At least 800 people were arrested in Belarus on Monday for protesting the result of a referendum that approved a new constitution renouncing the country’s non-nuclear status.
The approval of the referendum, with 65.2% voted in favor of changing the constitution, comes at a time when Belarus has become a launching pad for Russia in invading Ukraine.
The new constitution could mean the presence again of nuclear weapons in Belarus for the first time since the country gave them up after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Sunday he could ask Russia to return the nuclear weapons to Belarus.
“If the West transfers nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania, to our borders, then I will turn to (President Vladimir) Putin to return the nuclear weapons that I gave away without any conditions,” Lukashenko said.
But the West has already said it will not recognize the results of the referendum.
The new constitution gives powers to an assembly that Lukashenko created, which was populated by party loyalists, officials and pro-government activists.
It will also give Lukashenko lifetime immunity from prosecution once he leaves office.
The result of Sunday’s referendum sent thousands of residents into the streets to protest. Videos and photos were posted on social media showing dozens of people gathered at polling stations in Minsk and other cities in Belarus.
Some of the videos showed the crowd chanting “No to war.”
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main rival of Lukashenko in the 2020 election who is on exile, has called on Belarusians to use the referendum vote to protest against Russia’s invasion on Ukraine.
Elena, 45, a Belarusian who protested the result of the referendum, decried the idea of them being “accomplices.”
“There is little we can do now, with all this terror and horror in which we live. But I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t try to do something. We are already considered accomplices,” she said.
The result of the referendum has sparked the biggest protests in months after Lukashenko imposed a sweeping crackdown on dissent against his 28-year reign.
In 2020, mass protests erupted in Belarus after the elections, which Lukashenko’s opponents said he himself rigged.