U.S. Envoy To Belarus Says Referendum 'Unmistakably' Linked To Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
By RFE/RL's Belarus Service March 01, 2022
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is "unmistakably" linked with a referendum in Belarus over the weekend that tightened authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka's grip on power and ended the country's nuclear-free status, Julie Fisher, the U.S. special envoy for Belarus, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service in an interview.
Fisher said in the interview that there was no indication Belarusian citizens supported the initiatives, which were approved by around two-thirds of those who cast ballots, according to election officials, in a referendum that several governments and civil society groups said failed to meet international standards.
The changes to the constitution allow Lukashenka, 67, the possibility to rule until 2035, offer him a new lever of power, and abolish a section of the constitution defining Belarus as a "nuclear-free zone," possibly paving the way for the return of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus.
The vote came against the backdrop of Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, with Moscow using Belarusian territory as a staging ground for parts of the attack.
"With the unprovoked attacks on Ukraine from Belarusian territory, we were able to see -- even before the official day of voting on the proposed constitutional amendments -- what those changes mean in Belarus," Fisher said.
"They mean the people of Belarus can be dragged into wars they do not want to fight against a neighboring country with which many Belarusians have close ties. It is clear this is not what the people of Belarus want," she added.
Lukashenka proposed the constitutional changes following domestic and international backlash over his violent crackdown on dissent after an August 2020 presidential election that he claims gave him a sixth consecutive term. The opposition says the vote was rigged.
With the results of the February 27 referendum never in doubt, many Belarusians heeded the call of opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to use the vote to protest the war against Ukraine.
Fisher lauded the efforts of the demonstrators, hundreds of whom were detained by police, calling the show of dissent "a significant development."
"While they were not as large as the protests after the fraudulent 2020 election, they came after months and months of the authorities arresting, beating, and torturing protesters and anybody else they thought was expressing disagreement with how they were operating," Fisher said.
"It takes great bravery to protest in public in such an environment. And, as they have since 2020, the people of Belarus demonstrated their courage by standing up for what they believe in. And, as they have done since 2020, hundreds of them paid a price for that, arrested by a regime that cannot tolerate even the slightest display of dissent or disagreement," she added.
The U.S. envoy, who was approved by the Senate in 2020 as the first U.S. ambassador to Belarus since 2008, has been unable to take up her post in Minsk because the Belarusian government has denied her a visa in response to the harsh economic sanctions Washington has imposed on Lukashenka and other members of his regime because of the election and subsequent crackdown on dissent.
Fisher's comments came after the United States announced on February 28 that it had suspended operations at the embassy in Minsk "due to security and safety issues stemming from the unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces in Ukraine."
She said Washington "had no choice but to close the embassy in Minsk because of the hostile and restrictive actions of the Belarusian authorities."
Fisher added that because the decision to suspend operations happened "quickly," there is still a range of pending issues that need to be worked out at the State Department on the path forward.
"Our diplomats in Minsk [on February 28] lowered the American flag and took it with them when they left Belarus. The flag flew there for more than 30 years, a visible sign of the American presence, the hand of friendship, and the assistance that the United States offered to the people of Belarus," she said.
"We look forward to the day when the U.S. flag once again flies over the United States Embassy in Minsk," Fisher added.
Copyright (c) 2022. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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