Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko rejected calls to step down in a defiant speech to supporters on Sunday as tens of thousands of opponents rallied for the biggest demonstration yet against his disputed re-election.
The strongman who has ruled the ex-Soviet country for the last 26 years is facing an unprecedented challenge to his leadership from a growing protest movement fanned by a brutal police crackdown.
In a rare campaign-style rally in front of flag-waving supporters in central Minsk, Lukashenko said: “I called you here not to defend me… but for the first time in a quarter-century, to defend your country and its independence.”
Lukashenko’s press service said 50,000 people had taken part in the rally, though an AFP reporter estimated the number was closer to 10,000.
Standing at a podium in a short-sleeved shirt, Lukashenko insisted on the legitimacy of last Sunday’s presidential poll in which he claimed victory over main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya with 80% of the vote.
“The elections were valid. There could not be more than 80% of votes falsified. We will not hand over the country,” he said.
As he spoke, tens of thousands of people walked down Independence Avenue for a “March for Freedom” called by the opposition to keep up pressure after a week of demonstrations.
Columns of protesters raised victory signs and held flowers and balloons. Many wore white, the colour that has come to symbolise the opposition movement.
Demonstrators held placards with slogans such as “We are against violence” and “Lukashenko must answer for the torture and dead”.
At a war memorial where the march was to culminate, an AFP journalist estimated that up to 100,000 people had gathered.
With pressure growing from the street and abroad after the European Union said it would impose new sanctions, Lukashenko has reached out to Russia and Moscow said Sunday it was ready to provide military help if needed.
The Kremlin said that in a call with Lukashenko, President Vladimir Putin had expressed Russia’s “readiness to provide the needed assistance” including “if necessary” through the CSTO military alliance between six ex-Soviet states.
On Saturday, Lukashenko said Putin had promised in a phone call to help to “ensure the security of Belarus.”
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets over the last week to denounce the election result and support Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran after other potential candidates including her husband were jailed.
A violent police crackdown on protesters saw more 6,700 people arrested, hundreds wounded and two people dead.
From exile in Lithuania, where she fled on Tuesday, Tikhanovskaya called for a weekend of peaceful rallies including Sunday’s march in Minsk on the one-week anniversary of the vote.
Thousands of opposition supporters had demonstrated in Minsk on Saturday, with many gathering at the spot where a 34-year-old protester died during unrest on Monday.
Many held up photographs of bruised protesters beaten during the crackdown, after Amnesty International accused authorities of carrying out “a campaign of widespread torture” to crush the opposition.
Call for mass strikes
Thousands also protested on Saturday evening outside the Belarusian state television centre, complaining that their broadcasts backed Lukashenko and gave a skewed picture of the protests. Around 100 staff came out of the building to join the crowd, and said they planned a strike on Monday.
The opposition has called for mass strikes and on Friday hundreds of workers at state-run factories walked off the job, in a first sign that Lukashenko’s traditional support base was turning against him.
European governments have condemned the election and police crackdown, and EU ministers on Friday agreed to draw up a list of targets in Belarus for a new round of sanctions.
Opposition newspaper Nasha Niva posted a video of the Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia, Igor Leshchenya, saying he was “shocked by stories of torture and beatings” and expressing his solidarity with the protesters.
Tikhanovskaya has 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.
She has said she will organise new elections if Lukashenko steps down.