On September 7, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced that a referendum would be held on whether he may run for a third term in office on October 17, the date of the parliamentary elections.
Though many analysts had predicted such a decision, its timing was uncertain. Lukashenka’s announcement coincided with two international events that have monopolized world attention: the hostage tragedy at the school in Beslan, Russia, and the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. These events were co-opted as reasons behind a decision that had in reality been long in the making.
Addressing the public at a staged rally in Independence Square, the president revealed that the referendum question is to be worded as follows:
Do you allow the first President of the Republic of Belarus, Alyaksandr Grigoryevich Lukashenka to participate in the presidential election as a candidate for the post of the President of the Republic of Belarus and do you accept Part 1 of Article 81 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus in the wording that follows: “The President shall be elected directly by the people of the Republic of Belarus for a term of five years by universal, free, equal, direct and secret ballot?” (Charter 97, September 7)
In short, the president has decided to alter the current Constitution (already substantially amended to enhance his powers according to a previous referendum in November 1996) and remove the clause limiting the president’s term to two five-year periods. In theory, if the change is accepted, Lukashenka could remain in power indefinitely.
The president proceeded to paint a picture of a republic with a revived and thriving economy, rising wages and living standards — “all Belarus looks like an enormous construction site” — and secure the country from the sort of terrorist horrors that have plagued neighboring Russia. In ten years, he added, no Belarusian has been a victim of a terrorist act or military conflict. Lukashenka declared that he was afraid of dropping the fragile vessel of Belarus that he had looked after so carefully.
The announcement was immediately given backing on Belarusian television stations. The Chair of the Central Election Committee, Lidiya Yermoshina stated, “Lukashenka’s question is legitimate and it does not contradict either the Electoral Code or the Constitution” (ONT, 2100, September 9). On Belarusian Television, a Russian cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, commented, “The people of Belarus will decide everything for themselves no matter what different politicians, first and foremost American politicians and senators, will say in the mass media. They don’t like anything: they don’t like Belarus, they don’t like Russia; and they don’t like the fact that we want to be closer and create a union state” (BT, 2200, September 9).
Plainly, however, the decision has received very mixed and often negative reaction in the country. The crowd in Independence Square notably failed to applaud the announcement. Political analyst Aleksandr Feduta remarked on the nebulousness of the question, i.e. that there are really two questions in one, and people might answer “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second. He added that the Constitution specifically prohibits a referendum on presidential elections and that the first step should have been a referendum to change the article in the Constitution (Komsomolskaya pravda v Belorusi, September 9).
Writing in Narodnaya volya, Sergei Karaganov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign Defense Policy of Russia, stated that the referendum would cause Lukashenka to lose any remaining legitimacy in the international community, observing that the economic success of Belarus in recent years is attributable almost solely to the fact that the majority of Russia’s oil refining system is located on Belarusian territory (Narodnaya volya, September 10).
Lukashenka’s referendum announcement also brought together the opposition, which of late has been increasingly divided. On September 8, in a declaration signed by all opposition party leaders in Belarus, the opposition announced the uniting of “democratic forces of Belarus” against the cynical decision of the president to exploit popular grief at the events in Russia. The statement asserted that further rule by Lukashenka beyond 2006 would lead to the worsening of economic conditions and complete international isolation of the republic. It pointed out also that “the absolute majority of citizens of Belarus” are opposed to an extension of the president’s term of office (Narodnaya volya, September 10), making reference to a poll by the Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys last May, which revealed that 51% of respondents oppose changes to the Constitution.
In the past, Lukashenka has achieved electoral and referenda success by monopolizing the media, anathematizing the opposition, and harassing and persecuting opponents. If he is permitted to run for president, under current circumstances he would likely be successful. However, his decision to make his announcement on September 7 appears to be both premature and calculated. First, there is a significant gap between official figures on improved living standards and the reality, particularly outside the city of Minsk. And second, the exploitation of Beslan demonstrates above all that the president lacks a legitimate reason to continue in office.