According to the Constitution, Belarus is a democratic state. The reality is however somewhat different. The opposition’s representatives define the current Belarusian regime as authoritarian and the national government also admits that Belarusian 'democracy' is significantly different from the western concept. What are the causes of these differences?
Authorities disappeared - not the regime
With the advent of independence, little has changed in the political life of Belarus. The first president did not introduce large-scale structural reforms. Some democratic institutions were set up, such as the election of the president, the separation of powers and the multiplication of political parties - but they are democratic only on paper.
In Belarus, an authoritarian regime has followed the fall of a totalitarian one. There are several reasons which explain this evolution. Firstly, the political transformation cannot guarantee the development of democracy, as the establishment of a new government is insufficient if the state never experienced a democratic regime before. Secondly, after a revolution, democracy can only be established if the goal of the revolution was precisely the emergence of democratic institutions such as independent media, NGOs, freedom of expression, people’s participation in political life, etc.
Belarus, which at the beginning of Gorbachev's reform process appeared as a more conservative society than other republics, accumulated significantly less anti-Soviet forces. Dissidents were not part of the Soviet Belarusian political life - simply because they were very few. Therefore, the anti-Soviet Belarusian protest movement that began to surface in the Perestroika era, especially as a result of events in Moscow, the Baltic states and Ukraine, was relatively weak and largely inspired by foreign models. Parties and public organizations were created, but eventually this democratic movement began to fade. The president was not responsible for turning off the democratization movement, as the people themselves preferred political and economic stability over democratization. The new regime provided both and consequently, the struggle for democracy was lost.
One should distinguish two different periods. From 1991 to 1994, the regime focused on the national question: it tried to shape a Belarusian nation in order to create a Belarusian democratic regime. However, as these efforts resulted in political and economic instability, the new regime made stability its number one objective, at the expense of political reform.
The new government - old technology
In fact, the Belarusian model of government reproduces the Soviet model of vertical public administration headed by the president, while all other legislative, executive and judicial branches are subordinate to his office. Here is a rough description of the hierarchical political structure of Belarus:
Parliament Government Constitutional Court
The top management of enterprises (Directorate)
Lower management (management of departments, management)
Only the president can make political decisions. In this scheme, there are no NGOs, media, political parties, trade unions, social organizations – i.e. "institutions of public opinion". In Belarus, the function of such organizations is reduced to maintaining the existing order. They are the state’s ideological pillars and appear as institutions which shape social opinions. Independent media, NGOs, parties, etc. are supposed to struggle with the current regime and yet they hardly affect the country's politics.
The existence of this system ensures the maintenance of the government of the Republic of Belarus.
Stability instead of democracy
Many articles have been written about democracy in Belarus, or rather its absence. Most Belarusians do not seem to reject this undemocratic system. This is due to the political culture of Belarus and its Soviet past.
Those who lived and were educated in the Soviet Union have no civic culture of political participation. In the USSR it was not possible for citizens to participate in the political life and it is not the case in today’s Belarus either.
For most Belarusians, values such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, independence of the media, political freedom and participation in political life, are not a priority. At the top of the list are economic prosperity, social security and political stability. The country's leaders are well aware of this, and strongly emphasize economic and social action in order to avoid the development of political unrest.
This is the main mechanism used by the government in order to ensure the maintenance of "the Belarusian dictatorship". It tries to undermine all initiatives for reform and to stifle what can destroy the existing order of things - that is the independent media, political parties, political organizations whom the government refuses to register, civil society and individuals who disagree with the policies of President Lukashenko.
Democracy and authorities
Belarusian authorities claim that they established a democracy of its kind, and those who disagree with it are called « neobolshevikami » (neobolcheviks). More than two thousand three hundred public organizations and associations, fifteen political parties - most of them opposition parties – are currently registered; there is also separation of powers, elections, trade unions and independent media in Belarus. Despite all these institutions, Belarus’ "democracy" is much different from that of the West. According to the Belarusian Academician Anatoly Rubinov, the freedom of the media, the number of public organizations and parties and free elections do not matter. “Democracy is the distribution of power among people. And it must be based on distributed ownership. Means of production cannot be concentrated in one hand - the state -, but power should be distributed among the entire community. Therefore, the main objective of democratization should be to increase the share of private ownership in the economy”. It remains unclear why the Belarusian authorities did not begin this process of privatization. The most likely answer to this question is that they risk to lose political influence. At present, the largest companies are owned by the Belarusian state, and that entails that the latter can put pressure on workers.
Not only the means of production, but also the power to "manufacture" politics are concentrated in the hands of the state. In other words, the state has the monopoly on the "production" of politics. Anatoly Rubinov is right in saying that democracy does not only mean freedom of the media and the existence of non-governmental organizations, parties, etc. Democracy exists when all these organizations are subject to state law and when their views are taken into account when political decisions are made.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe Website
- Retour sur les élections présidentielles en Biélorussie avec Alexandra Goujon
- Pourquoi la Biélorussie est-elle étanche aux révolutions de couleur ?
- L'Europe mais pas seulement l'Union à la rescousse du Belarus ?
On the internet
- Галина Дракохруст, Юрий Дракохруст, Дмитрий Фурман «Трансформация партийной системы Беларуси»
Source photo : The House of the Governement_, by Georges M.Croutas, on flickr