Alexander Lukaschenko has been the president of Belarus since 1994 and his government is considered an authoritarian regime. During his time in office, Lukaschenko has repeatedly expressed his intention to change Belarus’ constitution. In 2020, he announced preparation for constitutional changes, however the protests that followed his re-election disrupted his plans (Dorokhov, 2022). Only in 2021 did the preparations for constitutional change actually start (Dorokhov, 2022). A referendum on the approval of the proposed constitutional amendments was held on February 27th, 2022. Authorities claim that 65.2 % of Belarusians voted in favour of the changes (Euronews, 2022). However, the probability that these results do not correspond to reality is high, as Lukaschenko has not shied away from radical methods to stay in power in the past, such as the repression of opposition. Members of the opposition, most of whom reside in exile, claim the election was rigged and no one actually counted the votes (“Belarus to End Neutral, Non-Nuclear Status Following Referendum Critics Say Was Rigged Social Sharing,” 2022). Western governments have not accepted the referendum as rightful (Dorokhov, 2022).
Contents of the New Constitution
Unsurprisingly, the new constitution enables Lukaschenko to consolidate his power. The All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, previously created by Lukaschenko, is now a high governing body and has a legislative power which it lacked in the past (Dorokhov, 2022). The Assembly, currently a member of the central election commision, is entitled to a) reverse decisions of other organs of power, b) initiate the impeachment of the president, and c) appoint judges of the supreme court and the constitutional court (Dorokhov, 2022). They are able to declare a state of emergency and impose martial law, as well as prove the legitimacy of elections (Dorokhov, 2022). Notably, former presidents are guaranteed a place in this Assembly (Dorokhov, 2022). Thus, once Lukaschenko leaves his office, he still remains a member of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. This guarantees his ability to hold life-long political power.
Furthermore, it is forbidden to appoint one individual to more than one political position, with the exception of the president who may be head of state and president of the Assembly at the same time (Dorokhov, 2022). Meaning. Lukaschenko can be Head of State and the Assembly. Eligible candidates for presidency must have lived in Belarus for the past 20 years and may not have a residency permit in a different country, excluding many oppositionists who went into exile due to repression (Dorokhov, 2022). The result of this is that Lukaschenko gains power by being able to hold two offices at the same time, while the opposition is further disadvantaged in running for presidency. In addition to conferring much power on the Assembly, Lukaschenko saw to it that the office terms of the parliament was expanded from 4 to 5 years and that the president can only be in power for two periods (Dorokhov, 2022). Nonetheless, this rule only applies for presidents elected after the next elections in 2025 meaning that Lukaschenko can now stay in power until 2035 (Dorokhov, 2022). Also, former presidents can not be prosecuted for actions committed during the presidency (Dorokhov, 2022). Lastly, and most relevant to people outside Belarus, the state is no longer neutral and nuclear free, which it had been since the fall of the Soviet Union (Dorokhov, 2022). In all, these constitutional changes consolidate and increase Lukashenko’s power.
The aforementioned constitutional changes followed by the invasion of Russia in the Ukraine have sparked considerable civil unrest in Belarus (Tagesschau, 2022). However, protesters have been swiftly dispelled and an estimate of 800 people have been detained (Tagesschau, 2022).
Relations to Russia
The constitutional changes Lukaschenko implemented were likely inspired by Putin’s referendum in 2020 which allows him to stay in power until 2036 (Tagesschau, 2022). Belarus constitutes an unusual case, in the sense that it remained an ally of the Russian Federation after the fall of the Soviet Union (Coes, 2021). Poor relations with the West climaxed in 2020 and pushed Belarus even closer to Russia. While struggling with the protests following Lukaschenko’s reelection in 2020, he turned to Russia’s leader Putin (Tagesschau, 2022). Putin supported him in quashing the protests and with loans that offset the effect of sanctions by the West as reaction to Lukaschenko’s illiberal actions (Reuters, 2022).
What Belarus’ Relationship Means in the Light of Recent Events
On the 24th of February Russia invaded Ukraine, starting the largest ground war in Europe since WWII (Santora & Ives, 2022). Weeks before the attack, Russia deployed troops to Belarus, allegedly for practice drills (Euronews, 2022). Since the start of the war, Belarus allowed Russia to use their territory as a location to launch attacks on Ukraine, clearly positioning themselves on Russia’s side in this conflict (Tagesschau, 2022 & Euronews, 2022). The constitutional change in Belarus regarding the storage and use of nuclear weapons has had a significant impact in light of the war and Belarus’ close relation to Russia, strengthening the military cooperation between the two states. Lukaschenko stated "If [the West] transfers nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania, to our borders, then I will turn to [Vladimir] Putin to bring back the nuclear weapons that I gave away without any conditions" (Euronews, 2022). The close relationship between Russia and Belarus marks an alliance that does not seem to shy away from extreme measures including the use of nuclear weapons in close proximity to Europe.
Written by Maya Cunningham, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons
Source: The Moscow Times
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