Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory yesterday in a constitutional referendum giving him sweeping powers, and parliamentary opponents say they see little chance of halting his steamroller drive toward absolute authority.
But the vote was so badly marred by allegations of vote-rigging that it seemed certain to deepen Belarus's international pariah status and to compound Mr. Lukashenko's problems as he seeks to pull his country out of a catastrophic economic free fall.
Lukashenko's power-grab "risks putting Belarus into self-isolation," warned one Western diplomat in Minsk. "His economic problems need help from the West, and that is not going to be forthcoming to a government that has set up one-man rule through a dubious referendum."
Lukashenko announced that 70.5 percent of voters had backed a new constitution that gives him the right to disband parliament, among other powers that will allow him to effectively ignore any opposition. Lukashenko also claimed a huge 84 percent turnout, ensuring the absolute majority of the electorate needed to change the Constitution.
"I will not allow parliament to work against the will of the president and of the people after such an overwhelming vote," he said. "Only 7.9 percent of the voters had supported a rival constitution, presented by a group of parliamentarians, which would have done away with the post of president," Lukashenko added.
Some opposition figures are pinning their hopes on a renewed effort by parliament to impeach the president for violating the Constitution, continuing a struggle that has pitted the two branches of government against each other for the past two years.
But the president appeared well-positioned to pressure parliamentarians into abandoning this path, twisting enough deputies' arms to persuade them to withdraw their petition to the Constitutional Court.
"Unfortunately our parliament is divided now, destroying the majority we had before," says Stanislav Bogdankevich, a leader of the opposition National Accord block in parliament. "The president has used bribes, promotions, and threats of dismissal from people's jobs outside parliament, and not everybody is a hero."
The Constitutional Court was due to sit today to consider the petition presented last week that it rule on whether there are grounds to pursue impeachment. But Valeri Tikhinia, president of the court, "is Lukashenko's man, and it is impossible to do anything in these circumstances," laments Levon Barscievski, acting chairman of the nationalist opposition Belarussian Popular Front.
The referendum, which created a smaller parliament with severely restricted powers, was condemned by Washington and by European leaders as illegal and unconstitutional. Mr. Barscievski also claims that the vote had been "a massive violation" of electoral rules.
The authorities appeared to widely abuse a provision in the law that allows early voting for citizens unable to reach the polls on referendum day. By the time polling stations opened on Sunday morning, 15 percent of the electorate had already voted.
The Central Electoral Commission headquarters were guarded by special police units that barred entry even to parliamentary deputies, and Lukashenko sacked the commission's president, Viktor Gonchar, for protesting at the way the referendum was being conducted.
The government also enjoyed total control over TV and radio broadcasting, allowing air time only to Lukashenko's supporters. Opposition newspapers, unable to print on the state-owned presses in Belarus, were printed only in neighboring Lithuania, but were seized at the border.
The reported 84 percent turnout needed to ensure a constitutional majority of the total electorate also surprised independent observers here. Election officials had said that only 57 percent of the voters had cast their ballots by 6 o'clock in the evening, four hours before polls closed.
Lukashenko, however, insisted yesterday, that the voting had been "perfect," and warned that "our people will not understand" any continued opposition to his attempts to centralize power in the president's hands.
He said he would immediately start to form the new, smaller parliament, drawing on existing deputies.
The opposition's only hope of impeding him lay in persuading enough deputies to refuse to take part in this process, and thus oblige him to dismiss parliament and call new elections. "Our chances of doing this are not very high, but we have to try," said Mr. Bogdankevich.
Slow reform of the economy
The president's claim of overwhelming support in the referendum, however, "is a Pyrrhic victory," argued Bogdankevich, a former president of the central bank. "He will be forced to do something about the economy because he has brought it to the brink of ruin."
Lukashenko showed no signs yesterday, however, of heeding Western calls to start reforming Belarus's state-run economy. "We intend to improve our economy, but we are not hurrying," he said. "We will build first, and then decide what to do about the old forms of ownership."
In the meantime, as parliament ponders whether it can rebound after the referendum, the country's future looks bleak. "If Lukashenko has to disband parliament, they won't go down without a fight," said the Western diplomat. "And at the minimum, when they go down, they will take Belarus's international reputation with them."