‘To resign!’ Belarusian president booed by strikers

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Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko was fighting for his political future on Monday amid a wave of protests that showed no sign of abating as striking workers booed him.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, told a small group of workers at the Minsk wheel tractor factory that he was preparing a referendum on constitutional changes that would eventually see him cede power.

“We will put it to a referendum, we will adopt the constitution, and I will transfer my powers to you under the constitution.” But not under the pressure of the street! Lukashenko said, according to the official Belta news agency. “You can’t turn this constitution over to God knows who. Because there will be problems. I’m mostly afraid of that.

The president’s modest concessions – a variation of an idea he had promised to act on within five years of his campaign – failed to appease protesters who took to the streets asking him to resign after his campaign. contested electoral victory and the brutal police crackdown that followed. .

During his visit to the factory on Monday, Mr. Lukashenko was booed and confronted by protesters chanting “Resign!” Clearly shaken, the president replied, “Are you saying the elections were unfair and you want them fair?” Here is your answer. We had an election. Until you kill me, there won’t be another.

“Come, sit down, we will work on the constitution,” Lukashenko said. “Yes, I am not sacred. You know I can be hard, but you know if there was no hardness there would be no country [ . . .] I won’t be here forever, but if you overthrow your first president, you will overthrow everyone else, just like in other countries.

Protesters, one holding an old Belarusian flag, outside the factory © AP

Earlier Monday, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader who fled to Lithuania last week, said she was ready to lead Belarus through a period of transition.

In a YouTube post, Tikhanovskaya said she was “ready to shoulder her responsibilities and act as a national leader” after Western countries said they would not recognize the presidential election results of last Sunday.

“We all want to break out of this endless circle that we found ourselves in 26 years ago,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya said.

The 37-year-old former English teacher – who became an unlikely focal point for a wave of anger against Mr Lukashenko when she ran for president in place of her imprisoned husband and two others opposition candidates excluded – said she would release the others. 2,000 people arrested during the demonstrations and organizing “real, honest and transparent elections which will be accepted unconditionally by the international community”.

Ms Tikhanovskaya called on the Belarusian security apparatus to abandon Mr Lukashenko and help smooth the foundations for a power transition.

“Belarusians are fair and generous people who do not accept violence,” she said. “If you decide not to obey criminal orders and side with the people, they will forgive you, support you, and not say a word against you in the future.

Workers in Belarusian state-owned enterprises, which form the backbone of its economy and Lukashenko’s political base, continued their strike despite threats of dismissal so as not to return to work.

They were joined by employees of the normally flexible Belarusian state-owned television company, which was broadcasting from an empty studio as pop music was played as staff demonstrated outside the building.

No less than 200,000 people demonstrated Sunday in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, as well as tens of thousands in other cities of the country to demand the eviction of Mr. Lukashenko, a former head of collective farm who heads the Belarus for 26 years.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya voted in Minsk on August 9 © AFP via Getty Images

The unprecedented protests were galvanized when a brutal police crackdown turned on them and many of the nearly 7,000 people detained said they had been tortured by police in prison. The UK joined the EU and the US on Monday in condemning the post-election crackdown and said it will plan sanctions against those responsible.

“The world has observed with horror the violence used by Belarusian authorities to suppress the peaceful protests that followed this fraudulent presidential election,” British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said in a statement. “The UK will work with our international partners to sanction those responsible and hold Belarusian authorities to account.”

Lukashenko turned down all offers of mediation after Belarus’ electoral commission declared him the winner with 80% of the vote and called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to provide security assistance.

The Kremlin, which recognized Mr Lukashenko’s declaration of victory, said it would respect its treaty obligations to defend Belarus in the event of a foreign invasion, but did not say whether it would help Lkashenko suppress events.

Charles Michel, President of the European Council, said the EU would hold an extraordinary leaders’ meeting on Wednesday to discuss the situation.

Mr. Michel described the violence against the demonstrators as “unacceptable”, adding that “the Belarusian people have the right to decide their future and freely elect their leader”.

Meanwhile, in a joint statement, the leaders of the main political groups in the European Parliament called for new elections in Belarus under the supervision of independent observers.

“We call on the EU to support a peaceful transition of power and to engage in dialogue with the Belarusian opposition and civil society with a view to launching a new electoral process, under the supervision of a new electoral commission – a body which can be trusted by all parties, ”the statement said.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, called for political change in Belarus and called for an investigation into allegations of human rights violations there.

“With increasingly shocking reports of inhuman conditions and treatment in places of detention, the European Union expects a thorough and transparent investigation into all alleged abuses, in order to hold those responsible to account” , he said in a statement Monday.

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