Lukashenko addresses supporters amid rival rallies in Belarus

23 min

Embattled Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, speaking at a rally of his supporters in Minsk ahead of a planned opposition protest on Sunday, rejected calls to hold a new presidential election and accused NATO of massing on his country's western border.

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Lukashenko addressed his supporters near the Government House in Independence Square hours before tens of thousands of opposition protesters began gathering in the same area of the capital chanting “Leave!”.

The opposition “March for Freedom” marked a week-long display of dissent against Lukashenko – dubbed “Europe’s last dictator – since last Sunday’s vote, which protesters say were rigged.

The strongman, who has ruled Belarus for the last 26 years, is facing the greatest challenge to his leadership following a post-electoral police crackdown in which at least two people have died.

"I'm not a fan of rallies but, alas, it's not my fault I had to call you to help me," the 65-year-old said as some 10,000 supporters waved national flags and shouted "Thank you!" and "Belarus!".

Defiant Lukashenko refuses to backdown despite the protests

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Wiping his brow, the president standing at a podium in a short-sleeved shirt, insisted on the legitimacy of last Sunday's presidential poll in which he claimed victory over popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

"The elections were valid. There could not be more than 80 percent of votes falsified. We will not hand over the country," he said, as Tikhanovskaya has called for fresh elections after the official count gave Lukashenko 80 percent and her 10 percent.

‘NATO troops are at our gates’

Lukashenko warned of a threat from neighbouring NATO countries, claiming the military alliance had deployed tanks and planes 15 minutes from the Belarusian border.

"NATO troops are at our gates. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and our native Ukraine are ordering us to hold new elections," he said.

Lukashenko looked rattled as he talked about the threat of protests to the country
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A spokeswoman for the Brussels-based military alliance however denied Lukashenko’s claim, saying there was no NATO buildup in eastern Europe.

NATO member Lithuania also denied it posed a military threat to neighbouring Belarus. "The Belarus crisis is a political one, and any allegations by the Belarus leadership about foreign countries' interference or about threats they pose are an attempt to shift blame and justify its own actions," said Lithuanian Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis

At the rally on Independence Square Sunday, Lukashenko said Belarus would "die as a state" if new polls were held.

"I have never betrayed you and will never do so," he said.

Often emotional in state TV appearances, the president had already alleged a foreign-backed plot to topple him.

He then asked his supporters, many of them bused into the capital, according to local journalists, if they wanted new elections. "No!" the crowd shouted.

"If we kowtow to them, we will go into a tailspin and will never stabilise our aircraft," he said.

"We will perish as a state, as a people, as a nation," he said, as security staff stood nearby with his teenage son, Nikolai.

Protests at state TV building

His address came a day after thousands demonstrated in Minsk after Tikhanovskaya's call for protests.

Many gathered at the spot where Alexander Taraikovsky, 34, died last week during protests against  the election result.

Demonstrators heaped flowers at the spot and the crowd chanted "Thank you!" and raised victory signs. Police kept a low profile.

Belarus' Lukashenko reaches out to Putin
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Many held up photographs of protesters beaten during the crackdown, while one man stood in his underwear revealing the purple bruises on his thighs, buttocks and back.

Later thousands protested outside the Belarusian state television centre, complaining that their broadcasts backed Lukashenko and gave a skewed picture of the protests.

‘If Russia intervenes, that would be the worst’

Facing the biggest challenge to his rule since taking power in 1994, Lukashenko called in Moscow's help and spoke on the phone with Putin Saturday, after warning there was "a threat not only to Belarus".

He later told military chiefs that Putin had offered "comprehensive help" to "ensure the security of Belarus".

The Kremlin said the leaders agreed the "problems" in Belarus would be "resolved soon" and the countries' ties strengthened.

While Lukashenko periodically plays Moscow off against the neighbouring EU, Russia is Belarus's closest ally and the countries have formed a "union state" linking their economies and militaries.

Lukashenko criticised Russia during his election campaign and Belarus detained 33 Russians on suspicion of planning riots ahead of polls.

Opposition protesters slammed Lukashenko for now seeking Moscow's aid and said they fear Russian intervention.

"It's obvious that our president can't deal with his own people any more, he's seeking help in the east," said Alexei Linich, a 27-year-old programmer.

"If Russia intervenes, that would be the worst. I'm really afraid of this," said Olga Nesteruk, a landscape designer.

'Will not give up the country'

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday that the European Union should support these demonstrations in Belarus.

"The European Union must continue to be mobilised in support of the hundreds of thousands of Belarusians who are protesting peacefully for the respect of their rights, liberty and sovereignty," Macron said on his Twitter feed.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday urged Lukashenko to "engage with civil society", during a trip to Poland, which has offered to act as a mediator.

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran after other opposition candidates including her husband were jailed, has demanded that Lukashenko step down so new elections can be held. Tikhanovskaya left the country on Tuesday for neighbouring Lithuania, with her allies saying she came under official pressure. 

'Main demand is clear and transparent elections', Belarus opposition protester says
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She is also demanding authorities be held to account for the crackdown, which saw police use rubber bullets, stun grenades and, in at least one case, live rounds to disperse protesters, with at least 6,700 people detained and hundreds injured.

Officials have confirmed two deaths in the unrest, including Taraikovsky -- who they say died when an explosive device went off in his hand during a protest -- and another man who died in custody in the southeastern city of Gomel.

Call for 'free and fair' vote

On Friday authorities began releasing hundreds of those arrested and many gave horrific accounts of beatings and torture.

European Union ministers have agreed to draw up a list of targets in Belarus for a new round of sanctions in response to the post-election crackdown.

The leaders of the three ex-Soviet Baltic states – Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – on Saturday condemned the crackdown and called for a new vote.

Lukashenko has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-controlled "sheep" and "people with a criminal past who are now unemployed", repeatedly accusing foreign governments of plotting his downfall.

Tikhanovskaya on Friday announced the creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to "help us in organising a dialogue with Belarusian authorities".

She demanded the authorities release all detainees, remove security forces from the streets and open criminal cases against those who ordered the crackdown.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)