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To 2035 and beyond Belarus unveils draft constitutional amendments, plans referendum for February 2022

Source: Meduza
Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

On Monday, December 27, the Belarusian authorities unveiled a new draft of the country’s constitution. According to head of state Alexander Lukashenko, the document may see changes following public debate and will be put to a referendum by late February 2022. This will mark the third referendum on amending Belarus’s constitution since Lukashenko came to power in 1994. Changes made to the constitution in 1996 and 2004 broadened the powers of the president — and the draft amendments have the potential to not only keep Lukashenko in power, but also permanently shield him from prosecution. Here’s what you need to know. 

Since 2016, Belarusian head of state Alexander Lukashenko has periodically brought up the idea of further amending the country’s constitution. And this topic has come up increasingly often ever since mass opposition protests broke out after the August 2020 presidential election in Belarus.

In July 2021, draft amendments to Belarus’s basic law were even made public, but Lukashenko sent them back for revision. Now, the Belarusian authorities have unveiled a new (and possibly final) draft document that’s set to be put to a national referendum. The key changes are as follows.

Regarding the president

  • The president must be a citizen of Belarus over 40 years old (up from 35 years old), who has lived in the country for at least 20 years (up from 10 years). Also, this person should never have held citizenship of another country, or even a foreign residency permit or “other document granting the right to benefits and privileges” (the current constitution contains no such restrictions). 
  • An individual can remain president for no more than two terms (currently there are no term limits). However, this change enters force only “from the day the newly elected president takes office.” (This means Lukashenko would have the opportunity to be re-elected president until 2035.)
  • The president will no longer be able to issue decrees having the force of law.
  • In the event of the violent death of the president, power will pass to the Security Council, headed by the chair of the Council of the Republic (the upper house of parliament). (Under the current constitution, the powers of the head of state pass to the prime minister.)
  • A former president can’t be prosecuted for actions that he performed while in office. In addition, he will be able to become a life-long member of the Council of the Republic, and thus be granted immunity from prosecution. 

Regarding the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly

  • The draft constitution gives governing status to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (Vsebelorusskoye narodnoe sobranie, or VNS), describing it as the “supreme representative body of democracy.” Its term of office will be five years and it should meet at least once a year. 
  •  The current president of Belarus, former president, representatives of all branches of government, local council deputies, and members of civil society will be able to become VNS delegates.
  • The draft constitution doesn’t outline how the VNS will be formed — apparently, this will be determined by a separate law, which must be adopted within a year. The draft document only says that the Central Election Commission shall be responsible for the election of delegates.
  • The VNS delegates will elect the assembly’s chairperson. The current president of Belarus at the time the new constitution enters into force will be eligible to become the chairperson.
  • The VNS will appoint members of the the Central Election Commission, Supreme Court, and Constitutional Court (currently this right is shared by the president and the Council of the Republic), and will also be able to impeach the president (this is currently the prerogative of the parliament).
  • Finally, the VNS will determine the main directions of Belarus’s foreign and domestic policy, will be able to submit bills to parliament, call referendums, suggest amendments to the constitution, declare a state of emergency, declare martial law, and consider the question of the legitimacy of elections. 

Regarding the parliament

  • The parliament’s term of office will be extended from four years to five years.
  • It will not be possible to dissolve the parliament during the first year of its term (as is the case now) or during its last year. 

Regarding everything else

  • Belarus’s obligation to make its territory a nuclear-free zone and its government neutral will be removed from the constitution. At the same time, the constitution will prescribe that the country rule out “military aggression” against other countries from its territory.
  • Foreign governments, citizens, and organizations will not be able to finance the costs of preparing and holding elections.
  • The constitution will state that marriage is a union between a man and a woman;
  • And that patriotism is the duty of every citizen.
  • Every citizen must “make a feasible contribution to the development of society and the state.” Parents will be obliged to prepare their children for “socially useful work.”
  • The government will be obliged to preserve “the historical truth and the memory” of the feats of the Belarusian people during the years of the Great Patriotic War (World War II). 
  • The concept of “loss of citizenship” will be replaced in the constitution with the wording “termination of citizenship.”

Belarusian media and experts have already drawn their first conclusions about the proposed amendments to the constitution. For example, pro-government political scientist Vadim Borovik pointed out that while the draft document transfers some of the powers of the president to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly and the parliament, “the role of the president isn’t being diminished.”

Alexander Dobrovolsky, an advisor to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya) called the addition of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly to the country’s basic law the most significant innovation among the proposed amendments. “This assembly, which was conceived as an imitation of popular support in confrontation with the parliament, has been used by Lukashenko for many years,” Dobrovolsky noted. “Now it’s proposed to make it the supreme representative body, but it’s not proposed [to have it] elected directly by the citizens.”

Notably, the proposed changes to the constitution would allow Lukashenko to run for president two more times, potentially keeping him in power until 2035 (by which point he will be 81 years old). In addition, he would have the opportunity to not only sit on the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, but also to become its chairperson, which would allow him to retain power even if he’s no longer president. 

On the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly

The Lukashenko circus Why the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly matters and what it means for the opposition

On the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly

The Lukashenko circus Why the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly matters and what it means for the opposition

Story by Olga Korelina

Translation by Eilish Hart

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