Belarus to hold referendum on constitutional changes

President Alexander Lukashenko promises vote on proposed reforms to his office’s powers, state media reports.

Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and has overseen a crackdown on dissent in the ex-Soviet republic [File: Sergei Gapon/Pool via Reuters]

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Thursday the country will hold a referendum on his suggested constitutional reforms, the Belta state news agency reported.

Lukashenko, who has faced weekly protests since claiming victory in an August 9 election his opponents say was rigged, did not say when such a referendum would be held.

The 66-year-old’s comments came as he addressed members of staff at Belarus’s National Applied Research Center for Pediatric Oncology, Hematology and Immunology, Belta reported.

Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and claimed a sixth term in office with almost 80 percent of the vote in August’s poll, according to official results.

Facing the biggest crisis of his rule following the election, he has overseen a sweeping crackdown on peaceful anti-government protests and dissent in the ex-Soviet republic.

But he has also suggested constitutional reforms, backed publicly by traditional ally Russia, that could clip presidential powers.

Earlier this week, on Monday, Lukashenko said that a National Assembly of unelected delegates would meet in February for the first time since 2016 as part of his reform plan.

Lukashenko has given few details until now over the possible constitutional reforms, but said that decisions to redistribute existing presidential powers could be taken at a meeting of the National Assembly.

The political body has no formal power itself, but Lukashenko has said it could be given authority soon.

The body usually meets every five years and brings together several thousand delegates whose candidacy is put forward by local state councils, pro-Lukashenko parties and groups of workers in the Soviet-style command economy.

Lukashenko’s political opponents, the most prominent of whom have been jailed or fled the country, have dismissed the reform proposals as a stalling tactic to help him ride out the protests and wider political crisis.

Police have used stun grenades, tear gas and truncheons to disperse the rallies, and thousands of people have been imprisoned and brutally beaten.

Lukashenko’s alleged vote-rigging and the crackdown on Belarusian protesters have prompted the United States and the European Union to introduce sanctions against the country’s officials.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies