Despite the new Belarusian constitution, Alexander Lukashenko has no intention of retiring from the country’s political life and may even remain in a leading position for many years to come. The months-long wave of protests that erupted after the presidential election last August seemed to bury the Belarusian politician, but it did not. At the cost of repression, physical violence and intimidation, Lukashenko has stabilized his power. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Belarus, was dissatisfied with the domestic political events, and during their series of joint meetings, there were several calls for a new constitution, which would then be put to a referendum.
Both protesters and experts expected the planned constitution to finally put an end to the domestic political crisis: a presidential power would be replaced by a strengthened parliamentary government, early elections would be held, and Lukashenko would disappear from the country’s political life forever. This image was reinforced by meetings between Putin and Lukashenko and statements by the Belarusian leader in which he spoke of not insisting on power, and this will be his last presidency. Three months ago, for example, Lukashenko said:
The referendum is ahead of us. We’ll have to convince people to leave, though we won’t get too tense. We are simply telling people what changes await us by changing the constitution so that we are not reprimanded, as if clinging to power with blue fingers and signing this constitution ourselves. No one is going to do anything under you
Said the Belarusian leader in September 2021. “Clinging to power with bluish fingers” has recently become one of Lukashenko’s favorite terms, having been used many times since 2020 in his public speeches. However, under the new constitution, this is exactly what the Belarusian politician is preparing with “bluish fingers”.
New center of power
The most important element of the new Belarusian constitution is the establishment of a new, supreme body of power, the so-called All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. It would have a staff of 1,200 and meet at least once a year. Its members – the delegates – would be elected from among the members of municipalities, courts, the executive or other branches of government for five years. The work of the General Assembly is directed by the Presidency.
The new body will be given certain powers of the presidency and parliament, virtually elevating it over the other two.
The People’s Assembly will henceforth appoint members of the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court and the Electoral Commission and may declare a vote of no confidence in the President (impeachment process). What is more, it will have the right to amend the constitution, draft new laws, declare a state of emergency and a military, and determine the main directions of domestic and foreign policy.
The president can no longer pass decrees and hold a maximum of two presidential terms – both of which would otherwise mean a return to the original 1994 constitution. The government of the decree was introduced by Lukashenko in a 1996 constitutional amendment, and the restriction on presidential terms was lifted in 2004. However
the restriction on cycles would only start with the new constitution, so Lukashenko could remain president two more times, until 2035.
According to the constitution, the president would also be given full immunity for the years he spent during his presidency – in Lukashenko’s case, that would mean nearly 28 years and allow the politician to leave with impunity in the future.
It is not yet known exactly in which system each member would be elected to the new body of power, but the first delegate is certainly known by name: Alexander Lukashenko. According to the constitution, both the current and the former (none yet) president will automatically become members of the new body without elections. Moreover, the incumbent President may hold the presidency of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly in parallel.
The draft constitution presented in the days will be put to a referendum in February and can then be adopted.
Neutrality and “socially useful work”
In addition to the above, there are other important novelties in the text of the new Belarusian constitution. The parliamentary term will be raised from four to five years, but more importantly, Belarus’s obligations to make its territory a nuclear-free zone and the state neutral will be removed from the text. This is already a covert threat to the European Union’s neighbors and to Ukraine.
Furthermore, the formula “loss of nationality” has been replaced by “termination of nationality”. Earlier, the Interior Ministry proposed depriving Belarusians who had emigrated and “worked for the sake of Western countries” of their citizenship. The wording of the new constitution would make this possible. At the same time, the criteria for the presidential start are made more difficult:
the minimum age will be raised from 35 to 40, although in 1994 the 35-year age was introduced into the constitution precisely because of Lukashenko, who was 39 at the time.
Only Belarusian citizens who do not have another nationality or a residence permit in another country and who have been living in the country for at least 20 years can run in the future elections. This would mean the virtually complete exclusion of the opposition fleeing Lukashenko from the country’s political life.
In addition, the text of the constitution contains expressions that are reminiscent of Soviet times, such as “every citizen must contribute to the development of society and the state”, “patriotism is the duty of every citizen”, and parents are obliged to prepare their children for “socially useful work “.
Based on all this, it seems that there are several scenarios for Lukashenko at the moment: since there are no longer any new presidential elections, he could hold his position until 2025. During this time, it may become clear how seriously he thinks of Moscow’s removal of Lukashenko and what the public mood in the country will be like. Once moods have subsided, the 67-year-old politician who has ruled the country since 1994 could remain for up to two more cycles, until 2035. At the same time, as the president of the new body of power, he can gain even wider rights. If there is a problem, he will hand over the weakened presidential position and move to the head of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, from where he can continue to determine the life of the country.
However, this will only exacerbate the country’s problems: domestic political tensions will not be resolved and, despite repression, will sooner or later surface. And the creation of a new center of power could, in the long run, create a dual power between the presidential position and the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, which would be a slowly ticking, timed bomb.
(Cover image: President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus on December 28, 2021. Photo: MTI / AP / Sputnik / Yevgeny Bijatov)