Prague, 21 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Belarusian opposition does not want to wait until 2001 for presidential elections, as stipulated by the constitution adopted in a referendum more than two years ago (Nov. 1996). Rather, it wants to elect a new president this May. A resolution to that effect was passed earlier this month (Jan. 10) by 44 deputies of the Supreme Soviet, which was disbanded by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka following the 1996 referendum. That body, however, is recognized as Belarus's legitimate legislature by all European parliaments except the Russian State Duma.
Last Saturday (Jan. 16), the opposition Central Election Commission, which was set up by the Supreme Soviet a week before, held its first meeting and approved an election schedule. It also decided to set up a fund for the election campaign and to open a bank account for that fund in Moscow.
The Belarusian opposition has provided substantial evidence that there were serious violations of democratic procedures in the 1996 referendum. In addition, the plebiscite was to have been of a non-binding nature, as stated on each ballot. But Lukashenka decreed the referendum results binding and has since taken steps to put them into effect.
First, in accordance with the new constitution, Lukashenka replaced the Supreme Soviet with a bicameral legislature, known as the National Assembly. Members of its lower house -- the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives -- were hand-picked by Lukashenka from among those deputies who gave up their mandates in the old Supreme Soviet and sought membership in the new legislature. The National Assembly's upper house --the 64-seat Council of the Republic -- is filled by so-called "senators" proposed by local soviets and by the President himself.
Second, Lukashenka extended his presidential term to 2001. A provision in the draft constitution that was put to voters in the 1996 referendum stipulated that the executive authorities' term in office was to be considered to have begun on the day of the referendum. Thus Lukashenka, who was elected president in July of 1994 to a five-year term, effectively extended his own term in office by two-and-a-half years.
Some 50 Supreme Soviet deputies have refused to recognize Lukashenka's post-referendum decisions, protesting that he had committed a "constitutional coup d'etat." These deputies have remained loyal to the 1994 constitution and continued to hold parliamentary sessions, even though they lack a quorum and the power to implement their resolutions. But both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly recognize the Supreme Soviet as Belarus's legitimate legislature, if not its full-fledged parliament. The Lukashenka regime has persistently sought official recognition for the National Assembly among European nations and organizations, but to no avail.
The Supreme Soviet's decision to hold presidential elections in accordance with the 1994 constitution may have significant repercussions. It remains unclear whether voters will actually cast their ballots. But the opposition's launching of an election campaign -- which involves collecting signatures among the electorate and setting up local election commissions around the country -- creates a new political climate in Belarus.
First, a 1999 presidential election campaign offers the Belarusian opposition the clear-cut political goal it has seemingly lacked over the past two years. All the major opposition parties -- including the mildly nationalist Popular Front (BNF), which has no deputy in the Supreme Soviet -- have pledged coordinating efforts to make the elections happen.
Second, the campaign puts Lukashenka's regime under an international spotlight and offers a political challenge to European democracies. Belarusian opposition activists believe that because European countries recognize the Supreme Soviet's legitimacy, they must be consistent and also recognize the Supreme Soviet's decision to hold presidential elections in May.
At the very least, Belarus's opposition expects that European nations will publicly cease to recognize Lukashenka as president when his five years in office end in July. Analysts note that the Lukashenka is clearly eager to avoid such a development. They argue that, owing to Belarus's current economic difficulties, he is under strong pressure to improve political and economic relations with Europe. At the same time, of course, he wants to remain Belarus's legitimate leader.
The stance adopted by European countries in regard to the Belarusian opposition's election initiative will be critical to the future of democracy in the country. Four days ago (Jan. 17), five ambassadors from European Union member-states returned to Minsk after they had been recalled last year over a diplomatic housing dispute. The same day, an OSCE group arrived in Minsk to bolster its mission there ahead of local elections in April, the opposition's presidential elections in May, and the signing of a Belarusian-Russian union state treaty scheduled for mid-1999.
In the past, Lukashenka has dealt harshly with any manifestations of political dissent, and it is unlikely that he will respond differently this time. The Prosecutor-General's Office has already warned the opposition that the May elections are unconstitutional. But, as BNF deputy head Yury Khadyka recently put it, from a legal point of view Belarus has a "dyarchy. The opposition hopes its election initiative will prompt the Belarusian people to seek ways of overcoming their social and economic plight rather than continue to rely on authoritarian rule.