Belarus leader: Ready to share power, but not under pressure

Lukashenko says work is already under way on possible changes to the constitution that could redistribute power.

Lukashenko addresses his supporters gathered at Independent Square of Minsk on Sunday [Dmitri Lovetsky/AP Photo]

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has said he would be willing to share power and change the constitution, but that he was not prepared to do so under pressure from protesters, according to Belta news agency.

Lukashenko on Monday said work was already under way on possible changes to the constitution that could redistribute power, Belta reported.

The embattled leader made the remarks at a tractor plant in Minsk where he also told workers that there would be no new presidential election after a disputed August 9 vote.

“We held elections already. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections,” he was quoted by the media outlet as saying.

Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen reporting from Minsk said that while Lukashenko says he wants to redistribute power after the constitution is changed, this is a long process which could take years.

“Many people here see that as efforts by him to buy time,” Vaessen said.

However, the RIA news agency later reported him saying that a new election would be held after the country adopts a new constitution.

Nearly 5,000 workers from the Minsk Tractor Works plant, which has been on strike since Monday morning, marched down the streets, demanding that Lukashenko step down and cede his post to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the leading opposition candidate.

Belarus Protest
People protest near an MZKT plant – where heavy off-road vehicles are made – in Minsk [Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters]

It was the ninth consecutive day of protesting against the results of an election that extended his 26-year rule.

The official results of the August 9 vote gave Lukashenko 80 percent of the votes and Tikhanovskaya only 10 percent, but the opposition claimed the vote was rigged.

“Lukashenko is a former president, he needs to go,” Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the protest at the Minsk Tractor Works plant, told The The Associated Press news agency on Monday. “Sveta (Tikhanovskaya) is our president, legitimate and elected by the people.”

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, entered the race after her husband – who planned to run himself – was jailed in Belarus. She managed to galvanise nationwide support, drawing tens of thousands to her campaign rallies.

Large-scale protests against the vote results continued even after she left the country for Lithuania last week, a move her campaign said was made under duress.

Belarus Minsk protest
Workers from the Minsk Tractor Works Plant carry an old Belarusian national flag [Sergei Grits/AP]

Reporting outside of state media headquarters in Minsk, Vaessen said that 130 state media employees had walked out in the morning in protest, leaving an empty studio.

“They were joined here by other protesters who have now demanded the television station to tell the truth, stop lying and stop spreading propaganda. Later they were also joined by thousands of workers from strategic factories around the capital,” Vaessen said.

“Some metal workers have also completely stopped working so the industry is not producing anything right now. This is really turning into a very serious headache for President Lukashenko who sees the pressure on him to resign only increasing.”

On Monday workers heckled and jeered Lukashenko as he visited a factory and strikes grew across Belarus.

Lukashenko had flown by helicopter to a factory in the capital of Minsk to rally support, but he was met by angry workers chanting, “Go away!”

He told the workers that those who intend to strike could leave if they want, but said that the protests are ruining the economy and the country would collapse if he steps down.

“I will never cave in to pressure,” Lukashenko said.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, right, addresses workers of the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. Lukashenko visited Wheel Tractor Plant on Monday
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses workers of the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant in Minsk, Belarus [Nikolai Petrov/AP]

Thousands of protesters again converged on the capital’s main Independence Square in the evening.

“We don’t want any new constitutions or referendums. We want Lukashenko’s resignation,” 45-year-old factory worker Dmitry Averkin told the AP news agency.

“The faster he steps down, the sooner the country comes back to normal life.”

The protests have posed the biggest challenge yet to Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule of the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million.

Belarusian authorities initially tried to suppress the rallies, arresting almost 7,000 people in the first days of the protests.

Police moved aggressively, using stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, injuring scores of people.

However, as protests grew and the harsh crackdown drew criticism in the West, law enforcement refrained from interfering with the crowds and appeared all but absent during a rally on Sunday that attracted about 200,000 people.

Belarus protesters
People protest against presidential election results. The placard reads: “Long Live Belarus!” [Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters]

Tikhanovskaya said in a video statement on Monday she was ready to facilitate a rerun of the disputed election.

“I’m ready to take on the responsibility and act as a national leader in order for the country to calm down, return to its normal rhythm, in order for us to free all the political prisoners and prepare legislation and conditions for organising new presidential elections,” she said.

Lukashenko bristled at the idea of talks with the opposition, insisting his government was the only legitimate one, and rejected the idea of repeating the election at a rally in his support on Sunday.

The embattled president told a crowd of 50,000 that the country would “perish as a state” otherwise, and denounced the protesters as stooges of foreign masterminds.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies