Representation on the international stage and the ideological support of power remain the main functions of the Belarusian Parliament in 2015. The National Assembly continues to move in the direction of foreign policy which is defined by the Presidential Administration. Together with the attempts of the official Minsk to resolve the relationship with Western capitals, Belarusian MPs intensify their contacts with European MPs.
Feeble attempts of deputies to perform their main function in the legislative process through participation in initiating laws are still not welcomed by the Presidential Administration. The Belarusian Parliament may only correct decisions of the government and those of the Presidential Administration.
At the beginning of the year there was a significant reshuffle in the upper house of the Parliament. As a result of the appointment of the former Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich to the post of the Speaker of the Council of the Republic the presence of this state institution in the public space significantly increased. However, the functions and the role of the chamber of territorial representation in the Belarusian political system have not changed. The price of staying in the Council for big business is reviewed and enhanced.
- Some attempts of MPs to participate in the legislative process through the initiation of legislation are constrained by the presidential administration;
- Belarusian parliamentarians demonstrated willingness to negotiate on issues of concern to expand contacts with their Western colleagues;
- Belarusian authorities are trying to create additional inter-parliamentary bodies in the former Soviet Union to advance their economic interests on the Russian market;
- Senators engaged in big business are driven out of the upper house of the Parliament as a result of corruption scandals.
Extraordinary session in the year of presidential election: intrigue remains
In 2015, deputies gathered for session three times — early in the year the Parliament was convened for an extraordinary session. The necessity to obtain the consent to the appointment of Andrei Kabiakoŭ as Prime Minister was declared an official occasion of the sixth convocation of an extraordinary session in January. In similar conditions in 2010 at the extraordinary session the deputies adopted the decision on appointment of the date of the presidential election, which were held earlier than the possible deadline. Perhaps the authorities seriously considered the possibility to postpone the elections.
In his first inaugural speech almost six months before the announcement of the start of the presidential campaign, the newly appointed Speaker of the Council of the Republic Mikhail Myasnikovich urged senators to rally around the current president and support him at the election.1 However, the Belarusian leadership decided not to postpone the election date so far, and the president had to average such statements regularly.
The upper house of the Parliament: senators from big business are non grata
Belonging to the Belarusian business elite and holding an honorable place in the Council do not guarantee any protection from prosecution in corruption cases, when the state faces significantly reduced resources. The mechanism of release from prison lies in the compensation for the losses of the state — usually on a large scale, and in return, the president shall issue a decision to pardon a disgraced senator.
The owner of the group of companies Biocom2 Andrei Paŭloŭski became the third senator, who for the past two years had been deprived of inviolability in connection with corruption cases. In October 2015 Paŭloŭski was detained by the KGB and was under arrest for one month. The businessman was released after he had compensated damage to the state in the amount of USD 20 million.
In 2014 Anna Shareyko, a senator and the head of a high-earning poultry farm was arrested and throughout 2015 she was under investigation for corruption. She was not released, stayed in jail as most likely she refused to accept certain rules of the game.
At the same time in the upper house of the Parliament there are two more representatives of big business – Mikalaj Martynaŭ, CEO of Marko3 and Aliaksandr Šakucin from Amkodor.4 Perhaps the arrests with further paying of protection money by senators-businessmen who got into the specific though the highest elected state institution, are a warning to big business and to its representatives to refrain from entering into the political sphere. Due to the significant reduction in resources the state can only use repressive mechanisms to maintain loyalty. It is not excluded that other lobbying groups decided to remove the competitors against the background of normalization of relations with Western capitals.
Legislative activity: under the thumb of the Administration and the government
None of the bills reported in 2015 was rejected by the House of Representatives, a number were sent back for revision. In general, during the first reading 57 draft laws were adopted and during the second reading – 102. The plan of preparation of bills for 2015 included 32 draft laws and one concept which were selected from 115 proposals (28%).5 This is slightly different from previous years and captures the relatively stable trend in the number of planned bills (about 30–40).
The deputies, as usual, do not show initiative in lawmaking. Out of the total number of deputies of the Parliament only 8 proposals were received, of which only two were selected for the draft laws. Deputies took the initiative to participate in the preparation of the draft law in two cases — concerning the improvement of the law on tourism and amendments to certain codes.
The highest activity in the sphere of legislative initiatives traditionally belongs to the government: out of its 47 proposals almost half (21) was selected. They are basically the draft laws in the sphere of the legislation on entrepreneurial business activities. While virtually all the laws in the sphere of financial and credit system (10) were proposed by the president.
Preparation of draft laws remains the responsibility of the government and the Presidential Administration (through a subordinate administration of the National Center of Legislation and Legal Research). In some cases, the Supreme Court, the General Prosecutor's Office, the State Committee of Forensic Examinations and the National Bank join the development of the documents.
It should be noted that at the end of the year, the Parliament adopted a law on public-private partnership, which originally was not included in the 2015 action plan. That shows the willingness of the Belarusian authorities to make certain changes in the existing model under the pressure of narrowing the financial capacity to attract additional foreign investment to the country. The reconstruction of road section M10 with a total investment of USD 350 million with the involvement of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and International Finance Corporation is seen as a pilot project. However, it is doubtful that in the near future the authorities will find an appropriate form of involving private domestic business, especially small- and medium-size, in the development of national infrastructure.
Traditionally, the Constitutional Court did not see contradictions in laws adopted by the Parliament, after checking more than fifty regulations in 2015. However, in its annual message the Constitutional Court drew extra attention of lawmakers to the preservation of the right of Belarusians to live in dignity and avoiding “the distortion of the essence of the welfare state”.6
It is not the Council that makes the Speaker, but the Speaker that makes the Council
During the year the public activity of MPs remained high, particularly that of the leadership of the chambers aimed at popularization of the decisions of the authorities among the population. The deputies not only regularly met with voters in their constituencies, but also appeared in the media to discuss the most resonant decisions. The undisputed leader in media appearance is the ex-Prime Minister and Speaker of the upper house Mikhail Myasnikovich. He appeared almost daily in the media with various information, which differs him greatly from his predecessor, Anatoly Rubinov.
Mikhail Myasnikovich is active in work with government officials; he remains a public figure and holds meetings on economic issues. He continues to perform many of his former government functions and meets with diplomats discussing the possibilities of investment cooperation and supplies of Belarusian products.
It should be noted that after the resignation from the post of Prime Minister Myasnikovich headed the monitoring group on measures for development and economic growth. A year later he even presented a book under his authorship on the development prospects of the national economy. There Myasnikovich supports the idea of ‘structural reform’ and creating of a high-tech sector, which, however, is encouraged to perform using the old methods in the framework of prescriptive management. Despite some ‘market’ statements about the economic reform during the year, the Speaker of the Council of the Republic repeatedly spoke out in support of the ridiculous initiative on collection of value added tax from parcels from abroad.
Despite Myasnikovich’s publicity and constant presence in the media, he was not included in the list of trusted people for the presidency. Most likely, the president did not want to be associated with the former head of the government, during whose work there was a significant reduction in population income. While in the presidential election among Lukashenko’s confidants there were a few representatives of the lower and upper houses of the Belarusian Parliament, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives Vladimir Andreichenko.
It should be noted that the Parliament was allowed to have alternative views on personnel policy of the Presidential Administration. At the end of the year, 102 MPs voted for the re-appointment of Andrei Kobyakov as Prime Minister, and four opposed.
Foreign policy initiatives: to get into PACE, to create Eurasian Parliament
Belarusian parliamentarians traditionally have full-fledged inter-parliamentary ties with their colleagues on the post-Soviet territory in the framework of various structures. Together with the attempts of the official Minsk to resolve communication with the European capitals in 2015 there is also intensification of contacts with the European inter-parliamentary structures.
The OSCE remains the only pan-European organization where the Belarusian Parliament has full representation. Belarusian parliamentarians participated in several other regional inter-parliamentary European structures. For example, Belarusian delegations are regularly invited to participate in forums of parliamentarians of the Council of the Baltic Sea States and in sessions of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation.
The official Belarusian delegations slightly softened their reaction to criticism from European officials and demonstrated their willingness to dialogue on issues of human rights. Earlier, Belarusian parliamentarians used to deny the existence of problems with democracy in the country and rejected all the claims on this account of their European colleagues.
Representatives of the OSCE PA participated in monitoring the presidential election in the framework of a short mission. At least 40 parliamentarians from different countries received an invitation to participate in observing the presidential election. The Belarusian authorities were actively seeking ways to communicate with the short-term OSCE observer mission and expressed satisfaction with the cooperation.
Since the beginning of the year, Belarusian parliamentarians have started efforts to restore a special guest status for Belarus in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which was welcomed by the PACE through the resuming of a dialogue and close cooperation. Belarus was visited by PACE Rapporteur Andrea Rigoni, the Belarusian MPs took part in some of the activities in the Council of Europe, including the work of the Committee on Political Affairs. At the same for the first time since 2001, PACE representatives had the opportunity to observe the election in Belarus.
At the meeting with the previous mission of observers from PACE, the Speaker of the lower house of the Parliament Vladimir Andreichenko confirmed interest in developing a dialogue with Europe.7 Although the speaker of the lower house of the Parliament was included in the list of people subject to EU restrictions on entry and existence of Bank accounts.
However, parliamentarians did not show their willingness to carry out the only condition (moratorium on the death penalty) to return the status. A moratorium may be imposed both by the parliament and the president. However, according to Belarusian deputies, the abolition of the death penalty is unpopular not only in the society but also in the Belarusian Parliament.
On the international arena Belarusian parliamentarians adhere to the positions agreed with Russia on issues that affect the interests of the Kremlin. At the 24th summer session of the OSCE PA in Helsinki the Belarusian delegation refused to support the resolution on condemnation of Russia’s actions against the Crimea.
At the same time the Speaker of the Council of the Republic Myasnikovich supported the idea of President Vladimir Putin to hasten the creation of the monetary Union of the EEU, which is at variance with president Lukashenko’s statements. It should be noted that the head of Belarus repeatedly stressed his negative attitude to the introduction of the single currency.
In 2015, the 48th summer session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Union of Belarus and Russia took place in Hrodna. Belarusian authorities continue to use bilateral inter-parliamentary structures to defend their interests in dialogue with the Kremlin. In this case the Belarusian leadership would like to have an additional mechanism of protection of their interests in the removal of restrictive barriers to access to the Russian market and obtain other advantages from cooperation with Moscow. Thus, Myasnikovich took the initiative of creating a parliamentary dimension of the Eurasian integration.
The official visit of the Belarusian parliamentarians to Kazakhstan resulted in signing of an agreement on cooperation between the Chamber of Representatives and the Mazhilis of the Parliament. Again this extends the joint coordination of actions of the official Minsk and Astana in case of any increase in the integration pressure from the Kremlin.
Local authorities: self-government in the service of public utilities, and councils under the auspices of Minsk
Along with a reduction in the budget, local government intensified the process of promoting the development of street and house committees, the homeowners association. However, the authorities see in these nominal self-government authorities an additional mechanism of compensation instead of reduction of social guarantees of the state to population. Functionally, street and house committees must take on some responsibilities for housing, utilities and provide an additional tool for mobilizing the population for cleaning of urban areas without expanding its powers of self-government.
Before the beginning of the presidential campaign, the head of the state Alexander Lukashenko at a meeting with Myasnikovich, the head of the Council, emphasized the importance of the advocacy role of local deputies during the election.8 However, the local authority of deputies, as well as that of parliamentarians, among the population is likely to hurt the president’s rating. According to the IISEPS poll, the confidence rating of local councils and the Parliament continue to occupy the same low positions among other state and public institutions — 31.5% and 30.3% in December 2015.
Under the influence of cooperation with international foundations, local authorities are becoming more open to society structures. Representatives of youth parliaments meet regularly with the chair-people of local executive committees and district councils of deputies, with the heads of the education department. Also, these youth organizations can participate in or even be the initiators of various environmental, sports or cultural projects in partnership with international foundations.
Even low ratings and reduced function of the opposition, its minor role in the political system, is not likely to persuade the president to make a decision about changing the election rules for the parliamentary election of 2016.
At a time when the country is rapidly sliding back to where is was in the mid-1990s, to give a chance to any oppositional politician to use the parliamentary platform as a springboard for his/her political career would be imprudent for the former opposition leader, who has ruled the country for the fifth term.
Most likely, the president will doubt the loyalty of big business in a situation where there are fewer opportunities to get the same income and the redistribution of financial flows against the background of the systemic crisis of the Belarusian economic model. In such circumstances, the danger may be connected to the presence of business people even in the ‘decorative’ upper house of the Parliament.