After over six months of protests against his rule, Belarus’ Alyaksandr Lukashenka on February 11-12 hosted a forum of 2,700 people in Minsk that Belarusian observers say was intended both to send “definite signals” to the country’s closest ally, Russia, about pending reforms and to consolidate Lukashenka’s hold on power.
The All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, held for the sixth time since 1996, is billed as a national dialogue among a diverse set of Belarusians about the country’s aims for the next five years. Delegates range from officials to pro-government cultural figures, but so-called “ordinary” citizens, selected by local governments, also attend.
Lukashenka has termed the event “one of the most important forms of democracy.”
But some critics see it more as one of Lukashenka’s most important tools for sending “definite signals” to Russia ahead of a meeting in late February with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Belarus plans change as Moscow desires.
The Kremlin, which agreed in 2020 to loan Belarus $1.5 billion, has repeatedly urged constitutional reforms and dialogue with students, unions, and “various political public movements” as a way for Belarus to reinforce domestic stability after massive protests at the suspected falsification of the 2020 presidential election results. Both Moscow and Minsk contend that the West has played a role in fomenting these demonstrations.
Ahead of the gathering, Moscow appeared assured that its advice has been heard. “Certain domestic political changes are ripe in Belarus,” and Belarusian officials “have expressed their readiness to hear the opinion of constructive forces …” commented Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko on February 10 to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.
At the Assembly, Lukashenka repeated his support for a constitutional referendum, and for reducing the president’s powers, lest a person “seize power by force.” He stated that he would leave office if Belarus has “peace, order” without “any protests” or “turning the country upside down,” and citizens express their opinions “within the framework of the law.”
But political analyst Andrey Kazakevich, director of Minsk’s non-governmental Palitichnaya Sphera (Political Sphere) Institute of Political Studies, contends that Lukashenka is likely stringing the Kremlin – and Belarusian voters -- along.
“Of course, he will say that there will be some kind of reform, there’ll be a transition of power, and all the rest,” Kazakevich said.
“Probably, one way or another, this will happen at some point,” he continued, but “there’s a feeling that Lukashenka will drag this [reform] out indefinitely -- at a minimum, to serve one more term in full.”
Some political analysts predicted that the 66-year-old politician, who has run Belarus since 1994, intends to use the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly as a way to hold onto power by expanding its role and becoming its chairman.
In December 2020, Lukashenka proposed turning the Assembly into a “constitutional organ” that would “control the main directions of our development.”
A few weeks later, however, Lukashenka stated that the Assembly “is not authorized and will not be authorized to change any constitutional norms.” Its mission, he said, is to “outline the guidelines for the five-year plan.”
State-run media subsequently wrote that the draft of Belarus’ new constitution would appear by the end of 2021.
Mikalay Khalezin, the general director of Minsk’s Free Theater and a prominent protest supporter, agrees that the Assembly and mention of a constitutional referendum were just for show. “He’ll go to the meeting with Putin and will say, ‘What you requested, I’ve already done,’” Khalezin predicted. “At the same time, he will not explain in any way what the configuration of this will be …”
In his three-and-a-half-hour speech on February 11, Lukashenka reemphasized the value of Belarus’ ties with Russia.
With both countries experiencing protests backed by “external forces,” he claimed, “the peaceful and stable future of the region depends on the link between Belarus - Russia or Russia – Belarus, on whether there will be peace or war here. Everything will depend on our unity with Russia.”
Yet, reverting to his long aversion to being seen as beholden to Russia, he also took aim at the Putin administration. Unlike in Russia, he stressed on February 12, Belarus will not court private business owners for their support only to see it suddenly vanish.
“Belarus is not Russia …” he underlined.
These words did not appear to perturb Russian Ambassador Dmitry Mezentsev, who was a guest at the Assembly. “The fate of Belarus is inextricably linked with the fate of Russia . . .” Mezentsev echoed to Belarus’ official Belta news agency. Any disputes between the two countries simply provide a learning opportunity, he added.
Opposition critics, though, saw few chances for learning at the Assembly. They have compared it to the Soviet Communist Party’s congresses. As at those forums, Lukashenka’s All-Belarusian People’s Assemblies adopt a five-year plan of action and tout alleged economic successes and social-welfare achievements. Congratulatory messages are read aloud.
And like those congresses, the Assembly was closely stage-managed. One Belarusian Telegram channel, Nic and Mike, released an opening-day script in which audience members were assigned to shout “No!” when asked if there were any objections to the Assembly managers’ proposals. The first hours of the Assembly followed this script.
Chances to ad lib were few. Lukashenka restricted Assembly invitations to those who “are ready to work for the country’s sake.” He refused to invite the “so-called opposition” or Belarusians who had fled the country.
Pro-opposition Telegram channels had announced large-scale protests against the Assembly, but, apart from a handful of protesters or flares emitting red-and-white smoke to symbolize Belarus’ banned red-and-white flag, no such demonstrations were seen in Minsk.
Both Belarus’ sub-freezing winter temperatures and ongoing police crackdowns against any public display of protest against the government likely discouraged potential demonstrators, observers believe. Thousands have been detained or arrested, and many reportedly tortured in prison, since the protests against Lukashenka’s official presidential win began on August 9, 2020.
Nonetheless, former Culture Minister Paval Latushka, now a member of the opposition’s Coordination Council, told Current Time that supporters of former presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya plan a massive mobilization against the government, come spring 2021.
Aside from pushing for international economic sanctions, the group will lobby the international community to declare Lukashenka’s de facto administration a “terrorist” regime, said Latushka. A civil disobedience and “self-defense” campaign, encompassing resistance to police violence and “criminal” government orders, will also be held, as well as a “digital referendum” on an undefined question.
These measures, he posited, will test to what extent Lukashenka “is really ready for a dialogue with the people or not.”