Lukashenko claims Belarus has suffered ‘blitzkrieg’ from West

Critics say Russian-allied autocrat is playing for time with regime-led reform debate

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko attends the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly in Minsk on Thursday. Photograph: Maxim Guchek/Pool/EPA

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko attends the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly in Minsk on Thursday. Photograph: Maxim Guchek/Pool/EPA

 

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has accused opposition protesters and western powers of launching a “blitzkrieg” against his country, as he opened a new assembly to discuss reforms that critics dismissed as a sham.

Mr Lukashenko faced the biggest protests of his 26-year rule after claiming victory in a fraud-riddled election last August, and responded with a brutal police crackdown in which at least four people died, hundreds were injured and some 25,000 arrested.

With the country’s main opposition leaders and activists now in jail or forced into exile, Mr Lukashenko launched the so-called All-Belarusian People’s Assembly on Thursday and called on its 2,700 delegates – mostly loyal local officials selected through an opaque process – to map out the road ahead for the nation of 9.5 million.

“Relying on certain domestic forces, [foreign nations] attempted... a mutiny in the form of a blitzkrieg. The blitzkrieg failed. We held on to our country – for now,” Mr Lukashenko told the assembly.

“We are going through a very serious and critical period in the life of our state... which could be compared to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he added, in a speech that portrayed Belarus as a small, vulnerable nation threatened by hostile western powers and reliant on his autocratic regime and on Russia for its future safety.

Russian support

Mr Lukashenko (66) received pledges of financial and security support from Russia during the protests, which he and the Kremlin blamed on EU and Nato “meddling”.

“Russia will continue to be our main economic partner and strategic ally... As long as we stand shoulder-to-shoulder or back-to-back, no one will be able to put us on our knees,” the former Soviet state farm boss told the packed auditorium.

He invited delegates to debate possible political, economic and social reforms and said a new draft constitution would “be discussed with the entire nation in the course of this year. And we will put it to a referendum early next year at the latest.”

He has given no indication of being ready to step down, however, and told the assembly he would consider doing so only if there were “peace in the country, order [and] no protests” and that guarantees were in place to ensure his successors “could not touch a single hair” belonging to his supporters.

“Lukashenko is gathering loyalists... to legitimise the usurper in the eyes of the people,” said Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. “Because Lukashenko understands that he lost people’s support, and he is still clinging onto power by all possible means.”

The US embassy in Minsk, the country’s capital, said the assembly was “neither genuine nor inclusive of Belarusian views and therefore does not address the country’s ongoing political crisis.”