The leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has said 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 to his 26 years in office.
He made the offer, which he insisted would not be delivered on while he was under pressure from protesters after exiled opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she was willing to lead the country.
The political crisis erupted after a presidential election on August 9 which protesters say he rigged to ensure a phony win.
He denied losing, citing official results that gave him just over 80 percent of the vote.
A burly former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko used blunt language while speaking to workers yesterday. “We’ve held elections,” he said. “Until you’ve killed me there won’t be any new elections.”
But he offered to change the constitution, an apparent concession.
“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.
“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 neighboring countries and all the rest.”
He also said people could hold parliamentary and presidential elections after the referendum if that was what they wanted.
Thousands of protesters had earlier marched to a factory where Lukashenko flew by helicopter to speak to striking workers. He got a rough reception.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said yesterday he had recalled the ambassador to Belarus for talks to assess the prospects of further bilateral relations between the two neighbors “in the new reality”.