Alexander Lukashenko’s efforts to strengthen his grip on power through a referendum on Sunday have instead become an opportunity for Belarusians to protest against his regime and its alliance with Russia that entangles the country in war with the country. ‘Ukraine.
It also opened his country up to painful EU sanctions.
On Sunday, the crowd parade through the center of Minsk chanting “No to war” and the political opposition called on people to protest against Belarusian participation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Today Belarusians are launching a campaign of peaceful disobedience and resistance. We will protest against the war and the use of our military to attack Ukrainians,” noted Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in the fraudulent 2020 presidential election and is now in exile in Lithuania.
The referendum aims to change the constitution to put in place new institutions that would allow Lukashenko to continue to control the country he has ruled since 1994. It would also end Belarus’ status as a nuclear-free zone – paving the way for a possible deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in the country of 9 million people.
It is a sign of Lukashenko’s total dependence on Moscow to stay in power. He had traditionally tried to maneuver between Russia and the West to retain some freedom of action, but the brutal crackdown that followed the 2020 election left him vulnerable and isolated. Russia has sent around 30,000 troops to Belarus in recent weeks, and they have been used to attack Ukraine.
Belarus is now targeted by the same sanctions that hit Russia.
“We are once again strengthening our sanctions against the Kremlin and its collaborator, the Lukashenko regime,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Sunday, adding: “The Lukashenko regime is complicit in this vicious attack. against Ukraine. We will therefore hit the Lukashenko regime with a new package of sanctions. We will introduce restrictive measures against their most important sectors. This will stop their exports of products ranging from mineral fuels to tobacco, wood and timber, cement, iron and steel.
As he drove to a polling station on Sunday morning, Lukashenko said “two or three missiles” had been launched from Belarusian territory this week at Ukrainian missile battalions deployed near the border.
But Lukashenko insisted his troops were not taking part in the invasion, saying there was “not a single Belarusian soldier, not a single round” in Ukraine. “Russia doesn’t need it. They have enough ammunition, cartridges and machine guns, and enough people to solve the problems that Russia wants to solve.
Volodymr Zelenskiy, President of Ukraine, said he spoke to Lukashenko for the first time in two years on Sunday evening, and the Belarusian leader assured him that “Belarusian troops will not go to Ukraine”.
Earlier on Sunday, Zelenskiy appealed directly to the people of Belarus.
“The war that is going on now, you are not on our side. From your territory, the troops of the Russian Federation send rockets. From your territory, our children are killed, our homes are destroyed,” he said before addressing Sunday’s vote: “It is also a de facto referendum for you, Belarus. You decide who you are. You decide who you will be. How are you going to look into your children’s eyes, into each other’s eyes? »
An enraged Lukashenko fired back at Zelenskiy, who has become a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance against the Russian attack.
“He comes in a nightgown or a T-shirt and addresses the Belarusian people. But the people of Belarus have their own people who can turn to them. He should stick to addressing the Ukrainian people and take responsibility for everything that is happening in Ukraine right now,” he said.
A Russian proposal to hold peace talks in Minsk was rejected by Zelenskiy, who said Ukraine is ready to negotiate in any country, “where rockets do not attack us from its territory”.
Later Sunday, Ukraine agreed to hold talks with Russia near the Pripyat River, which flows from Belarus to Ukraine north of Kiev.
Lukashenko is unlikely to declare victory in the referendum.
Most of the country’s opposition is in exile or in prison; Human rights groups say there are around 1,100 political prisoners in the country.
Belarus is relying on Russian money to keep the government afloat after the EU and US hit the country with sanctions. Despite previous insistence that Russian troops return home once military exercises are over, the government now says they will stay indefinitely.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron urged Lukashenko to ensure the withdrawal of Russian troops from Belarus. “Brotherhood between the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples should push Belarus to refuse to become a vassal and a true accomplice of Russia in the war against Ukraine,” he wrote.