Dec 11, 2020 | OPINION | By Ian Chalmers | Illustration by Jubilee Rivera-Hernandez
This past weekend, the Belarusian opposition continued to march for freedom and democracy. Nearly four months have passed since the opposition contested the election results in the Presidential Election in August, in which incumbent President Lukashenko claimed another victory.
There continue to be mass arrests, and, as the Moscow Times reports, “The European Union has slapped sanctions on Lukashenko and some of his allies over election rigging and the violent response to demonstrations.” While it seems that President Lukashenko is struggling to maintain his hold on power with the continuation of mass arrests, is he even concerned with maintaining his current role as president of the former Soviet Republic?
The Moscow Times reported that “an AFP journalist saw police dispersing groups of even 10 to 15 people and witnessed three arrests.” For context, the opposition leaders are urging protestors to have smaller protests around the capital of Minsk and the country rather than a large one throughout the capital. So, with police forces dispersing groups of 10 to 15 people, it seems as though Lukashenko is trying to dispel any form of dissent in the country. And yet “Europe’s last dictator” has made plans to step down from the office of the president.
Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, visited Belarus on Nov. 26 to reaffirm Moscow’s interest to push forward with modernizing Belarus’ political system. The meeting was one sided, however. Russia, as one of Lukashenko’s allies, is tired of the protests and is tired of the president himself — relations between Presidents Putin and Lukashenko have deteriorated over the past few years.
Deutsche Welle affirmed the one-sided nature of the meeting, reporting, “Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov piled up pressure on Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko to deliver on the promise of constitutional reform.” Deutsche Welle also reported that President Lukashenko wants to change the constitution, as it has authoritarian elements and the new constitution would rely less on the president. Thus, it would seem that President Lukashenko is reforming the country from the top down using his authoritarian power to give more power to the Parliament.
However, the opposition seems to be skeptical about the promise of these changes as the embattled president has claimed that he would step down in the past to no avail. The constitutional referendum could also be similar to the claims made earlier when President Putin announced constitutional reforms for the Russian Federation, and it was reported that Putin was looking to limit the powers of the presidency and to strengthen Parliament, thus giving more power to the Parliament, with some speculating that Putin would run the country as Prime Minister until he decided to leave.
Rather, as reported by the BBC, “The big changes would limit a president’s rule to two six-year terms in total, rather than two consecutive terms, and reset the clock so Mr. Putin could continue in office after 2024.” Therefore, the constitutional reform in Russia is progressive in that future presidents can only run twice before a change in leadership, but regressive in that Putin could be president of the Russian Federation until 2036.
The problem with comparing Russia and Belarus is that Russia finds itself nearly free from external influences whereas Belarus, with Russia being Lukashenko’s ally, has to be privy to the situation. At this point, Russia would prefer stability in the country rather than keep Lukashenko in power. And with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, leader of the Belarusian opposition and “Belarus’ leader in exile” saying that she is not against a closer relationship with Russia, Russia could give the people what they want and thus indirectly remove Lukashenko from power.
Lukashenko is running out of allies and Russia’s patience is wearing thin on the situation in Belarus. Therefore, stepping down from the presidency may be the only way Lukashenko could diffuse the situation. Who knows, Lukashenko may even add clauses that would grant him immunity from criminal prosecution once he leaves office as is occurring in Russia now.