By Carly Chabrier and Veera Tyhtilä
On 23 July 2021, the Ministry of Justice of Belarus forced 43 non-governmental organizations to close and terminate all their activities. Among the terminated organizations were the Union of Journalists of Belarus (BAŽ), the writers’ organization PEN and the influential trade school located in Minsk. In addition, there were, for example, youth, charity and animal rights organizations and cultural centers.
The human rights organization Viasna reported that the authorities carried out large-scale raids against several non-governmental organizations and opposition groups across Belarus and conducted more than 200 house searches in the homes of journalists and activists. Several people were arrested. The liquidation of the non-governmental Union of Belarusian Writers (UBW) followed in August 2021. President Aleksander Lukashenko stated that these NGOs are full of “bandits and foreign agents” and needed to be cleaned. “We’ll massacre all the scum that you [the West] have been financing. Oh, you’re upset we’ve destroyed all your structures! Your NGOs, whatever they are, that you’ve been paying for,” Lukashenko told BBC in November 2021.
The crack-down of the Belarusian civil society has been a huge backlash against democracy. Factors such as increasing polarization of the media, abuse of the legal system, restrictions on civil society and Russian influence have all created an environment for the decline of democracy. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has only made things worse. By February 2023, the authorities had closed 797 NGOs followed by 432 others which had closed to avoid possible prosecution.
Aleksander Lukashenko has been the president of Belarus since 1994. His government is firmly considered an authoritarian regime that restricts the political rights of the citizens (Hansen & Ford 2022, 2). He has served as the president of his country continuously since the establishment of the office in 1994 and has been re-elected five times. The most recent elections in 2020 caused a turmoil of protests already before election day. But when Lukashenko was announced the winner with a suspiciously high percentage (80.1%) of the vote, the election was widely considered fraudulent, and people took to the streets. Armed forces silenced the protests with heavy violence.
Bermeo (2016) has explained how the development of authoritarianism often follows a pattern based on careful strategies, such as institutional reforms and electoral manipulation strengthening the current administration’s position, or using state funds for one’s own benefit, changing electoral rules, persecution of the opposition and their candidates, or hampering voter registration, (Tranditis 2022, 114). Trantidis describes autocratization as “an effort to build a stable authoritarian regime against the confines of an initially competitive system where political parties, civil society organizations and rule-of-law institutions build a structure of democratic resistance,” (Trantidis 2022, 116).
Belarus is a model example of those processes. Why this has happened has been explained in many ways, starting from the country’s socioeconomical model, ranging to Lukashenko’s personality cult and his skills to invoke a national identity, Russian influence has also been decisive. Belarus has had ongoing media limitations since the early 2000s but has seen a crackdown since the new 2018 regulations and the COVID-19 pandemic. These crackdowns have led to media polarization with lasting effects on civil society and journalists. “Although more than 80% of the population has access to the internet, that access runs through a state monopoly, and the state actively blocks websites (and sometimes social media networks) that it finds problematic, and prosecutes journalists and bloggers who publish challenging information,” (Greene 2022, 91). Politics and power have always been a driving force for these limitations in not only the media but every other sphere of life in Belarus. In 2020 Lukashenko destroyed his opponent’s ability to run against him and did not provide a fair and just election resulting in mass protests and violence throughout Belarus. A pattern has been developed since Lukashenko began his rule, when elections come around restrictions on press and media tighten in order to give him control of the public narrative. Due to this Lukashenko is able to push his personal agenda and keep the communal conversation regarding the government positive. Lukashenko limits pluralism in politics and avoids transparency; he uses selective repression in order to put on a facade of allowing openness when in reality it is all systematic (Kolarzik 2020, 5). One of the largest issues is the effect this has had on journalists, media, and news outlets. “The rights of journalists and press have been violated in hundreds of cases, including withdrawal of accreditation, beating, detention and arrest, deportation and imprisonment, often on arbitrary reasons,” (Kolarzik 2020, 9). Lukashenko is determined to squander anyone who challenges his authority, which has led to recurring disappearances, reports of torture, and sexual abuse, as well as many media personnel having to flee the country. This has instilled fear and uncertainty in the Belarusian society and due to the 2020 protests many are still being subjected to unsafe conditions and are being silenced. The control on the media and violations of journalistic rights has made the United Nations Human Rights Commission attempt to intervene. The “Council calls upon the Belarusian authorities to enter into a dialogue with the political opposition, including the Coordination Council and civil society, in order to guarantee respect for human rights law, including civil and political rights. The Council urges the Belarusian authorities to fulfill their obligations under international human rights law […]” (Kolarzik 2020, 11). This was stated in 2020 and has not since been acknowledged by Lukashenko or the Belarus government. By taking an extreme approach to restrict the media and thereby keep support for his regime, Lukashenko resembles his neighbor Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko is following in the Russian leader’s footsteps by creating an environment where the media has no true freedom of expression. This has not only affected the media in Belarus but has crept into the justice system leading to an abuse of power and violations of human rights.
The corrupt and abusive nature of the justice system in Belarus has become increasingly apparent in recent years. Greene described Lukashenko’s approach as “focused on a strategy of “preemption” – aiming since the earliest days of post-Soviet independence to prevent the emergence of institutionally robust challengers, whether in the political parties, the press, civil society or, really, anywhere” (90). The Belarusian government has used the justice system to target journalists, political opposition, and activists, all while attempting to suppress dissent. The lack of an independent judiciary has created an environment in which the government is able to operate with impunity and harm the civil society. The government’s control of the media has become a big contribution to the erosion of trust in the justice system throughout Belarus by portraying opponents of the government as enemies of the state (Greene 2022, 92). This gives the regime a scapegoat to justify their crackdowns on the public, media, and justice system. A prime example is when Mikala Statkevich was sentenced to five years in prison in 2017 for his participation in a peaceful protest. Coincidentally, Statkevich was also an active politician who opposed the Lukashenko regime (Bekus 2022, 111). Corruption is easily spread throughout the Lukashenko regime due to the small concentration of power which has let abuse of power fester and become widespread. In recent months many NGOs were shut down, which is seen as politically motivated and restricts the ability of civil society to participate in public life. The Belarusian government performs poorly when it comes to trust in institutions and political leaders. The regime continues to target political opposition, journalists, activists, and media outlets which furthers the narrative with Belarusians that the government can no longer lead or be trusted.
Fear of orange
It is not a surprise that the Russian president has had his say in Belarus right before the demolition of the non-governmental organizations started. President Vladimir Putin received Alexander Lukashenko in St. Petersburg on July 13, only ten days before the announcements of closing of the NGOs came. Russia has set the example of restricting the rights of the civil society and many have followed its lead.
In 2006 Putin signed into law a bill imposing stronger control of NGOs. This happened after the color revolutions, a series of anti-regime movements in Eastern Europe. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine lasted from the end of 2004 to the beginning of 2005, following the presidential election in Ukraine (Carothers 2006, 56). Since then, Russia has adopted a Foreign Agent Law (2012) and Undesirable Organizations Law (2015). The Human Rights Centre “Memorial” was declared a foreign agent, and in January 2022 the it was liquidated for non-compliance with the Foreign Agent Law.
Putin has wanted to control the domestic civil society, as well as all attempts to challenge the authoritarian rule in other post-Soviet countries. A European Parliament briefing from 2022 asks if the Russian civil society is already in danger of extinction (Martin, 2022). Russia’s effective crackdown on civil society has not only brought misfortune to the local NGOs, journalists and human rights defenders, but it has also had a much wider and more sinister consequence and other countries follow Russia’s lead. This was especially true after the events of the Maidan in Ukraine, when neighboring governments, felt their fear of revolutions increase. Some countries imitate Russia’s model, and some, like Belarus, cannot even afford to choose, because Putin keeps a tight grip and threatens with consequences if Russia’s will is not obeyed. The same phenomenon of stifling dissent and silencing critics can be seen in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Bosnia or Hungary, but also in Egypt or Uganda and beyond.
Belarus is at the forefront of democratic erosion experiencing a systematic and calculated power struggle. Russia has had a heavy influence on Lukashenko and as a result Belarus is suffering from severe media polarization, abuse of the justice system, civil society limitations, and human rights violations. Striving for power and leadership is a slippery slope that can lead to control and conformity as seen with Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime. The community in Belarus is struggling to solve its civil unrest and gain freedom and unity. Democratic erosion can not only be the downfall of a community but it can collapse a whole country if not combatted properly. It can happen overnight or be systematically calculated over a period, but for some power outweighs the eminent downfall.
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