Belarusian leader to gather delegates for reform plan critics call a sham

FILE PHOTO: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko
FILE PHOTO: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko visits a polling station during the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus August 9, 2020. Sergei Gapon/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo/File Photo

December 28, 2020

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday that a National Assembly of unelected delegates would meet in February for the first time since 2016, part of a reform plan critics view as a stalling tactic to weather a political crisis.

Belarus has been rocked by mass protests since an Aug. 9 presidential election marred by voter fraud allegations. Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has rejected criticism while presiding over a sweeping crackdown in the ex-Soviet republic.

Facing the biggest crisis of his rule, Lukashenko has suggested constitutional reforms, backed publicly by traditional ally Russia, that could clip presidential powers.

He has given few details, but said that decisions to redistribute those powers could be taken at a meeting of the National Assembly, a political body with no formal power itself, but one that Lukashenko said 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.

Lukashenko said the process of selecting delegates would begin on Tuesday: “It should be people who represent all the layers and groups of the population, the whole Belarusian people,” he said.

The National Assembly itself would meet on Feb. 11-12.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly urged Lukashenko to engage in dialogue with opposing forces in Belarus. The two leaders met in September at a summit at which Lukashenko spoke publicly about initiating reforms.

“It’s possible Lukashenko will try with the help of this assembly to sabotage the constitutional reform that he appeared to promise the Kremlin in September,” said Alexander Klaskovsky, a political analyst.

(Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Bernadette Baum)