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Belarus Unveils Draft Constitutional Changes To Tighten Strongman's Grip On Power

Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled Belarus since 1994.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has published draft constitutional amendments that would allow him to further strengthen his authoritarian rule and remain in office until 2035.

Lukashenka, 67, has said the changes, outlined by the state-run BelTA news agency and published on the presidential website on December 27, will be put to a referendum sometime in February 2022.

Lukashenka proposed amending the constitution following a domestic and international backlash over the violent crackdown following the disputed August 2020 presidential election that he claims gave him a sixth consecutive term, but which the opposition and the West say was rigged.

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The proposed changes would give Lukashenka immunity from prosecution and put in place a limit of two terms in office, each for five years. However, the restrictions would only apply going forward, meaning Lukashenka could rule until he is 81 years old.

The amendments would also weaken the current rubber-stamp parliament and strengthen the role of the All-Belarus People's Assembly, a periodic gathering of loyalists that currently has no governing status under the laws.

The assembly would act as a parallel structure next to parliament, holding wide-ranging powers to approve foreign, security, and economic policy. It would also be able to propose changes to the constitution, draft laws, and select members of the country's Central Election Commission and judges of the top courts.

According to the proposed amendments, a sitting president automatically becomes a delegate of the 1,200-seat assembly and may chair it, if elected by other delegates.

Tadeusz Giczan, a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Lukashenka would "most likely" become chairman of the All-Belarusian People's Assembly at some point.

For Lukashenka, the amendments present "a hybrid -- both the opportunity to get reelected as president until 2035, and the opportunity to remain in power as a possible leader of the All-Belarus Assembly," Belarusian political analyst Valer Karbalevich told the Associated Press.

The amendments would also prohibit anyone who temporarily left the country in the last 20 years from becoming president, a change that appears to be aimed directly at opposition members, many of whom were forced into exile to avoid political persecution.

Lukashenka's opponents have called the attempt to rewrite the constitution a sham exercise to help him cling to power amid Western sanctions and international isolation for Minsk's crackdown on dissent following last year's presidential election.

"The regime's draft constitution doesn't give Belarusians a real choice. It will let the dictator secure power, control the situation through the artificial All-Belarusian People's Assembly, and avoid prosecution. A new presidential election is the only solution to the crisis," opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has said she is the rightful winner of last year's election, said on Twitter.

The U.S. State Department called on Lukashenka to hold a "national dialogue" with the opposition and civil society to reach a political solution, call new elections, and arrange the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

Nearly Three-Decade Rule

Lukashenka, a former state farm director, has run Belarus with an iron hand since winning independent Belarus's first presidential election in 1994, three years after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The country has never held free and fair elections under his rule, according to international observers.

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Belarusians have grown frustrated with Lukashenka's rule over the decades. The economy remains largely unreformed and heavily dependent on cheap energy from Russia, while salaries and living conditions remain low compared with countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets for months following the 2020 presidential election to peacefully protest Lukashenka's claim of victory. They were the largest anti-government demonstrations in Belarus since the early 1990s.

The authoritarian ruler responded with a brutal suppression of his own people as police used force to detain thousands. There also have been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment by security forces and several people have died during the crackdown.

There are more than 900 political prisoners in the country, according to the Vyasna human rights group.

The European Union, the United States, and several countries have since refused to recognize Lukashenka as the country's legitimate leader and imposed several rounds of sanctions on the country in response to the violent crackdown.

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