening of an office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) in Minsk in February 1998. Yet despite the adoption by the Monitoring Group in 1999 of a more public and sharply critical stance of the Belarusian government than it had in 1998, there has been no evident policy change in response from President Lukashenka's administration. Rather, in the run-up to the so-called "alternative" presidential elections of May 16, 1999, abuses against opposition figures in the form of harassment, intimidation, arrest, and even "disappearance" increased in both intensity and severity.
2 There are also an unspecified number of military educational establishments, the discussion of which is beyond the scope of this report.
3 For a detailed analysis of this decree, originally known as Decree No. 5 on Gatherings, Meetings, Street Marches, Demonstrations and Picketing, please see Belarus: Crushing Civil Society, a Human Rights Watch short report, New York, August 1997.