Belarus: Constitutional referendum passes, possibly deepening Russian integration

Tue 1 Mar 2022

Belarus: Constitutional referendum passes, possibly deepening Russian integration

Lukashenko in 2021 (source: WikiMedia Commons)

Belarus has approved a controversial amendment of its constitution, in a referendum that took place on February 27. It was passed with the support of 65.2% of voters, as published by the Belarusian central elections commission. The referendum went ahead despite the Russian invasion in Ukraine earlier this week. It gives President Lukashenko far-reaching tools to stay in power until 2035 and especially significant is a clause that scraps Belarus’ status as a neutral, non-nuclear power in the constitution – causing Belarus to be further connected with Russia and increasing fears over Belarus’ integration with its main ally.  Read more on the specific content of the referendum here.

The EU, US and UK have already said not to recognize the results of the referendum, which saw a turnout of 78,6%. The political landscape is tightly controlled by Lukashenko and his party, and voting results are possibly manipulated.

Various protests

Most of the Belarusian political opposition is currently in exile or incarcerated. The risk of protesting is high, and therefore opposition called upon voters to voice their dissent by spoiling their ballots. However, dozens of people defied the risks and protested in Minsk and other cities at polling stations. In various videos, people were seen chanting ‘’no to war’’. Rights activists later said that at least 290 people were arrested.

Integration with Russia

The referendum is a new chapter in Belarus’ integration with Russia since the 2020 protests which shook Lukashenko’s presidency. Ever since, Russia has deeply supported Lukashenko in the re-stabilization of his regime. In return, Belarus gives the appearance of becoming a Russian puppet state. For longer, the Kremlin wishes to amend the constitution that would make Belarus an ally that could hold nuclear weapons. At a polling station, Lukashenko already supposed that "if you (the west) transfer nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania, to our borders, then I will turn to Putin to return the nuclear weapons that I gave away without any conditions".

Currently, tens of thousands of Russian forces are now stationed in Southern Belarus, using the territory to launch attacks on nearby Kyiv. Lukashenko has indicated that he might want to add support to Russia by sending his own troops to Ukraine. This would be a new escalation of Belarus’ role in the conflict – and in reaction, western states will probably impose heavy sanctions on Belarus, similar to current sanctions on Russia.

Belarus as the scene of further conflict?

NATO fears that a deeply integrated Belarus into Russia could threaten the Baltic States with force. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO has adapted its ‘’posture in the East’’. Currently, the Baltic States are militarily strengthened after NATO invoked its Article 4. Fears are, among others, that Russia wishes to connect Kaliningrad to Belarus by an invasion of Lithuania in the Suwalki Gap. This small corridor between Belarus and the Russian territory on the Baltic Sea is widely seen as one of NATO’s more vulnerable points.

However, one should not relapse into the fearful rhetoric of Russia invading the rest of Europe. The Ukrainian invasion was highly unexpected and seemingly irrational – but a Russian invasion of NATO would be an even more immense step by the Kremlin, and is currently not in the cards.

As always in times of conflict, the civilians bear the harm. The Belarusian people are heavily repressed and influenced by Lukashenko’s propaganda machine. Possible sanctions would hit them very hard, and this could damage the democratic opposition as well. For Western powers, it is vital that the Belarusian opposition is remains strengthened and heard – both in Europe and in Belarus itself.

Sources: Foreign Policy Al Jazeera Radio Free Europe Reuters

Photo: WikiMedia Commons