Belarus: ceremonial referendum confirms Putin’s power
Belarus’s constitutional referendum, held amid intense repression, extended the powers of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. But the real winner is Vladimir Putin, who has taken advantage of Belarus’s international isolation to make the country beholden to Russia. The extent of Putin’s reach became apparent as Russian troops were stationed in Belarus before crossing into Ukraine as part of his war of aggression. As a result of the recent constitutional changes, Belarus may soon also host Russian nuclear missiles. Since it is so closely associated with Russia, the Belarusian government must be subjected to the same economic and political measures currently being taken against Russia.
While Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy leads the fight to protect his country’s independence from Russian invaders, north of the border it’s a different story. Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko has simply handed the keys to his country over to Vladimir Putin – just to save his own skin. A farcical constitutional referendum held on 27 February served to further consolidate Lukashenko’s status as the second-most powerful person in Belarus – after Putin.
Russia’s new western border
The seeds of Belarus’s sorry status as Russia’s client state go back to the 2020 election, when for once Lukashenko’s usual tactic of eliminating all serious opposition failed. Facing a credible threat for the first time since he came to power in 1994, Lukashenko fell back on blatantly stealing the election.
Mass protests at wholesale electoral fraud were met with an iron-fist response. Belarus’s jails have filled with political prisoners – currently estimated at 1,076 – and the many who fled into exile are at risk of kidnapping and assassination. Last year this odious regime even turned refugees into human weapons, bringing desperate people escaping conflict and repression in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen and encouraging them to flee west in an attempt to destabilise neighbouring states.
This is not the kind of behaviour that makes friends. The European Union, along with Canada, the UK and the USA, have imposed several rounds of sanctions on Lukashenko and his regime. But Belarus found a friend to its east. Under economic pressure, Lukashenko secured a US$1.5 billion loan from Russia last September. The price of this loan was much closer cooperation between the two countries, including military collaboration. Belarus now functions as an annex of Russia, a spearhead that in effect gives Putin a new western border.
The value of Belarus to Putin is apparent in his war of aggression against Ukraine. Forces that are leading the assault on Kyiv have made their way across Belarus’s border, only a few hundred kilometres north. Belarusian troops are reported to be poised to fight alongside their Russian counterparts. As if it wasn’t enough to have to fend off attacks from one dictator, Ukrainians now have to face two.
A climate of fear
This is the context in which Lukashenko held his referendum to rubber-stamp constitutional changes. No election in Belarus has been deemed free and fair by the international community since 1994, and there was zero chance this vote would break the dismal cycle.
The referendum was preceded by a further assault on civic freedoms. In recent months the government has moved to liquidate many civil society organisations (CSOs), regardless of whether they work directly on human rights issues: over 220 CSOs have now been liquidated or had liquidation processes initiated, and the Criminal Code has been changed to criminalise participation in the activities of liquidated, suspended or unregistered CSOs.
Media outlets that reported on the crackdown have been labelled by the government as extremist organisations, which enables criminal prosecution, and people have been jailed for social media posts. Repression was clearly intended to create a climate of fear around the referendum.
The vote was preceded by a month of so-called consultation on the changes, through carefully stage-managed government-controlled events. State media was unsurprisingly biased in favour of Lukashenko’s plans. Opponents were preventively detained. Voting took place with a lack of independent monitoring and with only pro-government observers present at voting stations. It wasn’t even a secret ballot: people voted in open booths.
Despite the risk, people bravely took to the streets on referendum day in the biggest protests in several months. Around 800 protesters were arrested on 27 February, with over 500 arrested in the days before.
An ominous change
The changes introduced further prop up Lukashenko as Putin’s puppet. A new body will be created, the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, stuffed with Lukashenko loyalists, to agree with Lukashenko about priorities he wants to set and any further changes to the constitution he wants to make. Parliament has been sidelined. Lukashenko can now stay in power until 2035, symbolically still playing second fiddle to Putin, who under the constitutional changes he introduced last year could go on until 2036. If Lukashenko ever steps aside, he is assured of lifelong immunity from prosecution.
There’s another ominous change endorsed in the referendum, and it’s a special gift for Putin. At a stroke, Belarus has ended its neutrality and non-nuclear status under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. For the first time since the days of the Soviet Union, Russian nuclear missiles may soon roll onto Belarusian soil. This is a move that can only escalate tensions in the context of Putin’s recent order to put his nuclear forces on high alert in reaction to condemnation of his invasion. It symbolises Belarus’s close alignment with Putin’s Russia.
Not only the dream of democracy has faded, but so has Belarus’s sovereignty and neutrality, handed over to satisfy the self-serving ambitions of two dictators.
For Belarus’s many exiles, who campaigned for democracy only to be forced to flee to avoid lengthy jail sentences, current events are agonising. Not long ago, they believed their country could have a future as a functioning democracy; now not only the dream of democracy has faded, but so has their country’s sovereignty and neutrality, handed over to satisfy the self-serving ambitions of two dictators. Their government has volunteered its own people to join a war of aggression they want no part in.
But those in exile, and those in jail, are the real Belarus and its future. However scattered they may be, they are keeping the dream of democracy alive. They are the future leaders of a democratic and autonomous Belarus. As part of any response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine they must be supported. There will be a time beyond Putin and Lukashenko, and the international community needs to sustain those who will bring democracy.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Belarusian state and its leaders should be subjected to the same economic and political measures currently being imposed on Russia.
International civil society and human rights bodies should work to collect evidence of Belarusian involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine with a view to prosecution.
Civil society and donors should ensure the safety of Belarusian activists in exile and support their work.
Cover photo by Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images