1996: Towards dictatorship …
In August 1996 Lukashenka declares he intends to hold another referendum on November 7 – the day of the October Revolution 1917. Through this referendum – which is expected to cost millions of dollars – the president plans to introduce his own constitution which will give him almost unlimited powers, such as appointment of the head of the Constitutional Court and part of the parliamentary deputies (For more information please refer to Constitution of the Republic of Belarus (Draft) from President of the Republic of Belarus ) – in spite of the fact that the constitution (which was only passed in 1994) may not legally be altered during its first five years in force.
At the same time seven leading political parties from the whole of the political spectrum from BPF to the communists hold a series of round table talks during which they harshly condemn the president’s unconstitutional actions, which, under the guise of a referendum, seek to lead the country into dictatorship. The president is repeatedly invited to take part in the discussions, but refuses.
The tension heightens when on September 11 the chairman of parliament, Siamion Sharecki, in the independent newspaper “Narodnaja Volia” accuses the president of “preparing the ground for a fascist state.” He starts his article with the words “Our country is on the brink of a fascist dictatorship.”
Siamion Sharecki – Belarus parliament chairman since 1996
The struggle between president and parliament intensifies. Against the plans of Lukasenka, parliament sets November 24 as date for the referendum and parliamentary by-elections. It also decides to add three of its own questions, proposing its own version of the constitution (draft worked out by the Communist and Agrarian party group). The parliament’s version abolishes the presidency altogether.
Lukashenka, however, chooses to ignore this decision. Uladzimir Zamiatalin, deputy chief of the president’s administration, speaks of an attempted coupe d’etat. In spite of repeated appeals by the Central Electoral Committee, the ministry of finances refuses to make funds available for the by-elections and the referendum planned by parliament.
Lukashenka declares that his referendum will not be financed with taxpayers’ money, but with private donations from a special “referendum fund.” Given the fact that the country’s industry and banking sector are all nationalized, it is not hard to imagine where those funds come from. At Lukashenka’s orders, even 100 million German marks made available by the German government for the victims of World War II in Belarus and transferred on a special account at a private bank in Minsk, were transferred on an account at the state bank.
To gather support for his referendum Lukashenka holds a “Congress of the people of Belarus” in Minsk on October 19. The five thousand participants of this congress are carefully picked by the representatives of the local presidential organs. Lukashenka hopes that the support of “his” Congress will legitimise his referendum and his disregard of parliament. However, criticism of Lukashenka’s behaviour from abroad has grown over the first half of October. The US state department and several European ambassadors condemn the President’s actions. The Russian side also calls upon both sides – the President and parliament – to respect the constitution.
Belarus is thus threatened by international isolation. Lukashenka is forced to agree to postpone the referendum from November 7 to November 24, which he announces at the “Congress of the people of Belarus”. He also concedes to make certain corrections to “his” constitution. The Communist and Agrarian party groups also agree to make several changes to their draft: the position of president is maintained, but the president has to be elected by parliament.
According to a presidential decree, however, voting starts on November 9 already. Order is given to all local leaders to provide a fixed number of votes (and a certain “result”) before November 24, the official referendum date. A week prior to the referendum, the President sacked V. Hanchar, head of the Electoral Commission – which, according to the constitution, he has no right to do. Hancar had declared that the referendum was illegal due to the infringements of law that had occurred.
Parliament reacts by collecting votes for impeaching Lukashenka and succeeds in collecting the necessary number of votes. But before starting an impeachment procedure, Parliament decided to wait for the visit of Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, who came to Minsk to mediate the conflict. Moscow urged both parties fo agree on a compromise. This waiting for a solution resulted in a loss of time, so that it was too late to start an impeachment procedure before the referendum. Lukashenka successfully carried out his referendum, the result of which was entirely foreseeable, given Lukashenka’s total control of the media and even of the Electoral Commission …
Three days after the referendum, in the presence of 110 members of the old Parliament, who had sided with Lukasenka, the new constitution was solemnly adopted and consecrated by the Metropolitan of Belarus. The 110 deputies now made up the lower chamber of the new parliament. The senators (members of the upper chamber) were partly appointed by the President (8 senators), partly by the regional authorities (8 senators from each of the 7 regions, including Minsk). (The regional candidates had to be approved by both the regional parliaments and the President’s representatives in the regions.)
At the same time, the results of the by-elections carried out together with the referendum in 61 of the country’s 260 constituencies (which had no members of parliament yet) were ignored. Most of these were large cities.
A group of about 60 members of the old parliament refused to recognize the new parliament and decided to try and continue the work of the old parliament. They founded the Citizens’ Committee for the Protection of the Constitution. The former chairman of Parliament, S. Sharecki, was elected chairman of the Citizens’ Committee. These deputies are now subject to all kinds of pressure. Some of them have lost their jobs, and the Belarusian border guard have been ordered to confiscate their passports should they try to cross the border. The former Speaker S. Sharecki and S. Shushkievich, first Belarusian head of state from 1991-1994, already lost their passports, when they tried to leave for an international conference..
Amnesty International is gravely concerned at reports that about 100 demonstrators have been detained in Belarus, and some of them allegedly ill-treated by the police following a peaceful protest on 10 March 1997 against President Lukashenko’s policies aimed at forging closer ties with the Russian Federation.