The Lukashenko circus Why the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly matters and what it means for the opposition
The All-Belarusian People’s Assembly is taking place in Minsk on February 11 and 12. President Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) announced the event on September 9, 2020 — against the backdrop of the largest opposition protests in the country’s independent history. The authorities have described the assembly, which takes place every five years, as “one of the most important forms of direct democracy.” But this year, the opposition fears it could mark the beginning of a constitutional coup. Meduza breaks down what the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly is and how it might impact the country’s future.
A reincarnation of the CPSU
The first All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (Vsebelorusskoye narodnoe sobranie, or VNS) took place in October 1996 — on the eve of a referendum on constitutional amendments that expanded Alexander Lukashenko’s powers significantly. Following this vote, the powers of the Belarusian president became effectively unlimited; immediately afterwards, Lukashenko dissolved the Supreme Council and formed a bicameral National Assembly under his control. Seven judges resigned in protest of the referendum, as did the Constitutional Court’s chief judge, Valery Tikhinya, who called the repercussions of the plebiscite a “legal Chernobyl.”
The All-Belarusian People’s Assembly is a two-day congress of delegates from various fields, but most of the attendees are government officials, and the heads of state-owned enterprises and institutions. It takes place once every five years. The first assembly in 1996 was attended by 4,700 delegates, but in 2021 the number of invited “representatives of popular opinion” was reduced to 2,700. As a rule, the authorities use the VNS as an opportunity to recall the country’s political and economic achievements from the past five years and outline a development vector for the next five.
Lukashenko has always attached great importance to the VNS. For example, in 2016, he said that the “All-Belarusian People’s Assembly is rightfully one of the most important forms of direct democracy and a self-justifying public institution.” However, the “people’s veche” took on more of a symbolic character and didn’t make any serious decisions. Many in Belarus have compared the assembly to the Communist Party congresses of the Soviet era.
But in 2021 — against the backdrop of ongoing opposition protests in Belarus — the people’s assembly might play a more important role. The event is taking place under the slogan “Unity! Development! Independence!” “This is the most important event in the life of the country, and we are obliged to conduct it at the very highest level,” Lukashenko himself underscored, promising that the “entire spectrum of opinions” on what’s happening in the country would be presented at the assembly.
In conversation with Meduza ahead of the event, Belarusian political scientist Artyom Shraibman predicted that this year’s VNS would consider two main issues: 1) the approval of the government’s economic agenda for the next five years, and 2) a way out of the current socio-political crisis. Shraibman also anticipated that constitutional reform would be a topic of discussion — as previously mentioned by Lukashenko himself.
Update. During the first day of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly on February 11, Lukashenko did indeed bring up plans for constitutional reform. He announced that a new draft constitution will be prepared this year and explained that it will be put to a referendum in 2022.
Since the start of the opposition protests last summer, the Belarusian president has referred to this hypothetical reform regularly — and has promised that under this new basic law, he will no longer be the head of Belarus. “I’m not making a constitution for myself. I will not be working with you as president with the new constitution,” he declared in November 2020. Lukashenko also promised that the amendments to the existing constitution would be prepared within two years and that they would be adopted through a referendum.
On December 8, 2020, the Belarusian president stated that the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly needed to be made a separate constitutional body — one endowed with some of the presidential powers. Among other things, he proposed that the assembly’s representatives be elected for a five-year term and work pro bono.
Later, Belarusian officials announced their intentions to reinforce the assembly’s new status at the legislative level. The necessary changes will be made to the law “On republican and local assemblies.” The bill is set to be prepared by November of this year and will be submitted to parliament for consideration in March 2022.
The way Artyom Shraibman sees it, Lukashenko needs the VNS to legitimize future reforms to Belarus’s power structure — in all likelihood, the president believes, among other things, that this might offer reconciliation with the protesters. Shraibman points out that the Belarusian president has used the assembly to similar ends in the past.
“You wouldn’t hold a referendum every five years to give your decisions some weight. Accordingly, he preferred this configuration [the assembly]. Currently, this format has only one meaning: Lukashenko needs his plan for political reform, no matter how cosmetic, to be legitimized through this format. Obviously, Lukashenko believes that this gives him some additional political weight,” Shraibman explained.
Shraibman also notes that conducting the VNS is also important in the context of Belarus’s relations with Russia: the meeting can be presented as a kind of concession amid the protests. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stressed repeatedly the importance of this year’s event in resolving the situation in Belarus.
‘Issues can’t be resolved in the streets’
The people’s assembly delegates are selected by local government authorities, who are controlled by the central government to such a degree that all executive committee and administration chairmen are appointed by presidential decree. As a result, the Belarusian People’s Assembly is inevitably an “expanded meeting between Lukashenko and his supporters,” Artyom Shraibman emphasized.
Elena Zhivoglod, who leads an initiative called Honest People that emerged amid the opposition protests, tells Meduza that more than 50 VNS delegates have already approached their activists. Some of them said that they weren’t going to take part in the assembly. The activists have continued to try and persuade other delegates to do the same, pointing out that the meeting is illegitimate since only the authorities’ supporters were invited.
“Many delegates spoke about the fact that they learned of their ‘election’ after the fact. Several people reported coercion from their bosses, who put their subordinates up for ‘election’ in their place,” Zhivoglod said.
For example, this is what happened to Vitor Kirsyuk — a lamplighter from the city of Brest who told journalists that he found out about his nomination for the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly from his boss.
“If we look at the situation with the delegation in general, then we’re talking about a ’nomination’ and ‘election’ procedure that’s voluntary and compulsory. It’s important to understand that the bulk of the delegates are deputies from city and regional councils. As well as functionaires from pro-government community associations, which are controlled by government officials: parliamentary deputies, ministers, and their deputies. The rest simply do what they’re told, because this is how the system brought them up. The classic, Belarusian, ‘you know how it is’,” Zhivoglod explained.
The delegates themselves do indeed speak from an absolutely pro-government position. Ahead of this year’s assembly, they’ve talked about the importance of “keeping the country together” and insisted on “progressive development.” Others have emphasized that “issues can’t be resolved in the streets” and that the country needs stability, “peace and prosperity.”
“If we all live and work peacefully, support our president and the country’s leadership, we will be able to build a strong and prosperous country,” said delegate Anatoly Nagulevich, the village executive committee chairman from Vorobyevichi.
‘We aren’t idealists’
The Belarusian opposition has declared the assembly “anti-Belarusian” and unconstitutional. On its Telegram channel, the opposition organization National Anti-Crisis Management (NAM) described the All-Belarusian National Assembly as a “puppet nativity scene and a tent-circus in the name of Lukashenko, for which the authorities once again intend to select both the marionettes and the audience.”
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya) also spoke out against the VNS in a video message, and emphasized that the assembly’s 2,700 participants represent not the number of Belarusian who can make important decision for the country, but rather the number of officials that the Palace of the Republic in Minsk (the event’s location) can accommodate.
Opposition figures warned that this year’s people’s assembly could be the first step towards a “constitutional coup” — that is, a rewriting of the constitution to secure Lukashenko’s hold on power. That said, Lukashenko’s own views on the future of the VNS appear to be the opposite, though this could very well change. At the end of December, he said that the assembly wouldn’t be given any important powers and that its members “will not make constitutional decisions.” In his words, the VNS “should outline benchmarks for the five-year plan.”
In any case, the Belarusian opposition maintains that the assembly is illegal. According to NAM lawyer Mikhail Kirilyuk, who is also a member of the opposition’s Coordination Council, by convening the VNS without representatives from the opposition, the authorities violated the right of citizens to “direct participation in the management of state affairs,” which is enshrined in article 37 of the Belarusian constitution.
In conversation with Meduza, Anatoly Kotov, a former employee of the presidential directorate who left the civil service amid the opposition protests, underscored that the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly can be viewed as a continuation of the presidential elections — and Lukashenko’s latest attempt to look like a legitimate head of state.
“There aren’t any people in the system who can make predictions properly, plan work at least several months in advance, and make more or less adequate decisions. Alternative suggestions [for reforming the system] that are put forward within the system [itself] aren’t ‘filtered’ upwards. We [saw] the result in August — the result of this thoughtless approach. The same thing will happen at the VNS,” Kotov told Meduza. He also emphasized that Belarusian civil servants are currently “living in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia.”
In conversation with Meduza, Belarus’s former culture minister Pavel Latushko, who now leads the opposition organization National Anti-Crisis Management, expressed confidence in the fact that the VNS is important for Lukashenko from a human perspective, as well. According to Latushko, who has spoken with Lukashenko personally on more than one occasion, the Belarusian president has always surrounded himself with the most loyal people possible. And communicating with them has allowed Lukashenko to convince even himself that the majority of Belarusians support him.
After declaring his support for the opposition protesters in August 2020, state investigators summoned Pavel Latushko for interrogation in connection with a criminal case on “inciting actions aimed at harming national security” (article 361 of the Belarusian Criminal Code). On September 1, Lukashenko announced that Latushko had crossed a “red line” and would be criminally prosecuted. On September 7, Latushko fled Belarus due to threats from the KGB — he now resides in Poland.
Latushko told Meduza that the NAM has already started the procedure for adding the assembly’s delegates and organizers to the “Unified Crime Registration Book” — another project organized by the Belarusian opposition that focuses on recording all the crimes of the current regime.
“We aren’t idealists and we are aware that real responsibility for possible violations of the law can occur only in the honest courts of the new Belarus. But all those individuals who are taking part in this process now [the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly] should understand that they will be committing a crime. Consequently, they face a real threat being prosecuted in the future,” Latushko says.
In response to similar statements from opposition figures, Alexander Lukashenko advised them to hold their own forum — abroad.
“There are some ‘runaways’ here and other so-called oppositions crying and sobbing that they didn’t get in…[Saying that] if they didn’t get into the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly it means [it’s] illegitimate. First, I said that we elected people who live in our country. And the ‘runaways’ will be elected in Poland and Lithuania. As such, why don’t the ‘runaways’ calm down — along with those who are close to them,” he said.
Nevertheless, more than 6,000 people have already signed a petition demanding that the legitimacy of the decree on convening this year’s All-Belarusian People’s Assembly be verified. The United States also formally condemned the assembly being conducted without the opposition.
“Mr. Lukashenka has announced he will hold the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly on February 11— a conference that has no claim to legitimacy as it deliberately fails to engage broader society or the protest movement and its leaders, including Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the Coordination Council,” reads the statement from the U.S. Embassy in Belarus.
‘The people are ready to take to the streets’
The last major demonstration in Minsk took place on November 29, 2020. Since then, protest activity has evolved mainly into neighborhood rallies, which take place across the country daily. In turn, the security forces have continued targeted detentions of demonstrators and arresting activists.
“The repressive machine suppresses people in every possible way. People are prosecuted on both administrative and criminal charges for participating in protest activity. At the same time, the people’s mood shows that they are ready to take to the streets and aren’t prepared to give up,” Pavel Latushko assures Meduza.
On February 3, the opposition Telegram channel Nexta published a message calling for demonstrations against the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly on February 11 and 12. Pavel Latushko also noted that there are important dates in the months ahead that could serve as catalysts for new protests — for example, Freedom Day on March 25. At the same time, as of March 1, Belarus is tightening punishments for participation in unauthorized mass events, increasing the maximum fine from about $338 to $1,125, and the maximum jail sentence from 15 days to 30 days.
Nevertheless, political scientist Artyom Shraibman suspects that there will be protests in the near future (against the backdrop of the VNS), as well as in the spring. But it’s still hard to say what the scale of the demonstrations will be.
“This event [the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly] is important for Lukashenko — and it’s important that it take place in an atmosphere of national unity, and not in an atmosphere of demonstrations,” he said ahead of the event. “The security forces will try to prevent people from gathering in large groups, any activity will be suppressed severely. If people go out in a centralized manner then of course, there will be a new wave of repressions, crackdowns, and arrests.”
Translated by Eilish Hart