Parliament: At the periphery of the political process

Andrei Yahorau

Summary

In 2013, the Belarusian parliament did not go beyond the usual scope remaining an agency, which simulates representative democracy, being burdened, in addition, with ideological functions and international relations. Parliamentarians obediently passed bills mainly introduced by the Council of Ministers and the president, maintained international contacts, worked with individual appeals and matters related to the state ideology. The composition of the parliament of the 5th convocation was slightly renewed in the 2012 elections, which however did not re-energize the House. 1 As a matter of fact, the minor political role of the parliament in lawmaking and foreign policy reflects the overall political agenda of the country, transformations of the political system and geopolitical trends.

Trends:
General description of parliament’s actions

The 5th National Assembly has held three sessions since the 2012 parliamentary elections: the first one in November-December 2012, the second in April-June 2013, and the third in October-December 2013. The parliament passed 99 bills, including 35 on alterations and amendments to laws in effect, examined seven presidential decrees, and adopted 254 resolutions after considering bills and decrees.

In 2013, the lower chamber only sat for 27 days over the entire year: 16 days in the spring session and 11 days in the autumn session. House representatives examined nearly 187 bills in the first and second readings, i. e. around seven bills on average were passed every working day. 2 This clearly demonstrates the parliament’s superficiality when it comes to discussions and voting. Besides, the fact that not a single bill was rejected speaks for itself. All bills were passed and all presidential decrees were taken into consideration or approved.

MPs also worked in parliamentary standing committees preparing bills; considered appeals and complaints filed by individuals (3,191 addresses in 2013); made trips to the constituencies where they ran for parliament; met with official delegations from international institutions and foreign governments; made foreign visits to meet with international organizations engaged in inter-parliamentary cooperation and foreign governments; took part in ideological and charity events, such as charity campaigns Our Children, Minsk Ski Track 2013, nationwide action Forest Week 2013, Dazhynki 2013, and the action titled ‘To the New Year with White Russia’ organized by the NGO Belaya Rus (‘White Russia’), as well as inter-parliamentary sporting events, tree plantings, field seminars, round table sessions, etc.; published articles in the national and local press. Efforts of the parliamentary group Iniciativa formed in December 2012 and White Russia were pretty much reduced to these actions.

Iniciativa, which totals 21 members, was formed to “mainstream efforts of local councils and enhance interaction within the parliamentary vertical.” 3 It basically focuses on regional affairs being mainly engaged in seminars and field sessions in districts and regional cities to address social (“exploration of trade opportunities in rural areas”), economic (trade and entrepreneurship in small towns and rural areas), environmental (the seminar Green Revolution and RIO+20; Conservation Agriculture–Green Economy), and ideological (round table School-Family-Church Interaction in Matters of Spiritual and Moral Education for Schoolchildren) issues. Also, all members of the group participate in Alexander Lukashenko’s working visits.

White Russia does not stand out for its political activism either. A meeting of its primary organization attended by NGO Chairman, Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Alexander Radkov was the only noticeable initiative. All MPs, who participated in the meeting, were invited to enter the primary organization. “This proposal was unanimously accepted.” 4

In 2013, the cost for sustaining the two chambers of the National Assembly amounted to 90.5 billion Belarusian rubles (around US$ 10.2 million) paid from the state budget. This is only 2.6% of the total budget expenditure for sustaining public authorities performing general functions and almost a half of the expenditures on the agencies in charge of the presidential logistics. 5

Legislative activity

In 2013, the legislative activity of the Parliament was the same as usual, i.e. no activity whatsoever. MPs did not initiate a single bill and only approved everything they received from the Council of Ministers and the president. According to the Legislative Activity Chronicle, in three sessions, parliamentarians considered 218 documents (mostly related to international relations) in the first and second readings, including amendments to laws, which needed an update following Common Economic Space agreements with Russia and Kazakhstan, economic operations, the budget, amendments to the Code of Administrative Offences and Procedural Code of Belarus, organization of courts, ecology and environmental management, etc., which reflects the overall agenda of the 5th House of Representatives and the relative importance of particular points (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Legislative activity of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the 5th convocation (2012–2013): the proportion of topics in examined bills
Source: The author’s calculations are based on the Legislative Activity Chronicle

As concerns international relations, the considered bills covered ratification of agreements on cooperation with South and Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, etc.), including the avoidance of double taxation, investment protection, and visa waiver for holders of diplomatic passports. Agreements on cooperation in the field of higher and postgraduate education were signed with Ukraine, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

In 2013, Belarus joined the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Human Trafficking, the Convention on Standards for Democratic Elections and Electoral Rights and Freedoms in CIS Member States, the Singapore Treaty on the Law of Trademarks; ratified an agreement with the United Nations on measures to expedite the import, export and transit of relief consignments and possessions of relief personnel for assistance in case of disasters and emergency situations, and a loan agreement between the Republic of Belarus and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Nordic Investment Bank (the environmental infrastructure funding project). Furthermore, the National Assembly ratified an agreement with Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland on the state border regime and border junction points.

Regulatory documents related to the Common Economic Space of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan were, perhaps, of paramount importance. In particular, the CES members agreed on currency regulation standards 6, the turnover of certain types of commodities (steel pipes, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and custom duties on crude oil) and regulation of customs operations (the new law on customs regulation in the Republic of Belarus). The point is that a number of decisions, which used to be a prerogative of the national governments, will now require coordination at the supranational level.

The law on customs regulation nullifies the Customs Code and adapts the national legislation to Customs Union laws. It also regulates matters not covered by the Customs Code or attributed to the exclusive competence of the national legislations of the Customs Three. 7

As for economy, the most important bills concerned changes in activities of business entities and investments. New regulations concerned establishment and functioning of single person business entities; modified terms of reference of general meetings of members; authorization of business entity members to challenge decisions of boards of directors (supervisory boards), etc. 8

The bills on concessions and investments altered investment regulations. The law on investments actually replaced the previous Investment Code of Belarus. 8 The bill on concessions aims at improvement of the legal regulation of the institution of concession as a form of investment. The bill lists assets solely owned by the state in accordance with the Constitution of Belarus, which may be put under concession, the exclusive property of the state (subsoil assets, water and forest resources), and activities subject to the exclusive right of the state. 10 These bills are obviously meant to bring in investments, which Belarus needs desperately.

Much attention was paid to the judicial system. Major changes were brought about by the law on constitutional judicial proceedings, which slightly broadened powers of the Constitutional Court, which was previously divested of authority so much that its very existence made no sense at all. Now, the Constitutional Court is able to deal with problems on the basis of initiatives of government agencies not specially authorized to appeal to the Constitutional Court, as well as other organizations and even individuals. This expands the scope of the court’s actions except for political issues, because it is still essentially dependent on the executive branch.

Also, the institution of mediation (the law on mediation) aimed at increasing opportunities for out-of-court settlement of disputes has been introduced to the judicial system. Apart from that, the laws on the judicial system and the status of judges were amended with account of these novelties, as well as the process of unification of courts of general jurisdiction and economic courts (in accordance with the so-called ‘batch principle’).

Amendments to the laws on elections, information, notarial activities, political parties and public associations are also worth noting. In particular, changes concern elections to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus. Elections are suggested to be held in one round by a relative majority. 11

Regulations on information, informatization and information security were tightened. The amendments on political parties and public associations concern “the procedure of reorganization and liquidation of a public association, union of public associations, political parties, unions (associations) of political parties, including the order and terms of transformation of public associations into political parties.” 12

International activities

Alongside traditional contacts with the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Union of Belarus and Russia, the CIS Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of the Eurasian Economic Community, Belarusian MPs took part in sessions of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, held meetings with delegations of the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Nordic Investment Bank, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. In 2013, bilateral contacts focused on South and Southeast Asia. Belarusian parliamentary delegations visited these regions more than once and accepted delegations and officials from there.

With account for signed bilateral agreements and official contacts, international activities of the parliament in the past year covered Latin America (Ecuador, Cuba), Africa (Republic of South Africa), Middle East (Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan), the Mediterranean region (Turkey), Europe (mainly the neighbors: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and also Serbia, Hungary and Switzerland), the CIS (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, Kazakhstan), Eastern Partnership members (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia), South and Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, China, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Brunei Darussalam).

Conclusion

In 2013, neither the political role, nor the functions of the parliament underwent any changes. Despite the dominance in the House of Representatives, White Russia did not distinguish itself in terms of the parliament’s political activity.

Belarusian MPs generally proved to be ideologically literate, socially responsible, sports-loving, internationally active and absolutely devoted to the policy determined by the government and the president.

Over the period under review, parliamentarians did not initiate a single bill. It is safe to assume that the same situation will be observed in 2014.