Belarus’ Pro-Democracy Uprising And Political Transition – Another “Referendum” On Constitutional Reforms On The Horizon?

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator,” has been in power for 26 years, and on the 9th of August 2020 in a rigged election, claimed his sixth term in office, supposedly winning 80% of the votes. Ever since, the country has plunged into political crisis, facing weekly mass protests. The opposition movement is demanding new, democratic leadership and elections, and the government has responded with violent security crackdowns, imprisoning and torturing thousands. On the 31st of December, the Belta state news agency reported Lukashenko intends to hold a national referendum on constitutional reforms. This could pave the way to new elections; however, no concrete plans or dates have been disclosed.

Despite Moscow backing Lukashenko throughout the crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly pressed Lukashenko to proceed with the constitutional reforms. Following their meeting in September, during which Lukashenko pledged to launch constitutional reforms but then failed to do so, in November, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told Lukashenko that Moscow is “interested” in seeing him modernize Belarus’ political system.

A Democracy Reporting facilitated conference of a dozen Belarusian constitutional experts, shed light on the illegality of the current constitution, as the amendments made in 1996, also through a “referendum,” were forced by Lukashenko in ways closer to a coup d’état rather than a legal reform process. These amendments created the legal frameworks of the authoritarian regime, with no separation of powers and extending Lukashenko’s term in office, despite the Constitutional Court explicitly stating this process was unconstitutional. To make matters worse, the (illegal) constitution is not even taken seriously by the government, and provisions are constantly violated whenever they see fit. For example, many Belarusians have been subject to government torture, despite a constitutional ban on torture, and these acts have not been investigated. For these reasons, Lukashenko’s new call for constitutional reforms is widely dismissed by his opponents as a stalling tactic to help him mute the protests and wider political crisis.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) has not recognized any elections in Belarus as free or fair since 1995. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main opponent, who claims to have won 60-70% of the votes if the elections were counted fairly, created the Coordination Council after the election day in August, to facilitate a democratic transfer of power. Weekly anti-government protests have been met with security force brutality, with the UN Human Rights Office on the  1st of September citing more than 450 documented cases of torture and ill-treatment of those detained. The EU has responded with sanctions against 40 Belarusian officials and strikes commenced from the 26th of October in Belarus. On the 16th of December, opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya was awarded the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament’s top human rights prize.

Moving forward, Lukashenko has announced that a National Assembly of unelected delegates will meet in February 2021 as part of his reform plan. This political body has no formal power, however, Lukashenko has said it could be given authority soon. Overall, true political transition to a more democratic Belarus through the promised referendum on constitutional reforms is highly doubtful. Given the unlikeliness of political transition through other avenues, such as resignation by Lukashenko, a two-thirds majority in Parliament removing Lukashenko or the Supreme Court annulling the August elections, perhaps the 1994 constitution in its unamended form could provide a legal basis for a political transition. Records of the Constitutional Court’s verdict of the 1996 amendments as unconstitutional, may provide fruitful grounds for Belarus’ growing pro-democracy uprising and open avenues for true political transition.

Aya Wietzorrek