Alexander Lukashenko’s effort to strengthen his grip on power through a referendum Sunday instead became an opportunity for Belarusians to protest his rule and his alliance with Russia that’s entangling the country in the war with Ukraine.

Lukashenko tries to consolidate power while Ukraine burns


It’s also opened his country to painful EU sanctions.

On Sunday, crowds marched through the center of Minsk chanting: “No to war” and the political opposition called on people to protest Belarusian participation in Russia’s 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,” said Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in 2020’s fraudulent presidential election and is now in exile in Lithuania.

The referendum is aimed at changing the constitution to set up 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 — opening the way for a possible deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in the country of 9 million.

It’s a sign of Lukashenko’s utter dependence on Moscow to stay in power. He had traditionally tried to maneuver between Russia and the West to maintain some freedom of action, but the brutal crackdown following the 2020 election left him vulnerable and isolated. Russia sent about 30,000 troops to Belarus in recent weeks, and they’ve been used to attack Ukraine.

Belarus is now being targeted with the same sanctions that are hitting Russia.

“We are strengthening once more our sanctions against the Kremlin and its collaborator, Lukashenko’s regime,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Sunday, adding: “Lukashenko’s regime is complicit in this vicious attack against Ukraine. So we will hit Lukashenko’s regime with a new package of sanctions. We will introduce restrictive measures against their most important sectors. This will stop their exports of products from mineral fuels to tobacco, wood and timber, cement, iron and steel.”

On Sunday morning while visiting a polling station, Lukashenko said “two or three missiles” were launched from the territory of Belarus this week toward Ukrainian missile battalions deployed near the frontier.

But Lukashenko insisted his troops aren’t taking part in the invasion, saying there is “not a single Belarusian soldier, not a single cartridge” in Ukraine. “Russia does not need this. They have enough ammunition, and cartridges, and machine guns, and enough people to solve the problems that Russia wants to solve.”

Volodymr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, said he talked to Lukashenko for the first time in two years on Sunday night, and that the Belarusian leader assured him, “troops from Belarus will not go to Ukraine.” 

Earlier Sunday, Zelenskiy appealed directly to the Belarusian people.

“The war that’s currently being waged, you’re not on our side. From your territory, troops of the Russian Federation are sending rockets. From your territory, our children are being killed, our houses are being destroyed,” he said and then addressed Sunday’s vote: “This is also a de facto referendum for you, Belarus. You are deciding who you are. You are deciding who you will be. How will you 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 is turning up in his nightshirt or his T-shirt and addressing the Belarusian people. But the Belarusian people have their own people who can address them. He should stick to addressing to the Ukrainian people and take responsibility for everything that is happening in Ukraine now,” he said.

A Russian proposal to hold peace talks in Minsk was rejected by Zelenskiy, who said that Ukraine is ready to negotiate in any country, “where rockets aren’t flying at us from its territory.”

Later on Sunday, Ukraine agreed to hold talks with Russia near the Prypyat River, which flows from Belarus to Ukraine north of Kyiv. 

There is little chance that Lukashenko won’t declare victory in the referendum. 

Most of country’s opposition is in exile or in prison; human rights groups say there are about 1,100 political prisoners in the country. 

Belarus relies on Russian cash to keep the government afloat after the EU and U.S. hit the country with sanctions. Despite earlier insistence that the Russian troops would head home once military exercises were finished, the government now says they’ll remain indefinitely.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron urged Lukashenko to ensure the withdrawal of Russian troops from Belarus. “The brotherhood between the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples should push Belarus to refuse to become a vassal and an actual accomplice of Russia in the war against Ukraine,” he wrote.

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