KYIV, Ukraine -- Belarusians cast ballots Sunday in a constitutional referendum that the country's authoritarian leader called to cement his 27-year old grip on power, even as he offers the country's territory to his ally Russia to invade Ukraine.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has edged even closer to Russia amid crippling Western sanctions over his crackdown on domestic protests, said he was confident that Belarusians will support a set of constitutional amendments that would allow him to stay in power until 2035.
The revised main law also sheds Belarus' neutral status, opening the way for stronger military cooperation with Russia, which deployed forces to Belarusian territory under the pretext of military drills and then sent them rolling into Ukraine as part of the invasion that began Thursday.
Some of those forces quickly closed in on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, located just 75 kilometers (less than 50 miles) south of the border.
In a video message Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rebuked Belarusians for allowing their country to be used as a staging ground for the Russian invasion, adding that Ukrainian cities are facing an attack on a scale unseen since World War II when Belarus and Ukraine faced a Nazi invasion as parts of the Soviet Union.
“But you aren't on the same side with us in the war that is going on now,” Zelenskyy said in Russian, which is widely spoken in Belarus. “The Russian military is launching missiles at Ukraine from your territory. From your territory they are kiling our children, they are destroying our homes and trying to blow up everything that has been built for decades.”
In an emotional speech, the Ukrainian leader questioned how Belarusians will be able “to 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 quickly shot back, denigrating the Ukrainian president as an American puppet and charging that the Russian attack resulted from Zelenskyy's failure to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin's demand for Ukraine to renounce its bid to join NATO.
The West responded to Belarus hosting Russian troops for the invasion by slamming it with new tough sanctions along with Russia.
Lukashenko ominously warned Sunday that more sanctions from the West are “pushing the world to the brink of World War III.”
The Belarusian leader, who said previously that his country could host Russian nuclear weapons, said that he warned French President Emmanuel Macron in a call Saturday that he was ready to make the move if the U.S. and its allies deploy nuclear weapons to NATO members Poland and Lithuania, which border Belarus.
“We have developed plans to protect Belarus and agreed with Putin to deploy such weapons here that will make Poles and Lithuanians lose any desire to go to war,” he said.
The constitutional amendments bring back limits on presidential terms that had been abolished during Lukashenko’s tenure, allowing a president only two five-year terms in office. However, the restriction will only take effect once a “newly elected president” assumes office, which gives Lukashenko an opportunity to run for two more terms after his current one expires in 2025.
“This pseudo referendum is being held under the Russian gun barrels and under effective control of the Russian military which has come to stay in Belarus for a long time,” Belarus' first post-Soviet leader, Stanislav Sushkevich, told The Associated Press.
“The absurdity that is going on now directly contradicts the existing main law that envisages Belarus' neutral status.”
Shushkevich warned that “Lukashenko is depriving Belarus of its future and turning the country into a staging ground for Putin’s mad games,” adding that “the Belarusian leader has no choice, he also is a pariah.”
In 2020, Lukashenko relied on Moscow's support to survive the largest and the most sustained wave of mass protests in the country’s history. Demonstrations, the biggest of which drew up to 200,000 people, were triggered by him winning a sixth term in office in a presidential election in August 2020 that the opposition and the West denounced as rigged.
Protesters demanding a new election and Lukashenko’s ouster faced a brutal crackdown from the authorities, with more than 35,000 arrested and thousands brutally beaten. Key opposition figures, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main contender in the election, left the country amid the clampdown, along with thousands of ordinary Belarusians.
The opposition denounced the vote as “farce” and said it wouldn't recognize its results.
“The Belarusians are again being offered a choice between Lukashenko and Lukashenko,” Tsikhanouskaya told the AP. “Belarusians want change, but harsh large-scale repressions forced many to remain silent.”
She said that Belarusians widely oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Belarusians' hearts hurt as it's not just the fate of Ukraine but also our fate that is decided now,” Tsilhanouskaya told The Associated Press. “We realize that Belarus' independence is closely connected with Ukraine's independence.”
Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.