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Belarus: An Open Political Crisis

Prague, 10 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka says he is "decisive" and impatient with parliament but also "democratic." Belarusian parliamentary leaders say Lukashenka has "a boundless appetite for power," accuse him of dictatorial tendencies and want to eliminate the presidency.

These contrasting views provide the background to Belarus politics, which has long turned around recurrent confrontations between the basic institutions of government, and finally set the stage for the current serious constitutional crisis.

At the heart of the crisis is Lukashenka�s recent demand that the parliament call a constitutional referendum on expanding his powers over legislative and judiciary institutions. Last month, Lukashenka said that the referendum should be held November 7, on the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, a day preceding by three weeks a scheduled runoff of parliamentary elections. Lukashenka also said that he was opposed to holding the runoff and was determined to prevent it from being staged.

Last week, parliament agreed to a referendum, but set the date for November 24 to coincide with the runoff. It submitted its own questions for the referendum, in addition to the ones proposed by the president. Most important, parliament asked prospective voters to abolish the presidency and establish a parliamentary republic.

"Our amendments (to the constitution) envisage elimination of the president�s post, creation of a parliamentary republic and development of democracy," said communist parliamentary deputy Sergei Kalyakin, who initiated the proposal. He said that Lukashenka wanted to gain dictatorial powers.

Last weekend, Lukashenka threatened to disband the parliament if it does not rescind the move. He also said in an interview with a Russian news agency that the parliament was preparing for an armed rebellion against his government. Some deputies, he said, were "looking into the possibility of buying weapons and creating their own security system."

Yesterday, Vladimir Zamyatalin, deputy head of Lukashenka�s staff, told a Russian television network that "signs of a constitutional coup d�etat can be seen in Belarus."

A spokeswoman for parliament chairman Semyon Sharetsky dismissed those charges yesterday as "laughable." The Russian television reporter said that "the parliament is acting in a strict compliance with the constitution and has no wish for a confrontation with the president."

Lukashenka has already started a campaign for his referendum proposals. Or so it seems from the press releases of his activities.

Last weekend, Lukashenka went for a quick trip to Moscow. He subsequently announced that he had met with "practically all Russian officials."

But a Russian television network reported yesterday that Lukashenka had neither met with, nor talked on the telephone to, Russia's President Boris Yeltsin. In addition, the Russian media reported that Lukashenka�s meetings with security chief Aleksandr Lebed and Defense Minister Igor Rodionov focused on problems linked with the withdrawal of Soviet-era nuclear missiles from Belarus, rather than Belarusian politics. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin�s office had no comment on the subject of Lukashenka�s talks in Moscow.

Speaking recently with a Russian newspaper, Lukashenka said that he "sometimes acts firmly, decisively."

"I declare a target and I do everything to achieve it," he said, adding "but this is not authoritarianism. This is inevitability."

Lukashenka is speaking today at a major political meeting in Minsk. His address deals with a long-term program for the social and economic development of Belarus until the year 2000. The president has recently said that he would stay in office for the next ten years.

Lukashenka�s office has said that the President would address the nation in a special television program within the next few days.

The parliament is scheduled to meet in a plenary session next week on September 17.

Neither side is likely to give in to each other or compromise on its proposals. And the constitutional crisis is almost certain to sharpen even more, seriously undermining the already diminished authority of the country's basic political institutions.