Erosion of democracy in Belarus and Russia highlights role for international law

Margaret TaylorFriday 9 October 2020

When the United Kingdom and Canada imposed sanctions on Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in late September, it ended almost two months of deliberations about how to address allegations of vote-rigging in the former Soviet state.

Having claimed victory in a presidential election in which opposition candidates were jailed or exiled, independent observers were barred, and claims of vote stuffing were reported, Lukashenko has begun his sixth term in office after the August vote. He denies doctoring the election result.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says restricting travel and freezing assets for Lukashenko and several members of his government will send a ‘clear message’ to the Belarusian President that ‘we don’t accept the results of this rigged election’.

Raab’s Canadian counterpart François-Philippe Champagne agrees, and says Canada is not willing to ‘stand by silently as the government of Belarus continues to commit systematic human rights violations’ against protesting citizens.

If you don’t respect the outcome of [elections] and the will of the people, one day you will have to listen

Timur Bondaryev
Member of the IBA European Regional Forum Advisory Board

The European Union followed suit in early October, freezing the assets of 40 Belarusian officials and banning them from travelling.

Sanctions may be one of the few avenues open to world leaders who want to show their disdain for administrations that have fallen short of international standards. But Péter Köves, Chair of the IBA Bar Issues Commission and a founding partner at Hungarian law firm Lakatos Köves and Partners, is not convinced they can be effective when it comes to transforming totalitarian states into democracies.

‘For me it’s a carrot and stick issue and sometimes the carrot works more than the stick. Sometimes it works better to say if “you do this you’ll get this and if you do that you won’t get that”,’ he says.

‘In the last few decades the EU has put too much emphasis on sanctions and not enough on mutually beneficial relationships,’ Köves adds. ‘The EU doesn’t have a lot of programmes that say if you do this and this and this you can be part of this programme which will give you a lot of benefits.’

For Kathy Roberts, co-director of Partners in Justice International, addressing the erosion of democracy in individual countries is fraught with difficulty because there are limits to what the international community can do. Additionally, using tools such as economic sanctions generally harms the citizens international law is designed to protect, rather than the leaders who are in breach of those laws.

‘The really important thing about international law […] is that it can’t meet the same needs as local laws,’ she says. ‘There’s not an international police force. There are international courts, but only sort of. What’s most important in international law is individual sovereign states, and if they choose not to take it on board they don’t have to take it on board.’

Russia is a case in point. Countries including the United States and the UK have used a variety of sanctions against the former Soviet power in recent years, but still elections are held in such a way that critics say ensures the ruling United Russia party will always win.

Indeed, a vote in July on amending the Russian constitution to allow President Vladimir Putin to potentially remain in power until 2036 was criticised by election-monitoring organisation Golos, for its ad hoc design.

Köves says that because of globalisation, modern dictatorships have to maintain some semblance of democracy. ‘That’s why there are elections in Belarus and Russia, but everyone who lives in Belarus and Russia knows that currently no one else can win.’

He adds that while United Russia always gets almost all the seats in an election, they are very careful to ensure there are some seats for others because they don’t want to be a pariah in the international community like North Korea.

International law may be unable to reverse such situations once they’ve arisen, but Roberts believes it can have more impact when it comes to protecting citizens’ right to protest. This is precisely what has been happening in Belarus since the August election, something Roberts believes will ultimately prove more powerful than any kind of outside intervention.

‘People have more power than they realise,’ she says. ‘Part of what the international legal system does is provide more opportunities for that kind of political engagement within an authoritarian state or one that’s democratic but falls short on human rights obligations.’

Timur Bondaryev, a Member of the IBA European Regional Forum Advisory Board and a managing partner at Ukrainian firm Arzinger, says that Ukraine’s 2014 revolution – which led to the ousting of then-President Viktor Yanukovych – shows how powerful protests can be.

Though Bondaryev says Ukraine still has issues with corruption, he notes that the revolution showed the country’s citizens the important role they have to play in upholding democracy.

‘Our region is one of the last bastions of the Soviet empire and we still have politicians who consider their country their own [to rule],’ Bondaryev says. ‘That’s exactly what’s happening in Belarus – Lukashenko has decided that he’s the President and it doesn’t matter what the people think or what they want.’

‘In Ukraine, the most recent revolution has given a very big push to distancing us from that way of thinking,’ adds Bondaryev. ‘It was a very good lesson for politicians that it’s a democracy, which means the people rule the country. If you don’t respect the outcome of the election and the will of the people, one day you will have to listen.’

For Natalia Krapiva, a tech legal counsel at digital rights organisation Access Now, the internet is one of the most important tools civil society can use to assert its rights as it enables people to ‘come together to affect change in a meaningful and systematic way’.

Consequently, she believes that any unilateral attempt to restrict internet access or online freedom of expression should be seen as an attempt to undermine democracy itself. ‘You can’t achieve a democracy without a vibrant civil society and that civil society has to have a say in important decisions that governments make when it comes to the regulation of the internet and regulation of people’s freedom of expression,’ she says.

Image: 57th day of peaceful protest in Minsk, Belarus, 4 October 2020. LuPol /