Alexander Lukashenko, the only leader Belarus has known in its brief history, said on Friday that he will not be in power for the first time in 26 years once a new national constitution is adopted.
Belarus has been the scene of massive protests – and an alarming crackdown on dissidents – ever since Lukashenko claimed victory for a sixth term in a disputed election on August 9.
“I am not going to shape the constitution to suit my needs. I am not going to be the president once the new constitution is in place,” Lukashenko said while visiting a hospital filled with coronavirus patients in Minsk on Friday.
“We need to create a new constitution but it should benefit the country. I don’t want the country to fall to ruin later on,” he added, according to Belarusan state media sources quoted by NBC News.
These developments seem like a surprisingly nonchalant end to Lukashenko’s reign as “Europe’s last dictator,” as detractors often call him, especially since he fought so hard to retain power over the past three months. NBC News allowed for the possibility that Lukashenko was merely “paying lip service to the prospect of him stepping aside” rather than firmly announcing his impending resignation.
Belarusan protesters and opposition leaders certainly did not expect Lukashenko to throw in the towel. Thousands of people were still marching in the streets of Minsk and other cities this week, and the police were still arresting them by the hundreds, with a recent emphasis on detaining female demonstrators. Reporters attempting to cover the protests were still complaining about police abuse.
On Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) became the latest body to contemplate sanctions against the Lukashenko regime, due to the “growing number of worrying reports concerning athletes, officials, and sports in Belarus” that have been persecuted for criticizing the dodgy August election.
On the same day, exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claims to be the true winner of the election, pleaded for support from the incoming Biden administration in the United States.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov warned the U.S. and Europe to stay out of Belarusan affairs, accusing them of “using dirty methods of so-called color revolutions, including manipulating public opinion, supporting forces that are openly anti-government and promoting their radicalization” because they have questioned the integrity of the election and expressed support for the opposition.
None of these parties spoke as if they expected Lukashenko to step down, and yet on Friday he declared, “I will not work with you under the new constitution.” He went on to criticize the current constitution for investing too much power in the office of the presidency, a critique his opponents would probably agree with, especially those currently languishing in prison cells or hiding in Ukraine.
Lukashenko did not specify a timetable for reforming the constitution or leaving office, although he ventured there would be “trouble” if he left office too quickly.
International media reports implied that Russia might have been working behind the scenes to get Lukashenko to plan a graceful exit from power, as pressure from the West mounted and the protest movement showed no sign of abating. During a visit to Minsk on Thursday, Lavrov urged Lukashenko to move ahead with “constitutional reforms and modernizing the political system,” a comment Deutsche Welle interpreted as “a signal to Lukashenko that Moscow’s patience is wearing thin.”
For what it might be worth, Lavrov became very agitated on Thursday when asked about reports that Moscow has been secretly talking to the Belarusan opposition, denouncing those reports as “a complete lie.”