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Belarus: Analysis from Washington -- Arbitrary State Proclaims Legality Of Its Deeds

Washington, 12 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is using the trappings of legality -- laws, decrees, and a parliamentary system -- to cover his increasingly dictatorial regime. And his use of legal forms has had the effect of dividing his critics at home and limiting criticism of his regime by democratic states abroad.

That was the message delivered by Zianon Pazniak, the exiled leader of the Belarusian People's Front, during a briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office on Thursday.

Among the examples Pazniak cited were Lukashenka's parliament that he either uses as a rubber stamp or simply ignores and of a series of recent laws that either ratify his own increasingly repressive decrees or are simply ignored by his officials.

On the one hand, Lukashenka's use of legal forms for this purpose is nothing new. In modern times, dictators have typically used legal forms to bolster their own power even when they have shown no respect for any law at all. Indeed, in the twentieth century, virtually no government has failed to claim that its actions are legal.

But on the other, Lukashenka's use of law to cover his authoritarianism and arbitrariness reflects a situation unique to many of the post-communist and especially post-Soviet states, one that reflects the experiences both leaders and led had with law in the past and one that presents particular challenges to those who want to see these countries move toward democracy.

Communist leaders regularly used law to control the population but in no case saw laws as limiting their own action. And this instrumental view of law has left a legacy that some have been able to overcome but others have not.

Many of the movements that sought to overthrow communism did so in the name of creating a normal, legal state, one in which laws and not individual leaders would determine what would be allowed and what would be prohibited.

And Western supporters of those movements backed these aspirations, pushing for the creation of genuinely law-based states in place of the arbitrariness of communist regimes.

With the collapse of communism, the leaders of some countries have actively proclaimed this as their goal either out of conviction, a desire to win support from populations tired of arbitrariness or to gain favor from the West.

But many of these leaders have found themselves isolated and have fallen back on the authoritarian tradition of issuing decrees and viewing themselves as above the law, a view that sometimes has found support both from their own populations who want a better future and from Western countries impatient with the post-communist transformations.

The real problem in the post-communist region, however, lies less with leaders who have made a commitment to a law-based state but fallen short than with those like Lukashenka who have discovered that they can exploit legal forms to solidify their power over their own populations and to escape criticism from Western countries.

Like Lukashenka, these leaders use the trappings of legality to generate support even as their actions undermine the possibility of the development of a genuinely law-based society. They are able to point to impressive legal codes. And they can dismiss any violations of them as "exceptions," even when as in Belarus, these "exceptions" appear to define the nature of the regime.

That presents a serious challenge to the citizens of those countries who want to change these authoritarian rulers because such citizens often appear to be violating the law rather than seeking to institutionalize it. But this situation also presents a challenge to those in other countries who want to see democracy and the rule of law continue to expand. They have to cope with the fact that in countries such as Belarus, the "legalization" of a regime may not be the same thing as its legitimation.