25 Years Together. How President Lukashenko Changed Politics In Belarus

Almost 25 years ago, the Belarusians chose their first and so far the only president. The quarter of the Century is a series of texts telling what and how Alexander Lukashenko changed in our country.

TUT.BY will analyze the president’s work in various spheres – from macroeconomics and people’s well-being to the development of sports and regions.

Today we start with domestic politics, the very notorious “regime” or system of power that has been built by Alexander Lukashenko for over 25 years.

Almost every Western journalist writing an article about architecture, IT sector or tourism in Belarus, will put the “Europe’s last dictatorship” in the headline.

Traditionally, Belarus finds itself in the bottom of the list of democracy rankings, but how was the system created?

Pyramid of power

Alexander Lukashenko has started to develop a pyramid of power since he became the head of state. In 1995, by his decree, he re-hatted the executive committees to himself and the government.

The Constitutional Court declared this and several other presidential decrees illegal. However, Lukashenko ordered the officials to ignore the decision of the court and implement the decrees.

Even before this, the president had a conflict with the Supreme Council. The first episode was a hunger strike of the opposition deputies against the 1995 referendum in the parliament building.

By other decrees, the president transferred the property of the parliament to the balance of his Office of Affairs and stopped broadcasting of parliament’s sessions on TV.

These and other conflicts led to the constitutional crisis of 1996, from which Lukashenko emerged victorious.

The impeachment attempt in November 1996 failed after some deputies who had initially signed the appeal to the Constitutional Court recalled it.

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The new version of the Constitution allowed Alexander Lukashenko to have a dominant position over all branches of government.

The president was given the right to dissolve parliament, form the executive branch, appoint almost all judges in the country, his decrees and orders had legal force superior to internal laws.

Media monopolization 

As a candidate for the presidency, Lukashenko complained about censorship in the state-run media and promised not to pressure journalists if he became president.

However, at his first press conference as a president, he told journalists to be responsible for what they write and promised to regulate the extent of this responsibility.

After Lukashenko’s associate Grigory Kisel headed Belteleradiocompany, covering of the president’s work became more loyal.

In 1995, the president, by his decree, dismissed the chief editor of Narodnaya Gazeta, the parliament’s newspaper, who strongly criticized the president.

After the 1996 referendum, a bunch of opposition and critical of the authorities newspapers – Svaboda, Naviny, Imenia, Nasha Volya, Pagonya, BDG – were closed.

In the following years, many newspapers were closed, exiled and banned; media sources were blocked and journalists charged with criminal and administrative cases.

While the hand of the president in these cases is not immediately obvious, the media control system built by him has started to work on its own.

Сrackdown on protests

The first serious test for the government was not opposition demonstrations, it was the strike of trolleybus drivers and the Minsk metro employees in 1995 over the non-payment of wages.

Lukashenko criticized the Interior Ministry for softness, accused the strike organizers of the coup attempt. Soon, the strike leaders and activists were arrested.

The court declared the strike illegal, dozens of strikers were fired, the president signed a decree on the liquidation of the Free Trade Union. Mass opposition protests of 1996 were broken up by the police.

In 1997, the Law on Mass Events introduced a permissive principle of street protests with a wide choice of reasons for refusing permission. In 1999 and 2001, the president tightened the regulations for holding mass events.

The law limited time and places for holding mass events and allowed to liquidate parties and organizations for a single violation. In 2003, it introduced a requirement to pay for the services of the police, doctors and public services.

It was selectively executed until 2019 until it was made mandatory. For many impoverished opposition structures, the price turned out to be unaffordable. Besides, they consider it’s unfair to demand money for the services of government agencies.

Revival of Soviet heritage

Lukashenko came to power on a wave of people’s nostalgia for the USSR. According to surveys, at the end of 1993, more than 55% of Belarusians wanted to come back to the USSR.

In 1995, the president initiates his first referendum, the key issues are bilingualism and the rejection of white-red-white symbolism in favor of the red-green flag and coat of arms of the BSSR.

According to the CEC, three quarters of the voters supported the idea. In June 1996, Lukashenko called for the creation of a unified youth organization like the Soviet Komsomol.

As a result, we now have the Belarusian Republican Youth Union. The organization largely adopted the stylistics and symbolism of the Komsomol, seeing itself as its successor.

Trade unions were next in line. Since 2002, as well as in the USSR, trade unions have become one of the pillars of power, with the exception of a few independent trade union structures.

After that, the president began restoring the ideology. However, in recent years, Lukashenko had to admit that the state ideology in Belarus has not taken root.

The same can’t be said about subbotniks. The Soviet tradition of volunteer work during subbotniks became republican, with the president and his subordinates setting an example to others.

Elections as an exam 

Control over the electoral process became the foundation for the Belarusian authoritarian model. The president always stressed that for his subordinates, every election is a proficiency test.

Already in 1996, instead of the obstinate opponent Viktor Gonchar, the president appointed Lidia Yermoshina in his place. She later called herself  “a member of the presidential team.”

After amendments to the Constitution, the president was given the authority to appoint half of the members of the CEC (the rest are elected by the Council of the Republic).

At the end of 1998, a law on local elections was adopted, which will become the prototype of the 2000 Electoral Code. These documents set the current polling procedure.

The executive branch was in charge of creating local election commissions. Five-day early voting without special conditions for participation in it was introduced.

The quota for the representatives of parties and public associations in the electoral commissions, if desired, was easily filled by representatives of pro-government structures.

When counting the votes,  the contents of the ballots are not read out loud. As a result, the OSCE did not recognize any elections in Belarus since 1994 as democratic.

New constitutional reform?

Apparently, we are now in the initial stage of a new reshaping of the power system in Belarus. In the past six months, Lukashenko repeatedly brought up about the topic of a new Constitution.

He also outlined what he wants to see in the new Basic Law – more powers for the parliament and the government, and probably a new electoral system.

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According to the president, the reform will take place within five years after the elections of 2020, that is, until 2024.

Lukashenko doesn’t hide his concern about the new Constitution and his unwillingness to leave the current broad powers to his successor.