Belarus

Discussion summary - Belarus' constitutional referendum amidst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: what are the consequences for Europe?

Originally, this EPDE public discussion was planned to discuss the constitutional referendum in Belarus. However, the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine forced a complete change of focus, looking not only at what this referendum means for Belarus, but also at the more far-reaching implications of growing authoritarianism for European security. The Belarusian case teaches Europe a very important lesson: strong democracies can act as a bulwark against security threats from authoritarian leaders such as Putin and Lukashenka. Over the years, in both Belarus and Russia, there has been a severe shrinking of spaces for civil society and pro-democracy actors. This has now spilled over in the most extreme way into Ukraine, where Putin seeks to oust a democratically elected government. In Belarus, this came to a climax in the 2020 presidential elections, where protesters against the falsified elections were met with severe repressions and mass arrests. Belarus has now also become embroiled in the war on Ukraine, since Belarusian territory was used by the Russian regime to encircle Ukraine and Belarusian troops have reportedly also participated in Russia’s military invasion.
 

Panelists of this discussion were:

  • Olha AIVAZOVSKA from Ukraine, Chairperson of the Civil Network Opora
  • Aleh HULAK, Chair of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee,election expert
  • Lena ZHIVOGLOD, Leader of Honest Peoplecivic initiative
  • Alexander SHLYK, Special Representative of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on Elections
  • Adam BUSULEANU, Program Manager EPDE (moderator)

You can watch a recording of this discussion in original language (English, Ukrainian, Russian) below.

 

The constitutional referendum – why and for whom was this held?

 

The completely falsified constitutional referendum in Belarus, according to independent election monitors, is a further example of how Lukashenka uses pseudo-democratic processes to create a legal basis for political realities created by him. In this case, the constitutional amendments cemented his grip on power and reflected his dependence on Russia to maintain this grip. The amendments would allow Lukashenka to stay in power indefinitely and remove the provision concerning Belarus’ neutrality, giving Moscow a free hand to pursue its desired security policy on Belarusian soil. It is to be expected that several states will issue statements not recognizing the legitimacy of these amendments due to the flawed electoral process.

The reported voter turnout of 80% as well as the 65% of supposed voter support for the constitutional amendments are entirely fabricated. “The authorities have done everything in their power to obscure the real result of the vote,” state election observers who additionally note that the authorities may not even know the real result themselves due to the massively flawed counting process.

The referendum was marked by unprecedented levels of manipulation, including that the final draft of the constitutional amendments was only released for public consultation one month prior to the referendum date and that this date was announced with as short a notice as possible. Public consultation was also heavily restricted as well as opposition campaigning towards the proposed amendments. The public was therefore barely informed about what they were asked to vote on, which perhaps played into Lukashenka’s strategy in getting his amendments passed without much public disapproval. Additionally, no international and nearly no domestic election observation was conducted of this vote.

In response to this, opposition forces organized an “active boycott” of the referendum where voters were asked to go to polling stations and take photos of their spoiled ballot papers to show their disapproval of Lukashenka’s referendum. In the wake of the military aggression by Russia on Ukraine, partially launched from Belarusian territory, this protest then turned towards showing opposition against the war, rather than the referendum.

Organizers of this action stated that the main long-term goal of the boycott was to again activate people to go out on the streets and engage in democratic change. The protests have died down a bit since 2020 due to the waves of repression by Belarusian authorities against protestors and journalists, and in this way, the opposition hopes to keep Belarusians engaged.

 

Lessons learned – “opposition to the war must be linked with opposition to dictators”

 

In the past, Lukashenka justified his iron grip on Belarus with the fact that he has kept Belarus as an “island of stability” in the region. However, now it has been used as a springboard for military attacks on Ukraine. This war may not only endanger Ukrainian lives, but also those of Belarusians who face being embroiled in a war they do not want. Lukashenka has been slowly giving up Belarusian security sovereignty to Russia for the sake of holding up his regime. This started long before the latest referendum, since joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises led to increasing amounts of Russian military equipment being brought to and then left in Belarus. “Almost like a slow occupation,” commented one expert. It is therefore now important, state the pro-democratic opposition forces, to unify Belarusians in this anti-war movement and to make it clear that they must “win the fight for democracy not only for our sake, but also for the sake of not being a security threat to ourselves and to our neighbours.”

Putin’s attack on Ukraine mirrors the repressions the Belarusian pro-democracy opposition and civil society face by the Belarusian regime. The persecution of civil society in Russia by authorities must also not be forgotten. Currently, there are over 1000 political prisoners in Belarus, including representatives of the EPDE member Human Rights Center Viasna Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich. Parallels can and should be drawn between these two countries, where authoritarian leaders have gone to extreme lengths to thwart democratic developments that may pose a risk to their hold on power.  

Putin’s actions in Ukraine show the West that there is no more negotiating with Putin’s regime. This attack may only be the first step in Russia’s strategy to expand its power using Russian language and the so-called plight of Russian speakers as the pretext to do so. Belarusians and others should therefore be hyper-sensitized to this danger and mobilized to stand up to Russian anti-democratic influence in their country. This also becomes relevant within the EU, with important elections coming up in Hungary, for example.  

The fight in Ukraine for its sovereignty and democracy is also a yardstick for Europe to measure the strength of its own institutions by: to what extent are we able to protect our own values, democracy, and human rights.

An important message concerning the horrible situation that Ukraine finds itself in now is that Ukraine is not a victim in all of this. Instead, it is demonstrating extreme resilience and that it is fighting for the existence of Ukraine as a unique European state. Ukrainians are already thinking about what will come after this war, how they will rebuild and develop the country further along its European democratic path.

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