Belarus' Proposed Constitutional Changes Would Give Immunity to Former Presidents

A new draft document submitted by Belarusian authorities could make some major changes to the embattled country's constitution.

Several amendments were proposed in a new document released on Monday. Published on the websites of President Alexander Lukashenko and state news agency Belta, many of the amendments revolved around the presidency. One amendment reinstates the two five-year terms in office that were abolished once Lukashenko took office. However, it still gives the current president the opportunity to run for two more terms, as it would be implemented once a "newly elected president" is instated.

Another critical amendment is one that gives all former presidents immunity from prosecution, so any president accused of crimes based on actions while in office would not be charged or tried. Given Lukashenko's history of voter fraud accusations and imprisonment of critics, the amendment could be useful for him. Even then, he might be too old to stand trial once he gets out of office.

"Lukashenko opened a path to the presidency for himself until at least 2035, when he will be 81 years old," independent political analyst Valery Karbalevich said about the new amendments.

The amendments will go up for a referendum scheduled for February and will be approved if more than 50 percent of voters amid a turnout threshold of 50 percent vote for them.

Lukashenko with Officials
A new draft document submitted by Belarusian authorities could make some major changes to the embattled country's constitution. Above, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a meeting with top level military officials in Minsk on November 22, 2021. Andrei Stasevich/BelTA Pool Photo via AP, File

Other changes to the constitution include extending the parliament's term from four years to five and introducing the All-Belarus People's Assembly as a new body to operate in parallel with the parliament

During his 27 years leading the former Soviet republic with an iron fist, Lukashenko has held three referendums, abolishing limits on presidential terms, amending the constitution and bringing back Soviet-looking state symbols.

Belarus was rocked by months of unprecedented mass protests after Lukashenko was awarded a sixth consecutive term in office in the August 2020 presidential vote, which the opposition and the West denounced as a sham. He responded to the demonstrations with a brutal crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested, thousands beaten by police and many forced to seek refuge abroad.

The proposed constitutional changes were being drafted during the turmoil, when Lukashenko realized "that he lost the support of the majority of the country's urban population," Karbalevich pointed out. The new governing body—the All-Belarus People's Assembly—was designed as a backup plan for the authoritarian leader if he is forced to step down as president, the analyst said.

According to the proposed amendments, a sitting president automatically becomes a delegate of the 1,200-seat Assembly and may chair it, if elected by other delegates. The new proposed body is expected to meet at least once a year and will be empowered to set policy directives, draft laws, suggest constitutional changes, elect members of the country's Central Election Commission and judges of the country's highest courts.

The Assembly can also green-light deploying Belarusian troops abroad if proposed by the president, and oust the president if the leader is found to be in violation of the constitution or to have committed high treason or another major crime.

"Lukashenko designed the All-Belarus Assembly for himself as a backup airfield in case of stepping down as president," Karbalevich said. But the need for that dissipated as the protests were suppressed and Russia, Belarus' powerful ally, cast its support behind Lukashenko.

"So in the proposed amendments we see a hybrid—both the opportunity to get re-elected as president until 2035, and the opportunity to remain in power as a possible leader of the All-Belarus Assembly," the analyst said.

The amendments also scrap clauses about Belarus' "neutrality" and "non-nuclear status." Last month, Lukashenko offered to host Russia's nuclear weapons if NATO moves U.S. atomic bombs from Germany to Eastern Europe, the latest in a series of steps aimed at cementing ties with Moscow.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in the August 2020 election and was pressured to leave the country shortly after, criticized the proposed amendments on Monday.

In a statement on the messaging app Telegram, Tsikhanouskaya said that Belarusians are offered to choose "between Lukashenko and Lukashenko." "It's a lie no one will believe in. Choosing between Lukashenko and Lukashenko is impossible. And we won't choose him, like we didn't choose him last year," she said.

Tsikhnaouskaya added that "Lukashenko is trying to prescribe himself immunity from criminal prosecution, powers to strip Belarusians of their citizenship and appoint a new Politburo embodied in the All-Belarus People's Assembly that no one has elected." She urged Belarusians to "cross all the proposed options off the ballot."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Belarus Opposition Protest
A new draft document submitted by Belarusian authorities could make some major changes to the embattled country's constitution. Above, opposition supporters protest after polls closed in Belarus' presidential election, in Minsk on August 9, 2020. Photo by Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images