Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.
From 22 to 27 February, all Belarusians living in Belarus are called upon to vote in a so-called referendum on constitutional amendments, which were issued by the country’s strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka in a final version on 20 January 2022 and which will further consolidate his power, at least in the medium term. Our representative online survey among the Belarusian internet-using urban population in September 2021 shows, however, that Lukashenka is unlikely to be able to legitimise the reform by means of the referendum. His opponents are pushing for new elections, while many of his core supporters are somewhat unsettled by the prospect of any form of change, even if it is initiated from the top, and, indeed, are sceptical about some of the proposed amendments.
The rationale for the constitutional reform stems not only from the rigged presidential elections in August 2020 and the protests that followed. In fact, Lukashenka’s rhetoric about a “reform” of the political system goes back at least a decade. The dilemma he faces is inherent in any personalist, authoritarian regime. In such contexts, the handover of power is not regulated by stable, impersonal institutions or free and fair elections. Even a controlled transfer of the presidency to a designated successor is an extremely risky business. Personalist rulers therefore tend to cling to power until they die in office. However, Lukashenka was convinced that he had a firm grip on the reins of power, so his efforts to address the problem of a “power transfer” had been tentative.
The presidential election in August 2020 thus had a catalysing effect. During the brutal clampdown on the protest movement, the former presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the opposition’s newly formed Coordination Council were particularly vocal in their calls for new elections. This was categorically rejected by Lukashenka, who offered the prospect of a constitutional reform instead. By the end of 2020, Lukashenka had not only pledged early elections, to be held right after the constitutional reform, the primary purpose of which was to curtail presidential powers. He also announced, at least initially, that he himself would not remain in office following the constitutional reform.
Within the OSCE and the United Nations, Belarusian officials attempted to portray the process of drafting the constitutional amendments as a “civilised dialogue” that stood in stark contrast to the protests. Some observers believe that Russia may well have pushed for constitutional reforms in late autumn 2020 to enable a controlled handover of power. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for example, urged Lukashenka to initiate a “national dialogue” that included the opposition.
Another factor that was decisive for the constitutional reform process, however, was that Lukashenka – not least with Russia’s assistance – managed to break the protest movement in winter 2020/21 and consolidate his power within the state apparatus. As a result, there can be no talk of a “national dialogue”. In fact, the public’s contribution to the drafting of the constitutional amendments quite literally began in a KGB prison, where Lukashenka visited detained opposition activists on 10 October 2020. Following the visit, Yurii Vaskresenski, formerly a supporter of detained presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, was released from prison on condition that he would henceforth participate in the constitutional reform process as a supposed representative of the opposition.
Plebiscites such as the one scheduled to take place on 27 February are standard practice in non-democratic regimes. However, it is important to note that they are not a forum for democratic participation but instruments for intimidating and controlling the populace. For example, participants in the nationwide debate that took place in January ahead of the vote were mobilised mainly by the authorities and state-owned enterprises. There was no room for dissent: 99.25 per cent of the comments submitted reportedly described the amendments as positive.
Lukashenka expands his power and makes concessions to Russia
In terms of its implications for domestic politics, a definitive assessment of the outcome of the forthcoming constitutional reform will not be possible until the next presidential election. However, instead of being held immediately after the constitutional amendments’ entry into force, this election will possibly not take place until 2025. Despite the reintroduction of limits on the number of terms a president may serve, this would allow Lukashenka the prospect of two further terms in office to 2035 if he decides to stand for re-election.
Until then, Lukashenka will further concentrate power in his own hands, for besides holding the presidency of Belarus and chairing its powerful Security Council, he will likely take over as chair of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, henceforth the country's supreme representative body with constitutional status outranking even that of the National Assembly. So while the presidency may cede some powers to other state institutions, this does not, at least initially, entail any real loss of power for Lukashenka. At the same time, the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly will not gain so much power that the role of chair would give Lukashenka a sufficiently secure position from which to reliably hold his successor in check if he himself steps down from the presidency.
From a foreign policy perspective, two amendments may have a far-reaching impact: in the revised constitution, the references to the Belarusian state’s striving for a position of neutrality in the foreign policy context and the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone throughout its territory have been deleted. There are now no further obstacles, at least in constitutional law, to deeper integration with Russia within the Union State and the hosting of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.
The constitutional amendments: the public’s view
Current electoral law and the repressive political conditions in Belarus do not allow a free and fair vote. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a look at how the Belarusians view the constitutional reforms. In this analysis, we focus on Lukashenka’s supporters and opponents. Among the latter, we further differentiate according to protest participation. For the sake of simplicity, we do not include undecideds in our presentation of the results.
What is certain is that Lukashenka is unable to win over the vast majority of his opponents to the reform, even if they generally take the view that holding referenda on constitutional amendments is the right approach. More than three quarters of the respondents who participated in the 2020/21 protests want free and fair elections first and foremost, ahead of constitutional reform. Nonetheless, Tsikhanouskaya is urging her supporters to take part in the referendum – but to spoil their ballot papers.
With regard to the separation of powers, there are large majorities among all respondents in favour of curtailing presidential powers and increasing the influence of the local authorities. Here, however, Lukashenka is having to tread a fine line: many of his declared supporters want stability above all else and oppose the reintroduction of limits on the number of terms a president may serve or the abolition of presidential decrees that take precedence over national laws.
With regard to constitutional amendments without clear majorities, two categories can be differentiated. On the one hand, Lukashenka’s draft includes amendments to which the different political camps have broadly similar attitudes, such as the stipulation that a marriage is to be defined as a union between a man and a woman. On the other, there are also issues where the Belarusians are strongly polarised. The design of the flag is an example: Lukashenka wants to keep the current red and green flag, but the white-red-white flag is not only a powerful symbol of the protest movement. It is also included in the constitutional draft produced by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, which is, however, excluded from the ballot in the referendum. For those who took part in the protests, the flag issue is clearly more important than it is for opposition-minded citizens who did not attend the protests. There is also considerable opposition, particularly within the protest movement, to the abolition of neutrality in foreign policy, suggesting that protesters are critical towards closer alignment with Russia.
In sum, then, the Belarusian population certainly has a diverse range of views on constitutional reform. Despite the country’s social fragmentation, it is clear that the constitutional amendments will not offer Lukashenka a clear-cut solution to the problem of “power transfer”, nor do they amount to a “national dialogue” that might assist with finding a way out of the conflict in Belarus since August 2020. The constitutional amendments, then, should not be viewed as a temporary end to this process, but as the start of a new round of national conflict ahead of the next presidential election.
Fabian Burkhardt is a Research Associate in the Political Science Research Group at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg.
Jan Matti Dollbaum is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Research Centre on Inequality and Social Policy (SOCIUM) at the University of Bremen.