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Belarus: Lukashenka Delays Referendum, But Conflict Continues

Prague, 21 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The president of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has agreed to postpone a referendum on expanding his powers but the move is unlikely to end his protracted conflict with parliament and opposition groups.

The conflict centers on power. Lukashenka wants to have more power. The parliament and the opposition are determined to stop him.

Lukashenka has already demonstrated that he is ready to use illegal means to achieve his goal, such as the issuing of decrees which have tightened his power during the past year. This has put him on a collision course with the country's courts.

Several weeks ago, Lukashenka announced his intention to hold a constitutional referendum in a bid to further increase his powers. He set the date for November 7, the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Lukashenka is a declared admirer of the defunct Soviet system of government.

The parliament, which is the only agency constitutionally empowered to initiate referendums, refused Lukashenka's demand. And it called for a referendum of its own, asking the public to abolish the presidency and establish a parliamentary republic. The assembly set the date for November 24 to coincide with a long-scheduled runoff of parliamentary by-elections. Lukashenka is opposed to holding a runoff.

Two days ago, Lukashenka offered to delay his referendum until November 24. He did it in a speech to a meeting of some 5,000 supporters, who gathered in Minsk only hours after thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of the capital in protest against his plans.

Lukashenka presented his offer as a gesture of compromise. But it could hardly be regarded as such because the president coupled it with a demand that the parliament drop its plans to hold the referendum on abolishing the presidency.

In other words, Lukashenka wants the parliament to desist and accept the expansion of his powers while he merely agrees to postpone the potential hour of his triumph for a mere two weeks. Yesterday, Lukashenka's supporters formally adopted a resolution approving his version of constitutional amendments.

It is unlikely that the parliament would accept those terms. Parliament meets today to prepare its response. But several deputies were reported to have indicated that the parliament could be prepared to drop its version of the referendum only if the president does the same. Otherwise, it is possible that each sides would press its own demands through a public vote.

Lukashenka is likely to gain more public support in such a ballot. He has enjoyed traditional support in rural areas. With the help of tightly controlled media, he has been able to present himself as a populist crusader taking on unruly and corrupt politicians. His support is estimated at about 40 percent.

Public opinion polls show that the parliament can count on no more than about 15 percent support for its version of the referendum. But even this could have a major significance in the vote, adversely affecting Lukashenka's chances.

According to the rules, a change in the constitution must be approved by a full 50 percent of the registered voters, not just those taking part in the ballot.

This will be hard to achieve, even in the situation in which Lukashenka controls much of the campaign preparing the vote.

And this means that the long-lasting conflict between the power-hungry president and the legislative as well as judiciary agencies of the government is likely to continue, further undermining the already fragile institutions of Belarusian politics.