Belarus unveils constitutional changes to extend Lukashenko's rule

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By Euronews  with AP
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a meeting with top level military officials in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a meeting with top level military officials in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021.   -  Copyright  Nikolay Petrov / BelTA / AP

Authorities in Belarus have released a draft document proposing amendments to the country's constitution that may allow authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to further cement his grip on power and remain in office until 2035.

The proposed amendments were published on Monday on the president's official website and the website of the state news agency Belta.

Belarusians were encouraged to submit their comments, suggestions, and opinions about the changes.

Lukashenko didn't make any statement on the amendments, but state television showed him attending a special New Year's Eve celebration for children in the main hall of the Palace of the Republic in Minsk.

The charity event is part of the annual 'Our Children' campaign, which runs from mid-December to mid-January in support of children in need.

The constitutional amendments that are being proposed bring back limits on presidential terms that had been abolished during Lukashenko's tenure, allowing a president only two five-year terms in office.

The restriction, however, will only take effect once a "newly elected president" assumes office, which gives Lukashenko an opportunity to run for two more terms after his current term expires in 2025.

"Lukashenko opened a path to the presidency for himself until at least 2035, when he will be 81 years old," said independent political analyst Valery Karbalevich.

During his 27 years leading the former Soviet republic with an iron fist, Lukashenko has held three referendums, abolishing limits on presidential terms, amending the constitution, and bringing back Soviet-looking state symbols.

Belarus was rocked by months of unprecedented mass protests after Lukashenko was awarded a sixth consecutive term in office in the August 2020 presidential vote, which the opposition and the West denounced as a sham.

The Belarusian leader responded to the demonstrations with a brutal crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested, thousands beaten by police, and many forced to seek refuge abroad.

"The proposed constitutional changes were being drafted during the turmoil when Lukashenko realised that he lost the support of the majority of the country's urban population," Karbalevich pointed out.

"The new governing body — the All-Belarus People's Assembly — was designed as a backup plan for the authoritarian leader if he is forced to step down as president," he added.

Other changes to the constitution include extending the parliament's term from four years to five and introducing the All-Belarus People's Assembly as a new body to operate in parallel with the parliament.

Another change would grant former presidents immunity from prosecution over actions they took while in office.

The amendments also scrap clauses about Belarus' "neutrality" and "non-nuclear status".

Last month, Lukashenko offered to host Russia's nuclear weapons if NATO moves US atomic bombs from Germany to Eastern Europe, the latest in a series of steps aimed at cementing ties with Moscow.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in the August 2020 election and was pressured to leave the country shortly after, has criticised the proposed amendments.

Tsikhanouskaya said in a statement on Telegram that Belarusians are offered to choose "between Lukashenko and Lukashenko".

"It's a lie no one will believe in. Choosing between Lukashenko and Lukashenko is impossible. And we won't choose him like we didn't choose him last year," she said.

Tsikhnaouskaya added that "Lukashenko is trying to prescribe himself immunity from criminal prosecution, powers to strip Belarusians of their citizenship and appoint a new Politburo embodied in the All-Belarus People's Assembly that no one has elected".

She urged Belarusians to "cross all the proposed options off the ballot".

The amendments will be up for a referendum, scheduled for February 2022.

They will be considered approved if more than 50% vote for them, with a turnout threshold at 50%.