KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Belarus' authoritarian leader on Thursday denounced six months of protests against his rule as a foreign-directed “rebellion” and announced plans for a constitutional reform, which the opposition rejected as a window dressing.
Speaking to 2,700 participants of the All-Belarus People's Assembly, President Alexander Lukashenko charged that “very powerful forces” abroad were behind the protests. Lukashenko didn’t elaborate, but over 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.
Lukashenko convened the gathering 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 reforms.
He said that 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 gathering.
The area around the building where the assembly was held was surrounded by tight police cordons, 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.
Mass protests have gripped the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million people since official results from the Aug. 9 presidential 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 manipulations of the vote.
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 that 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 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.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for more than 26 years, relentlessly stifling dissent and relying on cheap energy and other subsidies from his main ally, Russia. Speaking Thursday, 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 vote manipulations and the crackdown on protests by introducing sanctions against Belarusian officials.
Speaking Thursday, Lukashenko accused the West of harboring aggressive intentions, but at the same time urged it to restore 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.”