Three sets of law enforcement actions recently administered in Belarus help to shed light on what rule of law means in this country. Thus, on July 4, Alexander Knyrovich, the CEO of SarmatThermo-Engineering, a company that makes heating network pipes, was sentenced to six years in prison and confiscation of his property. Some of his associates received sentences of between three and five years. Knyrovich was accused of systematically bribing bureaucrats in exchange for favoritism in pipe supply tenders and for establishing a fake Russia-based firm to reduce his corporate tax burden (Tut.by, July 4). Knyrovich, who also used to be a popular essayist, writing about favoring public recognition of entrepreneurship and reduced government regulations, has now been exposed as entirely dependent on state orders and facilitators (Telescope, July 13). Some critics of the court’s decision suggested that Belarus’s symbiotic relationships between private businesses and the state engender such violations of the law, and even make them unavoidable (Yury Zisser, July 5). Others do not buy this explanation, laying the blame on individual corruption.
Alleged corruption and tax evasion were also at the core of yet another set of arrests, these in the health care sector. On June 25, the chairman of the Belarusian KGB (unlike in other post-Soviet countries, in Belarus the state security service has retained its Soviet name) declared that his agency apprehended 37 suspects accused of pocketing bribes from distributors of deliberately overpriced medical equipment (Tut.by, June 25). The apprehended individuals include, among others, a deputy minister of health care (the most highly positioned suspect), the chairman of the Grodno regional health care administration, the chief doctors of several major hospitals, and the director of Belmedtechnika, Belarus’s principal wholesale and retail distributor of medical equipment. On July 11, it was reported that Deputy Prime Minister Vassily Zharko, formerly the minister of health care, was also arrested, but this information was quickly disavowed (Tut.by, July 11).
The third series of arrests targeted members of Belarus’s political opposition. In this case, penalties ranged from ten days behind bars to fines of $375, like that imposed on Ryhor Kastusyou, the chairperson of the Belarusian Popular Front. He and three other persons were penalized for their role in the ongoing obstruction of a restaurant in Kuropaty, which is located near a notorious Stalinist-era execution site (see EDM, June 20). Kastusyou was apprehended en route to the airport, where he was to take a flight to Warsaw to participate in a session of the International Commission of the Polish Parliament devoted to the “situation in Belarus.” The session went forward without Katusyou, and condemned his and other related arrests (Euroradio, July 5). Some commentators noted the irony that the Polish parliamentary commission would adopt such a condemnatory resolution when the European Commission was in the midst of proceedings against Poland itself for breaching European common values and the rule of law (Melyantsou, July 7).
Several people, including opposition leader Nikolai Statkevich, were also penalized for an attempt on July 3, Belarus’s Independence Day, to organize a protest “to express solidarity with the generation that liberated the world from [Adolf] Hitler, and with those who are fighting today for liberation of Belarus from a supporter of Hitler,” the latter allegedly being Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Svaboda.org, July 5). During the July 6 episode of Radio Liberty’s talk show devoted to exploring the connection between repressions in Belarus and its relations with the West, one of the on-air commentators opined that Statkevich’s initiatives will not succeed if he continues to use the same tactics. The show’s participants also bluntly refuted the view of 2010 presidential hopeful Andrei Sannikov that improvements in the Belarus-West relationship lead to more domestic repressions. They rejected Sannikov’s argument on three grounds: First, there is no wave of political repression in Belarus today. In the first half of 2017, there were 293 arrests, in the second, just 18; in the first half of 2018, there were 13 arrests, with sentences amounting to one day behind bars. Second, Sannikov’s views are a rhetorical dead end: He has to describe the situation as bad regardless of the reality, because he would otherwise lose the patronage of his Western sponsors, the guests asserted. The actual situation is the opposite of what he claims: Current improved relations with the West have demonstrably lessened the scope of political repression. And third, the core of Belarus’s current socio-political conflict is not between the government and the opposition; rather, it is between the radicals from both sides (Svaboda.org, July 6).
As in past such instances, this recent outburst of punitive actions can best be conceptualized and explained by understanding Belarus as an illiberal democracy (ID), a concept introduced by foreign affairs commentator Fareed Zakaria in 1997. IDs are usually seen as the outcomes of ruling elites restraining civil liberties and political rights in the name of national interests, while dutifully conducting elections. But surprisingly, IDs are rarely looked at as bottom-up constructs, wherein minority groups’ lack of bargaining power makes it possible for the mainstream society itself to limit the scope of the minorities’ civil rights (Huffington Post, May 18, 2015). Belarus is one of Europe’s most ethnically homogenous countries, but its ethnic majority itself continues to be fractured. Historically its segments used to gravitate toward external centers of power; whereas today, the largest segment of the populace rejects too close association with either Russia or the collective West. This effectively turns those still looking for external legitimation of their status into de facto minority groups. Cultural Westernizers and adherents of pervasive privatization are now such minorities in modern-day Belarus, and those groups in particular include the individuals caught up in the three sets of judicial proceedings described above.
It is unlikely that these “minority” groupings will be able to raise their status in Belarusian society if they continue to rely largely on external sources of legitimacy and foreign arbiters in the application of the rule of law, or if they continue to subsist on business practices that would be considered corrupt even under liberal democracy. Western policy toward Belarus, therefore, arguably suffers when it takes sides instead of focusing on supporting national consolidation and helping Belarusians achieve public consensus about entrepreneurial integrity.