The regime of authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka is due to hold a vote on February 27 in a bid to tighten its grip on power in Belarus and possibly end the country’s nuclear-free status.
Lukashenka, 67, has offered to change the constitution, the third time he has done so since coming to power in 1994, which would allow him to rule until 2035, give him a new lever of power and abolish a section of the document defining Belarus. as a “nuclear-free zone”, possibly paving the way for the return of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus.
The crisis in Belarus
Read our current coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists and independent media after the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
The planned vote, which has been denounced by the country’s opposition, comes as Russia continues its unprovoked assault on Ukraine, with thousands of troops arriving from Belarus.
Some 30,000 Russian troops were stationed in the country, ostensibly deployed to take part in joint exercises with Belarusian forces. But on the day the exercises were due to end, February 20, Defense Minister Viktar Khrenin announced that the soldiers would stay indefinitely.
Lukashenka proposed the constitutional changes following domestic and international backlash over his violent crackdown on dissent following a disputed August 2020 presidential election that he says will earn him a sixth consecutive term. The opposition says the vote was rigged.
Deemed illegitimate by much of the West, Lukashenka now depends on the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has exploited this weakness to extract further concessions on what the Russian leader hopes to see cemented in a final state of union.
“The Kremlin was interested in the referendum at the start of the political crisis in order to ease potential tensions in Belarus through the appearance of a compromise,” Alesia Rudnik, a Belarusian analyst based in Sweden, said in remarks sent by e-mail to RFE/ RL.
“Instead of mitigating the conflict, it now serves as an instrument to secure Lukashenko’s power and stabilize his positions. The February 27 referendum therefore appears to be a guarantee of Lukashenko’s artificial legitimacy and prevents any potential threat to his power.
Lukashenka, a former communist-era collective farm manager, has a history of tampering with the Belarusian constitution.
In 1996 he significantly expanded his own powers as president and reduced the powers of parliament, while in 2004 he lifted restrictions on the number of presidential terms that could be served.
In 2016, Lukashenko spoke for the first time about a possible third round of constitutional changes, announcing the need to “create a group of wise men, lawyers who will analyze our fundamental law”.
That rhetoric largely died out until the day after the disputed 2020 presidential election, when tens of thousands took to the streets in some of Belarus’ biggest protests in its post-Soviet history.
As his security forces cracked down hard on protesters, Lukashenka’s power seemed to be crumbling.
On August 17, 2020, Lukashenko was mocked by workers at the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant (MZKT), the alleged backbone of his support. Later in the day, Lukashenka said that Belarus could organize a new presidential election after the adoption of a new constitution.
By February 2021, Lukashenka had unveiled plans to give more powers to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, a periodic gathering of loyalists that currently has no government status under the law. He said it could provide a “safety net” in case “the wrong people come to power and they have different views”.
December 27, Belarus has published proposed changes to its constitution and published them for public consultation.
It became immediately clear that the changes would strengthen Lukashenko’s grip on power.
The revamped All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, if the changes are approved as planned, would act as a parallel structure alongside parliament, holding sweeping powers to approve foreign, security and economic policy. He would also be able to propose changes to the constitution, draft laws and select members of the country’s Central Election Commission and judges of the highest courts.
Under the proposed changes, a sitting president automatically becomes a delegate to the 1,200-seat assembly and can preside over it if elected by other delegates.
The proposed changes would also give Lukashenko’s immunity from prosecution and implement a two-term limit, each of five years. However, the restrictions would only apply in the future, meaning Lukashenka could rule until the age of 81.
The amendments would also bar anyone who has temporarily left the country in the past 20 years from becoming president, a change aimed directly at opposition members, many of whom have been forced into exile to avoid political persecution.
This includes Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya who, according to her supporters, actually won the disputed August 2020 presidential poll.
Besides stability, the Kremlin may be hoping that constitutional changes — and a new military doctrine — could pave the way for a return of Belarus-based nuclear missiles, says William Alberque, analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“This new military doctrine, which has not been made public, would include greater integration between the two militaries, which likely requires changes to Belarus’ neutrality and nuclear-free status to allow for possible Russian nuclear deployments on Belarusian territory,” Alberque said. wrote.
Unlike previous ballots for the presidential and legislative elections, the referendum documents will only appear in Russiana symbolic sign perhaps of Lukashenko’s growing loyalty to the Kremlin.