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Constitutional reform in Belarus: Consolidation or conflict?

The much-debated topic of constitutional reform in Belarus was discussed once again at the All-Belarusian People’s Congress in February. Lukashenka has requested a draft of the new constitution by the end of 2021. Will this settle the political conflict in Belarus or lead to more protests and violence?

March 3, 2021 - Hanna Vasilevich - Articles and Commentary

White Government Parliament Building And Lenin Statue on Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus. Photo: Marianna Ianovska / Shutterstock

Initially promoted by the opposition, the constitutional reform debate in Belarus now involves two opposing visions. These different views are promoted by Lukashenka, the often unrecognised president of Belarus, and the Tsikhanouskaya team, a group of opposition candidates for the presidency from 2020. Tsikhanouskaya’s team aim to take inspiration from the 1994 constitution and offer a new version of the document. Lukashenka has not presented any clear vision for constitutional reform. He has attempted to limit the powers of any new potential president while not damaging his own authority.

Despite heated debates over the reform in autumn last year, Lukashenka seems to have lost interest in the issue. This is because fewer people are protesting in the country. At first, he promised to present a draft at the All-Belarusian People’s Congress (ABPC) in February. Instead, he has slowed down the whole process and has postponed the draft’s release until the end of 2021.

Lukashenka’s constitution

Nevertheless, it is clear that Lukashenka aims to take the lead in reforming the constitution over the opposition. At the recent All-Belarusian People’s Congress held on February 11th and 12th, he announced a new timeframe for the draft constitution and set the date for a referendum to decide on this document. The new draft is expected to be ready by the end of 2021, while the referendum will be held alongside local elections on January 18th 2022.

While he lacks a clear vision regarding particular changes to the constitution, Lukansenka has proposed granting constitutional status to the All-Belarusian People’s Congress. It is clear that the current president aims to head this body. Should there be a political change that leads to a new president being elected, Lukashenka would subsequently be able to serve in this position. As head of the ABPC, he could block all unwanted decisions made by the parliament, government and a future president. Considering that the ABPC is essentially a gathering of those supporting Lukashenka, it would be rather easy for the current president to stay as its leader.

At the same time, Lukashenka seems to be concerned with what a new president could do to the country. In his speech at the ABPC, he specifically underlined his concern regarding excessive presidential powers. He believes that a new president might not be ready for such authority. He also warned that a new president may request that foreign troops enter the country.

Apart from several declared changes, the reforms have focused on rather vague concepts. These include changes such as the “redistribution of powers between government bodies, including local government and self-government bodies, strengthening the role of political parties in the life of the country”. It should be noted that because there is nothing limiting presidential authority in the country, these constitutional changes may prove to be purely decorative. At the same time, securing power for himself whilst limiting the power of a potential new president seems to be a major dilemma for Lukashenka.

Considering the country’s ongoing protests and the excessive power needed to keep these under control, one may expect a similar scenario in autumn this year. The main promotion campaign for Lukashenka’s draft will take place at this time.

The opposition vision of reform

Another constitutional draft has been proposed by the opposition, which is headed by the former presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Unlike Lukashenka, who has postponed a new draft until next year, Tsikhanouskaya’s team has presented a draft of some chapters and has opened these up for debate.

Lukashenka just announced the creation of a constitutional committee at the ABPC. At the same time, the opposition working group, which is headed by Anatol Liabiedzka (former deputy of the Supreme Council and ex-chairman of the United Civic Party), has already opened up discussions through mass media and social media.

The opposition claims that the format offered by Lukashenka does not aim to distribute power. Instead, the president is supposedly striving for the “conservation of what people have been protesting for in the streets”. As a result, he hopes to use these ideas as a tool to keep power. The draft sections presented by Tsikhanouskaya’s team suggest creating a semi-presidential or parliamentary-presidential republic. The president would be limited to two terms of four years and their main competences would be focused on foreign policy, security issues and various aspects of internal affairs. The government would be formed by the parliament and this body would determine the country’s development strategy.

Another opposition vision for reform has been presented by former constitutional judge Mikhail Pastukhou. According to him, changes to the constitution can only occur after a return to the 1994 version as it remains the only legitimate constitution. The opposition claim that the 1996 referendum that replaced this constitution was illegitimate and that it resulted in an imbalance of powers favouring the president. Pastukhou believes that the country urgently needs to restore the 1994 constitution, hold fair and free parliamentary elections and identify the most pressing reforms. This includes constitutional reform that would focus on selective changes and amendments to the 1994 constitution. According to him, ongoing attempts to create a new constitution would fail due to the lack of legitimate legal mechanisms in the country. He also criticised Tsikhanouskaya for ignoring the principle of constitutional succession.

What next?

Considering that the opposition remains divided over their version of reform, it is clear that a united position over the constitution is needed. This could either result in support for the 1994 constitution, which seems logical considering ongoing criticism regarding the amendments and changes made by the current leadership, or reform of the existing constitution.

Another important question relates to the legitimacy of the proposed changes. It could prove difficult to implement and realise these changes in a system that lacks a balance of powers.

Last but not least, how would the country guarantee a proper transfer of power? Belarus must avoid following the Central Asian tradition of keeping the former undemocratic leader in a position of authority, as these figures often still possess enough power to overthrow the newly elected leadership.

Hanna Vasilevich holds a Doctoral Degree in International Relations and European Studies. Her research interests include state ideology and propaganda, identity issues, inter-ethnic relations,  linguistic diversity as well as diaspora and kin-state relations.

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