Belarus: Country Profile

Aleksandr Lukashenko is as a matter of standard journalistic practice given the title "the last dictator in Europe". However, he has been in power since 1994, and according to reliable opinion polls has had the support of the majority of the population for much of that period. Indeed, the question has been raised why he needs to obstruct and falsify elections in Belarus if he could win on a fair and free vote, albeit with a lower majority.

On 19 January 2011 the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), which is opposition-minded, found that in free elections Lukashenko would have won 58% of the vote as against his official 79.65% in the presidential elections of 19 December 2010. He asks: "Why stuff the ballot box if victory can be assured without doing so?". Mr Lukashenko is not content merely with stuffing ballot boxes, but resorts to intimidation and repression designed to thwart the democratic process altogether.

Authoritarian regime

Mr Lukashenko's regime is highly authoritarian by any definition, and one reason for his political longevity is his violent repression of opposition as detailed below.

There has been no question so far of entry by Belarus into the Council of Europe, and this is a measure of the vivid contrast between the authoritarianism of Lukashenko, and the abject failure of Belarus to aspire to any of the "three pillars" of the Council of Europe: the rule of law, multi-party democracy, and protection of individual human rights.

Repression is not the only reason for Lukashenko's continued support in Belarus. Natalia Leschenko argues that

“…the primary source of the emergence and consolidation of Lukashenka's regime is 'egalitarian nationalism', a strategic ideological tool that defines the Belarusian nation and its statehood in an ethnically inclusive way, but also on the principles of collectivism and anti-liberalism.”

That is, Lukashenko's nationalism is not based on ethnic markers such as the Belarusian language. Instead, it is the last bastion of Soviet characteristics of collectivism rather than individualism, of social and economic rather than civil and political rights, and of a preference for the simulacrum rather than the reality of democracy. Belarus was known as the most conservative, and also the most clean, tidy and orderly, component of the USSR, and retains this reputation.

Social inequality – social change

The "Gini coefficient" for Belarus, measuring the degree of social inequality, was, according to UNDP in 2006, one of the lowest in the world, at 0.29. The government has also reported high levels of economic growth – 9.3% GDP in 2004, 9.2% in 2005 and 9.6% in 2006.

More recently, Mr Lukashenko has been forced by events to open Belarus' economy. One consequence of Belarus' greater openness is a radical change in the opinions of the population. There has been a "mindset change". In 2006 only 32% wanted Belarus to join the EU; now it is 49%. In 2006, only 29% preferred accession to the EU to integration with Russia; now it is 50.5%. 72% of Belarussians think life is better in neighbouring countries. More than half said they would like to emigrate. This means that Mr Lukashenko's support base in Belarus is much less secure than it was.

Human rights violations

There are many endemic problems of human rights violation in Belarus. Many people have remained imprisoned on politically motivated charges, while the government has failed to account for longstanding cases of politically motivated disappearances.

Other human rights problems include abuses by security forces, which beat detainees and protesters and used torture or mistreatment during investigations and in prisons. Prison conditions remain extremely poor. The regime arbitrarily arrests, detains, and imprisons citizens for criticising officials, participating in demonstrations, and other political reasons. The judiciary suffers from a lack of independence and political interference; trial outcomes often appeared predetermined, and trials frequently were conducted behind closed doors or in absentia.

The government restricts civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement. The government has seized printed materials from civil society activists and prevented independent media from disseminating information and materials. The government continues to hinder or prevent the activities of some religious groups, at times fining them or restricting their services. The regime harasses human rights groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and political parties, refusing to register many and then threatening them with criminal prosecution for operating without registration.

There is discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, persons with disabilities, Roma, ethnic minorities, persons with HIV/AIDS, and those who seek to use the Belarusian language. The regime harasses and has at times dismissed members of independent unions from employment in state-owned enterprises, severely limiting the ability of workers to form and join independent trade unions and to organize and bargain collectively.