Elected in 1994, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has consolidated an alarmingly substantial amount of power using Belarus’ democratic institutions to undermine his political opponents and weaken the country’s democratic structures that would otherwise serve as checks on his authority. Lukashenko, who ironically came to power on an anti-corruption platform, now relishes in the unchecked executive authority he’s created for himself over the past three decades, essentially reducing what would be democratic structural obstacles to his power to nonfactors. Lukashenko embodies authoritarianism and his gradual, yet substantial, erosion of Belarus’ democratic framework over the last twenty seven years has reduced the young country to perhaps the last dictatorship in Europe.
After completing his first two terms as Belarus’ President, Lukashenko eliminated presidential term limits through the implementation of a 2006 referendum that was widely considered fraudulent among foreign observers. Since solidifying his grip on the executive, Lukashenko has engaged in substantial executive aggrandizement, using his position of power to effectively strip Belarus’ democratic institutions of any legitimate efficacy.
Composed entirely of Lukashenko loyalists, the Belarusian legislature serves as an irrelevant rubber stamp parliament controlled by Lukashenko’s marionette strings. According to Freedom House’s 2021 country report on Belarus, OSCE election monitors reported ballot stuffing and that observers were prevented from monitoring election procedures during the 2019 parliamentary election. Based on this information, we can clearly see how Lukashenko has undermined the integrity of the legislative branch, which he’s effectively absorbed into his control. Essentially removed altogether from the legislative process, the Belarusian legislature exists as a meaningless institution that sits idly by as Lukashenko dominates the country’s policy decision making through extensive executive decrees.
In a blatant act of stealth authoritarianism–which can be defined as “the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends”–Lukashenko has also packed the Belarusian Judiciary with partisan loyalists, handicapping the institution from exercising any form of judicial review against his numerous executive decrees (Varol, 2015). In fact, Lukashenko possesses the exclusive right to appoint all positions in both the supreme and constitutional court which haven’t opposed an executive decree since 1996 (Bak, 2020).
With a rubber stamp parliament and a partisan-packed judiciary, Lukashenko enjoys a complete monopoly on the formation of Belarusian policy. Lukashenko’s iron grip on the executive coupled with his direct influence over his cronies he’s placed in the legislature and judiciary effectively make him the head of all three branches of Belarus’ government. Belarus exists as a prime example of the dilapidation of democracy as a direct result of executive aggrandizement and stealth authoritarianism. Lukashenko, who originally came to power through a democratic election, has embarked on an extensive campaign to dismantle Belarus’ integral democratic institutions that would have otherwise stood as formidable obstacles to his plans for state seizure.
Not only has Lukashenko eroded the Belarusian government’s separation of powers, but he has also targeted both the press and civil society. Lukashenko’s government severely restricts internet access, requires most non-governmental organizations and charities to register through the state apparatus, and frequently utilizes secret police to infiltrate civil society groups (Bak, 2020). Following the blatantly fraudulent presidential elections of 2020, the Belarusian people erupted into protest against Lukashenko. In response, Lukashenko’s government deployed riot police and plainclothes officers to carry out a brutally violent crackdown on thousands of peaceful demonstrators who suffered beatings, torture, and detainment. The media–a substantial amount of which is under state control–in Belarus fairs no better than civil society due to constant government surveillance, substantial censorship of publications critical toward Lukashenko and his regime, as well as frequent arrests of members of the press.
With Belarus’ key governmental institutions under his control and a displayed willingness to implement force to drown out his opposition in both the media and civil society, Alexander Lukashenko serves as a prime example of a contemporary authoritarian. Having risen to power through a democratic process, Lukashenko differs from autocrats of the Cold-War era that often captured and externally dismantled the state through violent military coups. Like many other modern autocrats such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Lukashenko’s democratic pathway to the presidency enables him to engage in stealth authoritarianism, internally eroding the state’s democracy through its very own democratic institutions.
Fortunately, the degradation of Belarusian democracy has not gone unnoticed in the international community. There have been multiple established democracies–most notably the U.K., the U.S., Canada, and the E.U.–that have recently taken action to deter Lukashenko’s undermining of democratic institutions and principles. The aforementioned parties have implemented a series of sanctions against Lukashenko that mainly target officials and firms with strong ties to the Belarusian autocrat. While such actions certainly demonstrate that Lukashenko and his cronies are not invincible, they most definitely are not enough to address the situation entirely. Nonetheless, these actions serve as a foundational base upon which Western leaders can implement stronger measures in the future to further assist the Belarusian democratic opposition in its struggle against Lukashenko.
Hi Luke, I think you bring up some really interesting points in your analysis! I liked your acknowledgement of the legislature essentially just serving as a rubber stamp for Lukashenko. Unfortunately, that’s a pattern with many modern autocrats, Viktor Orban in Hungary for example. It’s helpful to compare Hungary and Belarus to gain a better understanding of democratic backsliding in Europe, which long seemed to be a democratic strong hold. Over the past decade, Orban has similarly amassed power and bypassed the need for any legislative check on his authority. Belarus and Hungary seem to be in painfully similar political situations, though authoritarianism in Hungary is less solidified than in Belarus. There’s hope for the opposition uniting and winning out against Orban’s Fidesz party. A big difference between the two is the European Union reaction to their domestic circumstances. As you mentioned, Belarus is not part of the EU and has been unilaterally condemned by its neighbors in the EU and the broader international community. They have very little regional support outside of Russia and some of its other, smaller neighbors. Hungary on the other hand is a part of the European Union. Viktor Orban has been able to use Union funds to finance his nefarious regime. There are very few mechanisms to punish an EU country for undemocratic behavior once its been admitted, so Hungary is facing little accountability. I’m interested to see going forward whether the EU will have any sway in the region over rising autocrats.