[In today’s episode of Some call it Belarus, we take an introductory look at the politics and political system in Belarus while also briefly glancing over to the freedoms of independent media and those surrounding them.]
Season I Episode II – The (internal) Politics of Belarus
The political status quo in Belarus has often been described as that of an authoritarian regime, ruled by president Lukashenka since his electoral win in 1994. Officially a republic, Belarus is governed by the bi-cameral national assembly, consisting of the Council of the Republic and the House of Representatives, that elects the government under leadership of the Prime Minister. However, while the prime minister primarily functions as a primus inter pares, the government is in practice led and appointed by the President of the Republic. The current national assembly consists of 64 appointed members in the Council of the Republic (upper house) and 110 in the House of Representatives (lower house) supporting the president, a majority of these elected representatives are without affiliation to any official party, while others belong to parties such as the Communist Party of Belarus, the Agrarian Party or the Republican Party of Labour and Justice. Although there is a number of registered or formerly registered, political parties in Belarus belonging to and voicing the concerns of the opposition to Lukashenka’s government, none has been able to secure a seat in the House of Representatives. Authors like Korosteleva date this split between the political parties into camps supporting and in opposition to the presidency back to 1994 in the precursor to the 1995 parliamentary elections. Similarly, they decline the notion of a system of political parties existing in Belarus in a traditional sense, but speak rather of a conglomerate of political forces.
Since his first election in 1994, current president Alyaxandr Lukashenka and his government have severely limited the possibilities of opposing political thought and activities in the country through several reforms of day to day practices that hinder his opponents. The consequential disenfranchisement of the Belarusian public with political processes – and thus the possibility of political change – has led to the perception of elections in general and presidential election specifically to be perceived as democratic rites to validate the status quo of the presidency.
Especially in the light of the conduct of political protests surrounding the most recent presidential elections of 2006 and 2010, that followed allegations of electoral fraud, where on either occasion considerable numbers of protesters (400 in 2006 and 600 in 2010) were detained and participating presidential candidates and leaders of the political opposition sentenced to prison terms of up to six years.
Analyst Tatsiana Vadalazhskaya reports of a concerted effort to use a number of repressive tools, summarized as a form of employment ban, to separate a part of society consisting of independent trade unions, political parties, active public associations, private and self-organized initiatives from the rest of Belarusian society. While simple survival is the dominant aim for these actors, it is still possible for people active in this sphere to make a living. However, simultaneously to their survival and the mere fact of their existence, this part of Belarusian society is nearly exclusively occupied with European topics due to the space provided to them by the Belarusian authorities, leading to their stronger association and identification with Europe over Belarus itself. This in turn leads to a disenfranchisement between potential change-makers and the society they aim to change based on economic sanctions against them. While there are possibilities for non-state or non-state controlled actors and media to exist and work in Belarus, their given framework of existence is highly regulated and processes of registration for non-governmental organizations have repeatedly been halted, licenses revoked and independent media shut down. Similarly, perceived leaders of independent movements and opinion have repeatedly been apprehended by the state authorities or sentenced by courts for their activities in absentia.
In regards to an independence of media, the major television, news and print networks belong to the state-owned Tele-radio-company while especially independent newspapers such as Pahonia or Local Time (shut down 2001 and ‘02 respectively) were out under political pressure and eventually shut down in the early 2000s. Digital media like the World Wide Web have witnessed a similar rise in importance in Belarus with internet-penetration reaching 54,2% of the population in 2013, up from 25,3% in 2005 (source: Internet World Stats). The internet provides one of the main possibilities of outreach for members of civil society, independent analysts and media portals in Belarus. However, as showcased by the Freedomhouse on the Net index, freedoms on the internet have been under heavy pressure in Belarus, with censorship of access to websites in times of elections and beyond, the persecution of independent bloggers and technical attacks against independent websites being commonplace.
Next week: Episode 3 – The Economic Situation of Belarus
Picture credit: Adrian Murphy
Korosteleva, Elena (2005). Emergence of a Political System in: White, Stephen et al.. Post-Communist Belarus, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Vadalazhkaya, Tatsiana (2012). The struggle against dissent in the labour and employment sphere. The employment ban: a new phenomenon on the old foundations, in: Matskevich Uladzimir (Ed.). Desovietization in the context of Belarusan society’s transformation, Vilnius