Belarus is voting on the Constitution while the crisis in Ukraine is raging

KIU, Ukraine (AP) – Belarusians voted in a constitutional referendum on Sunday, which the country’s authoritarian leader called for to consolidate …

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – Belarusians voted Sunday in a constitutional referendum calling on the country’s authoritarian leader to consolidate his 27-year rule, even as he offers the country to his Russian ally to invade Ukraine.

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, who has become even closer to Russia amid tough Western sanctions for dispersing internal protests, said he was confident that Belarusians would support a set of constitutional amendments that would allow him to remain in power until 2035.

The revised basic law also deprives Belarus of neutral status, paving the way for enhanced military cooperation with Russia, which has deployed forces on Belarusian territory under the pretext of military exercises and then sent them to Ukraine as part of Thursday’s invasion.

Some of these forces quickly approached the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, located just 75 kilometers (less than 50 miles) south of the border.

In a video message Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rebuked Belarusians for allowing their country to be used as a platform for Russian invasion, adding that Ukrainian cities have been facing attacks of this magnitude since World War II, when Belarus and Ukraine faced the Nazi invasion. as part of the Soviet Union.

“But you are not on the same side with us in the current war,” Zelensky said in Russian, which is widespread in Belarus. “The Russian military is launching missiles at Ukraine from your territory. Our children are being killed from your territory, our houses are being destroyed and everything that has been built for decades is being blown up. ”

In his emotional speech, the Ukrainian leader asked how Belarusians could “look into the eyes of your children, into the eyes of each other.”

“We are your neighbors. Be Belarus, not Russia! ” he said.

The Belarusian leader reacted quickly, denigrating the Ukrainian president as an American puppet and accusing that the Russian attack was the result of Zelensky’s failure to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demand that Ukraine refuse to apply for NATO membership.

The West responded that Belarus was accepting Russian troops for the invasion, imposing new tough sanctions on it along with Russia.

Mr Lukashenko ominously warned on Sunday that new Western sanctions were “pushing the world to the brink of World War III”.

The Belarusian leader, who had previously said his country could deploy Russian nuclear weapons, said he had warned French President Emmanuel Macron in a conversation on Saturday that he was ready to take the step if the United States and its allies deploy nuclear weapons in Poland and NATO members. Lithuania, which borders on Belarus.

“We have developed plans to defend Belarus and agreed with Putin to deploy weapons that would lead to the loss of the desire to fight Poles and Lithuanians,” he said.

Amendments to the Constitution return restrictions on presidential terms that were lifted during Lukashenko’s tenure, allowing the president only two five-year terms. However, the restriction will come into force only after the inauguration of the “newly elected president”, which gives Lukashenko the opportunity to run for two more terms after the end of his current one in 2025.

“This pseudo-referendum is being held under Russian weapons and under the effective control of the Russian military, which remains in Belarus for a long time,” the first post-Soviet leader of Belarus, Stanislav Sushkevich, told the Associated Press.

“The absurdity that is happening now directly contradicts the current basic law, which provides for the neutral status of Belarus.”

Shushkevich warned that “Lukashenka is depriving Belarus of its future and turning the country into a platform for Putin’s insane games,” adding that “the Belarusian leader has no choice, he is also a scoundrel.”

In 2020, Lukashenko relied on Moscow’s support to survive the largest and longest wave of mass protests in the country’s history. The demonstrations, the largest of which gathered up to 200,000 people, were prompted by the fact that he won a sixth term in the August 2020 presidential election, which the opposition and the West deemed rigged.

Protesters demanding new elections and the ouster of Lukashenko have been severely dispersed by the authorities: more than 35,000 have been arrested and thousands brutally beaten. Key opposition figures, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main candidate in the election, left the country in the grip, along with thousands of ordinary Belarusians.

The opposition condemned the vote as a “farce” and said it did not recognize the results.

“Belarusians are again offered a choice between Lukashenko and Lukashenko,” Tikhonov told the AP. “Belarusians want change, but severe repression has silenced many.”

She said that Belarusians are widely opposed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“The hearts of Belarusians are hurt, because now not only the fate of Ukraine is being decided, but also our fate,” Tsilganovskaya told the Associated Press. “We understand that the independence of Belarus is closely linked to the independence of Ukraine.”

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Vladimir Isachenko contributed to this report from Moscow.

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