Constitutional referendum 2022: a remake of the worst Soviet traditions 

Constitutional referendum 2022: a remake of the worst Soviet traditions

 «The people’s Constitution»

«Tomorrow starts today,» «A step into a confident future,» «A historical moment has come» – these are not the jubilant headlines of Soviet newspapers about Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space.

«A Reliable Compass of Our Development,» «Let’s Preserve and Grow,» «Milestones on a Long Road,» «A Contribution to Tomorrow» – and these are not victorious Soviet reports about the role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the achievements of the next five-year plan.

«The people’s Constitution,» «Mine is the people’s Constitution!,» «The fruit of collective labor,» «For the sake of future generations» – and this is not on behalf of the Constitution of the USSR of 1977 half a century ago.

All this is a history in the making, the introductions to the articles about the upcoming referendum in Belarus in the state press.

Life under the new Constitution will become even better and more fun, unequivocally claims Belarusian regime propaganda. Moreover, according to the presidential administration’s newspaper Belarus Today, all these looming joys are the fruit of «an unprecedented format in world practice for a nationwide discussion of the draft of the Basic Law.»

The publication could hardly be reproached for exaggeration since the preparation of the «Basic Law» has indeed become an outstanding phenomenon in the constitutional history of our time. The Constitutional Commission has managed to process more than 15,000 constitutional proposals in just over half a year of activity, according to official reports.

The public discussion held night and day made possible the receipt of more than 8,000 proposals which were implemented on the go in just three weeks during the most festive period of the year. A draft of the constitutional changes was made public on 27 December 2021, and a final version was published on 20 January 2022.

Scholars have yet to discover whether Belarus per capita outperformed the USSR in this constitutional marathon, in which a million and a half meetings with the population were held to discuss the 1977 constitution and 400,000 amendments and proposals were collected.

Time loop: the inevitable has come to pass

The main changes to the Constitution are centered around the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly as a new body with broad powers. We predicted such a fate for the new Constitution at the end of 2020, even before the constitutional commission was formed and «public discussions» began:

«It seems that the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, as an analogue of the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), will be written into the Constitution as a body that determines the main directions of domestic and foreign policy. Accordingly, the Presidium of the National Assembly (like the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) would become a formal governing state body in the period between congresses headed by none other than Alexander Lukashenko… Under such a beneficial – for him – scenario, Lukashenko expects to receive a new position and continue to occupy the presidency to then transfer it to a loyal person in the longer term.»

According to state media, the work on the historical document took place in the context of a hybrid war while surrounded on three sides by the Nazi West and the puppet Ukraine. Belarus will not have to endure for long, Belarus Segodnya reassures:

«Holding a referendum will strengthen the mechanism of combating national intervention by the collective West and will greatly reduce risks associated with the loss of not only statehood, but also Belarusians as a nation, putting up a barrier to specific ideologies of an extremist nature, including fascism, Nazism, and liberalism.»

In a cause so noble, early voting is even more important. In the 2020 elections, according to official statistics, more than 40% of voters cast their vote early. It is possible that the referendum will set a new record and will actually take place even before the announced date of February 27th.

Change in the electoral power structure before the referendum

In Belarus, the formal competences of state bodies do not at all correspond to their real role in the political system. This fully applies to the Central Election Commission (CEC). Although nominally the dominant body in the electoral chain, the CEC plays only a minor supporting role. In practice, the electoral process is run by the so-called vertical of power (presidential administration, regional executive committees, district executive committees, and city executive committees) and law enforcement agencies.

For this reason, the replacement at the end of 2021 of Lydia Yermoshina, who had headed the CEC since 1996, with Igor Karpenko is more of a symbolic event. Lukashenko’s reformatting of almost the entire upper level of the electoral system in the form of heads of regional executive committees and the Minsk city executive committee was of much greater practical importance. It is they who directly and indirectly control the composition of election commissions from individual precincts to the regional level, and it is also they who make the final tally of voting results for the regions and Minsk, leaving the CEC with the primitive arithmetic function of putting together the nationwide result.

Lukashenko’s statement in December 2021 then was not an exaggeration: «Without governors, without executive committees, we will not be able to govern the country. This is a key position in our state. These seven people [the heads of regional executive committees and the Minsk city executive committee] – they should be like flint.»

By the end of 2021, Lukashenko had replaced six of the seven «flints.» Since the 2020 elections, only the head of the Minsk Regional Executive Committee Alexander Turchin, who was appointed at the end of 2019, has remained in office. This may indicate soon a possible career advancement for Turchin.

No less important, Lukashenko appointed the heads of regional departments of the KGB or the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the regional executive committees and the capital’s executive committee. In December 2021, the head of the KGB for Minsk and the Minsk region was brought into the Minsk Regional Executive Committee (and at the same time to the City Executive Committee). Other regional executive committees were also “strengthened” by the security forces: the heads of the respective regional departments of the KGB became members of the Mogilev and Brest regional executive committees, and the head of the regional department of internal affairs was added to the Gomel regional executive committee.

In this way Lukashenko kind of «turned the page» of 2020, replacing almost all the high-ranking leaders of the electoral process. It was replaced with a new page with even more dedicated authorities and new security officials in the executive committees.

It is worth recalling how, shortly after the 2020 elections, Generals Karaev, Vakulchik, and Barsukov were appointed as presidential aides in the three regions of the country with the most protest activity. It is evident that the trend of the «militarization» of the political system continues and that all the new security forces perform the functions of controlling the «civilian» power structure.

Unprecedented secrecy and exposure at the same time

The Belarusian regime once against demonstrated miracles of resourcefulness and the arbitrary interpretation of legal norms in pursuing its political interests. The composition of precinct election commissions is classified – a phenomenon that has never been seen before. In addition, with the doing away with the curtains on voting booths, the secrecy of the vote becomes illusory, and the process becomes «public» it never was before.

The creative steps taken with getting rid of the voting booth curtains on account of the Covid-19 epidemic undermines the alternative voting strategy proposed by the headquarters of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other democratic political actors. Most voters are unlikely to take a photo of an (invalid) ballot with their hands under the watchful eyes of the security forces, «vigilantes» and «mobile groups of special forces veterans.»

However, it would be wrong to say that the Belarusian regime have «outplayed» its political opponents. It must be assumed that most voters interested in political processes are well aware of the real reasons for doing away with the curtains and increasing control over polling stations. With the help of such creativity, the voting process becomes more tightly controlled by the regime, but it does not gain new supporters this way.

The upcoming referendum and the newly-minted Constitution do not change the strategic socio-political alignment in Belarus and do not resolve any acute socio-political problems, just as the «Constitution of Developed Socialism» of 1977 was not a magic pill for the development of the USSR.

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Материал доступен на русском языке: Референдум-2022: ремейк худших советских традиций