Belarus Vote to Amend Constitution Worries NATO

The changes, certain to pass, will let Russia house nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
A man looks at paperwork on a desk presented by a poll worker.
A man looks at paperwork on a desk presented by a poll worker.
A man registers during early voting in a referendum on amendments to the Belarusian Constitution at a polling station in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 26. Alexandr Kryazhev/Sputnik via AP

Putin’s War

A constitutional referendum in Belarus this weekend is set to allow Russia to house nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil, fueling concerns across Europe that Minsk is moving further into Moscow’s shadow as war continues in neighboring Ukraine.

The vote will remove wording from Article 18 of the Belarusian Constitution that has guaranteed the country’s nuclear neutrality since its independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. It will also strengthen the powers of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, a body of handpicked pro-government elites. Under the proposed amendments, the assembly will become the “highest representative body of democracy” and be able to dismiss and elect judges.

Most importantly, it will have the power to remove the president. Given the assembly’s political allegiance, and new rules allowing Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko to be both president and chair of the assembly, the strongman will now be able to control all the mechanisms of power for years.

A constitutional referendum in Belarus this weekend is set to allow Russia to house nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil, fueling concerns across Europe that Minsk is moving further into Moscow’s shadow as war continues in neighboring Ukraine.

The vote will remove wording from Article 18 of the Belarusian Constitution that has guaranteed the country’s nuclear neutrality since its independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. It will also strengthen the powers of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, a body of handpicked pro-government elites. Under the proposed amendments, the assembly will become the “highest representative body of democracy” and be able to dismiss and elect judges.

Most importantly, it will have the power to remove the president. Given the assembly’s political allegiance, and new rules allowing Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko to be both president and chair of the assembly, the strongman will now be able to control all the mechanisms of power for years.

It will be the third raft of changes to the constitution that Lukashenko has pushed through since he took office in 1994.

With the referendum expected to pass when voting concludes on Sunday—no reliable international observers have been monitoring the plebiscite, with the job instead going to observers from countries such as Uzbekistan—NATO members have also become increasingly concerned about the Russian troop presence in Belarus and the threat it poses to the alliance.

On Friday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Minsk’s moves to permanently house Russian troops under the guise of extended military drills and security concerns will likely result in the “adaptation of NATO’s defense posture” in the east.

When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on Thursday, Russian troops poured in from Belarus’s southern border, crossing the Senkivka checkpoint to begin their advance on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Days earlier, Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin had announced that military drills with Russia would be extended due to the “escalating situation” in Ukraine, ending hopes that the approximately 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus would return home.

The head of Ukraine’s border guard, Maj. Gen. Serhii Deineko, sent a strongly worded letter to his Belarusian counterpart on Saturday highlighting the Belarusian border guard’s complicity in Thursday’s invasion, signing the letter: “With contempt!”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has pledged to hold both Minsk and Moscow accountable for their actions, saying Russia was “the aggressor” and Belarus “the enabler.” Foreign Policy understands that no Belarusian troops have taken part in Russia’s march toward Kyiv, though there is a possibility that could change in the days, or weeks, ahead. Speaking to state media on Saturday, Lukashenko described the war in Ukraine as a “meat grinder” and said it would possibly continue for days. It is also unclear how much control Lukashenko has over his own troops.

“The stealth annexation of Belarus that has been underway while everyone has been focused on Ukraine means that Belarus is already a full outpost of Russian military power,” said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program. “The permanent stationing of Russian troops in Belarus is effectively a done deal, and Belarus has shown it is unable to live up to its former promises of not being used as a platform from which Russia mounts military strikes. This presents a direct and immediate security challenge to Belarus’s NATO neighbors, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania.”

“All of the fashionable scenarios for Russia mounting some sort of attempt to seize the Suwalki Gap, which previously had been in the realm of fantasy because Russian troops were not where they needed to be, are suddenly much more realistic” due to the Russian troop presence in Belarus, Giles said. The narrow 40-mile gap along the Polish-Lithuanian border links NATO member Baltic states to Poland and is widely seen as one of NATO’s most vulnerable points.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has said he would consider a strike on Belarus to be a strike on Russia, offered Minsk as a location for peace talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—an invitation not taken up due to Russia’s outrageous demands on Kyiv and its continued military escalation. On Saturday, Lukashenko had a one-hour phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, during which the two discussed Belarus’s involvement in Ukraine.

Already under European Union and U.S. sanctions following a government crackdown on opposition protests after the country’s fraudulent presidential elections in August 2020, Belarus has come under further pressure this week. The U.S. Treasury on Thursday sanctioned 24 Belarusian individuals and entities “due to Belarus’s support for, and facilitation of, the [Russian] invasion,” and sanctions placed on Moscow will also have an impact on Belarus’s economy. In Brussels, the European Council on Friday agreed on a further package of individual and economic measures that covers Minsk.

Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, meanwhile, accused Lukashenko of “high treason” for placating Moscow and encouraged Belarusians to enter polling stations around the country on Sunday “to legally protest against war & lawlessness.” But with Minsk’s continued crackdown on dissent, it’s not expected that thousands will take to the streets. And Lukashenko will move ever further toward the east, to the horror of Europe.

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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