Direct Democracy in Belarus

Impact of Direct Democracy on International Relations Belarus’

Seminar Paper, 2009

28 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of contents


1. Introduction

2. The Concept of Direct Democracy

3. Referenda in Belarus
3.1 Legal frames
3.2 Referenda 1995,1996,2004

4. Historical context of Belarus

5. Analysis
5.1 Closer to the EU?
5.2 Closer to Russia?

6. Conclusions

7. Summary in a foreign language


Bibliography and Internet sources


Theoretical arguments and empirical evidence regarding direct democracy in Transition Countries is not always compatible, as many think (FREY 2003: 1f. While direct democracy usually raise trust and political interest by the society, in some undemocratic countries it cannot produce this outcome. In Belarus, a country with a very weak national identity, high dependency on Russia and sanctions by the European Union, institutions of direct democracy serve exclusively strengthening the ruling power of the dictator and legitimizing his decisions. What are reasons for this situation? Is there any solution for Belarus to become more democratic in the Western meaning without losing its economical benefits and political support from Russia?

1 Introduction

Belarus is a small country of only 10 million inhabitants, with few natural resources, low tourism and is of little interest to the Western World. It has a 950 kilometers border with Russia and, since 2004, more than 1.000 kilometers of frontier with the EU ( We could say that Belarus is nowadays sticking "between Moscow and Brussels". It is cold-shouldered by the West and counter-balanced by partnership with Russia. Is that mutual assistance or enslavement? Choice or necessity? This research paper aims at discussing direct democracy aspects of this situation in order to propose the following conclusion: the institutions of the direct democracy did not have a chance to develop because of strong dependency on undemocratic Russia.

Belarusians designated the year 1944 as a "Zero Hour". Among the Soviet philosophy the experimental formation of state in the pre-war period should be forgotten. Up to now most Belarusians identify themselves with the White Russians of the Soviet past. A new history of Belarus has started in the form of anti-Polish and anti-German relations and a very pro-view of Russian politics. There is no wonder, why after the collapse of communism there are no democratic changes "from below" in Belarus like in the Baltic States or the Ukraine.

Moreover, the economy, security and relations with the EU have been determined mainly by Russia and had a large influence on the country in its early years of independence. Weak leadership, an entrenched bureaucracy and a failure to make necessary economic reforms combined with an economic crisis led to a disaffected populace. Since Lukashenko came to power, Belarus can be arguably considered as the least democratic country in Europe. As such it has posed problems for the European Union. 1996 brought a break-down in relations. On the other hand there are massive economic subsidies accomplished by Russia as a prize for Belarusian loyalty during SSSR period. In 2001, for example, 80% of the country's energy requirements were covered by Russian gas delivery (ZLOTNIKOV 2002: 129). Is it possible to carry on like this, "between Moscow and Brussels", and why / why not? How does this affect the democratic institutions on the national level? These questions will shape the final conclusion based on the following discourse.

In order to proof democratic developments in Belarus the following study will be divided into five different sections. The opening section positions Belarus within contemporary debate about the concept of the Direct Democracy, with a special focus on the relevance and functions of the institution of referendum and plebiscite.

Next, the paper reviews the Belarusian referenda since president Lukashenko came to power. First, legal bases for this kind of institution must be presented. Further, detailed course within the timeframe of May 1995 and October 2004 in connection with a public reaction on them and an international appraisal will be shown.

Section three of the paper then considers the historical context of Belarus with a special focus on the Soviet period in order to elucidate the issues mentioned. Long dependence may explain why there exists a big mistrust to international institutions and the West as such. This section presents also possible reasons of the weak Belarusian national identity and lack of the civil society in the country.

Next chapter looks after possible ways Belarus should follow. Having in mind the way the direct democracy has been forced there via referendums that do not meet law standards, this part will consider possible reasons and challenges for the Belarusian governance in the domain of international relations with its biggest neighbors: Russia and the European Union, from a variety of perspectives. It is essential in the debate about democratization of Belarus without destroying so important economical ties with Russia.

In conclusion it will be analyzed how the changes described can proof the concept of the Direct Democracy in Belarusian context. In doing so, answers on how the international community can deal with such types of governance will be provided. Finally some interesting findings regarding democratic changes due to an undemocratic form of governance will be summed up.

2 The Concept of Direct Democracy

Democracy is one of the forms of government including all methods and institutions by which a state is organized. Abraham Lincoln described this system as the government of the people, by the people and for the people ( Usually scholars follow the subsequent assumptions of democracy: sovereignty of people (the way people may participate), rule of law (constitutionality), division of power (legislative, executive and judicial), pluralism (economical, social, political, pluralism of ideas...etc.) and respect for minorities.

It can be distinguished between direct and representative democracy. Direct democracy stands in contrast to representative democracy, where sovereignty is exercised by a subset of the people. It can occur in form of elections (representative democracy) or direct democracy institutions: referendum, recall or popular initiative. In other words, the term of direct democracy usually refers to citizens making policy and law decisions in person, without going through representatives and legislatures ( Depending on the particular system, this assembly might pass executive motions, make laws, elect and dismiss officials and conduct trials ( Ideas regarding the desirability of direct democracy are usually in comparison to its widespread alternative, representative democracy: lack of political parties influence, voters apathy, small scale and possible manipulations by timing and framing (KÖCHLER 1995). Main critic points regard deliberative democracy, and to include consensus decision-making rather than simply majority rule. Such movements advocate more frequent public votes and referendums on issues, and less of the so-called rule by politician. Another point criticizing this form of democracy is accusing it for ignoring the rights of minorities. The majority rule does not guarantee that these rights will be whether represented nor assured which should be one of the basic assumption of democracy. Next to huge advantages, such as legitimacy, high political participation, educational objectives, accountability, transparency and civil society building, the concept of direct democracy can be a subject of discussion due to its high costs and legitimacy regarding moral issues.

Following instruments of direct democracy exist: popular initiative, popular assembly and referendum. In popular initiative citizens may seek a decision on an amendment they want to make to the Constitution. For such an initiative to be organized, certain number of signatures must be collected within certain time. A popular initiative may be formulated as a general proposal or — much more often — be put forward as a precise new text whose wording can no longer be changed by parliament and the government. Popular initiatives originates from the citizens themselves. They are therefore regarded as the driving force behind direct democracy ( Popular assembly is an institution where people decide by voting whether the issue is important for the country or not. These assemblies thus circumvent the nation-state and often do not receive outside recognition.

Referendum, as subject of this paper, needs more detailed definition. It is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either approve or reject a particular proposal (YES/NO voting). Referendum can be defined as a low-governmental institution whose concept is that the citizens with the political rights are entitled to express their opinions in voting on the constitution and other most important problems of political life ( This may result in the adoption of a new constitution, a constitutional amendment, a law, the recall of an elected official or simply a specific government policy. The referendum or plebiscite is a form of direct democracy ideally favoring the majority ( The following types of referenda can be distinguished regarding the procedure and status of this institution:

- compulsory / facultative

The compulsory one takes place when the law directs authorities to holding referendums on certain matters; the facultative one can be initiated at the will of a public authority or at the will of the citizens

- decisive / advisory

The decisive referendum assumes that people's opinion resolves the problem definitely; the advisory one lets the government or legislature to interpret the results of a non-binding referendum and it may even choose to ignore them

- pre-regulated / non-pre-regulated

It can be stated in the constitution that a referendum must be hold

Direct Democracy, despite of some lacks, has increasingly became important in the world political systems, especially in the West. Some Eastern states however, also use direct democracy institutions in order to resolve certain political matters in their countries. As an example referenda in Belarus can be examined.

3 Referenda in Belarus

3.1 Legal frames

The Constitution of the Republic of Belarus adopted in 1994 establishes the framework of the Belarusian state and government and enumerates the rights and freedoms of its citizens. It is also a main legal basis for holding referendums. The contents of the Constitution include the preamble, nine sections, and 146 articles. Section Three is dealing the organization and running of elections. The first chapter deals with the Belarusian electoral system and the second chapter details the organization of national referendums.

Article 73 states that national and local referenda may be held to resolve the most important issues of the State and society. According to Article 74 referendums can take place only if one of the following conditions is met: The president wishes to hold referendum, both houses of the National Assembly request to hold one (majority needed), or there is a citizens petition for it (430.000 signatures needed; additionally, over 30.000 people from each region must sign the petition, including the capital of Minsk.). Once either condition is met, the president must issue a decree setting the date of the national plebiscite. The plebiscite must take place less than three months after the decree was signed. Article 75 regards local referenda. Article 76 requires that referenda shall be conducted by means of universal, free, equal and secret ballot. Additionally, citizens of the Republic of Belarus eligible to vote shall take part in referenda. Further two articles state legitimacy of referendum: the decisions adopted may be reversed or amended only by means of another referendum. A list of issues that may not be put to a referendum shall be determined by the law of the Republic of Belarus (comp. The Constitution of the Republic of Belarus 1994: § 73-78).

Another legal document regulating direct democracy institutions in the Republic of Belarus is the Referendum Act, where specific instructions regarding referendum issues as well as the way and conditions of holding are stated. Law stated in the Electoral Code of the Republic of Belarus, that aims to protect the exercise of the freedom of the vote of the electorate, is also applicable to referendums on the basis of popular initiatives (especially §112-114).


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Direct Democracy in Belarus
Impact of Direct Democracy on International Relations Belarus’
European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder)
Direct Democracy: Theory and Practice.
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ISBN (Book)
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Theoretical arguments and empirical evidence regarding direct democracy in Transition Countries is not always compatible, as many think (FREY 2003: 1f). While direct democracy usually raise trust and political interest by the society, in some undemocratic countries it cannot produce this outcome. In Belarus, a country with a very weak national identity, high dependency on Russia and sanctions by the European Union, institutions of direct democracy serve exclusively strengthening the ruling power of the dictator and legitimizing his decisions. What are reasons for this situation?
Belarus, Direct democracy, Referendum, Lukashenko, 1996, 2004, 2006, dictatorship
Quote paper
Elzbieta Szumanska (Author), 2009, Direct Democracy in Belarus, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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