Belarus calls referendum that could strengthen Lukashenko

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Belarus' authoritarian president has called a referendum next month on constitutional amendments, which could allow him to further cement his grip on power after months of mass protests and remain in office until 2035.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, on Thursday ordered the referendum to be held Feb. 27.

The amendments bring back limits on presidential terms that had been abolished during Lukashenko’s tenure, allowing a president only two five-year terms in office. However, the restriction will only take effect once a “newly elected president” assumes office, which gives Lukashenko an opportunity to run for two more terms after his current one expires in 2025.

The amendments also confer substantial new power on the All-Belarus People's Assembly, a body that nominally represents a wide array of Belarusian society but that in the past has consisted largely of government officials and supporters. The draft constitution revisions say a law on how to choose assembly delegates would be developed later.

It would operate in parallel with the parliament. The president automatically becomes a member of the assembly and can be elected by the other delegates as its chairman.

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.

The assembly 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.

It 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.

The amendments also scrap clauses about Belarus’ “neutrality” and “non-nuclear status.” Lukashenko has 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.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in 2020 and then fled into exile, told The Associated Press that opposition supporters will mark all options on the ballots in order to make them invalid. Amendments' approval requires 50% support and a 50% voter turnout.

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