The end of the cold war brought the promise of constitutionalism to the countries of the former Soviet Empire. Constitutionalism struck root in different forms and different measures in different countries. In some it has flourished. In some it has remained shaky. In Belarus it suffered severe blows last week.
On Nov. 24, radical "amendments" to the Belarus Constitution, proposed by President Alexander Lukashenko, were accepted in a referendum marred by irregularities and by violations of both Belarus and international law. The countries of Western Europe have reason to be dismayed. The interests of the United States in stable democratic institutions in Belarus and in Eastern Europe generally are seriously threatened.
Constitutionalism as an idea was recognized even by many communist countries - if only nominally and hypocritically. The elements of constitutionalism are not disputed. They include limited government and important checks and balances, if not separation of powers. Constitutionalism implies respect for human rights. It includes an independent judiciary and an independent constitutional court, supreme in the interpretation and application of the constitution. These safeguard the legitimacy of political institutions and ensure respect for rights. The Belarus Constitution, ordained in 1994 after a vote by the people, is not a perfect example of constitutionalist ideas. But it was a good and promising start: It promised respect for individual rights; it separated legislative from executive power; it established a respectable Constitutional Court. The independence and integrity of both the legislature and the judiciary are threatened by President Lukashenko's amendments. For instance, the amendments establish a second house of parliament, many of whose members are to be appointed by the president rather than elected by the people. …