Voters in Belarus have approved constitutional reforms that will allow the country to host nuclear weapons at a time when the former Soviet republic has become a launchpad for Russian troops invading Ukraine.
Russian news agencies on Monday cited the Belarusian elections commission as saying that some 65.2 percent of people who took part in a referendum voted in favour of the change.
The agencies said voter turnout stood at 78.63 percent.
The result came as little surprise, given the tightly controlled rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.
It could bring nuclear weapons back on Belarusian soil for the first time since the country gave them up after the fall of the Soviet Union and raises the stakes at a time when Lukashenko has fallen behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military assault on Ukraine.
Putin on Sunday ordered Russian nuclear deterrent forces be put on high alert in a dramatic escalation of tensions with the West.
Speaking at a polling station on Sunday, Lukashenko said that he could ask Russia to return nuclear weapons to Belarus.
“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,” Lukashenko said.
The constitutional referendum shedding Belarus’s non-nuclear status opens 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 on Thursday.
The reforms also cement Lukashenko’s 27-year-old grip on power as they allow the president to stay in power until 2035 and give him lifetime immunity from prosecution once he leaves office.
Additionally, the reforms give powers to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, brought together to determine the country’s priorities for the next five years and possible amendments to the constitution.
The assembly was created by Lukashenko and includes party loyalists, local councils, officials and activists of pro-government organisations.
The West has said it will not recognise the results of the referendum taking place against the background of a sweeping crackdown on domestic opponents of the government.
Protesters demanding a new election and Lukashenko’s removal have faced repression 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 Belarusians.
Tsikhanouskaya called on Belarusians to use the referendum vote to protest the war against Ukraine.
“For a long time I did not know how to start this appeal. Because how can you demand courageous actions from people who live in fear for a year and a half? The war we’ve been dragged into started two days ago,” she said in a special address.
“But until now, the Belarusians have not declared publicly that they are against it, they have not shown this to the Ukrainians by their actions. So do I have the right to ask you for action? Maybe not. But I won’t forgive myself if I don’t try.”
In videos and photos posted on social media, dozens of people gathered at polling stations in Minsk and other cities in Belarus. Several videos showed the crowd chanting “No to war”.
The office of Ukraine’s president on Sunday said a delegation would meet Russian officials near the Belarus border. The Ukrainian foreign minister said he received reassurances that Belarus would not get involved in the war while talks went on.