Belarus presidential election: new restrictions and pressure on civil society

Photo: Intellinews

Belarus is scheduled to hold presidential elections on August 9, 2020. Belarusian authorities have not implemented previous recommendations by the OSCE/ODIHR observation missions following earlier election campaigns. The issues raised within remain relevant, particularly the lack of liberalization of the election process.

After 5 consecutive terms in office, the long-term president Alexander Lukashenko runs again for another term in 2020. Ahead of the elections, authorities have imposed new restrictions on civil rights and freedoms and practices of repression have escalated. The misuse of criminal prosecution to suppress political opponents by the incumbent authorities began early in the campaign.

  • In April, Belarusian authorities imposed additional restrictions on freedom of assembly. The application for permit to hold an assembly now requires preliminary approval by the Ministry of Interior Affairs. There is also a requirement to have an obligatory contract between organizers and authorities for “payment for policing services”, which is disproportionally expensive. Already during the campaign, this law has become the basis to ban meetings initiated by opposition candidates, including the ban of the rally scheduled for July 12 in Minsk.
  • In May, the authorities adopted the Decree №3 “On foreign gratuitous aid”. This act has additionally worsened previous restrictions on CSOs’ access to foreign funding: it reduces the purposes for which foreign aid could be awarded and imposes an obligatory 0,5% fee of the amount of foreign aid for its registration. As a result of these legal changes, foreign aid can now be reallocated to the budgets of state agencies and GONGOs, which are loyal to the government.
  • In May, obligatory reporting on measures against money laundering has been introduced for public associations and foundations. This measure is disproportionate and incongruent with the conducted risk assessment.
  • Over  the 1,5 months of the election campaign, watchdog CSOs have observed numerous searches, hundreds of arbitrary arrests of people participating in pickets and other peaceful protest actions, journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders.  Youtubers and other bloggers have become the main group coming under attack: dozens of Internet activists are in prison. The participants of the independent election observation system have been targeted from the beginning of the election campaign.
  • The criminal cases against individuals who run for president arouse public resentment. Due to an arbitrary arrest, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a popular blogger, has been deprived of the opportunity to be nominated as a presidential candidate. Also, charges were brought against another candidate with the intention to run for president, Viktar Babaryka, a former bank manager for suspicions of involvement in economic crimes. These steps raise serious doubts of politically motivated revenge to disable the opposition. In the joint statement of the human rights movement of Belarus, both Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka, along with activists and members of their team imprisoned in frame of their cases are recognized as political prisoners (more 20 persons and the numbers are growing every day).
  • The activity of the crowdfunding platforms MolaMola and Ulej (one co-founded by the son of one of the presidential candidates Babaryka, whose payments went through Belgazprombank) was blocked. The suspension of transactions has been seen as another crackdown on CSOs and has severely limited their ability to access domestic funding. Despite unfavourable legal conditions, these platforms have enabled non-governmental initiatives to get financial support for their activities, very relevant in addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Altogether, the above-mentioned events in the first phase of the election campaign show that the authorities intend to hold elections against the backdrop of intimidation of the population and civil activity. Further repressions will roll back previous achievements in mending the internal dialogue between the authorities and civil society.

The Working Group of the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs has called upon the government of Belarus to stop the pressure over civil society and repressions against its representatives. The NGO Assembly calls upon the European Union and the USA to cooperate with the Belarusian authorities conditionally, depending on their attitude towards human rights and civil society, such as violence against NGOs, public activists and political opponents. Such a condition should be obligatory for the international technical cooperation to be continued with the government of Belarus. Considering the principles of respect for human rights, the Working Group:

  • warns the authorities against imposition of new restrictions against civil society, also in the fields of freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of access to information, especially in the Internet, as well as in the fields of freedom of association and NGO access to funds from both internal and foreign sources;
  • expresses its outrage against escalation of repressions against civil and political activists, journalists, observers and other participants of the election process;
  • calls on the authorities to immediately release all political prisoners, stop arbitrary arrests and use of violence against peaceful protesters, as well as misuse of criminal prosecution as means of struggle against political opponents.