The end of last year was quite difficult for the former Soviet states, as they came to the attention of the international community concerned about the possibility of a new conflict on the border between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. However, the political developments in the Europe’s last dictatorship seem to have completed a year that was marked by unpredictability, as in the midst of the preparations for the winter holidays, on the website Pravo.by, the national legal portal of the Republic of Belarus appeared a draft document proposing amendments to the country’s constitution to be approved by the belarusian citizens in a referendum scheduled to take place in February this year. The immigration crisis launched by the Minsk establishment last summer in response to sanctions imposed by the West following the falsification of the August 2020 presidential elections has therefore been replaced by internal debates over amending the fundamental law of the Republic of Belarus. But one question arises: Is it possible to change the belarusian political regime?
The amendments scrap clauses about Belarus “neutrality” and “non-nuclear status”
The draft constitution, which will be open to public debate until January 15, states that the Republic of Belarus will exclude any military aggression from its territory, reserving in return the right to develop its own nuclear industry only for defensive purposes. The introduction of such amendments to the country’s constitution has in fact strengthened Belarus’ pro-Russian geopolitical orientation by emphasizing Alexander Lukashenko’s statements in November last year when, in an interview with Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of Russian state media group Rossiya Segodnya, he was willing to invite his counterpart Vladimir Putin to send nuclear weapons that were withdrawn after the 1991 Soviet collapse back to Belarus if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization decides to move US atomic bombs from Germany to Eastern Europe.
Belarus’ neutrality, which has been maintained in the country’s constitution since 1994, has remained on paper only, as the Minsk establishment has since embarked on a long process of forming a state union with Russia. According to the final agreement signed in December 1999, the Russian Federation has the right to request the involvement of Belarus in a possible conflict if it considers it a threat to its national security. Thus, the country’s neutral status was practically contradicted by the involvement of the belarusian authorities in the process of building the Union State together with the Russian Federation. The draft amendment to the country’s constitution also provides ideological changes that strengthen the conservative base of the Belarusian regime: marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman, as well as the need of every citizen to protect the “historical truth,” inevitably associated with the war efforts of Belarusian soldiers in World War II, known in the former Soviet republics as the Great Patriotic War.
The weakening of the Belarussian presidency
According to the draft amendment to the Belarusian Constitution, the country’s president will be deprived of much of the power that Alexander Lukashenko has today. In order to run for the presidency, he must be at least 40 years old (and not 35 as before), have never had a foreign nationality or a residence in another state and have lived in Belarus for at least 20 years. The future head of state will have the right to lead the country for only two terms, to initiate referendums, to call elections for both chambers of the Parliament and for local councils, to declare a state of emergency or war but also to lead the country’s Security Council. At the same time, the belarusian president retains the right to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister, as well as members of the government, the Prosecutor General, the chairman of the State Control Council, the director and members of the National Bank, but he will lose the right to issue decrees with the force of law. The draft of the new Constitution specifies that in case of vacancy or inability to fulfill his duties, these will be taken over by the President of the Council of the Republic, and not by the Prime Minister as provided by the current Constitution of the country. At the same time, in case of the death of the president as a result of a terrorist attack, a military aggression or a coup d’etat, the state of emergency will be introduced in the Republic and the state institutions will be obliged to act in accordance with the decisions of the Security Council, also lead by the President of the Council of the Republic. Moreover, the draft amendment to the Belarusian Constitution, will grant former presidents immunity from prosecution over actions they took while in office as as well as the right to serve as permanent Members of the Council of the Republic, the upper house of the Belarusian Parliament. We see, therefore, the introduction in the new Constitution of both restrictions that could prevent the leaders of the Belarusian opposition in exile from participating in the upcoming presidential elections, as well as guarantees that would ensure Aleksandr Lukashenko immunity for the rest of his life.
The new governing body -the All-Belarus People’s Assembly
In the midst of the 2020 presidential election campaign, Alexander Lukashenko has for the first time argued for the need to amend the Belarusian Constitution. After a four-hour speech in front of more than 2,500 supporters from all over the country, the president insisted on the need to include in the new fundamental law the All-Belarus People’s Assembly, a meeting usually convened before the Belarusian presidential elections reminiscent of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR – as an advisory body. More than a year later, the Belarusian president seems to have changed his mind, choosing to turn it into a full-fledged state institution. According to the draft submitted for consultation to Belarusian citizens by January 15, the All-Belarus People’s Assembly will be “the highest representative body of Belarusian democracy with the role of determining the main directions of the country’s internal and foreign policy and ensuring the inviolability of the constitutional system.” This new governing body will be composed of 1200 delegates elected for a term of 5 years which may be renewed several times. Its members will include the current and former presidents of the Republic of Belarus, representatives of the legislative, executive and judicial authorities, but also of local councils or civil society. At the same time, the new institution will have a Presidium headed by the President of the Belarusian People’s Assembly elected together with the Vice-Presidents and other members of this body, by secret ballot by all delegates of the the All-Belarus People’s Assembly.
The powers conferred on this new institution actually show the reorganization of the vertical of power in Belarus thus justifying the transfer of some functions from the presidency and parliament to the All-Belarus People’s Assembly. This governing body will be able to propose amendments to the country’s Constitution, to question the legitimacy of the elections held in Belarus, to initiate legislative proposals, as well as to appoint and dismiss the president and members of the Central Electoral Commission and the presidents and judges of he Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Justice. Moreover, the All-Belarus People’s Assembly has the right to remove the President from power if he commits crimes, high treason or systematically violates the Constitution. The dismissal proposal may be initiated by the House of Representatives (with the vote of at least one third of its members) by 150,000 citizens with the right to vote or by of the Constitutional Court (in case of violation of the Constitution). According to the procedure set out in the draft amendment to the Belarusian Constitution, the All-Belarus People’s Assembly has 2 months to decide whether or not to remove the incumbent President. The final decision is considered adopted if more than half of the delegates to the Assembly have voted in favor. At the same time, the decisions of the Presidium of the All-Belarus People’s Assembly are binding and may annul legal acts and decisions of state institutions that are contrary to the interests of the Republic of Belarus.
The transitional and final provisions of the draft amendment to the Belarusian Constitution further reinforce the idea that we are not in fact dealing with any change of the authoritarian-hegemonic political regime in Belarus but rather with its consolidation. According to this provisions, the amendments limiting the number of terms in office that a president can hold come into force on the day the newly elected leader takes office, which means that Alexander Lukashenko can run for two more presidential terms, with the possibility to remain in power until 2035, when he will be 81 years old. Furthermore, the same section states that the President, who is in office at the time when the amended Constitution, enters into force, may simultaneously lead the All-Belarus People’s Assembly, thus giving Lukashenko a new opportunity to extend his control over the country, in the unlikely event that he decides to step down as President of Belarus. If he decides to take such a step, Aleksandr Lukashenko has enough options from which he can choose a possible successor, which he can easily remove from the presidency, this time as the leader of the All-Belarus People’s Assembly. The last dictator of Europe (a name he will surely retain even if he wants to create the impression of a change of the Belarusian political regime), may consider in the designation of a “replacement” the loyalty that various politicians in his entourage have shown towards him over the past 26 years. Thus, it is not excluded that among the possible future successors of Lukashenko to the presidency of Belarus will be the former head of the Central Election Commission, Lidia Ermoshina, recently replaced as president of this institution by the former minister of Education Igor Karpenko, current president of the Council of the Republic, Natalia Kacianava, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, or personalities who worked within the security structures of the country, either in the Army as prime minister Roman Golovchenko or in the KGB as Igor Sergeyenko, the current head of the presidential administration of Belarus. Lukashenko can thus draw his inspiration from already consolidated authoritarian-hegemonic regimes, such as the one in Kazakhstan, where in March 2020 Nursultan Nazarbayev gave up the presidency in favor of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, taking instead the leadership of the Security Council, or in transition-such as the one in the Russian Federation, where in July 2020 has been a referendum to amend the country’s Constitution that allowed Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036.
The Reaction of the West
Shortly after the publication of the draft amendment to the Belarusian Constitution, a representative of the European Commission in an interview to the Russian agency TASS, said that the European Union had taken note of the publication of the draft constitution in Belarus. At the same time, the European official noted that Brussels continues to act in relation to Minsk in accordance with the principles adopted after the European Union summit in October 2020, thus emphasizing the need to end repression, release political prisoners and dialogue with opposition representatives as well as of civil society, which should lead, according to the EU Commission representative, to the holding of new free and fair presidential elections under OSCE supervision. A similar statement was made by representatives of the US State Department, highlighting thus, the consensus of the West regarding the interaction with the Europe’s last dictatorship. Svetlana Tikhanovskaia, the leader of the Belarusian oposition, in a message posted on her Telegram account called Lukashenko’s proposed changes to the country’s Constitution a lie and urged citizens to boycott the referendum.
Brief history of referendums held in the Republic of Belarus
The referendum scheduled to take place in Belarus on February 20, is by no means the only such electoral exercise in which the citizens of this former Soviet republic participated. In fact, with his coming to power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko created a real tradition, choosing to strengthen his authoritarian-hegemonic regime by organizing three more such popular consultations that also influenced the geopolitical orientation of the Republic of Belarus.
The first referendum was held on May 14, 1995. Then the citizens of Belarus answered positively to all 4 questions submitted for their approval, virtually giving up their national identity in favor of the Soviet one. Specifically, they agreed for the belarusian economic integration with Russia, but also for gving Russian language equal status with Belarusian. Moreover, they approved the change of state symbols, giving up the national ones adopted in 1991 (white red white flag and Pahonia coat of arms) in favor of those used in the Soviet period (red green flag and the Belarussian RSS coat of arms). During the same consultation, the Belarusians granted Lukashenko the right to dissolve Parliament if it violated the Constitution, thus creating the preconditions for the emergence of an authoritarian regime.
The second referendum in the history of Belarus took place a year later, on November 24, 1996. Then, the belarusian citizens had to choose between two models of development of the republic, between two different forms of government: he presidential one, supported by Alexander Lukashenko or the parliamentary republic, supported by the representatives of the communist and agrarian parties of the Supreme Soviet. Of the 7 questions submitted for their approval, Belarusians answered positively only to the first 4 proposed by Aleksandr Lukashenko. Thus, the citizens of the country had agreed to change the date of the celebration of the country’s Independence Day from July 27, the day on which the Declaration of sovereignty of Belarus was adopted in 1990, on July 3, the date on which the Red Army liberated the capital Minsk from the Nazi invaders in 1944 Moreover, they had voted in favor of the adoption of the 1994 Constitution with the amendments proposed by the president (which was to control all the institutions in the Republic of Belarus), as well as for maintaining the death penalty and for blocking the sale of the belarusian land to foreigners. Instead, they answered no to the questions proposed by the Supreme Soviet. Thus, in Belarus, the direct elections of the local bodies , the financing of state institutions from the national budget and the adoption of the 1994 Constitution with the amendments proposed by the communist and agrarian parties of Belarus were all abandoned.
The third referendum took place on October 24, 2004, when Alexander Lukashenko won the right to run for the presidency whenever he wanted, which turned the country into a real dictatorship. However, the results of all these popular consultations were not recognized by the USA, the EU, the OSCE or the Council of Europe, which considered them falsified by the Central Electoral Commission. This is certainly to happen next month as the international community does not recognize Aleksandr Lukashenko as the country’s legitimate president, a man who, after 17 years since the last referendum, still dreams of leading Europe’s last dictatorship with an iron fist.