MOSCOW: Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko on Monday denounced international sanctions on his authoritarian regime, as Western nations announced new penalties over a crackdown on dissent that began a year ago when the country erupted in protests against his rule.
In power since 1994, the moustachioed ruler has jailed hundreds since mass demonstrations broke out over an election last August that many observers say were rigged.
Western governments have punished his regime with waves of sanctions and on Monday the United States, Britain and Canada slapped new penalties on Belarus.
Among the targets was the Belarusian National Olympic Committee, headed by Lukashenko’s son, which was accused of participating in an attempt to force a sprinter home from the Tokyo Olympics.
The White House accused the committee of an “assault against the democratic aspirations and human rights of the Belarusian people”.
The UK government said it would stop Belarusian air carriers from flying over or landing in Britain and broadened a litany of financial sanctions because of “the continued undermining of democracy and human rights violations”.
And Canada said it was targeting key sectors of the Belarus economy over the regime’s “blatant disregard for human rights”.
But the 66-year-old Belarusian leader vowed to resist international pressure, insisting he won a “totally transparent” vote and saying “we will never get on our knees”.
“You will choke on these sanctions,” Lukashenko said at his annual press conference, a marathon event that lasted for more than eight hours.
“You are risking starting World War III,” he said. “Is that what you are trying to push us and the Russians to?”
Western sanctions so far appear to have had limited effect on Lukashenko’s rule, however, as the government has Russia’s backing.
Lukashenko, who has strived to present the crisis as part of strained relations between the West and Moscow, said Belarus would ask Russia for further financial support.
“You will not tear us away from Russia,” he said.
The death of a Belarusian activist in Ukraine last week and the defection of Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to Poland thrust the country back into the international spotlight.
“He was a nobody for us,” Lukashenko said of 26-year-old Vitaly Shishov, who was found hanged in a Kiev park. “We have enough people to deal with without Shishov.”
He then accused runner Tsimanouskaya of being “controlled” by Warsaw.
In an interview with AFP on Monday, Tsimanouskaya said she would only return home when it was “safe and free”.
The Belarus leader — who claims to have won more than 80 percent of the 2020 vote — accused the opposition of trying to stage a “coup” last year.
The opposition believes Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — who had stood in the election in the place of her jailed husband and now lives in exile in Lithuania — to be the real winner.
Tikhanovskaya has been rallying Western support and recently met US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.