April 24, 2018 / 11:09 AM / 8 months ago

Belarus leader says may loosen grip on power - but not yet

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday said the constitution could be “improved” to share some of his powers, but not in the near future.

Lukashenko has run Belarus in authoritarian style since 1994, during which time he changed the constitution to expand his control and push opposition forces out of parliament.

In an annual address to lawmakers that referenced the overthrow of Armenia’s prime minister, Lukashenko said he was considering decentralizing some of his authority.

“The constitution will be improved. Life changes and we change,” he said. “Yes, I can easily hand over some powers to other branches of government.”

He was speaking a day after Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarksyan resigned after almost two weeks of street protests.

Lukashenko said he had asked the constitutional court to prepare recommendations on changes to the constitution, but cautioned that the plans were theoretical for now.

“Personally, I have not even thought about a referendum yet,” he said, referring to the public vote needed to bring any changes into force.

Seeking to improve ties with the European Union and lessen Belarus’s dependence on Russia, Lukashenko has in recent years heeded calls from the West to show more leniency towards political opposition.

He has pardoned several political prisoners, while the opposition is represented in parliament for the first time in 20 years following a 2016 election that Western observers said was not fully democratic but an improvement on previous votes.

The opposition in Belarus is made up of about a dozen parties and groups that have struggled to popularize their cause in the face of government repression.

Nevertheless, in 2017 the biggest public protests in years prompted the authorities to suspend a new tax on those not in full-time employment - a rare about-face for Lukashenko.

Citing Ukraine’s 2013/14 ‘Maidan’ uprising and the political upheaval in Armenia, Lukashenko said any constitutional changes would be carried out in accordance with the law to prevent public outcry and instability.

“If someone thinks that we will take the constitution and create conditions for our own Maidans - that won’t happen,” he said.

“I promised and will never break my vow, otherwise it will be like in Armenia.”

Writing by Alessandra Prentice; editing by Matthias Williams

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