Belarus leader Lukashenko says new elections to be held following constitutional referendum
Wave of protests after election challenge President Alexander Lukashenko's 26-year rule
Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus, said on Monday he would be ready to hold new elections and hand over power after a constitutional referendum, an attempt to pacify mass protests and strikes that pose the biggest challenge yet to his rule.
He made the offer, which he insisted would not be delivered on while he was under pressure from protesters, after exiled opposition politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said she was willing to lead the country.
In a sign of his growing vulnerability, Lukashenko was heckled and yelled at during a speech to workers at one of the large state-run factories that are the pride of his Soviet-style economic model and core support base.
He faces the threat of European Union sanctions after a bloody crackdown on protests following what demonstrators say was his rigged re-election victory last week. He denies losing, citing official results that gave him just over 80 per cent of the vote.
WATCH | Workers at Minsk factory heckle Belarus president off stage:
On Monday, the EU called for a "thorough and transparent investigation" into reports of abuse and mistreatment of thousands of protesters detained following the contested presidential vote.
"These peaceful demonstrations had clear demands: the release of all unlawfully detained people, the prosecution of those responsible for police brutality and holding of new presidential elections," the bloc's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said in a statement.
The sheer numbers of those protesting "clearly show that the Belarusian population wants change and wants it now. The EU stands by them."
Canada calls for 'free and fair elections'
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne also issued a statement on Monday saying Canada does not accept the results of the "fraudulent" presidential election in Belarus.
Champagne, who spoke with Tikhanovskaya over the weekend, said Canada is calling for "free and fair elections" in the country and condemns the crackdown on protesters.
He also called for a thorough investigation by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose assessments of elections are widely regarded as authoritative.
European Council President Charles Michel convened the emergency summit of EU leaders earlier on Monday to discuss the presidential election in Belarus and the crackdown in the wake of the polls.
Michel tweeted that "the people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader."
I will call a meeting of the members of the European Council this Wednesday 12h00 to discuss the situation in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Belarus?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Belarus</a><br><br>The people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader<br><br>Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed—@eucopresident
The meeting came as thousands of factory workers in Belarus took to the streets and hundreds of demonstrators besieged the state television headquarters Monday, raising the pressure on authoritarian Lukashenko to step down after 26 years in office.
On the ninth straight day of protests against the official results of the Aug. 9 presidential vote handing him a sixth term, Lukashenko flew by helicopter to a factory in the capital in a bid to rally support but was confronted by workers chanting, "Go away!"
No elections 'until you've killed me'
Facing the angry crowd, the 65-year-old former state farm director dismissed the calls to step down.
As he spoke, over 5,000 striking workers from the Minsk Tractor Works plant marched down the streets of Minsk, demanding that Lukashenko cede his post to Tikhanovskaya, the leading opposition candidate.
"We've held elections," he told the workers earlier Monday. "Until you've killed me, there won't be any new elections."
But Lukashenko offered to change the constitution, an apparent concession that seems unlikely to satisfy protesters who say it's something he has spoken about before.
"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.
WATCH | Mounting pressure for Belarus president to resign:
"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."
He also said people could hold parliamentary and presidential elections after the referendum if that was what they wanted.
On Monday evening, thousands marched to the Okrestina detention facility where protesters were kept last week and complained of beatings, cramped conditions and starvation rations. The government denies abuse.
The 27 EU foreign ministers said on Friday that the recent elections were neither free nor fair and that they refuse to accept the results of the polls as announced by the Belarus electoral commission.
Officials in Washington and the EU also want Russia not to meddle in what U.S. President Donald Trump called a "terrible situation," after Moscow told Lukashenko it was ready to provide military help against an external threat.
Russia is watching closely, as Belarus hosts pipelines that carry Russian energy exports to the West and is viewed by Moscow as a buffer zone against NATO. Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke twice this weekend.
Opposition politician says she's ready to lead
"Lukashenko is a former president. He needs to go," Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the protest at the Minsk Tractor Works plant, told The Associated Press on Monday. "Sveta [Tikhanovskaya] is our president, legitimate and elected by the people."
Tikhanovskaya said in a video statement Monday she was ready to facilitate a rerun of the disputed election.
"I'm ready to take on the responsibility and act as a national leader in order for the country to calm down, return to its normal rhythm, in order for us to free all the political prisoners and prepare legislation and conditions for organizing new presidential elections," she said.
At a rally on Sunday, Lukashenko bristled at the idea of talks with the opposition, insisting his government was the only legitimate one and rejected the idea of repeating the election.
The embattled president told a crowd of 50,000 that the country would "perish as a state" otherwise, denounced the protesters as stooges of foreign masterminds and dismissed the strikes as insignificant.
"So, 150 [people] at some factory, even 200 don't make a difference," he was quoted as saying by Belta.
Thousands of workers from several other plants in the meantime gathered outside, shouting, "We're not sheep. We're people," and "Strike!"
Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, entered the presidential race after her husband's jailing in Belarus. She managed to galvanize nationwide support, drawing tens of thousands to her campaign rallies.
Large-scale protests against the vote results continued even after she left the country for Lithuania last week, a move her campaign said was made under duress.
The protests have posed the biggest challenge yet to Lukashenko's iron-fisted rule of the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million.
Belarusian authorities initially tried to suppress the rallies, detaining almost 7,000 people in the first days of the protests. Police moved aggressively, using stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, injuring scores of people.
However, as protests grew and the harsh crackdown drew criticism in the West, law enforcement refrained from interfering with the crowds and appeared all but absent during a rally on Sunday that attracted some 200,000 people.
Meanwhile, the partner of a demonstrator who died during a protest says she will push for an independent probe of his death.
When 34-year-old Alexander Taraikovsky died on Aug. 10, the authorities initially claimed that he was killed when an explosive device he intended to throw at police blew up in his hands.
On Sunday, the country's interior minister stepped back from the initial official version, acknowledging that Taraikovsky might have been killed by a rubber bullet.
Taraikovsky's partner, Elena German, told The Associated Press that the minister was trying to dodge responsibility for what she described as a cold-blooded murder of an unarmed protester.
With files from The Associated Press