PARIS (AFP) - As Russia presses ahead with its invasion of Ukraine, concerns are growing that neighbouring Belarus is also at risk of gradually losing its sovereignty without being the direct target of a military operation by Moscow.
Autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko, in power for almost three decades, allowed Russian troops to use Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine from the north.
Russia had grouped some 30,000 troops in Belarus ostensibly for exercises in the last weeks. They had been due to leave earlier this month but their presence was then extended indefinitely.
Furthermore, Belarus will on Sunday (Feb 27) hold a referendum, denounced as illegitimate by the opposition and seen as a bid for Mr Lukashenko to further extend his stay in power and arrange an eventual transition.
The amendments proposed by the regime include a change to the post-Soviet status of neutrality of Belarus which would allow the country to host Russian nuclear weapons and Russian forces on a permanent basis.
This has come amid an already suffocating political atmosphere in the country after the August 2020 elections that the West believes were rigged to ensure Mr Lukashenko's re-election.
More than 1,000 opponents of his regime languish in jail, according to activists, while the candidate seen by the West as the true winner of the elections, Ms Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, now lives in exile.
'Accomplices and vassals'
The Kremlin backed strongman Mr Lukashenko after the elections, leaving him "dependent" on Mr Putin to stay in power, said Ms Olga Dryndova, editor of Belarus-Analysen at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen.
"Moscow does not need to make Belarus officially part of Russia, which would cause public discontent and resistance," she told AFP.
"With Russian tanks in Belarus, Lukashenko could remain the face of the regime with the real power lying elsewhere."
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday that Belarus and its people deserve better than to become the "accomplices and vassals" of Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to wage war.
"The complicity of Alexander Lukashenko's regime in the invasion of Ukraine by Russia - in the most total disregard of international law and signed agreements - marks a new and very serious stage in the process of the submission of Mr Lukashenko to Russia," he added.
Le Drian said the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) would have to "draw the consequences" of the referendum in the Alliance's defence stance. Belarus shares a border with Nato members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland as well as Ukraine and Russia.
'Can't say no to Putin'
In an interview with AFP this week, Ms Tikhanovskaya said Mr Lukashenko was prepared to sacrifice the country's sovereignty because he was "grateful" for the Kremlin's support in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
"We want to be friends with our neighbours but we do not want to be the appendix of another country," she said during the visit to Paris where she held talks with Mr Le Drian.
Mr Lukashenko, once accused by the United States of running Europe's last dictatorship, has long projected a maverick image - often appearing in uniform and peppering his comments with earthy and sometimes vulgar expressions.
As tensions flared ahead of the Russian invasion he declared: "If needed, those of us with ranking stripes on our uniform will be first to defend the fatherland."
But this belies how beholden he is to Moscow, which analysts believe could have easily replaced him with a different figure in the fallout after the 2020 elections.
Ms Tikhanovskaya said Mr Lukashenko was likely aware that the presence of the Russian troops represented a threat to his own rule.
"He is weak and he may also think that one day when the Kremlin does not need him, they can get rid of him," she told AFP.
Ms Dryndova said it was likely the Belarusian authorities had not initially imagined the Russian soldiers would stay so long and use the country as a launch pad against Ukraine.
"I do not have the feeling Lukashenko was in favour of this option. But he is not strong enough any more to say no to Putin," she said.