KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The authoritarian leader of Belarus on Thursday slammed six months of demonstrations against him as a foreign-directed “rebellion,” and he announced plans for constitutional reforms, which the opposition has rejected as window dressing.
Speaking to 2,700 participants of the All-Belarus People’s Assembly in the capital of Minsk, President Alexander Lukashenko alleged that “very powerful forces” abroad were behind the protests.
Lukashenko didn’t elaborate, but in the past several months, he has repeatedly accused the West of fomenting the protests.
“We must stand up to them no matter what, and this year will be decisive,” he said at the opening of the two-day assembly made up of delegates nominated by labor collectives in sync with state-controlled unions loyal to Lukashenko.
He convened the group to discuss plans for the country’s development, but the opposition has denounced it as an attempt to shore up his rule and soothe public anger with vague promises of reform.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for more than 26 years, vaguely promised Thursday to step down someday, saying that “the time will come and other people will come.” He said a set of constitutional changes would be drafted later this year and put to a nationwide vote in early 2022
The opposition has urged Belarusians to take to the streets to protest the assembly.
A tight police cordon surrounded the building where the gathering was held, but dozens of demonstrators formed “solidarity chains” in other parts of Minsk, waving the opposition’s red-and-white flags and chanting “Stop dictatorship!” and “Go away!” to demand Lukashenko’s resignation.
Police detained several people in Minsk and other cities, according to the Viasna human rights group.
Mass protests have gripped the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million people since official results from the Aug. 9 election gave Lukashenko a landslide victory. The main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and her supporters have dismissed the result as rigged, and some poll workers also have described voting manipulation.
Speaking at the assembly, Lukashenko defended the election’s validity, admitting that local officials could have tinkered with it to show him winning 80% of the vote but insisting he won a strong majority anyway.
“If some don’t like 80, let it be 76 or even 68!” he said. “But we won it anyway, we were backed by an overwhelming majority.”
Authorities have cracked down hard on the largely peaceful demonstrations, the biggest of which attracted up to 200,000 people. Police have used stun grenades, tear gas. water cannons and truncheons to disperse the rallies. According to human rights advocates, more than 30,000 people have been detained since the protests began, and thousands of them were brutally beaten.
During his tenure, Lukashenko has relentlessly stifled dissent and relied on cheap energy and other subsidies from his main ally, Russia.
On Thursday, he said the West had incited the protests in Belarus as a “bridgehead” against Russia.
“It’s deadly dangerous for Russia to lose Belarus,” Lukashenko said, adding that the two countries planned massive joint military drills later this year.
He thanked Moscow for its support in the face of protests but reaffirmed that the union agreement between the two countries shouldn’t limit Belarus’ independence.
The United States and the European Union have responded to the election and the crackdown by introducing sanctions against Belarusian officials.
The U.S. Embassy said in a statement that Thursday’s assembly is “neither genuine nor inclusive of Belarusian views and therefore does not address the country’s ongoing political crisis.”
While Lukashenko told the gathering that the West harbored aggressive intentions, he also urged the restoration of political ties and economic cooperation.
Observers described the assembly as part of Lukashenko’s maneuvering to secure his position without making any changes.
“Lukashenko has no intention to leave and doesn’t want to change the system. He’s ready to strengthen repressions,” said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent Minsk-based political analyst. “Lukashenko didn’t offer a plan of modernizing the country or any clear compromise with the society, and that means that the conflict remains unresolved and protests will continue.”