Belarus' authoritarian leader on Wednesday sought to disparage protesters demanding his resignation for a sixth straight week following a disputed election by accusing the United States of fomenting the unrest.
In a long speech to top officials, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko ranted against the alleged U.S.-led plan to destabilize the country and claimed that American allies in Europe have participated in the effort that took years to prepare, part of his attempts to cast the opposition as Western stooges.
Lukashenko didn’t provide evidence to back his claim that the U.S. had any involvement in the demonstrations.
His main challenger in the election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, dismissed his comments as an attempt to divert public attention from rigging the vote and the violent crackdown on protests.
“There is just one reason behind the protests in Belarus and it’s known to everyone: Lukashenko has lost the vote, but he doesn’t want to step down,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press in a written comment. “People have denied Lukashenko their trust and support and demand that he leave.”
Protesters in Belarus have flooded the streets of the Belarussian capital and other cities, denouncing Lukashenko’s landslide re-election in the Aug. 9 vote as rigged. The massive demonstrations were driven by frustration with the Belarussian strongman’s 26-year iron-fist rule, his cavalier response to the coronavirus and the worsening economy.
The U.S. and the European Union have criticized the election as neither free nor fair, and urged Lukashenko to start talks with the opposition – a call he has rejected.
“We had the vote and got the result, period,” Lukashenko said in Wednesday’s speech before top officials. “It’s time to stop stirring up society.”
Sergei Naryshkin, director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, claimed in a statement carried by Russian news agencies Wednesday that the U.S. has funded the Belarussian opposition and encouraged the protests.
In an apparent attempt to delegitimize the Belarussian protests, Naryshkin added that his agency has information that “the U.S. is playing a key role in the current developments in Belarus.” He alleged that the U.S. has earmarked tens of millions of dollars to finance Belarus' opposition groups, but provided no evidence.
The U.S. Embassy in Minsk had no immediate comment.
Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger who left for Lithuania a day after the vote under official pressure, rejected Naryshkin’s statement.
“It’s an internal political crisis, and the protesters' demands contain nothing regarding relations with other countries or a shift in Belarus' foreign policy course,” she said in written remarks to the AP. “Mr. Naryshkin should better understand that instead of airing dated propaganda clichés.”
In Wednesday’s speech, Lukashenko charged that the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine have helped fuel protests. All those countries have denied similar claims by Lukashenko in the past.
“The Belarussian 2020 scenario is a combination of the most effective `colour' destabilization technologies that have been tested in various countries,” he said in a reference to the colour-coded protests that have ousted unpopular rulers in other ex-Soviet nations. “They obviously count on the scale and duration of protests to wear us down and exhaust our resources. We aren’t relaxing and stand ready to respond to any challenge.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, noted that and his colleagues from other EU countries will meet Monday to consider how to proceed with sanctions.
“I will say openly that if the violence against the peaceful opposition doesn’t stop, then these measures will have to be extended to significantly more people, and then we will have to talk about Mr. Lukashenko,” Maas told the German parliament on Wednesday.
Western pressure has pushed Lukashenko to further cement ties with Russia, his main sponsor and ally. The neighbouring countries have a union agreement and maintain strong political, economic and military ties.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a new $1.5-billion loan to Belarus when he hosted Lukashenko on Monday – a financial lifeline condemned by the Belarussian opposition, which warned Moscow that it would tarnish future ties between the countries.
In a bid to rally Moscow’s support, Lukashenko has engaged in similar rhetoric, accusing the West of fuelling the protests in a bid to isolate Russia. Earlier this week, Russian paratroopers deployed to Belarus for the drills that will run through Sept. 25 near Brest, on the border with Poland.
At a meeting with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu who visited Belarus Wednesday for talks on deepening military co-operation, Lukashenko said he hopes to get more Russian weapons suggested planning more manoeuvres in the future.
“We need to think about a second stage of the drills and more exercises, to work out a plan irrespective of what they say,” he said. “We aren’t going to provoke or defy anyone, but we must protect our interests.”
The German foreign minister noted that Russia “carries a very special responsibility” given its close ties with Belarus and warned that “with its unconditional support for Lukashenko so far and hybrid exertion of influence, Moscow will certainly lose the sympathy of people in Belarus.”
Maas also sought to allay the Kremlin fears of Belarus falling into the Western orbit.
“For us inside the European Union as well, this is not about detaching Belarus from Russia and incorporating it in the European Union,” he said. “This is simply about us standing up for people in Belarus being able to decide themselves what road they take in a free and fair election.”
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