Belarus’ authoritarian leader on Monday denied that his government unleashed harsh repression of dissent after his re-election a year ago triggered a months-long wave of mass protests, and he promised to step down “very soon” but would not say when exactly.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s remarks came during an epic eight-hour press conference on the anniversary of the vote that handed him a sixth term but was denounced by the opposition and some foreign governments as rigged.
The event, during which Mr Lukashenko lashed out at foreign journalists while some Belarusian reporters and bloggers emotionally defended his government’s actions, came as Belarus faces growing pressure from the European Union over its treatment of government critics.
“We back then carried out preparation for the election and the election itself in the conditions of total transparency and democratisation of political life,” Mr Lukashenko said.
“The difference was only that some were preparing for fair election, and others called for bashing the authorities – for a coup.”
Belarus was shaken by months of protests triggered by Mr Lukashenko’s re-election, the largest of which drew up to 200,000 people.
Belarusian authorities responded to the protests with a relentless crackdown in which more than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands beaten by police.
Leading opposition figures have been jailed or forced to leave the country.
Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, has denounced his opponents as foreign stooges and accused the US and its allies of plotting to overthrow his government.
He has vaguely promised to step down after Belarus adopts a new constitution but kept quiet about when it might happen.
On Monday (local time), Mr Lukashenko said it would happen “very soon”.
The authorities have ramped up their crackdown on dissent in recent months, targeting independent journalists and democracy activists with raids and arrests and sometimes going to extremes such as diverting a plane to the capital of Minsk and arresting a dissident aboard.
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The leader of Belarus, however, argued on Monday that “there have been no repressions in my country, and there never will be any repressions”.
Mr Lukashenko added: “To unleash repressions in Belarus is (the same as) to shoot myself. I know it well and I will never cross that line.”
The pressure on dissent has elicited international outrage, and the United States and European Union have slapped Belarus with sanctions that target top government officials and key sectors of the country’s economy.
In response to the sanctions, Mr Lukashenko has said his country will not try to stem a flow of illegal migrants to the EU.
Lithuania in recent months has faced a surge of mostly Iraqi migrants it has blamed on Mr Lukashenko’s government.
On Monday, the president also threatened to stop cooperating with the US in the fight against smuggling of radioactive materials if the sanctions pressure continues.
“Who needs some dirty explosives going to the European Union?” Mr Lukashenko said, citing the surge of migrants as an example of foreign pressure backfiring.
“We’re not blackmailing, we’re not threatening, we’re forced to react,” he said.
Last week, Belarus once again drew international attention.
At the Tokyo Games, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter accused the country’s officials of trying to put her on a plane back to Belarus after she publicly criticised the management of her team at the games.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board the plane and instead sought refuge in Poland.
In his first comment on the incident, Mr Lukashenko accused her of being a foreign stooge, saying that “she wouldn’t have done it herself if she hadn’t been manipulated”.