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Moscow Times
October 20, 2004
Lukashenko Leads CIS Into Trouble

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, through Sunday's highly dubious constitutional referendum, has predictably succeeded in removing the last impediment to his absolute and unlimited rule -- scrapping the constitutional clause that limits the number of terms he can serve as president. It is all too easy to write off Belarus as a political basket case and Lukashenko as a loony dictator, but the repercussions of this latest move will make themselves felt well beyond Belarus' borders.

There is a pernicious and disturbing tendency for "worst political practice" in one CIS country to be exported to other CIS countries. In this respect, Belarus and Russia are clearly a bad influence on each other, while both have been a bad influence on neighboring Ukraine.

Russia set the ball rolling in 1993, when Boris Yeltsin forcibly dissolved the Russian parliament and imposed his "super-presidential" constitution by means of a questionable referendum. Soon after, President Leonid Kuchma tried to introduce authoritarian amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution, but with limited success.

Lukashenko, however, soon after coming to power, enthusiastically took up where Yeltsin had left off. In the fall of 1996, Lukashenko had his own constitution overwhelmingly approved in a referendum fraught with legal and electoral violations. Although clearly taking a leaf out of Yeltsin's book, Lukashenko also threw in a few extra authoritarian touches of his own devising.

He gutted the judiciary, handed himself the power to appoint all heads of local government (formally subject to confirmation by local legislatures) and created an upper chamber of parliament in which he appointed a number of the senators.

Eight years later, having worked hard to gut most of Russia's political institutions, President Vladimir Putin is now set to introduce a similar set of reforms. Legislation has already been submitted to the State Duma that would make regional governors presidential appointees (also formally subject to confirmation by the relevant legislatures); while other legislation put forward by the Kremlin-friendly Federation Council speaker would further undermine judicial independence.

And despite public assurances that he has no intention of running for a third term, it would now be depressingly easy for Putin -- following Lukashenko's lead -- to amend the Constitution and remove the two-term limit.

So what can break the vicious circle and set these countries on a more democratic trajectory? Sadly, probably only the bankruptcy of these regimes that will eventually lead them to self-destruct, just as Eduard Shevardnadze's regime in Georgia did a year ago.