Why the Responsibility for Citizen Security Should be a Defining Factor for Democratic Forces in Belarus

Since spring 2021, the authorities in Minsk have been active in preparing a new version of the Belarusian constitution. In March, a Constitutional Commission was set up by Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s decree, and since autumn, a special working group set up under the presidential administration has been working on finalising and “improving” the draft. In the near future, the authorities promise to submit the draft constitution for public discussion. It is also known that the decision to approve the new constitution will be taken at a nationwide referendum announced at the end of February 2022 at the latest.

At the end of November 2021, representatives of the democratic forces encouraged citizens to come to the referendum and invalidate the ballots. They explained that in this way they wanted to show the mass dissent of Belarusian citizens against the actions of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime and thereby demand the establishment of the rule of law and the creation of conditions for fair elections. Representatives of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s headquarters and some experts consider such a format to be the best solution. Among other things, several postulates should be highlighted in their argumentation. It is argued that there are no examples in history of boycotts leading to anything. At the same time, it is noted that every opportunity to express one’s opinion should be taken, provided that participation in a referendum does not mean its legitimisation. It is also rightly pointed out that calling for protests in the current situation is completely impossible. It is also stated that the ‘Holas’ platform will allow the real picture to be monitored.

Nevertheless, what is presented as a safe way to say ‘no’ to the regime seems to be a strategic mistake and in some issues a manifestation of irresponsibility. In order to assess the full scale of the problem it is necessary to assess the fact of voting itself, its organisation in the context of calls by democratic forces to participate, as well as the degree of security for ordinary people who are in opposition to the regime.

Symbolism of the constitution in the context of its previous changes  

In general, the constitution is the embodiment of the social contract between the government and the citizens. But in the context of Belarus today, a number of nuances are worth noting. Recall that the country’s constitution was adopted in 1994, even before Aliaksandr Lukashenko was elected the president. All subsequent amendments to it were made through referenda. But none of them, starting from the referendum of May 1995, can be considered an example of a fair expression of the will of the citizens. We should also agree with the opinion of the former judge of the Constitutional Court of Belarus, Mikhail Pastukhov, that the referendum of May 1995 was legally null and void, because the very introduction of the questions of the state language and symbols was a direct violation of the constitution and a number of fundamental laws. In addition, it is worth remembering the beating of nineteen opposition deputies, who protested against the announcement of the referendum, right in the Parliament building in April 1995 by security forces. That is why it is important to trace the evolution of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s power not from the constitutional referendum of November 1996, when the system of separation of powers was completely broken, but from the first referendum of 1995. However, the context of the 1996 referendum should also be related to the mediating role of the top officials of Russia, who came to Minsk to help resolve the constitutional crisis caused by the confrontation between the President and Parliament and, in fact, helped to remove obstacles to Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s intentions to strengthen his own power. It is worth asking ourselves, what does this excursion into history teach us?

Firstly, Aliaksandr Lukashenka has always acted from a position of strength towards his political opponents and his harsh reaction to the events in the country after August 2020 is nothing new. On the contrary, it only emphasises his adaptability to the specific situation based on the available opportunities and resources.

Secondly, counting on Russia’s role as a mediator or at least a neutral observer will always be wrong, as Russian political elites will always have their own interests in Belarus. This was the case both in the relatively democratic Boris Yeltsin era and in today’s Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is authoritarian inside and aggressively ambitious in the foreign policy arena.

Thirdly, the new constitution is a new reformatted social contract for Aliaksandr Lukashenka. In many ways, the content of its provisions is secondary to the drafting process for the time being. Formally, it has been controlled from the presidential administration from the beginning until today, and only those loyal to the present authorities were allowed to develop it. Such a constitution ‘for their own’ a priori does not have a mandate of popular trust. That is why the question of mass participation in the polls is important for the authorities. Calls of democratic forces only help to increase it, because they motivate the protest electorate to come to the polls. Thus, the regime will not even need to use additional efforts to create masses. Everyone understands that the opposition has no opportunity to influence the integrity of the vote count. Thus, the regime does not really care what percentage of votes it declares – 55, 67 or 82. The main message of the official result will be: ‘thank you for your participation, but we outnumber you anyway’. This has happened before in many elections and referendums, and it will happen now.

Voting arrangements and voter security

Voting in Belarus is constitutionally secret. However, the ‘Holas’ platform is offered to the Belarusian society as a mechanism for real vote counting. It is worth recalling the principle of its operation. After August 2020 elections, citizens sent photos of their ballots via chat and call applications Telegram and Viber. Although its developers claim that the encrypted data is secure, there have been occasional reports of its database being hacked and there have been reports of attempts by the authorities to block the platform and use the fake website to identify the protest electorate. However, users of the platform have no access to their own data, with the platform itself storing data that the regime could easily use effectively as a confession when cracking down on their opponents. The logical question therefore arises, to what extent is ‘Holas’ and similar platforms able to protect personal data? Apart from the developers’ assurances of absolute security, based on their word of honour, there are no such guarantees.  There is also no information about any independent assessment of the level of security or an audit of this platform at all.

In this context, the question of the adaptability of Aliaksandr Lukashenka regime is also worth addressing again. It is worth emphasising that the protests after the 2020 ‘elections’ are often referred to as a telegram revolution, since citizens coordinated their actions in telegram channels. And here three interrelated problems arise at once. Firstly, the purchase of a SIM card for mobile communications in Belarus is possible only with the presentation of a passport. In other words, the state has the ability to identify any owner of a Belarusian mobile number. The presence of the phone number in the database will mean that identifying its owner is a technical matter that requires neither time nor effort. Secondly, in case law enforcers have access to the mobile communications of citizens, they will be able to trace their communications and subscriptions. Thirdly, changes in the legislation and regulations have allowed the regime to increase pressure on civil society, as distribution, storage of materials deemed extremist, as well as subscribing to resources deemed extremist, may expose a citizen to criminal liability, as such persons would be classified as ‘participants of an extremist formation’. The legal grounds for this are the government decree ‘On measures to combat extremism and rehabilitate Nazism’, adopted on 12 October 2021, as well as Article 361.1 of the Criminal Code, relating to calls for actions against the external security of the Republic of Belarus, as well as the distribution of materials containing such appeals. Currently, the number of telegram channels and chat rooms deemed extremist exceeds 200 and the list is regularly updated. Thus, Aliaksandr  Lukashenka regime protects the information space by taking the opportunity to change and apply legal norms, however absurd they may seem. This is coupled with the work of law enforcement agencies in Belarus to de-anonymise administrators as well as the most active subscribers of telegraph channels and chat rooms deemed extremist. All this creates an additional problem for the security of citizens, as it allows the state machine to act not only on the most active opponents, if necessary, but also on a mass scale, achieving the effect of hopelessness, apathy, acceptance or subjugation of ordinary citizens.

Is there a way out?

The regime itself acknowledges that society demands changes, offering a new constitution as a solution, thus preserving stability in the country. However, it is important for it to show that the protest is finally broken, and that the situation is under control. To do this, it is enough to show the picture that active and silent supporters of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime are in the majority. The constitutional referendum is a perfect stage for this play. There is hardly any doubt that the authorities will provide and voice the necessary result. However, is it worth engaging in a campaign of ballot spoiling called for by the democratic forces? Each one must give the answer to himself. However, it seems that the idea is adventurous and somewhat irresponsible. The adventurousness lies in the fact that the opponents of the government have no real leverage to ensure a fair and transparent vote count, and the irresponsibility lies in the impossibility to ensure complete security and no negative legal consequences for those who choose to declare their choice through ‘Holas’ or other similar platforms. The regime will get the picture of mass participation at the polls in any case, without investing further in the voluntary and compulsory mobilisation of its own electorate. Back in 2015, the head of the Belarusian Central Election Commission, Lidzia Yermoshina, commenting on the results of the presidential election, said that the high percentage of votes ‘against all’ was created by adult thinkers, thus expressing their weariness with the current government, fear for the future and disappointment in the state. This also includes those who boycotted the election.

A similar logic can be seen in the forthcoming referendum. The authorities will win it anyway, using their usual methods, tried, and tested over many years. It is important for the regime to demonstrate once again that it has a majority. And massive turnout of the protest electorate will only play into its hands because convincing the results with a high turnout is easier than trying to explain why the numbers who came to vote are seriously inflated. Thus, a high turnout would give the regime some semblance of a public mandate from society as a whole, while constantly appealing to the fact that its electorate is in the majority. A mass boycott, on the other hand, would demonstrate lack of a public mandate for the current government and present it with a systemic challenge that will take some time to overcome. It is also much safer for the protest electorate, since non-participation in elections or referendums carries no legal liability, unlike demonstrating electoral preferences through ‘Holas’ or similar platforms.

Kiryl Kascian


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