Authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko has told citizens they will have to kill him for Belarus to have another election, after he was heckled and jeered by factory workers following 26 years of iron rule.
As striking workers fed growing mass protests over the allegedly rigged results of the presidential election on 9 August, which entered their ninth straight day, Mr Lukashenko flew by helicopter to a Minsk factory in a bid to rally support.
But he was met by angry workers, who booed and chanted for him to “go away” and “step down”, as exiled opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya offered to lead the nation.
“I will never cave in to pressure,” he told workers at the large state-run plant – the likes of which are the pride of his Soviet-style economic model and core support base.
“Some of you might have got the impression that the government no longer exists, that it has tumbled down. The government will never collapse, you know me well,” the 65-year-old former state farm director shouted. “There will be no new election until you kill me.”
But Mr Lukashenko’s defiance appeared to dwindle somewhat, as he offered an apparent concession to hold new elections and hand over power after a constitutional referendum.
“We’ll put the changes to a referendum, and I’ll hand over my constitutional powers. But not under pressure or because of the street,” Lukashenko said, in remarks quoted by the official Belta news agency.
“Yes, I’m not a saint. You know my harsh side. I’m not eternal. But if you drag down the first president, you’ll drag down neighbouring countries and all the rest.”
It came as British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that the UK government does not recognise the official result of the “fraudulent” election, calling for an international probe into the “grisly” detention of protesters by state security forces.
“The world has watched with horror at the violence used by the Belarusian authorities to suppress the peaceful protests that followed this fraudulent presidential election,” Mr Raab said.
“The UK does not accept the results. We urgently need an independent investigation through the OSCE into the flaws that rendered the election unfair, as well as the grisly repression that followed.
“The UK will work with our international partners to sanction those responsible, and hold the Belarusian authorities to account.”
Election officials barred Mr Lukashenko’s two main challengers from the election, leaving a former English teacher to replace her husband – a jailed opposition blogger – as the opposition candidate.
The country’s Central Election Commission said Mr Lukashenko had won 80 per cent of the vote and Ms Tsikhanouskaya just 10 per cent – but this was heavily contested, with the opposition claiming Ms Tsikhanouskaya had actually won by 60 to 70 per cent in some precincts.
Despite leaving for neighbouring Lithuania two days later under alleged pressure from law enforcement, the 37-year-old has managed to unite the fragmented opposition in Belarus and has said she is ready to act as an interim leader.
On Sunday, an opposition protest is believed to have drawn 200,000 people, the largest in the country’s history.
The demonstrations have been joined by those taking part in mass strikes at state-controlled factories in support of Ms Tsikhanouskaya – among other those in other groups previously viewed as pro-Lukashenko, such as police and journalists at state-affiliated outlets.
The strikes follow peaceful post-election demonstrations met with a brutal police crackdown with rubber bullets, tear gas, clubs and stun grenades.
At least 7,000 people were detained, with many complaining they were beaten mercilessly.
Hundreds were wounded and protester Alexander Taraikovsky was killed after suffering a bullet wound to the chest, his partner said.
Authorities’ relented on their initial claim that an explosive intended for police had detonated in his hands after it was disproved by video footage.
After such abuses provoked widespread anger, the government permitted large-scale protests at the weekend and reported that it had released all but 122 detainees.
“Lukashenko is a former president. He needs to go,” said Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of a protest at the Minsk Tractor Plant, where 5,000 workers walked out.
Insisting that Ms Tsikhanouskaya is “our president, legitimate and elected by the people”, Mr Dylevsky voiced growing concern that Russia could send in troops to prop up his Mr Lukashenko’s rule.
After two phone calls between Mr Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin this weekend, the Kremlin said Moscow stood ready to provide support in the face of what he described as foreign aggression.
Mr Lukashenko also claimed that Nato nations are beefing up military forces on the border with Belarus – a claim the alliance rejected, saying it remained “vigilant, strictly defensive, and ready to deter any aggression against Nato allies”.
European Union leaders have also reportedly decided to warn Russia against meddling in the country’s affairs, in an emergency video conference scheduled on Wednesday.
Ahead of the Brussels conference, EU leaders have agreed to impose sanctions on Belarusian officials it deems responsible for election fraud and the crackdown on protesters.
The EU’s top diplomat, Joseph Borrell, joined Mr Raab in calling for a “thorough and transparent investigation” into the violence.
Additional reporting by agencies
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