Prague, 21 July 2004 -- President Lukashenka held a lengthy news conference on 20 July, broadcast on national television, to mark his 10 years in power.
The Belarusian leader used the occasion to confirm what many had suspected for a long time. Although he is mandated by the current constitution to leave office at the end of his second term in 2006, Lukashenka all but declared he intends to stay in power.
Emulating his fellow presidents in CIS-member states Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Lukashenka said a popular referendum could be used to change the constitution.
"There will be third [presidential] term for Lukashenka, only in accordance with the constitution. Only then -- when the people decide. I am not going to extend any terms." -- Lukashenka
"There will be third [presidential] term for Lukashenka, only in accordance with the constitution. Only then -- when the people decide. I am not going to extend any terms. If people allow me to participate in the 2006 presidential election, then I will participate, just like in the previous election, equally with the other candidates," Lukashenka said.
Lukashenka conceded that it was "tiring to work as president." But he added he could not see any other job for himself. According to independent public opinion surveys, however, most Belarusians do not agree, as sociologist Valery Karbalevitch tells RFE/RL by telephone from Minsk.
"According to the latest data from the independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, around 34 percent of those surveyed backed a third term for Lukashenka, while more than 50 percent were against. So, the majority were against. This is a very important conclusion. But Lukashenka, during his news conference [20 July], cited completely different numbers. He said 65 percent supported him for a third term, while only 10 percent were against," Karbalevitch said.
Karbalevitch believes there is no way Lukashenka could win an honest referendum.
"He will not win an honest referendum because, according to the Belarusian Constitution, in order for the question to be approved, approval from not just 50 percent of those who vote is needed, but 50 percent of all eligible voters. That means that, in reality, some two-thirds of those who turn out to vote would have to vote 'yes,' and that is impossible if there is a democratic referendum," Karbalevitch says.
But in Belarus's current reality, that is not expected to be much of an obstacle.
Lukashenka has been frequently criticized for holding ballots that are less than fair. And it would not be the first time Lukashenka has used a popular referendum in an effort to stay in office. In 1996, two years after taking power, Lukashenka called a referendum to approve a new constitution that stripped the parliament of most of its powers and extended his term until 2001.
When parliament refused to accept the poll, Lukashenka disbanded it and had a loyal assembly put together in its place. Lukashenka won another term as president in 2001, in elections not recognized as fair and democratic by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international observers.
The only real question -- now that Lukashenka has given his stamp of approval to the idea of a referendum -- is the date of the poll. Although the Belarusian president's term expires in two years, Karbalevitch believes upcoming parliamentary elections on 17 October could prove an opportune time.
"The first reason is an improving economy. Russia has a lot of 'oil dollars' right now, and since more than 50 percent of Belarus's exports go to Russia, there is a lot of demand for Belarusian products right now, and state-run enterprises have received money to raise salaries. The second reason to have the referendum at the same time as the parliamentary elections is that it would be easily incorporated [and] it would save money. The elections would act as a locomotive to which the referendum could be attached like a train car," Karbalevitch says.
A coalition of five parties has united into an opposition bloc for the parliamentary polls and are fielding candidates in each of the country's 110 districts. But as in previous elections, they face many obstacles, ranging from unequal access to state media to a meager $440-per-person cap on campaign spending.
Lukashenka himself, during his press conference on 20 July, labeled opposition politicians "traitors and renegades." He vowed that only "one or two" of them would make it into the new parliament.