Belarus Signals Lukashenko Won’t Cede Any Real Power at Congress

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is set to keep most of his presidential powers at a planned congress next week that he called to discuss constitutional changes in response to unprecedented protests against his 26-year rule.

Delegates at the two-day Belarusian People’s Congress that starts Feb. 11 are not willing to “destroy” the constitution, Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko said to a group of journalists from state media at a press conference Wednesday.

The protest movement that erupted after contested Aug. 9 presidential elections has subsided in recent weeks as wintery weather and a crackdown on the opposition took a toll. Minsk-based human rights center Viasna says there are currently 220 political prisoners being held in Belarus.

“With all innovations, we shouldn’t weaken the presidential power which cemented the country and allowed us to withstand the wild onslaught we recently experienced,” Golovchenko said, in comments broadcast on CTV.

The comments suggest any amendments might be cosmetic, aimed at satisfying calls by Russian President Vladimir Putin for Lukashenko to follow through with promises of political reform. Russia is Belarus’s closest ally and sees it as a critical buffer against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Opposition leaders dismiss the congress, which will gather Lukashenko supporters to propose constitutional changes, as illegal.

Lukashenko has refused any direct dialog with exiled opposition led by his election opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, labeling it part of a Western plot. The U.S. and European Union have not recognized the election’s results, and the EU sanctioned Lukashenko and other officials in response to his crackdown.

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