The referendum on the Constitution of Belarus is scheduled for Sunday, 27 February. Decree No.14 signed by Aliaksandr Lukashenka on 20 February considers provides for just one question: “Do you agree with the amendments and additions to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus?” and two possible answers: ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The Belarusian authorities have decided not to allow Belarusian citizens living abroad to vote, but it is unclear whether the vote will take place in the light of the increase in the number of Russian troops in the country, who will take part in the officially planned manoeuvres on the territory of Belarus on 10-20 February.
The draft of the new Constitution, prepared by the Constitutional Commission, was submitted for public debate on 27 December 2021. It is no secret that the discussions were held only with public organisations loyal to the regime, and therefore no substantial changes were made to it.
The most important statements in the draft Constitution concern changes in the system of the government, in particular the role of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (ABPA), a meeting of representatives of local authorities and communities in each region, held once every few years since 1996, usually before the presidential elections, ridiculously called the “Khural” or “Kurultai” – a symbol of the Mongolian forms of government. Until now, the congresses of the ABPA have had a propaganda purpose: on one hand, promises have been made, such as a Western European standard of living and medical care, low inflation, or falling housing prices (which have never been fulfilled), and on the other hand, it has been forbidden to be critical of the directions set by the authorities.
However, the new ABPA will undergo significant changes: it will consist of 1,200 delegates (a significant reduction from the usual 2,500 at previous congresses), elected for a five-year term, and will be led by a Presidium, which could be chaired by the current President. However, the draft Constitution submitted to the referendum first foresees that the ABPA will take over part of the competences of the government and the President, which in practice means that it will become another executive body, with its recommendations and decisions implemented by the Parliament, the Council of Ministers and even the Head of State. The decisions of the ABPA will have the character of supreme acts, allowing it to override laws, decrees and regulations (but not court decisions). Furthermore, it will be theABPA that will have the power to approve all strategic decisions on domestic and foreign policy, military doctrine, martial law or the imposition of a state of emergency, as well as to elect the President of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court, judges and members of the Central Electoral Commission, which has been the responsibility of the Head of State until now.
One of the most interesting new prerogatives of the ABPA is the power to initiate (together with Parliament and the Constitutional Court) impeachment proceedings if the President is found to have violated the Constitution, committed a serious crime or treason. It can be assumed that this procedure is intended to protect the regime in the event that an opposition politician becomes the President. The constitutional reform will also apply to the office of the President itself: in addition to the fact that the same person may not hold it for more than two terms, it will also be restricted to a person over 40 years of age who has lived in Belarus for 20 continuous years before the elections and who does not have foreign citizenship.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka has also ensured that he will remain untouchable once he is out of power – the outgoing President will remain a member of the Council of the Republic, the upper house of the Belarusian Parliament, for life. In addition, the Speaker of the Council of the Republic will become the second person in the state, as he will be the one who, in the event of a vacancy in the office of the President, will temporarily hold the office until new elections are held; he will also become the head of the Security Council (under the current law, this position is assigned to the Prime Minister).
It may be of concern that the reformed Constitution no longer contains a reference to the ambition of Belarus to remain a nuclear-weapon-free state or to acquire the status of a neutral state. It is true that the new Constitution emphasises that Belarus does not engage in military aggression against other countries, but in the context of the foreign interventions of the Russian Federation (officially carried out to protect the Russian-speaking minority or to establish peace), this can only be seen as a propaganda clause.
Opinions of the Belarusian opposition is divided on the referendum, with some calling for a boycott and others for a vote against the regime’s proposed changes to the Constitution. Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities are preparing for a possible repetition of the events of recent weeks in Kazakhstan. The main reason for the protests in this case could be the planned ‘rolling back’ of the term of office of Aliaksandr Lukashenka, a manoeuvre that would allow him to rule Belarus (if he is declared the winner of the next two elections) until 2035 at the latest. And even if he decides to step down, he would, like Nursultan Nazarbayev, be able to lead the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly and retain effective control of the state, a future that would certainly give an undoubtful reason for Belarusian people to go to the streets again. Therefore, the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior organised an exercise involving OMON, SOBR troops and internal army. According to the press service of the Ministry, the exercise tested the readiness to “protect public order, to suppress riots, to deal with tactical actions aimed at eliminating terrorist groups, extremist groups and armed criminals”. The need for the exercise was clearly based on recent events in Kazakhstan, where protests “were accompanied by mass disturbances, attacks and assaults on establishments, including military facilities”.
In the case of Kazakhstan, Russian troops intervened in accordance with the agreement of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, but it should be noted that Russian forces were withdrawn almost as soon as the crisis was resolved. The situation in Belarus, however, is somewhat different. Although no official figures have been published, it can be assumed that around 30,000 Russian troops have entered the country as a result of the Allied Resolve 2022 manoeuvres. The threat of social unrest linked to the referendum may be a good excuse to prolong the Russian presence in Belarus – so far we have only heard a statement on the withdrawal of Russians at the end of the manoeuvres (20 February) from the Chief of the General Staff of Belarus, Major General Viktor Gulevich, while the Deputy Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation, Colonel General Alexander Fomin, did not mention it during a briefing.
Allied Resolve 2022 will complement Zapad 2021, which was a scenario where the “Western powers” tried to provoke a political crisis in Belarus and, failing that, launch an armed aggression against the country. Russia was to contribute to the provision of armed assistance to Belarus. In February 2022, a scenario will be rehearsed in which a new adversary, Ukraine, will emerge. In the first phase, the Western powers will again try to provoke a political crisis and replace the Belarusian government. The failure of the Western powers in that struggle will provoke a conflict between Ukraine and Belarus and the Russian Union state. In the next phase, the ‘Westerners’ will introduce peacekeepers into Ukraine and demand respect for democratic rights, release of political prisoners and pass the power in Belarus to the opposition. These demands will be rejected, and the Westerners will start aggression against Belarus. The Russian Federation will then come to the rescue, and the final stage will be a counter-attack.
The S-400 Triumf air missile system, which has already been handed over to Belarus, 12 Su-35S fighter jets, Pantsir-S artillery and missile systems and, according to unofficial reports, Uragan rocket artillery systems are to be used in the exercises. Aliaksandr Lukashenka expressed his interest in purchasing “practically all types of weapons” to be used during the exercise. He also announced that he and Russia are planning to set up new combat training centres in Belarus, where Belarusian soldiers will be trained to use the Russian equipment. This could be seen as another sign that the Russians will stay longer with their neighbours.
In December 2021 a report by the American Enterprise Institute makes it clear that Vladimir Putin’s real objective in the coming weeks may be to deploy airborne and mechanised divisions in one or even several locations in Belarus to support the planned attack against Ukraine and to threaten NATO members, especially the Baltic States, with the Russian mechanised forces on both sides of the narrow Suwalki corridor, which is the NATO support route to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. This would also allow the Russians to attack Kiev from the west. However, Ukrainian experts are most worried about the presence of Russian air and missile forces in the territory of Belarus – the Kremlin has been trying for some time to get Aliaksandr Lukashenka to allow the establishment of two bases, one of which would be in Baranovichi. There are indications that Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who has so far been reluctant to give in, will succumb to the pressure of Moscow and allow the establishment of at least one air base on his territory, which would pose a direct threat to Ukraine. The Ukrainians expect Su-35 aircraft, air defence and Iskander missile complexes to be deployed there and intend to keep a close eye on the withdrawal of the Russian troops once the Allied Resolve 2022 is finished.
The US State Department warned Belarus through its spokesman Ned Price that “if Russian troops remain permanently on [Belarusian] territory, NATO will need to reconsider its deployment in the region”.
On 20 February, not only Allied Resolve 2022 ends, but also the Winter Olympics in Beijing – will the Kremlin this time, unlike in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, decide to stick to the ekecheiria? Time will tell.