On 27 February 2022, a referendum was held in Belarus following which the country amended its Constitution. However, this was not the only such electoral exercise in which Belarusian citizens had to participate, since with the coming to power of Aleksandr Lukashenko in this former Soviet republic, three other popular consultations were held through which the Belarusian president sought to consolidate his own authoritarian-hegemonic regime. In fact, the country came to be known in the Western media as the last dictatorship of Europe after the holding of these referendums. But one question arises: Did Belarus retain this title after the last plebiscite?
History of referendums held in the Republic of Belarus
The proposal to hold the first referendum in Belarus’ post-independence history came from Alexandr Lukashenko himself, who called on the deputies of the Supreme Soviet to approve the conduct of this electoral exercise in May 1995. The president wanted the citizens of this former Soviet republic to express their opinion on four issues: the economic integration of Belarus alongside Russia, giving Russian language equal status with Belarusian. changing 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), as well as on the president’s right to dissolve Parliament if it violated the Constitution.
The session of the Supreme Soviet was very tense as 19 deputies of the Belarusian People’s Front, the main opposition political party in the Parliament, went on hunger strike to protest the holding of a referendum by which the inhabitants of the country would have to give up their own national identity in favor of the Soviet one. Initially, the deputies had approved only the question regarding the country’s economic integration with Russia, stirring up the ire of Alexander Lukashenko who had threatened to suspend that session of the Parliament. The meeting had even been postponed because the building of the Supreme Soviet would have been the target of a bomb attack. But it resumed the next day when the deputies (with the exception of those from the Belarusian Popular Front) voted for all 4 issues to be submitted for approval by the citizens in the referendum of May 14, 1995. Then the Belarusians responded positively to all the questions proposed by Alexander Lukashenko, thus creating the preconditions for the emergence of an authoritarian regime in Belarus. Their options, however, were influenced by a huge propaganda campaign carried out by the Belarusian authorities days before the voting process takes place. At the time, the Belarusian public television broadcast a press conference in which the president urged citizens to vote for the amendments to the Constitution as well as a documentary entitled “Children of lies” in which representatives of the opposition were compared to the Nazi invaders of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. This is the context in which the first referendum held in Belarus was approved, the one that allowed Lukashenko to dismiss the entire Parliament if it violated the country’s Constitution.
However, the Belarusian president was not satisfied with the subordination of the Supreme Soviet, wanting to control the entire country with an iron fist. So, in the summer of 1996, he again requested the vote of the deputies of the Parliament to hold a new referendum. Lukashenko obtained with difficulty the approval of the legislature only after its members insisted that among the issues to be brought to the attention of the citizens on October 24, there was also the possibility of transforming the country from a presidential into a parliamentary republic. This electoral exercise was marked by the conflict between Lukashenko and the Supreme Soviet that broke out after he replaced Viktor Gonchar as head of the Central Electoral Commission with Lydia Ermoshina because he had found violations of electoral law during the early voting. Moreover, in the period before the referendum, the Belarusian president continued to violate the Constitution and govern the country by decrees with the power of law, which prompted the members of Parliament to initiate against him an impeachment procedure. Even a Russian delegation tried to mediate the dispute between the two institutions, but its efforts failed after Lukashenko insisted on the binding nature of that plebiscite.
Following the referendum, Belarusian citizens approved only the first 4 questions proposed by the president, namely the change of 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 day on which the Soviet army had liberated the capital Minsk from Nazi invaders in the Second World War, the maintenance of the death penalty, blocking the sale of the belarusian land to foreigners as well as for the amendment of the Constitution according to the draft proposed by Lukashenko. They rejected instead, the proposals of the communist and agrarian Deputies of the Supreme Soviet: the transformation of the country into a parliamentary republic, the financing of state bodies from the state budget and the direct election of local bodies. However, the voting process in the second referendum in the country’s history was marked by massive electoral frauds such as falsification of the turnout, printing and distribution of ballots by the Presidential Administration (not only by CEC members), multiple voting, but also by the monopoly exercised by the regime over the press and rhe television through which it exclusively promoted the draft amendment of the Constitution proposed by the president, thus ignoring the one advanced by the Parliament. After the entry into force of the amended constitution, Belarus had therefore turned into a dictatorship controlled by Alexander Lukashenko who had extended the presidential term by two years, established a new bicameral parliament (instead of the unicameral one existing until then) and appointed the heads of one the most important institutions in the country such as: the Constitutional Court, the General Prosecutor’s office, the Central Election Commission or the National Bank.
Unable to run for a new term as president in 2006, Lukashenko organized, eight years later, in 2004, a new popular consultation through which he eliminated the number of terms that a candidate could hold as president of the Republic of Belarus. He had signed the decree on holding the referendum in September that year. Although it was supposed to take place three months later (according to the Constitution), this plebiscite was held the following month without an election campaign, a sign that for Europe’s last dictator nothing was more important than maintaining his power in Belarus.
However, the results of all these electoral exercises were not recognized by the European Union, the Council of Europe or the OSCE, which considered them falsified by the Central Election Commission. The West reaction, thus confirmed .the emergence and consodiation in Belarusian politics of an authoritarian-hegemonic regime in which all power belongs to one man Alexander Lukashenko.
A new referendum, the same dictatorship
The last referendum in which the Republic of Belarus amended its Constitution was held on February 27, in the midst of the invasion of Ukraine by the army of the Russian Federation. As in the previous electoral exercises organised this former Soviet republic, the voting process took place over several days. On February 22-26, the employees of the state institutions, especially those from the KGB, the Ministry of Defence as well as the Ministry of Internal Affairs, voted first, and then, on the main day of voting – February 27, exercised this right the rest of the citizens. Unlike the referendums of 1995, 1996 and 2004, the Belarusian authorities decided not to open polling stations for Belarusian residents abroad and to print the ballot, for the first time in the state post-independence history, exclusively in Russian. The presence of the Russian army on the territory of Belarus did not prevent the citizens of this country from showing their solidarity with Ukraine, as throughout February 27, demonstrations against the war took place near polling stations in several cities such as Minsk, Vitebsk, Novopolotsk or Bobruisk. After this manifestations, more than 500 people were detained according to the Vesna Human Rights Center. The result of this electoral exercise announced by the Central Electoral Commission on the same evening was no surprise as the referendum was approved with the vote of more than 82% of the participants. However, in the absence of international observers from the OSCE, it is hard to believe that it was not falsified by the CEC chairman Igor Karpenko himself, who sought to maintain Lukashenko’s obsession (which obtained over 80% of the votes in every referendum organized in the country) and thus confirm the dictatorial nature of the Belarusian political regime.
New amendments to the Belarusian Constitution
After the entry into force of the new amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, the country would be led by a president with much more limited powers than Alexander Lukashenko. The future candidate will be able to run for president only if he has lived in Belarus for at least 20 years and has never held citizenship or residence of another state. If he wins the elections, he could hold office only for two terms (each for 5 years), but will not have the right to issue decrees with the power of law. However, he will have the possibility to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister, the members of the government, the director of the National Bank, the chairman of the State Control Committee as well as the Prosecutor General. Moreover, the future president will have the opportunity to lead the Belarusian Security Council, to initiate referendums, to call elections for both chambers of the Parliament, and also to declare a state of emergency or war on the country’s territory At the same time, under the new provisions of the Belarusian fundamental law, former presidents will have immunity from prosecution over actions committed while in office and will have the right to serve as deputies of the Council of the Republic, the upper house of the Belarusian Parliament.
The new Belarusian Constitution provides for the establishment of a new governing body – the Belarusian People’s Assembly that takes over some of the most important powers hitherto held by the presidency and parliament. This new institution will have the right to propose amendaments to the country’s Constitution, to question the legitimacy of elections held in Belarus, to initiate legislative proposals, as well as to appoint and dismiss the president and judges of the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court of Justice and members of the Central Electoral Commission. At the sime time, the Belarusian People’s Assembly, consisting of 1200 delegates elected for a 5-year term, will be able to remuve the President from power if he commits crimes, high treason or violates the Constitution. Moreover, the decisions of this new forum will be binding and may annul any decisions of the state institutions if they are contrary to the national interests of the Republic of Belarus.
The Constitution however, contains a series of amendments that will allow Alexander Lukashenko to remain president of Belarus, at least until 2035. Thus, they give Europe’s last dictator the right to run for two more presidential terms and simultaneously head the Belarusian People’s Assembly, thus controlling all power in the country. The new amendments to the Belarusian fundamental law therefore create the impression of a reorganisation of the power vertical, but we are actually witnessing its consolidation, in an authoritarian-hegemonic political regime in which it seems that the real transfer of power from one president to another is not possible.
Does Belarus become nuclear power?
Beyond the political changes guaranteeing the extension of Alexander Lukashenko’s rule over the entire country, following the amendment of Article 18 of the Constitution, the Republic of Belarus renounced its status as a neutral and non-nuclear state, reserving instead the right to develop this industry for defensive purposes.
The introduction of such a change in the fundamental law confirms the intention of the Belarusian president to turn the country into a nuclear power, as on the main day of voting in the referendum, in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Alexander Lukashenko indicated his willingness to invite his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to return the 81 nuclear warheads that Belarus ceded to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union if the West decides to move atomic bombs to Poland and Lithuania.
We are therefore talking about Belarus regaining its status as a state possessing its own nuclear weapons, not a Republic offering to host atomic weapons held since 1992 by the Russian Federation.
The implementation of such a measure would lead to the successive withdrawal of Belarus from both the Treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons signed in 1993 as well as from the agreement on the Prevention of the use of nuclear material for the creation of atomic weapons that it concluded with the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1995. Moreover, the acquisition of nuclear weapons yielded in the 90s will call into question the status of Belarus’s membership in this organization to which it has joined since its creation in 1957. Since then, the country has signed all international conventions of this forum (including the Convention on nuclear safety or on the provision of assistance in the event of a nuclear accident) and has allowed the deployment on its territory of several missions in order to verify the Belarusian nuclear infrastructure. At the same time, throughout its membership in the International Atomic Energy Agency, Belarus has served several times on the Board of Governors and has implemented in recent years, a few projects aimed at the safe use of its nuclear technology.
However, the danger of the regaining of atomic weapons by Europe’s last dictatorship is also accentuated by the construction of the second reactor of the Astravets nuclear power plant, near the border with Lithuania, scheduled to end at the end of this year. If Aleksandr Lukashenko’s wish is fulfilled, and Vladimir Putin agrees to transfer to the country the nuclear warheads ceded after the fall of the USSR, Belarus will certainly be a threat to the security the entire Europe. Only then can the Belarusian president’s aggressive rhetoric towards the West could become a reality.