Lukashenko postpones constitutional reforms, Kremlin puzzled

On February 11 and 12 Alexander Lukashenko gathered his loyal Belarusian People's Congress to discuss constitutional reforms. While the protests have been largely crushed, there is no sign of dialogue with the opposition. Reforms are postponed till next year. Moscow's role is decisive, says the Belarusian analist Artyom Shraibman for Carnegie Moscow. The Kremlin didn't find an alternative leader and Russia loses popularity in Belarus. At the end of the month Putin and Lukashenko will meet in Sochi. Lukashenko will ask for extra money, but Russia doesn't seem to have a fixed plan. 

belarus luka spreekt tot volkscongresWith a four hours speech Alexander Lukashenko opened the Belarusian People's Congress in Minsk

by Artyom Shraibman

Six months after the contested presidential election that sparked mass protests across Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko has presented a plan for overcoming the crisis. It isn’t enough to appease the protest movement, but that movement is too crushed right now to be able to cause any problems for the ruling regime in the near future.

The lack of concrete detail in the plan will still allow Lukashenko to cling to power if he wants to — and if circumstances allow. But there is at least a timeline now for a referendum on a new constitution: the start of 2022.

The vague plan, announced at the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, was most likely drawn up in order to postpone the unpleasant issue of the transition of power to less turbulent times. In a four-hour speech to a loyal audience of 2,500 officials and local deputies (the assembly was boycotted by opposition leaders), Lukashenko repeated the now familiar mantras of foreign aggression masquerading as revolution, and of a victorious strong state. There was no hint of any concessions toward the protest movement.

While outlining constitutional reform that would delegate authority to other branches of power, Lukashenko called for the preservation of a presidential republic, and for the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly to be enshrined in the constitution to ensure stability during the transition period.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century, also laid down the conditions for his departure: no unrest, and written safety guarantees for his supporters, by whom he clearly means his closest subordinates, above all the security service officials who surround him.

The embattled president is dragging out the constitutional reform because he feels that his position is more secure now than back in the fall. The ensuing months of increasingly brutal repression have proven an effective tactic, and the protests have died down to small-scale local demonstrations. Hundreds of the most active protesters and their leaders are behind bars, while thousands more have fled abroad.

Lukashenko does not believe that he needs to make a deal with anyone inside Belarus. His condition that there must be no more protests if he is to start handing over power looks more like a threat. He offered no timeline for when new elections would be held following the referendum, which enables him to keep putting off the transition on the pretext that the new constitution must be up and running before new governing bodies can be reelected under it.

The months of increasingly brutal repression have proven an effective tactic

In any case, Lukashenko has not said he will step down once and for all. He has said many times that he will not give up the country to its enemies, regardless of what position he holds. In other words, he is not contemplating withdrawing from politics, but a Kazakh-style handover at best. This, presumably, is why he is seeking to enshrine the People’s Assembly in the constitution: as a backup option from where he can oversee the work of his successor. Whether the unpopular outgoing leader will be able to pull this off amid a stagnating economy remains to be seen.

belarus journalisten andrejeva en chultsova on trial 9 feb 2021Journalists Andreyeva and Chultsova on trial in Minsk

Of course, anyone familiar with Lukashenko understands that his plans may change. In keeping with the finest Soviet traditions, the carefully selected people at a future assembly may just persuade him to reconsider his plans to step down.

Now he has another year to extinguish the final flash points of protest, for the public to cool down, and to approach reform in an orderly fashion. That might work if Lukashenko still had the support of the majority of Belarusians, but given the current level of discontent, it will be no mean feat.

The embattled president’s dilemma is that if he starts loosening the screws, some people will take that as a sign that the authorities are backing down, and that they can return to the streets. Yet not loosening the screws is problematic too: it means incarcerating hundreds of political prisoners for the next year, handing down more prison sentences to protesters, arresting journalists, blocking media outlets, and toughening up laws. That will prompt new Western sanctions and accelerate the brain drain and capital outflow, as well as widen the gulf between the regime and dissatisfied Belarusians. It will increase the number of revolutionaries who will be waiting for a new window of opportunity.

Russia's role is decisive

Russia’s role in resolving the Belarusian crisis is decisive. For the last six months, Moscow has reminded Lukashenko of the need for constitutional reform more frequently than he has spoken of it himself. Numerous leaks suggest that he was expected to take action this year rather than next.

Now Moscow faces the question of how to respond to procrastination over that process. On the one hand, the Belarusian protests have subsided, and — if public opinion were ignored — it might seem that the crisis has passed, leaving no leverage over Lukashenko.

On the other hand, Lukashenko cannot fail to ask for more money. In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to a loan of $1.5 billion, of which $1 billion has already been disbursed. Ahead of the upcoming meeting in Sochi at the end of February, Minsk has asked for another $3 billion, according to Kommersant newspaper.

If loans can be seen as political incentives, then giving a new tranche of money to Lukashenko before he has fulfilled his old promises will convince him that Russia approves of what he is doing, and that there is no need to rush to implement constitutional reform.

Minsk understands perfectly how important it is now to be on the right side of the Kremlin. Lukashenko has tried many times to show that he and Putin are in the same boat against the collective West, and that the recent protests in Russia are a continuation of those in Belarus. 

Lukashenko’s trump card remains the lack of alternatives to him

This is not to say, however, that Minsk is prepared to make serious compromises on the long-discussed integration of Belarus and Russia. Lukashenko has not changed his position since last year: first there must be equal terms for both countries, including oil and gas prices, and only then can there be talk of closer integration. Sovereignty is not up for discussion.

belarus parapluus feb 2021Mass protests have made way for smallscale civic actions

It’s not yet clear what exactly Moscow could get in exchange for continuing to support Lukashenko, other than rhetoric of brotherly solidarity and promises of constitutional reform — though not now, but later. Lukashenko’s trump card remains the lack of alternatives to him: the Kremlin has not been able to establish a rapport with anyone else in Belarus.

By failing to offer the public a detente, the regime is consolidating itself tactically, but Lukashenko and his allies will have to pay for this strategy eventually. Just like last year, when Lukashenko removed opposition candidates from the presidential election and broke up the first protests against the fraudulent vote, now he is underestimating the scale of the resentment brewing beneath the surface.

For Russia, showing unequivocal solidarity with Lukashenko will mean that it won’t just be revolutionary energy gathering pace beneath that surface, but anti-Russian sentiment too. The February meeting in Sochi will show whether or not Moscow understands this.