Winds of change have begun to blow in Belarus, the former Soviet republic known as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’. Over the past five months, the country has been rocked by unprecedented nationwide protests over rigged presidential election results and police brutality against protesters, with national and international observers sounding alarms about violence and ill-treatment of citizens at the hands of police.
While Belarus scored 47 on the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, an improvement of two points since last year, its score does not reflect the countless problems that the country has been facing under Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. The CPI measures countries based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be by experts and businesses. The CPI does not capture electoral fraud, infringements on freedom of speech and right to assembly, nor the rampant human rights abuses that the people of Belarus are fighting against.
The authoritarian governance and the heavily-controlled state apparatus created to support its results in an efficient and punitive system may work well to detect and deter lower-level administrative corruption. This means that corruption is more centralised in the hands of the few.
Despite a gradual improvement in its score since 2015, Belarus is still a poor performer on the CPI compared to the top-ranking countries. This is not surprising. Lukashenko transformed Belarus into a presidential republic with an executive branch that remained unchecked for years. Like many autocrats, the fight against corruption was one of Lukashenko’s main promises when he came to power in 1994. Typically, corruption thrives where democracy is weak. Checks and balances that are foundational to democracy and crucial in controlling corruption fail under authoritarian regimes.
"The irony is that Alexander Lukashenko was elected by the people of Belarus on an anti-corruption platform. He has betrayed his mandate and the trust of his people on many occasions during his 27 years as president,” says Oksana Drebezova, Transparency International’s national contact in Belarus.
Belarus is less affected by petty corruption, relative to other countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia according to Transparency International’s 2016 Global Corruption Barometer. Yet, grand corruption remains a far greater problem in Belarus, where power is concentrated within the highest levels of government and political elites. The state controls 70 per cent of the economy and integrity systems are unable to keep the most powerful officials accountable, making grand corruption common.
A recent investigation, focused on Cyprus, exposed “a labyrinth of financial ties between Nicosia and Minsk”. It alleged that Lukaschenko’s family have business links to Cyprus companies. This investigation also put a spotlight on Cyprus’s attempt to block EU sanctions on Belarus officials over a falsified election. The bloc eventually overcame Cyprus’s veto and imposed sanctions on 40 Belarus officials in October 2020.
In recent years, some efforts were made to fight bribery, which resulted in a number of cases initiated against public officials and businesspeople. The number of corruption investigations has also increased due to a rise in activity by law enforcement agencies. However, the impartiality of the judiciary and court system in trying such cases remains doubtful.
Over the years, Belarus’ judicial branch has acted with limited independence. Court staffing decisions are determined by the president in a partisan manner. The president reserves the right to pardon any individual involved in corruption.
Belarus also does not have independent bodies to investigate corruption cases. Trials are usually conducted behind closed doors. In 2019, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body known as the Group of States against Corruption, or GRECO, publicly declared Belarus as “non-compliant" for failing to address the vast majority of necessary anti-corruption reforms and recommendations.
Another important factor in understanding Belarus’ score is the fact that members of the civil society can hardly participate in the anti-corruption efforts or hold their government to account. Civil society and independent media simply do not have access to data on corruption as the state system remains in the hands of the law enforcement bodies and the government, with journalists often being jailed for reporting corruption. International organisations and experts are also limited in assessing and analysing the situation without access to adequate data.
Belarus can escape the clutches of corruption only with radical change and with its citizens empowered to hold their government accountable. Protests in the last few months are a sign of hope that Belarus will be able to restore checks and balances, ensure accountability and bring democracy in the country, thanks to the efforts of engaged citizens and civil society.
Updated on 8 February 2020: An earlier version of this article included a reference to an investigative report about the London properties of a Belarussian businessman with alleged links to President Alexander Lukashenko. We have removed this reference after learning that these links are unproven, and that the original media article upon which this was based had been updated accordingly.