Belarus: Lukashenko hints at new elections after constitutional change | News | DW | 17.08.2020
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Belarus: Lukashenko hints at new elections after constitutional change

Embattled Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko initially dismissed the idea of new elections but then appeared to backpedal and called for constitutional changes. See how Monday's events unfolded here.

  • Belarusian President Lukashenko has mooted the idea of fresh elections
  • EU leaders are to hold an emergency summit on Belarus on Wednesday where they might consider wider sanctions
  • Factory workers and state media employees have joined a general strike
  • Opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has urged security forces to join her side

All updates in Universal Coordinated Time (UTC/GMT)

20:30 As thousands of Belarusians take to the streets for a ninth consecutive night of protests, we have wrapped up our live updates for Monday. See how it unfolded below.

Protesters head to a prison in Minsk

Protesters gathered in Minsk for the ninth day in a row

19:20 The German government has denied an earlier report by Russian news agency Interfax that Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on the telephone, Reuters news agency reported.

"A telephone call has not taken place since the election," a German government spokesperson said. The Interfax report cited Lukashenko as saying that he had been called by Merkel on Sunday. The election took place on August 9.

In the alleged call, Merkel said "I want to talk" to the Belarusian leader, who is facing calls to resign. The German government has called for an investigation into claims that the election was rigged.

19:05 As night falls in Belarus, protests are continuing for the ninth day in a row. Social media footage shows people walking for kilometers to the notorious Akrescina prison.

Crowds of over 5,000 were gathered in Minsk, according to AFP news agency.

18:15 EU leaders will hold an emergency meeting to discuss their response to the crisis on Wednesday, which could include further sanctions. It is rare that the EU convenes to discuss foreign policy, but European Council President Charles Michel considered the situation in Belarus serious enough to warrant such a meeting.

DW's Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels on what is at stake at the meeting.

18:10 Three people were detained after workers at the state-run Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant booed Lukashenko and yelled "Leave!" as the strongman attempted to give a speech, Russian Interfax news agency reported citing the Belarusian state TV.

Watch video 02:38

Lukashenko prepared to hold new elections? Analyst Konstantin Eggert speaks to DW

17:42 Belarus has seen major disruptions in internet service since the disputed presidential election, and rights groups accusing the government of censorship. To get around the restrictions, many people are turning to privacy apps like Telegram and Psiphon. Users of Psiphon in the country skyrocketed from 10,000 ahead of the election to more than a million now.

DW examined the role that these privacy apps are taking in resisting the internet shutdown.

17:35 The headquarters of former Belarusian presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has released a statement calling for a general strike as a way to get the resignation of President Lukashenko.

"We urge all labor collectives to join the indefinite strike demanding the resignation of Alexander Lukashenko, as well as to delegate representatives of the strike committees to the Coordinating Council," read the statement, which was published on social networks.

The head of the Tsikhanouskaya's headquarters, Maria Moroz, said that the Belarusian regime "understands only the language of force and concrete economic damage."

"So, we have to show that we are ready to cause that damage," said Morozova.

Watch video 00:42

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: 'I am ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader'

17:25 Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has said Ukraine's ambassador to Belarus had been recalled to assess the prospects of the two countries' relationship.

"The development of events in Belarus, whose society has expressed a vote of no confidence in the official results of the presidential elections in Belarus, is fundamentally changing the situation in Belarusian-Ukrainian relations," Kuleba said in a statement.

16:15 Lithuania has announced they will accept Belarusians seeking to leave their country on humanitarian grounds. Opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to the neighboring Baltic country after the election.

"On my orders two approvals were granted Saturday," said Lithuanian Interior Minister Rita Tamasuniene, referring to a relaxation of immigration rules for Belarusian citizens.

Estonia also called for UN Security Council talks on the situation in Belarus at the earliest possible time, citing a "potential threat" to international security.

"One of the main objectives of Estonia as an elected member of the Security Council is to ensure compliance with internation law and keep grave violations of human rights in international focus," Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said in a statement. He also spoke to Albania's foreign minister about the role that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe might play in dealing with the situation.

15:10 NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the alliance remained vigilant about events in Belarus — but stressed that his organization did not pose a threat to the country.

"NATO allies are watching developments in Belarus closely," he said in a statement. "NATO does not pose a threat to Belarus and has no military buildup in the region. We remain vigilant, strictly defensive, and ready to deter any aggression against NATO allies," he added.

US President Donald Trump also said that the he was following events in Belarus "very closely" and described it as a "terrible situation."

14:40 President Lukashenko has announced that new elections could be held after Belarus adopts a new constitution - hours after telling a crowd of striking workers that elections would not be held "unless you kill me."

"We need to adopt a new constitution," Lukashenko said in a fragment of a speech shown on TV channel Belarus 24 : "You would need to ratify it at a referendum, and then, under the new constitution, if you want, have parliamentary elections, presidential elections, and elections for the local officials."

The latest remarks mark a major change of tack for the besieged Lukashenko who has so far defied calls to give up power amid mass protests.

President Alexander Lukashenko addresses supporters

President Lukashenko has faced growing calls to step down

14:00 Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek said fears of a Russian invasion in Belarus were "appropriate." Speaking to CT television channel, Petricek said the EU needed to send out a clear signal that a military engagement in the ex-Soviet state was unacceptable.

"We reject a repetition of the Ukraine scenario and the Crimea annexation,"  he said.

Meanwhile, his Lithuanian counterpart Linas Linkevicius said that Lukashenko had "no reasons for military support from Russia, and no legal or other grounds for it."

"It would constitute an invasion into the country and would destroy the last traces of its independence," Linkevicius told reporters in Vilnius.

"Russia would risk a lot if it did it, in the face of what is going on in Belarus, in the face of the popular support. It should figure out that an invasion would not be justified, neither legally, nor morally, nor politically", he added.

EU leaders are also expected to send a message to Moscow not to interfere in Belarus, according to an unnamed bloc official.

"The way out of the crisis is through an end to violence, through de-escalation, through dialogue and without outside interference," said the official, reported the Reuters news agency.

Watch video 05:37

DW Belarus freelance journalist released from prison

13:30 The European Union has called for a "thorough and transparent investigation" into reports of abuse and mistreatment of thousands of protesters detained in Belarus.

"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," said the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, in a statement.

"The sheer numbers clearly show that the Belarusian population wants change and wants it now. The EU stands by them," he added. He also said if the "shocking reports" of how detainees have been treated are proven true, the EU expects "all those responsible to be held to account."

EU member states are set to hold a summit on Wednesday, where they will discuss further sanctions.

13:10 Workers at the state-run Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT) confronted Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko with boos, laughter and shouts of "Leave!" as he tried to rally for support.

A visibly angry Lukashenko walked off the stage from which he had been speaking, saying: "Thank you. I have said everything. You can shout 'Leave'."

Lukashenko told the workers he would not give in to calls for fresh elections.

"You will never expect me to do something under pressure," his press service quoted him as saying. "If anyone is unwilling to work and wants to leave, no one will harass you, so as you please, the door is open."

A brutal police crackdown appears to have turned even his own support base against him.

 

Watch video 02:17

Striking workers demand Belarus president's resignation

12:30 Poland on Monday pledged €11 million ($13 million) in funding to help Belarussians to pay for visas and resettle in neighboring Poland.

Separately, Poland's deputy foreign minister suggested that European Union funds should be used to support Belarus.

"The EU has an instrument in the form of the European Endownment for Democracy," Marcin Przydacz said during a committee meeting in Poland's parliament.

"We would like such a signal to be sent from the perspective of the leadership of the EU, so that other countries would follow suit."

Latvia's prime minister echoed Poland's sentiments, indicating that the Latvian government would support the use of funding to support strengthening civil society in Belarus, reported the Interfax news agency.

The European Endownment for Democracy (EED) was established in 2013 by the EU and EU member states to foster democracy. The EED provides "fast and flexible technical and financial support to democratization and human rights promotion in the European neighborhood," according to its website.

11:35 Belarusian opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said that she was ready to lead the nation. Speaking in a video address from Lithuania, where she fled following the election, Tsikhanouskaya said 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.

Tsikhanouskaya also urged security and law enforcement officers to switch allegiance from Lukashenko's government, adding that they would be pardoned for their past actions if they did so now.

Read more: Belarus: Tsikhanouskaya calls on security forces to switch allegiance

11:20 Neighboring Lithuania and Poland say they are monitoring the situation on their borders with Belarus. 

The Belarusian army has begun exercises in the western Grodno region bordering the two NATO members and has plans to deploy additional troops there. The drills were announced on the weekend after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused NATO of a military buildup near the border — a charge the military alliance rejected. 

"We are witnessing Belarusian efforts to further escalate and develop a narrative about the so-called foreign threats," Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told the AFP news agency on Monday. 

Dainius Gaizauskas, the chair of Lithuania's parliamentary committee on national security and defense, said there was no reason to respond to the drills: "We believe (the exercise) does not pose a large threat to our national security and I can assure you that Lithuania will not react in any way."

Meanwhile, Polish Deputy Defense Minister Wojciech Skurkiewicz said his country would "also look at what happens at our borders," adding: "We will not be passive in this observation."

11:00 EU leaders will hold an emergency video conference on Wednesday to discuss the disputed Belarus election. EU Council President Charles Michel called the meeting after Moscow said it was ready to provide military help to its ally.

"The people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader," Michel tweeted, saying Wednesday's virtual summit would begin at 12:00 pm (1000 UTC). "Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed."

10:48 German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has urged President Alexander Lukashenko to hold talks with the opposition to resolve the crisis.

"I appeal to President Lukashenko to follow the path of dialogue – not to resort to violence," Steinmeier said in Berlin.

He praised the protesters' courage, adding that pictures of hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets were "dramatic and moving."

"The people of this long-suffering but proud country deserve our solidarity and support."

He also said the Belarusian army should not "sin against its own people through violence."

10:46 Workers across Belarus have downed tools after the country's opposition called for a nationwide strike on Monday. Staff at the country's state broadcaster have walked off the job in support of mass protests, and about 5,000 striking workers from the Minsk Tractor Works plant marched down the streets of Minsk demanding that Lukashenko step down and cede his post to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leading opposition candidate.

Read moreBelarus television broadcasts empty studio as state media joins general strike

10:17 Germany has called for an end to the crackdown on peaceful protesters in Belarus and for political prisoners to be released "immediately and unconditionally."

At least two people have died in the post-election demonstrations, while several thousand have been arrested.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said there should be a "national dialogue" between Lukashenko and the opposition "to surmount the crisis," adding that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could play a role with a "review of the election."

Seibert also said Germany was prepared to back broader EU sanctions against Belarus. The bloc's foreign ministers agreed on Friday to draw up a list of Belarusian officials who would be targeted with sanctions. 

"Of course we are looking at the option of expanding the sanctions to other leading figures," Seibert told reporters.

10:05 Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has told workers at a tractor plant in Minsk that there will be no new presidential vote.

The ex-Soviet state has been gripped by mass protests since the 65-year-old leader's disputed reelection on Sunday. The opposition and the EU say the vote was neither free nor fair, and have demanded a rerun.

The official Belta news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying he would be willing to share power, and to change the constitution, but that he would not bow to pressure from protesters to hold new elections.

"You speak about unfair elections and want fair ones?" the president asked. "I have an answer for you. We had the elections. Unless you kill me, there will be no other elections," he was quoted as saying by TASS news agency and Tut.by.

Watch video 02:07

Belarus president rejects calls for new elections

ed,nm/aw (AFP, Reuters)

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