• Maumita Banerjee

The Brutal Crackdown in Belarus

After its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus had a weak national identity and lacked a tradition of democratic governance. The early years of independence were followed by an epoch of sluggish market reforms, low standards of living, growing corruption and criminality. All of these factors together facilitated Lukashenko to consolidate a Belarusian regime in which the Parliament lost all its power to oppose the President, whose decrees were set above the law. After his presidential election in 1994, he almost immediately came in conflict with the Parliament and the constitutional court. The constitutional referendum of 1996 and the political decisions that accompanied it, gave Lukashenko control of the executive and judicial authorities, the Central Election Commission, the local executive committees, the unions, the military and law enforcement structures, television channels and the largest newspapers[1].

This was the foundation of his highly consolidated and adaptive authoritarian regime. Subsequent presidential elections have failed to meet the international standards of being free and fair. In order to retain his position in the country, he has shrewdly designed mechanisms to mitigate potential threats to its stability. A significant portion of Belarusians are excluded from political participation because of the state’s economic dominance.

This is because the country has a system whereby the employers are required to extend the labour contracts of their employees. In this regard, the authorities have leverage over and can significantly control the extent of political participation of the working population. For instance, students enrolled in higher educational institutions (mostly state-run) stand at the risk of being expelled if they express dissatisfaction towards the incumbent even though the constitution provides for freedom of speech. The regime has further created tools that reduce the likelihood of mass protest. There are major bureaucratic obstacles in organizing protests without permission from local authorities.

Participants, therefore, run the risk of being arrested when the protest is unsanctioned. There have been instances where the security personnel, over whom the President has authority over, have prevented opposition leaders and activists from reaching the site of protests by drawing out procedures for checking their documents or vehicle registration plates, making preventative arrests ahead of possible mass protests, or even subsequently detaining them for disorderly conduct after such demonstrations. The authorities also have refrained such political prisoners from meeting with their lawyers, family members, embassies or prison monitoring groups.

Impunity among law enforcement has remained a serious problem which is highly ignored. In the cases of arrest and detentions made by the security personnel or police, it is imperative for them, in accordance with the law of the country, to request permission from a prosecutor in excess of three hours. However, in reality, these procedures are not followed and the police detain or make arrests without warrants. Under the purview of the law, the detainees also do have the right to petition the legality of their detention but often such appeals are suppressed by the courts. Arbitrary arrests by the authorities had become almost a common phenomena in the year 2011 when hundreds and thousands of individuals of independent media, social media activists and journalists had been arrested and detained during June-September for participating in demonstrations organized via the Internet. Just because it was an unsanctioned protest the police detained them for 15 days and sentenced them with large fines.

On 6th October, the renowned sociologist, Aleh Manayeu was detained for three hours on his way to the Polish Embassy in Minsk to impede his presentation of poll results which showed that 62.3% of the population had no trust in Lukashenko. The police said that they were acting on an “order given to them to detain (Manayeu).”[2] Lukashenko, in a press conference held on the 7th of October, informed that the police apprehended Manayeu for his alleged possession of drugs. However, he was subsequently released without a charge.

Viktar Ivashkevich, a well-known activist, was frequently subjected to administrative penalties and arrests. Being a member of the Belarusian Popular Front, 'Talaka' and 'Maistrounia', he had organized several strikes and rallies (unsanctioned) across the country to protest against the government’s ineffective economic policies. For this, the police detained him and the Minsk district court fined him 1.4 million rubles ($169) for violating mass events regulations. He was the editor in chief of the Rabochy newspaper and had been sentenced to 2 years of forced labour for “libel against the President”[3] after publishing the article “Thief must be kept in prison” which the prosecutors saw as defamation of Lukashenko.[4]

Anywhere across the globe when an authoritarian regime comes to power it tactically tries to discredit the idea of protesting itself by claiming that they are not violating human rights or constraining the opposition but merely protecting the people and domestic stability. Lukashenko has, in this way, for ages exploited a historical fear of social upheaval among Belarusians.

In order to safeguard his authoritarian regime against a coup, Lukashenko did not appoint any charismatic or ambitious person (who demonstrated too much initiative or would be too publicly active) in important posts, especially to the position of the prime minister. His main aim was to ensure that neither elites nor ordinary citizens get the impression that someone has emerged on the horizon who has the capacity to garner support from the majority of the population.

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, Lukashenko and his government do not respect judicial independence in practice. Corruption, inefficiency and political interference with judicial decisions is widespread. Prosecutors and courts convicted individuals on false and politically motivated charges, and senior leaders and local authorities dictate the outcomes of trials. According to UN reports, it was found that the prosecutors wield “excessive and imbalanced” authority because they may extend detention without the permission of judges. Defence lawyers are often unable to examine investigation files, be present during investigations and interrogations or examine the evidence against defendants until a prosecutor formally brings the case to court. According to many defence attorneys, such imbalances of power persisted especially in politically motivated criminal and administrative cases. Only in very few cases do the criminal defendants get exonerated. In the preceding years, the authorities have revoked the licenses of several attorneys who have represented prominent opposition leaders and civil society activists.

The Justice Ministry, on its website, charged that “certain lawyers” who were defending individuals facing criminal charges, including the presidential candidates, were committing “gross violations” of the rules of professional ethics for lawyers as well as of the country’s laws. The ministry subsequently announced that all licensed lawyers, excluding junior staff, had to pass extraordinary performance reviews to renew their licenses. As a result of this review, attorneys defending key presidential candidates and activists were disbarred. On January 4th 2011, a lawyer in Hrodna lost her license for participating in post-election demonstrations. The BHC reported that additional lawyers engaged to defend arrested activists were suspended for indefinite periods. The authorities also removed Alyaksandr Pylchanka, the head of the Minsk city bar association, who openly spoke against debarring lawyers and said that the situation threatened the independence of the bar.

In terms of accessibility to the internet, the government actively continues to monitor e-mails and chat rooms. Only organizations authorized by the government, e.g. Beltekam, have the exclusive right to maintain internet domain. In July 2010, Lukashenko issued an edict that requires registration of service providers and established restrictions on access to sites containing “extremist activity” (which many activists believed could be interpreted to include government opponents). It was also made mandatory to collect information of users at cyber cafes. Service providers were also instructed to eliminate access to areas related to drugs, trafficking, explosives, pornography and promotion of violence.

In order to justify his limitations on internet services, Lukashenka said that he was “fine with the Internet” but claimed that the monitoring the services is required to protect the stability and security of the citizen and the country." There have been several reports of users being redirected to fake mirror websites that attempted to collect users’ full names and other personal information. The government continued to collect and obtain personally identifiable information of independent journalists and democratic activists. For example, during raids, there have been instances where investigators hacked personal passwords to access e-mails, Skype records and other materials, to read decoded files and to retrieve deleted information on the computers confiscated from independent journalists, post-election demonstration participants and activists.

The authoritarian government in power has also made it essential for educational institutions to teach an official state ideology that combines reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and of Belarus under the leadership of Lukashenko.

Section I of the Constitution - “Fundamentals of the Constitutional System”, describes Belarus as a unitary, democratic, social state based on the rule of law. It ascertains the mutual responsibility of the citizen and the state[5]. So the Belarusian republic is, in fact, a democracy and the true measure of a democracy is how it treats its minority - in this case, the Polish and Roma population, who on a daily basis face governmental and societal discrimination. The Romani community continues to experience high unemployment and low levels of education. Authorities estimated the unemployment rate among Roma to be as high as 80 per cent, according to the latest available information. Roma often were denied access to higher education in state-run universities.

While the Russian and Belarusian languages have equal legal status, in practice Russian is the primary language used by the government. According to independent polling, an overwhelming majority of the population spoke Russian as its mother tongue. As the government viewed proponents of the Belarusian language as political opponents of the regime, authorities continued to harass and intimidate academic and cultural groups that sought to promote the use of the Belarusian language.

In order to continue his power and position in the country, it became pertinent for Lukashenko to not allow any pro-Russian opposition from forming. This, in turn, would prevent Russia from getting any ideas about a change in regime. For example, a few years ago, the security services blocked an attempt by the Belarusian Slavic Committee to register as a party. Only a pro-European opposition is tolerated. Those suspected of having overly close ties to Moscow are not allowed to occupy senior posts. In Lukashenko’s mind, Russia must not be allowed to develop a backup plan, and he must retain a monopoly on the pro-Russian wing of Belarusian politics. All of the steps and plans undertaken by Lukashenko which often lead to gross human rights violations in the country are the means to his ends and purpose.


[1]https://carnegieendowment.org/files/CP328_Shraibman_Belarus_FINAL.pdf [2]https://www.rferl.org/a/belarus_police_detain_sociologist_with_poll_results/24351584.html [3] http://spring96.org/en/news/11687 [4] http://spring96.org/en/news/66257 [5]http://president.gov.by/en/constitution_en/#:~:text=Section%20I%20of%20the%20Constitution,the%20citizen%20and%20the%20state.

This article is part of our Special Report on the crisis in Belarus. You can view the complete catalog of articles on this subject here.

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

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The author is a graduate of Jadavpur University, India, and currently a student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India.

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