Are there alternatives to freedom of peaceful assembly in Belarus?
People who participate in a peaceful assembly usually expect a certain reaction from the authorities. However, the situation with the freedom of peaceful assembly in Belarus is far from being perfect: people who come out to streets to raise their concerns publicly are often arrested and fined.
Natallia Hurko, a volunteer of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", has analyzed what other legal methods of influence on the government and its decisions can be used by civil society to protect their rights and express their interests.
First of all, citizens nominate their representatives to the authorities through elections. And, ideally, these representatives should embody the interests of the people and focus on the needs and values of society. However, since 1996, the elections in Belarus have not been recognized as free and democratic, and as long as there are no fair elections in Belarus, one can forget about this method as a way to influence the authorities.
Active citizens can only prove themselves as part of independent observation of the elections. In Belarus, such observation is carried out by the observation missions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”, as well as the political campaign “The Right of Choice”.
Another alternative is a referendum. In independent Belarus, all past referendums were initiated by the President.
But the people also have the right to initiate a referendum. So why do not Belarusians want to use this right and bring some urgent issues to the national discussion? For example, the establishment of a moratorium on the death penalty or its complete abolition.
Apparently, because the referendum procedure itself is rather complicated, and its initiators may face various obstacles in the process. For example, all expenditures of holding a referendum must be covered from the initiators’ fund, which is formed from voluntary donations of citizens of Belarus and legal entities. Interestingly, the legislators even here managed to establish their control and determine the maximum amount of contributions, as well as the maximum amount of all expenses from the fund. It is unclear for what purpose these restrictions were introduced, except to prevent the initiative group from raising funds and disposing of them. And the referendum itself is not a cheap procedure.
Moreover, the Central Commission for Elections and National Referenda exercises total control over the actions of the initiators and can, at almost any moment, padlock the business."
But that's not all! Even if the initiators go through all the stages: from registration of the initiative group to collecting at least 450 thousand signatures of citizens, the President has the right to reject the proposal to hold a referendum.
National and local meetings
Another right guaranteed by the Constitution is the right of citizens to participate in the discussion of state and social life at nation-wide and local meetings.
Every five years the President initiates the Belarusian People’s Congress. It has been widely criticized. The assembly itself is reproduced according to the old Soviet model of congresses. None of the main indicators of the program of the previous five-year plan, which was adopted at the congress, has been fulfilled. In addition, meetings are usually held before the presidential election, and it creates some kind of election campaign for the President.
Generally, the congress is attended by a certain circle of people who share the views of the President, while dissident citizens, including independent journalists, are not welcome.
It seems that the nation-wide meeting is a kind of a good show for Belarusian citizens and the international community.
As for local meetings, an expert in the field of self-government Miroslav Kobasa in his analytical work “Local Self-Government in Belarus - How to Turn a Myth into a Reality” highlights the following problems that stop people from organizing local meetings: a large number of required signatures; the duty of initiators to finance all the costs by themselves;
organizational issues for which the permission of state bodies is necessary.
Discussion of draft laws
Not many people know that participation in public discussions of draft laws is possible at the Legal Forum of Belarus. Activity on this forum is very low. On some projects, there are no discussions at all.
There are draft laws that might be of interest to ordinary citizens, but there are others that can attract professionals and independent specialists, as well as people who are interested and not indifferent to the topic being raised.
In addition, ministries post drafts of legal acts on their websites for discussion. Such a possibility exists, for example, on the website of the Ministry of Taxation and Internal Revenue, as well as on the website of the Ministry of Economy. However, such discussions can not be called public, since citizens should send suggestions and comments via the email indicated on the website. Consequently, those interested cannot openly get to know each other’s opinions.
Civil Legislative Initiative
In Belarus, there is also a civil legislative initiative (CLI), but to date, not a single adopted law has been initiated by citizens.
Why? The CLI procedure is very similar to the referendum procedure: it is complex and has certain obstacles in the face of excessive control from the Central Commission for Elections and National Referenda. The initiators, as in the case of the referendum, may encounter difficulties and resistance from the authorities at every stage of the procedure. For example, in 2012, CLI on changes in the electoral legislation failed at the stage of registration of the initiative group, which was headed by ex-presidential candidate Dzmitry Us. According to the authorities, violations were found in the organization of the group itself, but Us in an interview for tut.by stated that “the authorities deliberately prevent citizens from exercising the right of legislative initiative because they are not interested in democratic changes in the electoral legislation.” The politician also noted that in Minsk “the KGB was targeting the group: pressure was exerted on the members of the group, they were required to write a statement about non-participation in the group’s meetings”.
Petitions or collective appeals of citizens to government bodies, in contrast to the methods listed above, are increasingly gaining popularity in contemporary Belarusian society. When in the case of a referendum and a civil legislative initiative, the stage of collecting signatures may not be reached, and the actions of the initiators may not attract wide attention of the public and government agencies, by contrast in the case of a petition everything is much simpler. It is necessary to prepare the text of the petition, to collect signatures under it and to send it to the appropriate state body. There is a higher chance that the authorities will pay attention to the existing problem and concerns of people on some specific issues.
The most popular and convenient form of petitions is electronic. In an interview for the website citydog.by, an expert at the Human Constanta laboratory of digital freedoms Andrei Sushko notes that in Belarus the most commonly used platforms for creating petitions and collecting signatures are Change.org, Zvarot.by and Petitions.by.
Although Change.org is popular in Belarus, appeals sent from it do not fully comply with the legislation, and, accordingly, the authorities are not obliged to consider them. In particular, the petition on the introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty in Belarus, posted on this resource, collected 113,652 signatures, but did not bring any changes, except for drawing the attention of the public and media to the existing problem.
Both Belarusian websites Zvarot.by and Petitions.by fully comply with legal requirements. Co-founder and lawyer of the platform Zvarot.by, Uladzimir Makhnach, believes that one of the great examples of the website activity is the petition for the introduction of criminal liability for cruel treatment of animals, as a result of which the Criminal Code was supplemented with a relevant article.
The creator of the site Petitions.by Uladzimir Kavalkin argues that the most unsuccessful petitions are politicized problems, while cases related to the improvement of a yard, a street, a city, changes in road markings and repair of roads are more successful.
As we can see, besides freedom of peaceful assembly, there are other ways for citizens to interact with the authorities. However, the existing restrictions are not the only reason for the weak enforcement, or the complete lack of enforcement of the rights by citizens. Another reason is the low activity of Belarusians in political processes and the disorganization of the opposition.
At the same time, for real changes, public pressure on authorities should be brought as widely as possible, using various ways of influence in combination with the involvement of the media and using the Internet. An excellent example of civic activism and expression of public opinion through various methods at the same time (such as peaceful protests, petitions, public hearings, media coverage and social media) is the fight against the decree on parasitism, which gained power in 2017. Thanks to the joint efforts of concerned Belarusians, in January 2018 the legislative act was first suspended and then canceled. But after that, a new version of the decree was adopted, where the list of persons falling under the category of “parasites” was significantly reduced. Although the problem was not fully resolved, it is important to note the fact that the authorities reacted and people managed to make positive changes.
Thus, widespread public pressure using several methods of influencing power at once can positively reflect on a situation that causes public frustration.