Representative Bodies: Greater publicity for unchanged rules of the game

Dzmitry Kukhlei

Summary

Priorities and trends of work of the representative bodies of the Parliament and local councils continue to be determined by the President, the government and executive authorities. The National Assembly demonstrates coordinated work and cooperation with the government, especially in matters of defending national interests vis-à-vis foreign partners.

In the growing crisis of the Belarusian socio-economic model the Parliament begins to play a greater role in the adjustment processes of socio-economic imbalances. Some increase in the role of the National Assembly in the political process is caused by the attempts of the authorities to expand the responsibility for the adoption of unpopular measures to reduce social obligations owed to the population. However, the representative bodies are not able to self-motivate changes in today’s socio-economic model or affect it, despite a steady increase in the number of approved bills initiated by the government, the expansion of international cooperation and greater openness to society.

Trends:
Parliament as a mechanism for adjusting unpopular measures of the government

In 2014, the priorities of the Parliament legislative activity were traditionally driven by the President and were aimed at overcoming the crisis in the socio-economic development of the country. Deputies also had the task to ensure a balance between the search for additional sources of fiscal revenue, the optimization of public spending and to prevent of the growth of tension in society. The attention of legislators was focused on ensuring the modernization of the economy, stimulating economic activity and creating the conditions for attracting investment, especially in the second half of the year. Legislative activities are significantly influenced by the events in Ukraine and the growth of instability in the region, which demanded the improvement of existing or the creation of additional legislative mechanisms to strengthen national security.

The Belarusian government is trying to strengthen the ideological function of the legislature to soften the reaction of the public to unpopular decisions and to blur the responsibility of the authorities for their acceptance. Members of Parliament take an active part in government-initiated media campaigns, explaining to the population that there is no alternative to the reduction of the state’s obligations in various fields.

For example, in the health care area the Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Tozik took the first initiative to limit free visits to out-patient hospitals or introduce their partial payment. Then other MPs joined the media campaign for the revision of the social obligations of the state in the field of health. The participation of deputies in the drafting of the new policy in the field of public health care is not formal: they try to participate more actively in the process, suggesting the European experience of reform in this area. 1

At the same time the top leadership has allowed a greater level of criticism and initiative on the part of ‘people’s representatives’ during the discussion of unpopular decisions or shortcomings in the activities of the government. Most likely the authorities are trying to use the Parliament as a kind of ‘filter’ to correct the excesses of the government in making unpopular decisions, to search for a version of the state policy acceptable for the public in the framework of the current socio-economic model.

During the year deputies at the meetings of the permanent commissions and those with officials of the Council of Ministers repeatedly made critical comments about negative phenomena in the development of housing and real estate, and also voiced the discontent of the population of housing and communal services. Let us note that usually the main critic of the ‘excesses of the government’ and the initiator of indulgence or privileges to citizens is President A. Lukashenko. However, in 2014, it was the House of Representatives that took the initiative to reduce the state fee for maintenance of vehicles for certain categories of citizens – pensioners and disable people of groups I and II. 2

During the growth of the economic crisis, the Parliament became a more open structure that creates opportunities for society to take a greater role in the policy making process and to find ways of reforming the country’s economy.

In November, the National Assembly held open parliamentary hearings on the issue of public-private partnership taking into account international experience and prospects of Belarus. Public hearings had been held before, but this time the head of state demanded from the deputies more initiative and openness in the work with the population: “Government must be honest, open and accessible to all citizens. So it necessary to practice parliamentary hearings more often to discuss pressing issues at meetings with members of the government, to appear in media, use the Internet more actively”.

Authorities allowed greater involvement of society in policy making in the field of education during the discussion of amendments and additions to the Education Code. For example, during the parliamentary hearings almost 50 proposals came in, and the day before the survey had been conducted among more than 4 thousand teachers, parents, education leaders and students.

It should be noted that society felt the trend of greater openness of the executive branch of the government, which resulted in the increase of productivity of individual lobbying initiatives and collective appeals from citizens and NGOs. For example, through public campaigns animal rights activists managed to achieve changes in legislation against cruel treatment of animals. In their turn, Pro-life activists and the campaign “In defense of life” lobbied certain amendments to the law On health care that limit the right to abortion.

However, the initiatives of political parties are still ignored by the deputies. For example, parliamentarians did not react to the initiators of the campaign People’s Referendum on the national plebiscite, in the support of which the activists handed over 50 thousand signatures of citizens to the House of Representatives.

Against the background of the events in Ukraine, the Parliament passed a number of laws or amendments to laws in the sphere of national security and maintaining stability in the country. The Belarusian authorities quickly reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine amending the law On martial law, border security and military service taking into account peculiarities of a ‘hybrid war’. Also, the Belarusian government adopted a series of measures to enhance public safety through the legislation on combating the legalization of income from crime, terrorist financing and introduced the institution of pre-trial agreement on cooperation with the suspect, as well as the optimization of the terms of imprisonment and the decriminalization of certain types of punishment.

The events in Ukraine encouraged the authorities to intensify an anti-corruption campaign in Belarus. In the second half of 2014, the Belarusian government initiated a broad public discussion about the draft law On the anti-corruption drive. However, the basic tone of the discussion was created not by MPs, but as usual by President Lukashenko, for whom the anti-corruption rhetoric improved his personal rating, along with the governmental reduction of social guarantees to the population. On the wave of an anti-corruption campaign the actions were brought against two deputies of the Upper House of the Parliament. At the end of July the Director of the private joint-stock company Palitex Vitaliy Kastahorau was deprived of immunity and detained, and so was the General Director of the State Viciebsk broiler poultry factory Hanna Shareika later at the extraordinary session. Both detained senators were representatives of successful companies.

This is not the first criminal prosecution of the members of the Council of the Republic. In 2001, an action was brought against the head of the Belarusian railway Viktar Rakhmanko.

Foreign policy: Ultima ratio in the negotiations with the Kremlin

In 2014 Belarusian deputies continued a relatively active foreign policy, expanding areas of international cooperation. However, the main efforts were mobilized to defend the interests of the official Minsk vis-à-vis its Eastern neighbor. Let us note that the official Minsk is traditionally used by the Parliament in negotiations with the Kremlin as an additional mechanism to protect their interests, blocking the adoption or delay in the ratification of unwanted international documents and acts.

Misunderstandings between Belarus and Russia regarding the distribution of oil duties again highlighted a special role of the National Assembly. Despite the signing of the Agreement on the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) on May 29, 2014 by President Alexander Lukashenko, the House of Representatives having received this document for ratification expressed doubts in conformity of this integration document to the national interests.

Prior to this, together with the submission for approval of the agreement on establishing the EEU President Lukashenko had instructed the deputies “to stand guard over national interests, protecting the interests of the Belarusian state”. The Parliament delayed the ratification of this integration document to the moment when the Kremlin had to accept the terms of Minsk and leave the whole size of oil duties in Belarus.

Moreover, the deputies decided to pin political responsibility on the President for the accession of Belarus into the new integration association and to remove possible charges in the case of tension with the Kremlin in the framework of the Eurasian integration. The deputies ratified the agreement on the EEU with the special announcement that was a paraphrase of the President’s statement made before signing the Agreement, according to which Belarus undertakes to faithfully follow it “provided that by this point on a trilateral or bilateral basis it will be agreed on the removal of certain barriers, limitations and exceptions in the trade of certain goods and the provision of specific types of services, primarily in relation to energy, assembling industries, the liberalization of trucking activities and other sensitive positions”. 3 Thus the deputies made a further development of Eurasian integration dependent on the pliability of the Kremlin to pay for this process.

It is necessary to emphasize the preservation of the coherence and coordination of actions of the executive chain of command and Belarusian deputies to protect economic interests of Belarus vis-à-vis Moscow. The Belarusian side uses quite actively a variety of mechanisms of the Union State, including the Parliamentary Assembly, to lobby favorable conditions for the access of Belarusian products to the Russian market.

Local councils: The formation of group influence tools

Despite the decorative nature of the local representative bodies, they still remain a negotiating forum for the local elites. Council structure gives the idea of a real balance of forces at the regional and local level. Besides, for the organizers of the elections the ensuring of the desired results of voting is not a difficult task. It should be noted that according to the 2014 election results the qualitative composition of local councils did not change. As before, they are dominated by the heads of state enterprises, their deputies and employees of different government departments, which range from 75% to 90% of all deputies. Representation of opposition parties in local councils remains scanty and is about a dozen of people, mostly in peripheral regional and rural councils.

Despite the cancellation of voter turnout threshold in local elections, during the election campaign in 2014 the authorities had the task to demonstrate high numbers of participation in the voting according to official results, which were to witness the support of the population of today’s socio-economic policy and increase the ranking of public institutions. The authorities began to be seriously disturbed by the growth of absenteeism and distrust of the electoral procedures that affect all state institutions. For example, at the beginning of the 2014 local elections the confidence of citizens in local councils and executive committees was only about 28–29%. 4

It should be noted that with the exception of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly, regional elites have no formalized structures to promote their interests with the central authorities. At the end of 2014 there was a change of leadership of the Upper House of the Belarusian Parliament. The chair of the Council of the Republic, which before had been occupied by one of the main ideologists of the Belarusian socio-economic model Anatoly Rubinau, went to the former Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich. He represents the governing establishment grouping of ‘strong economic executives and managers’. His appointment as the Chairman of the Upper House of the Parliament can be seen as a strengthening of the role of the Council of the Republic in the political system and the increase of influence of the regions on public policy. This allows keeping an informal consensus between President Alexander Lukashenko and regional nomenclature for the support of today’s state policy. In turn, the head of the state is not going to change the system of local government, which guarantees the closed nature of decisions and the budget allocation among the most influential regional nomenclature groups.

Since 2010 the Belarusian legislation on local administration and self-government has provided the possibility to create associations of local councils. However, this political decision began to be implemented by the authorities only at the end of 2014. In Hrodna region the preparation for the establishment of regional associations of local councils of deputies began.

Most likely, these measures of local authorities were caused by the desire to attract additional funding for regional development from EU funds. Among the main tasks of the Association one can see the establishment of cooperation with associations of other countries in the framework of cross-border cooperation projects. This is emphasized by the Chairman of Hrodna regional council Mr. Zhuk: “The status of a representative of the Association will enable a more effective cooperation on transboundary, international projects, to attract investments into the economy and to effectively work with foreign partners”. 5

It is obvious that the process was initiated from the center, because in other regions of the country local governments also announced the intention to create such associations. However, in the case of the creation of a National Association the regions will have an additional mechanism of group influence and representation of their interests to the central authorities, the government and the presidential administration.

In 2014, the government continued the process of optimization of the administrative-territorial structure of the country through the elimination of township and rural councils. For example, last year 40 township councils were replaced by rural councils. On February 1, 2015 in the country, there were six township councils: 3 in the Brest region, 1 – in Homiel and 2 – in Hrodna region. To relieve stress during the optimization process presidential decree No. 128 of March 17, 2014 On some issues related to changes in the administrative-territorial structure of the Republic of Belarus was adopted. It is planned to complete the reorganization process of the primary level of local authorities in 2015.

Representative bodies as a staffing reserve for top-down command structure

The Parliament in the system of power is considered by the top management as ‘the bench’ of recruitment for more influential public positions. It is from the House of Representatives that in early 2014 the President appointed the head of the Permanent Commission on National Security Alexander Miazhueu on the post of the State Secretary of the Security Council, who had nothing going for him among other security officers. Earlier Hrodna region was headed by the head of the Constant Commission on Economic Security of the House of Representatives Uladzimir Kraucou, and a member of the Parliament from Kobryn constituency No. 12 Alexander Zazulia was appointed the Chairman of Kobryn district executive committee.

At the meeting with the members of the House of Representatives in September 2014 President Lukashenko stressed his vision of the role of the Parliament in the political system: “You are informed, respected, responsible people, with an active stand in life, a true staff pool. Therefore, some parliamentarians have already been appointed to responsible, higher public office. Your fruitful work will be taken into consideration in making personnel decisions in future”. 6

At the same time the state continues to improve the staffing policy and the system of young people recruiting for representative bodies. The training of managerial elites in the regions has been formalized and improved a bit in recent years. It should be noted that in the second half of 2014 the process of creation of youth parliaments in the local councils of deputies intensified. For example, youth structures were established at Viciebsk regional council, Mahiliou and Babruisk city councils.

For the first time the youth parliament was elected in 2012 at Hrodna regional council, and at Minsk city council a junior chamber was formed. Such structures operate in many educational institutions across the country. The authorities expect that in each area such organizations will appear on the basis of which the Republican Youth Parliament will be formed.

Youth representative bodies at councils perform filtering and cooptation functions, become a means of social mobility for ambitious young people, who in most cases are children of officials. Furthermore, the initiatives of the officials are caused by a loss of confidence in institutions such as the Parliament and the councils that perform servile functions in regard to the executive branch.

Conclusion

In 2015 we can expect a greater participation of representative bodies in the discussion of possible measures to correct the imbalances in socio-economic development of the country. In the year of presidential election there is a hope for greater coherence in the work of representative bodies and coordination with the executive branch, including the participation in the presidential campaign on the side of the incumbent president.

In connection with the desire of the official Minsk to normalize relations with the EU, international activities of the Parliament will focus mainly on ties with parliaments of Europe and EU inter-parliamentary structures. However, representative bodies will act in the framework set by the President and are unable to change the socio-economic and political model of development.