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Belarus: Dictator Łukašenka Tries To Shore Up His Legitimacy, While Belarusians Protest

In August 2020 explosions ricocheted around the buildings on the banks of the Nemiha river, in central Minsk, Belarus. The storied capital, Europe’s 11th largest city, was in a state of turmoil as thousands of people took to the streets to protest the falsification of the presidential election results that kept Alaksandr Łukašenka in power. He responded with a characteristic and brutal show of force. A year and a half later, Łukašenka is still in charge. On 27 February, Belarusians went to the polls to take part in a referendum on Belarus’s constitution that acted as little more than a rubber-stamp of Łukašenka‘s rule. It is another attempt by the dictator to shore up his own legitimacy and reorganise the state to his own advantage.

To begin with, it is important to make clear that the referendum has no democratic legitimacy in Belarus. In a Chatham House poll of September 2020, 20.6% of respondents said that they voted for Łukašenka, with 52.2% responding that they voted for Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja. In the same poll, 53.5% of respondents said that they completely agreed with the statement ‘In Belarusian society and media, some people are saying that the results of the Belarusian election were falsified in favour of the current government. How do you feel about this belief? Do you agree or disagree?’. A further 17.6% said that they somewhat agreed. In an October 2021 poll, 71% of respondents either agreed or completely agreed with the statement ‘I am not a supporter of the present authorities’. Crucially, 66.4% responded ‘I support it’ to the statement ‘Some people believe that if there is a transfer of power, representatives of the current regime should be legally barred from occupying certain high-ranking government positions. Do you support this idea or not?’. 33.6% responded ‘I don’t support it’.

The majority in Belarus agree that the 2020 Presidential election was falsified, don’t support the current government, and would like to see members of that government barred from office. A referendum organised by that government, that would hand that government more power cannot in any sense be legitimate. There is no sense in which the referendum is a representation of Belarusian popular will.

The main changes proposed in the referendum were the introduction of a limit of two terms of five years each as President and the reconfiguration of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. Importantly, the term limit will only come into effect with the next presidential election, so Łukašenka could fulfil two more five-year terms after the current term.

The All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, a body made up of Łukašenka loyalists, will gain a constitutional status as the country’s highest state body, as well as a raft of new powers, including the right to appoint and remove judges from the country’s highest courts, remove the President in the case of a serious violation of the constitution, impose martial law and a state of emergency, and to form the Central Election Commission.

Protesters took to the streets in their tens of thousands in 2020 to protest the sham Presidential election. Dissent has since been quashed // Photo: Ruairidh Irwin

Crucially, Łukašenka could head the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly and remain as President. If Łukašenka were to decide to leave the Presidency and remain as head of the People’s Assembly, he would still concentrate power in his own hands, with the ability to remove the new President.

Furthermore, the referendum has seen a change to the constitution that will allow for the positioning of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil. A change with wider ranging implications after the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Given this, the democratic opposition’s response is hardly surprising. They decry the referendum as totally illegitimate, and nothing more than an attempt by Łukašenka to cement his own power base. Opposition leaders called on voters to spoil their ballots, arguing that this was the safest and most effective way to express discontent.

By recording votes on vote verification services Golos and Zubr the opposition hopes that it can demonstrate the discrepancy between official results and reality, and therefore the illegitimacy of the entire process. Owing to the strong grip that Łukašenka now has on the security situation within the country, and the presence of Russian troops, no protest demonstrations were initially planned. Nonetheless, following the extraordinary situation in Ukraine, with Belarusian soldiers as of writing preparing to invade Belarus’s southern neighbour, protest action broke out in Minsk and a number of other cities. Crowds gathered outside of the Ministry of Defence in Minsk with Ukrainian flags, chanting ‘no to war’ and ‘Glory to Ukraine’.

Łukašenka’s referendum on the 27th of February, then, was a total sham, designed to placate the Russian Federation and to create the impression of some sort of democratic mandate for Łukašenka’s rule. It is part of a theatrical process that’s intention is to create the illusion of ‘dialogue’, ‘compromise’ and the creation of a new ‘political settlement’ after the turmoil of late 2020. More than that, the way that Łukašenka has managed to manipulate and take advantage of the situation to potentially increase his own power, even against allies in the Russian Federation, whilst giving the appearance of limiting it is uncanny. Yet again, it seems that the ‘tarakan’ has vindicated his own position, after living to fight another day.