Tightening the screws in Belarus?

Aleksandr Lukashenko (AFP Photo / Alexander Nemenov)
The President of Belarus wants to strengthen law-enforcement agencies before the 2010 presidential campaign.

Aleksandr Lukashenko ordered his administration to draft legislation that would create revolutionary changes in the country’s laws on special investigations. Whereas earlier these could have been ordered exclusively on the authorization of a prosecutor or the Prosecutor General’s Office, the President wants to grant such rights to the Minister of Internal Affairs and the heads of the Committee for State Security (KGB) and the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee.

Many Belarusian experts say this legal innovation could open the door to human rights abuses. A member of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee Garry Pogonyaylo says that in case such changes are adopted the authorities will be able to launch campaigns against dissidents on a whim. At the same time the top law enforcement leaders in Belarus have expressed their full support for these measures.

Aleksandr Lukashenko views this legislation as a means of satisfying the requirements of both legality and operational efficiency. The Belarussian President recently criticized the work of prosecutors’ offices throughout the country at a meeting with these officials. The President accused Belarussian prosecutors of creating stifling bureaucracy which led to lack of operational effectiveness in special investigations and law enforcement across the country. So the president’s proposition at first glance looks like a logical step towards addressing those problems.

Lukashenko’s critics, however, believe that nepotism is behind the prosecutor shakeup. What arouses suspicion is that Alexander Lukashenko’s oldest son Viktor is going to benefit from the planned changes in Belarusian legislation on special investigation activities. At least one of the three functionaries that will be given the powers to authorize special investigations is widely known to be a close associate of the President’s son – Vadim Zaitsev, the head of the Belarusian KGB. Since the KGB remains powerful in Belarus one can say that Viktor Lukashenko may be assuming leadership over a special service of his own – no less powerful than the Presidential Security Service.

Yet the State Prosecutor’s office will not give up its powers and special status so easily. At a board sitting held on August 19, the agency decided to fight back. It issued a statement blaming operatives of KGB, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee for “multiple infringements of citizens’ rights and explicit falsification of criminal cases.” The Prosecutor-General’s office carried out an assessment of activities of the named agencies and upon getting results decided to put their activities “under strict control”.

It is obvious that there is more in the initiatives of Aleksandr Lukashenko than just succession intrigues behind the scenes. The shakeup of law enforcement agencies is being made in anticipation of two major events. The first is the planned privatization of state enterprises dictated by International Monetary Fund functionaries as a condition for further international loans to prop up the sagging Belarusian economy. Facing this perspective, the president needs a reliable system of checks and balances to prevent any single enforcement agency from monopolizing regulative power during this process. That is why at a meeting with the enforcement institutions on August 8, he also made a proposal of creating the Investigative Committee which would independently carry out investigations for the respective agencies. The head of such a committee could be subordinated directly to the President, thus providing him with the means to intervene if any one agency assumes too much power.

Another major oncoming event is the presidential election scheduled for late 2010 or early 2011. Facing the deteriorating economic situation and falling public support, together with growing pressure from both the West and Russia, Aleksandr Lukashenko clearly understands that keeping the situation in 2010–2011 under his control might require harsh measures. And it is likely that in such situation the Belarusian president will choose maintaining control over the country to Western recognition of the elections as democratic and legitimate.

Consolidating law enforcement into the hands of the most active and loyal Lukashenko functionaries is part of an election campaign which has already begun. On August 18, the Belarusian government did not renew its contract with the Bell Pottinger Group – a British PR company that coordinated the Belarusian–Western rapprochement of 2008–2009. That company’s director Timothy Bell – a close associate of the exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky who is also said to be close to Belarusian president – refused to comment on the news. But experts agree that it was justified for the Belarusian side to get rid of all outsiders on the eve of an election campaign that would probably involve massive voter rigging and other undemocratic practices.

It seems we can expect another crackdown by the regime in Belarus in the nearest future. And in the wake of this the enforcement agencies are waging a war for the right to become the top defenders of the State. But it is unlikely that Aleksandr Lukashenko – a very skilled and cautious politician – will allow any single agency to dominate the game.

Darya Sologub for RT