The Lukashenka government in Belarus has taken several steps to ensure that there are no unexpected setbacks in the 2006 presidential election campaign. On November 23, the president proposed several amendments to the Criminal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure that, if accepted into law, will have a fundamental impact both on the election campaign and on activities of all residents of the republic.
On November 25, the lower house of Parliament met to consider the draft law “On Addenda and Changes of Some Legislative Acts of the Republic of Belarus to Increase Responsibility for Actions Directed Against an Individual and Public Safety.” The draft was introduced by chairman of the KGB, Stepan Sukharenka and headlined “Urgent.” Evidently the draft came as a complete surprise to many MPs, and it was accepted by 94 votes to 1 (there are 110 seats in the House of Representatives), and must now be resubmitted for a second vote within ten days (Belorusy i rynok, November 28).
The draft extends and broadens activities that are subject to criminal charges and proposes to apply them to anything that can harm the national security of Belarus. First of all, these pertain to actions using weapons and explosives, but also to activity against the state and the ruling order that might create the preconditions for foreign political pressure on the state, as well as for other crimes directed against the “constitutional rights and freedom of citizens.”
What are these preconditions? Those organizations that were warned to stop activities or face liquidation, but continued to operate, will be fined or arrested for up to six months, or be deprived of freedom for two years. Training and other preparations for “mass disorders” or funding such actions may results in arrests for up to six months or deprivation of liberty for up to three years. An identical penalty would face those who appeal for seizure of state power or to change the constitution, as well as for appeals to foreign states or international organizations. If such appeals are disseminated through the mass media, the punishment is arrest for two to five years.
A proposed new article in the Criminal Code is devoted to “Defamation of the Republic of Belarus,” i.e., “providing a foreign state or a foreign or international organization with false materials on the political, social, military, or international situation…” Those who carry out such actions face arrest for up to six months and deprivation of freedom for two years. People suspected of terrorist activity or hooliganism may be detained for ten days under these same proposals.
The vagueness of some of the proposals gives the authorities much room for maneuver. According to one analyst, it is now possible for citizens who appeal to the OSCE, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or the Strasbourg Court to receive a prison sentence of between six months and two years. The same fate would befall any journalist who writes something critical about the president or his circle of advisors (Izvestiya, November 28). And the question arises as to what would constitute false materials on the political or social situation in the republic? Who would be the arbiter or judge of such writings or statements? Alexander Milinkevich, the united opposition’s candidate for the 2006 presidential elections, commented that the amendments represent a “return to Stalinism” and “the final stage of the regime’s preparations for the elections, with the goal of finding easier ways to punish people who express dissatisfaction with Lukashenka’s policies” (Belorusy i rynok, November 28; Pravda.Ru, November 26).
Representatives of the human rights movement of Belarus, like most opposition politicians, were forthright in their condemnation of the bill, maintaining that the proposed changes violate both the constitution of the country and international law as ratified by the republic. The changes “violate the fundamental principles of human rights, such as freedom of opinion and belief, the freedom to receive and distribute information, the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, etc.” (Cited in Charter 97, November 30).
Several questions now arise. The first is whether any opposition candidate can possibly mount a significant campaign should such amendments be accepted into law since he/she and his/her supporters would immediately be subject to arrest. The second is whether the bill will serve as the death knell for the election altogether, because it strengthens the position of those opposition leaders who maintain that a boycott is preferable to participation in an election under duress. And the third is whether there is any conceivable means of preventing the new bill from becoming law. After the second reading, it must be adopted by the upper house (Council of the Republic), after which it is signed by the head of state. The meek acceptance of the first reading by the lower house suggests that little discussion about or opposition to its contents will be forthcoming next week.
The proposals, as several observers point out, indicate nervousness on the part of the president and a manifest lack of confidence regarding his support in the country. Lukashenka intends to intimidate his opponents and rule by fear.