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World

Strongman tells loyalists Belarus beat foreign 'blitzkrieg'

  • Lukashenko last year faced the most serious threat to his rule since coming to power in the ex-Soviet country in 1994.
Published February 11, 2021
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MINSK: Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday his country had fought off a foreign "blitzkrieg", in a defiant address to loyalists following months of protests against his decades-long rule.

The authoritarian leader had promised to unveil reforms at the people's assembly in the capital Minsk, but his opening address to a packed auditorium of delegates in military and official uniforms instead focused on attempts to overthrow his government.

"The blitzkrieg did not succeed. We held on to our country," Lukashenko said, using language especially resonant in a country that suffered huge losses at the hands of German forces in World War II.

"Despite the tensions in society artificially created by external forces, we survived," Lukashenko said. "We have to resist at all costs. And 2021, this year, will be decisive."

Belarus's opposition, whose leaders have either been jailed or forced into exile in neighbouring EU countries, have dismissed the two-day All-Belarusian People's Assembly as a piece of political theatre.

Lukashenko last year faced the most serious threat to his rule since coming to power in the ex-Soviet country in 1994.

Tens of thousands took the streets across the country to demand Lukashenko's resignation after he claimed to have won a sixth presidential term in August elections opponents said were rigged.

The authorities unleashed a violent crackdown on protesters, detaining thousands, many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.

Lukashenko in November promised to change the constitution to calm the protests, just weeks after he was shown during a demonstration brandishing a Kalashnikov assault rifle and referring to protesters as rats.

At the assembly, which brought together 2,700 representatives mainly from state-backed sectors, he rebuffed the opposition's calls and appeared to push back a promised timeline for the constitution changes.

"We must closely consider issues of social development... think about the possibility of adjusting the basic law," Lukashenko told delegates, without specifying when the proposed changes would be revealed.

On the eve of the assembly, the Nexta Telegram channel, which mobilised and coordinated demonstrators over the months of rallies, called for fresh demonstrations.

"This is a gathering of unfortunate Lukashenko supporters who were rounded up for one purpose -- to amuse the pride of one person," Nexta wrote, encouraging residents of Minsk to take to the streets.

Belarus police promised to "suppress" any illegal activities and warned of potential road closures in the capital, officially due to expected heavy snowfall.

Lukashenko has held constitutional referendums twice before, both times pushing through changes that strengthened the presidency.

In 1996, he gave himself greater power to appoint judges, including the chair of the Constitutional Court.

A second referendum in 2004 allowed him to serve three terms instead of two.

The All-Belarusian People's Assembly is typically convened by Lukashenko during his presidential campaigns to give his candidacy a semblance of popular support.

But he opted last year to instead visit police and military units ahead of the vote.

As tens of thousands turned out for rallies in Minsk every weekend through the autumn, reaching up to more than 100,000 at their peak in a country of some 10 million, those security forces were vital in ensuring Lukashenko maintained his grip on power.

In a crackdown that left at least four protesters dead, riot police detained thousands of demonstrators, many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.

The European Union slapped sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies and EU diplomats met in Minsk on Sunday with the relatives of the Belarusians who died during the protests.

In comments to AFP, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis of EU-member Lithuania, which has sheltered exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and several hundred other activists, dismissed the assembly as an "attempt to imitate dialogue".

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