Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday accused NATO forces of sending tanks and planes to the nation’s western border as protests following the country’s contested presidential election last week continued for the seventh straight day.
Lukashenko is Belarus’s first and only president and is known as “Europe’s last dictator.” He won a sixth consecutive term as president last Sunday, sparking protests by opponents of his 26-year-long rule. Dissidents say that the state-controlled Central Election Commission of Belarus falsified election results to hand Lukashenko a landslide victory with 80 percent of the vote, despite massive support for his top opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanouskaya.
The protests against the allegedly rigged election results have evolved over the past week to a resounding nationwide call for Lukashenko to step down as president. In response, security forces have cracked down on demonstrators with excessive force, jailing at least 7,000. Last Tuesday, police opened fire on a group of protesters in the southwestern city of Brest, which borders Poland. The Belarus interior ministry claimed that live fire was used against the protesters after they tried to attack police officers with iron bars. Two people have been killed in the unrest, which has been condemned by the European Union (E.U.) and the U.S.
On Sunday, Lukashenko spoke at a 5,000-strong rally of his supporters in central Minsk. The gathering was relatively small compared to the tens of thousands-strong anti-Lukashenko protests that took place elsewhere across Belarus on the same day, according to Deutsche Welle (DW).
“I called you here not to defend me, but for the first time in a quarter-century, to defend your country and its independence,” Lukashenko implored. He also dismissed calls for a new election and alleged that NATO was building up its forces in Poland and Lithuania in an aggressive stance against Belarus.
“I am more worried about the situation that is unfolding on the territory of our neighboring states — Poland and Lithuania. As you know, military exercises of NATO troops are taking place there. That would have been fine, but there is an escalation and a buildup of the armed component in these territories,” Lukashenko said on Sunday, according to the Chinese Communist Party newspaper China Daily. According to DW, Lukashenko said NATO had deployed “tanks and planes” to Belarus’s western border.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping congratulated Lukashenko on his controversial election win last week, as did Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko made the claims of a NATO border buildup hours after speaking on the phone with Putin, who offered to provide Belarus with military support “in the case of external military threats.”
“He [Putin] and I agreed: at our request they [Russia] will provide comprehensive security assistance to ensure Belarus’s security,” Lukashenko said, according to Belarusian state news agency BelTA.
NATO said on Sunday it is monitoring the situation in Belarus but rejected Lukashenko’s claims of a military buildup on the country’s border. “NATO’s multinational presence in the eastern part of the Alliance is not a threat to any country. It is strictly defensive, proportionate, and designed to prevent conflict and preserve peace,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in a Twitter statement.
Ignoring NATO’s statement, Lukashenko told Belarus state TV the he “would move an air assault brigade to Belarus’s western border,” DW reports. Russia’s state-run RIA news agency says “the Belarusian army also plans to hold weeklong drills to strengthen the country’s borders with Poland and Lithuania starting on Monday.”
Lukashenko’s top opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled Belarus last Tuesday for neighboring Lithuania out of fears for her children’s safety amid the escalating turmoil. She says she “wants an election recount and is forming a national council to facilitate a power transfer,” DW reported Sunday.
“We held elections already. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying in response by the Belarusian Tut.by media outlet on Monday. He made the comments while speaking to workers outside Belarus’s MZKT tractor factory.
However, later Monday, Lukashenko backed down somewhat, saying he would consider transferring power after a referendum, but not until protests against him cease.
“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, as quoted by the state’s BelTA news agency.