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Belarus: The Constitutional Merry-Go-Round Of Belarusian Politics

Prague, 14 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka says he is ready to call a referendum on expanding his powers.

Belarus' Parliament rejects Lukashenka's plans, and prepares to call its own referendum on abolishing the presidency.

But the country's Electoral Commission says that perhaps neither one of the planned referenda will take place, because there is no money to stage the vote.

These contrasting views provide the background to the long-running constitutional conflict that has pitted, during the last two years or so, the president against legislative and judiciary agencies of the government.

Openly disdainful of parliamentary politics, Lukashenka wants to have more power. He has been ready to use illegal means to achieve that goal. He has issued decrees conflicting with other laws, suppressed opposition and muzzled the media. While this has put him on the collision course with the country's courts, which have recurrently ruled his actions illegal, Lukashenka has simply ignored those rulings.

Several weeks ago, Lukashenka told Parliament that he intended to call a referendum to amend the constitution in a bid to increase his powers. He proposed that his term of office be extended from five to seven years and that he should have the power to dissolve Parliament. He also proposed that a new upper parliamentary chamber be created with members appointed by the president, while the number of deputies in the lower chamber be reduced. In addition, Lukashenka proposed that he be given the right to appoint high judiciary and electoral officials.

To add insult to injury, Lukashenka said that his referendum should be held on November 7, the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and a day preceding by three weeks a scheduled runoff of parliamentary by-elections. Lukashenka, who is an open admirer of the Soviet system of government, said he was opposed to holding the runoff.

Parliament was quick to refuse Lukashenka's demands. Noting that the law gives the right of calling referenda to Parliament alone, the deputies proposed last month to call a referendum of their own, asking the public to abolish the presidency and establish a parliamentary republic. And they set the date for the vote on November 24 to coincide with the runoff.

Last week, the two sides went through the motions of reaching some form of compromise. But it was clear that the motions were more apparent than real.

Valery Tikhinya, head of the Constitutional Court, told Parliament four days ago that the acceptance of Lukashenka's referendum proposals would lead to the establishment of a dictatorship.

While other deputies concurred, Lukashenka warned that he would bypass the parliament and "go directly to the people" in search of support. At this, the deputies voted by 88 to 84 in favor of conducting their own poll on November 24 that could abolish the post of president.

Whether they succeed is far from certain. Lukashenka, who won the election two years ago on the promise to integrate with Russia and bring back Soviet-style economic system, remains popular in this impoverished and largely backward country.

But whether his possible victory will introduce a measure of stability and order in Belarus is also far from certain. Belarus has recently been shaken by repeated protest demonstrations against the government policies. Economic reforms were stopped. Financial institutions have been put under stultifying centralized control.

Inefficient kolkhozes and money-losing industries have been draining public funds. Standard of living has plummeted.

But Lukashenka vows to stay on course. His course. In less than a week, the president plans an "all-Belarus meeting," a rally of the loyalists, to seek backing for his referendum.

The president claims he is supported by Russia's leaders. But while some of those leaders, most notably Aleksandr Lebed and Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov, have issued words of encouragement, others, including President Boris Yeltsin, appeared much less sanguine. Lukashenka meets Yeltsin this week in Moscow for talks about the Belarusian situation.

For the time being, economic help to Belarus has all but stopped. And in a significant and politically-telling move, the U.S. Congress has banned all forms of aid to that country.

This, in itself, may not affect the conflict in internal politics. But other things may help. Last week, Central Election Commission chairman Victor Gonchar told the president and Parliament that the referendum cannot be held either November 7 or November 24 because there was no money to stage them.

Could it be a way out of the growing crisis?