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A Moment Long Expected

Few in Belarus have ever doubted that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka would attempt to extend his stay in power beyond 2006, when his second and—constitutionally—final term in office expires.

The main question was how he could get round this constitutional obstacle. Some thought that Lukashenka might instead be planning to expand the powers of parliament–and to then become prime minister. Others argued that Lukashenka would simply get the Constitutional Court, which has a long record of subservience to him, to announce that he had the right to run for a third term despite the constitutional ban.

Both versions, though, underestimated the importance for Lukashenka of his image as “the people’s president.” That always made a referendum the most likely scenario. Lukashenka has in the past wanted more power than the constitution allowed, and asked the people to approve his rewriting of the constitution. Elected in 1994, he called two such referenda within two years, the last in November 1996 when, among other things, he vastly increased the president’s powers and extended his first five-year term by two years.

And it also seemed likely that, if Lukashenka did call a referendum, it would be held during the first round of parliamentary elections this fall. Habit suggested that: Lukashenka combined constitutional referenda and parliamentary campaigns in both 1995 and 1996. But another argument was that now is a good time to go to the polls: with oil-fueled Russian economy surging forward, Belarus’ chief export market could help keep the Belarusian economy in decent shape. So why not use the moment?

Earlier this year, after leaks in the private press, Lukashenka had himself admitted he might call a referendum, but he did not say when that moment would come. As the summer weeks rolled by with no announcement, doubts began to surface and more exotic scenarios were imagined. One young opposition leader even claimed that Lukashenka would not hold a referendum this year because he has not received approval from Russian President Vladimir Putin. I placed a bet with him; relations between Putin and Lukashenka are strained, and Putin’s ability to influence Lukashenka is sometimes overstated.

In the circumstances, Lukashenka wrote a scenario that may not have been exotic, but was in questionable taste. Just hours before Lukashenka was scheduled to speak to the nation on 7 September, his press secretary, Natalia Piatkevich, told journalists that Lukashenka was to speak mainly about the hostage crisis in Russia, which several days before left hundreds of people dead, most of them children.

Lukashenka indeed mentioned the seizure of the school in Beslan—as an example to contrast with the stability of Belarus, which has not seen such terrorist attacks under his rule. He then went on to offer Belarusians a chance to extend his rule, calling a referendum for 17 October, the same date as the first round of the parliamentary elections.

The LDS was shut out of power for half a year in 2000, when a no-confidence motion against the Drnovsek government succeeded. A right-wing coalition of Social Democrats (SDS), now renamed the Slovene Democratic Party, New Slovenia (Nsi), and the Slovene People’s Party (SLS) took over but was routed in the October 2000 elections. The LDS returned to power with a triumphal 36.26 percent of votes, the highest share of votes a political party had gained since Slovenia’s independence.

(TOL 17.ix.04)

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