As part of his support for President Vladimir Putin’s war effort in Ukraine, President Lukashenko held a sham referendum on 27 February to allow Russian nuclear missiles on Belarusian territory. This sparked mass protests in the streets of the capital Minsk and elsewhere, with people chanting ‘No to war!’ ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ and ‘Long live Belarus!’ Direct action was also taken by some rail workers who sabotaged tracks and mounted online attacks to cripple computerised control systems, while some drivers refused to run trains carrying Russian military equipment. Trainloads of arms, troops and supplies were held up for weeks, aiding Ukraine’s ability to repel Russian assaults on Kyiv. The Community of Belarusian Railway Workers has now been branded an ‘extremist group’; and many Belarusians have been arrested, effectively accused of spying on behalf of the Ukrainian military by sending them images of Russian troop movements at the border.
Until May 2022, Belarus only had the death penalty for murder, but then it introduced laws that allow the use of capital punishment for ‘attempted terrorist acts’. Regime prosecutors have imprisoned 870 people under this law, and at least 60 people could now face execution.
Polls show fewer than one in 20 citizens support Belarusian soldiers fighting alongside Russian forces in Ukraine and, even within the Belarus military, there is opposition to joining the war. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the opposition party who has been in exile in Lithuania since the 2020 election many thought she had won, said at the Labour Conference in Liverpool on 28 September: ‘Our fates are intertwined. A threat to democracy in one country is a threat to the whole world. Without victory in Ukraine a free Belarus is impossible, and without a free Belarus there can be no lasting peace in Europe.’