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Belarus: Political Conflict Sharpens

Prague, 30 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The president of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has once again upped the ante in his long-running conflict with the parliament.

Speaking yesterday at a meeting of war veterans in Minsk, Lukashenka threatened to dissolve the parliament if the Constitutional Court rules against him on a constitutional referendum.

Two months ago, Lukashenka announced plans to hold a referendum to increase his power. The plans amounted to a new constitutional arrangement by which the president would have a permanently upper hand in relations with the legislative and judiciary agencies.

The parliament rejected Lukashenka's plans, proposing instead its own referendum in a bid to abolish the presidency and establish a parliamentary government. The Parliament is the only agency constitutionally empowered to initiate referendums.

But Lukashenka has ignored this rule, and two days ago ordered his aides to prepare list of prospective voters and deliver a free copy of his proposed constitutional changes to every voter. The ballots omitted any mention of the changes proposed by Parliament.

The law says that these tasks are the prerogative of the Central Electoral Commission alone. Lukashenka has ignored that. And two days ago, the government-controlled press published Lukashenka's decree, claiming full authority over preparing the referendum.

The Constitutional Court is to meet in two days to decide whether Lukashenka's actions are constitutional.

Clearly anticipating a rebuke -- the court has recurrently found Lukashenka's decrees in violation of the law -- the president warned that he would disband the legislative body. The Parliament, he told the veterans "could not care less about the constitution, the law, the people."

But Lukashenka's very threat to dissolve Parliament appears unconstitutional. The president claims the right to do so on the basis of a referendum that took place in May last year, when voters backed overwhelmingly his proposals to make Russian an official language in Belarus, change the national emblems to approximate the old Soviet insignia and to expand his powers.

But the parliament has said all along that the referendum vote on the power issue was only consultative and had no constitutional force. This view has also been supported by the courts.

But Lukashenka says he is the only guarantor of the Constitution.

There is little likelihood that the constitutional crisis will end any time soon. But the resulting political conflict and institutional tension have already alarmed Belarus neighbors and other countries.

Several western governments have issued appeals to the Belarusian authorities to end the conflict. European international institutions have stopped aid programs for Belarus. But to no apparent avail.

Two weeks ago Lukashenka traveled to Moscow to talk about the issue with Russian political leaders. Russia's President Boris Yeltsin was reported to have emphasized the need for a compromise between the opposed institutions.

Today this plea was repeated. Yeltsin's chief of staff, Anatoly Chubais, was reported to have told Belarus' visiting Parliament Chairman Semyon Sharetsky that it is time to settle the conflict through a compromise. He stopped short of providing details.

Belarus has depended on Russia for economic aid. The country has also maintained close political links with its eastern neighbor. Last year Belarus and Russia signed a declaration of unity. Russian views certainly carry weight in Belarusian politics. It is possible that this factor may become decisive in the way the conflict is resolved, or simply pacified.