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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus Elections Cancelled

GRODNA, Belarus -- Out on the road in this country's second city, President Alexander Lukashenko made absolutely sure that his people would get his message.


His three-hour speech before local officials and supporters Thursday at the Dramatic Theater of Grodna, 300 kilometers west of the capital of Minsk, was carried live nation-wide on Belarussian state television, and by loudspeaker throughout downtown Grodna, which was closed off to traffic during Lukashenko's visit.


In place of traffic, Grodna's eerily quiet center was filled by hundreds of locals, who stood or sat on the street curbs, all listening intently to what Lukashenko described as "my view for the future."


Many believe that this future vision will send this country of 10 million people into a political crisis in the fall involving a decisive showdown -- perhaps as early as September -- between the president and parliament.


Lukashenko's basic message was an announcement that he would cancel parliamentary elections and push ahead with plans for an unconstitutional referendum to increase his powers.


"There will be no parliamentary elections," Lukashenko said, provoking loud applause in the hall. "We must get back Although Lukashenko does not enjoy the constitutional authority to cancel the elections, he has called for a Nov. 7 referendum on his powers and clearly expects to emerge from that vote armed with a new constitution and new powers to humble parliament.


However, it is far from certain that the referendum will ever be held.


According to the existing constitution, the Supreme Soviet -- not the president -- sets the date for any proposed referendum. The Supreme Soviet could thus pass over his suggested date of Nov. 7 for a day after the by-elections; if the lawmakers are feeling particularly spiteful, it could theoretically be decades and decades after.


Viktor Dyatlikovich, political editor of the independent weekly Belarusskaya Gazeta, said the country was headed for a constitutional crisis when the Supreme Soviet convenes Sept. 3.


"Everyone will read the constitution in their own way as to what parliament's rights and responsibilities are," he said following Lukashenko's speech, which he and other political observers marked as the president's harshest attack yet on parliament and most discouraging yet on economic reform.


Lukashenko himself acknowledged the buzz in Minsk about a coming clash.


"Everyone [in the opposition] is rubbing their hands in anticipation, saying, 'Oh, wait until autumn. Then people will take to the streets and drag down the president,'" he said. "That will not happen. I guarantee it."


Lukashenko's rhetoric is so populist it often sinks to the gutter. He described parliament as a dithering body where useless days were spent by "the dermocrats" -- a Russian word play that may be translated as "the crap-ocrats." He said he had been forced by the fiscal irresponsibility of the deputies to shrink their number of chauffeured cars and to take control over their trips abroad.


Lukashenko said he was preparing a "new draft" of the Belarussian Constitution that would expand his powers and increase his term from five to seven years in office. Noting that parliament can impeach the president under the current constitution, but the president cannot disperse parliament, he asked, "Where is the balance of power?" and promised that would change, too.


The new draft of the constitution will be published Sept. 3 in all of the nation's newspapers, Lukashenko said, and will be discussed a few days later by 6,000 delegates to an all-national congress in Minsk on Sept. 14.


Borrowing from the book of Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, Lukashenko accused the West of conspiring to keep Belarus down and the Soviet world from reunifying.


He also claimed he had been offered -- apparently by the U.S. or another Western government -- $10 billion to sabotage an early warning radar station the Russian government is building on Belarus territory to replace a similar station left behind in Skrundja, Latvia.


Grodna is not far from Belovezhskaya Pushcha, the forest reserve where Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other Soviet leaders met to dissolve the Soviet Union. Lukashenko, a fervent supporter of reviving the union, said his rewrite of the constitution would be handled legally and by the people, and not decided in secret.


"Not far from here [at Belovezhskaya Pushcha] some people trampled the constitution of our [Soviet] state. I have never trampled the constitution," he said.


Belarus has already seen political violence and arrests this year and the leader of its main opposition party applied for asylum in the United States earlier this month. September could see more.


But Christopher Willoughby, chief of the World Bank's mission to Belarus, cautioned against taking Lukashenko's at-times emotional commentary as official policy. While Lukashenko read from a prepared statement, he often seemed to depart from it to improvise.


"It's politics," Willoughby said. "He's telling people what they want to hear."


Willoughby had nothing but praise for parliament Friday. He said the deputies had done a "remarkable" job passing economic legislation "all on the basis of virtually nothing in resources. The committees have no equipment, much less any staff."