Breaking News

Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus President, Is Jeered by Factory Workers

MINSK, Belarus — President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, long known as “Europe’s last dictator,” tried on Monday to deflate nine days of widespread protests by rallying what was supposed to be his blue-collar base: the workers of the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant.

They responded, video footage from the scene showed, with chants of “Go away!”

It was the latest dismal turn for Mr. Lukashenko in his increasingly desperate effort to hold on to power. Mr. Lukashenko, an authoritarian who has ruled since 1994, faces an uprising from all corners of Belarusian society in the wake of fraud-ridden presidential elections early this month that, he claimed, he had won in a landslide.

On Monday, a day after more than 100,000 people demanded new elections in a huge protest in Minsk, the capital, Mr. Lukashenko remained defiant. He signaled he would cling to power in Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people that is sandwiched between Russia and Poland and has long been a key ally for Moscow.

“You will never get me to do anything under pressure,” Mr. Lukashenko told the wheel tractor plant workers in Minsk, many of whom jeered. “We had elections. Until you kill me, there will not be any more elections.”

But strikes at some of the institutions considered closest to Mr. Lukashenko — at state-owned factories and even at state television broadcasters — underscored the tenuousness of his position.

Seeking to seize the momentum, Svetlana G. Tikhanovskaya, Mr. Lukashenko’s main challenger in the Aug. 9 election, released a video from exile in Lithuania saying she was prepared to serve as a transitional leader to prepare the country for new elections.

“Right now, we do not have the right to lose the creative energy, the positive changes and the decisiveness that we have gained, with which we can change our country,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya said.

Over the weekend, Mr. Lukashenko called on President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for help, insisting the protests were being engineered from the West, but the reception appeared lukewarm.

The Kremlin issued a vague statement on Sunday that Russia was prepared to support Belarus in accordance with its treaty obligations, but no fresh details about any potential Russian help emerged on Monday. Mr. Lukashenko’s geopolitical gamesmanship and periodic flirtation with the West have long been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.

As Mr. Lukashenko reached out to Russia, his public standing continued to weaken at home. Dozens of media workers protested Monday in front of the state television offices in central Minsk, demanding the right to cover the protests fairly. So many workers went on strike from the state television networks, normally steadfast in their pro-Lukashenko messaging, that the channels’ morning shows went off the air.

At least 31 workers signed a letter to the head of ONT, a state-owned television station, pledging to go on strike until censorship was lifted and the presidential election declared falsified.

“I don’t want to be the person that this regime is relying upon to exist,” said Tatiana Y. Revizore, a special correspondent who formerly covered Mr. Lukashenko. “Now is the time to make difficult decisions.”

Ms. Revizore said she was forced to resign after signing the letter, as were several of her colleagues.

Across Minsk, many Belarusians said that scenes of widespread police violence against protesters last week had jolted them out of a silent acceptance of Mr. Lukashenko’s rule. The intensity of the new anti-government mood, previously unseen in Mr. Lukashenko’s Belarus, was on display when the president addressed factory workers.

State-owned factories have long represented a key pillar of Mr. Lukashenko’s support and a crown jewel of his system of governance. He largely kept the Soviet-era industrial behemoths under state control, rather than allowing them to be sold off to business tycoons as happened in neighboring Russian and Ukraine.

But that support was nowhere to be seen on Monday at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, where some workers said that more than half of the factory had halted production.

Yelena F. Kovalchuk, 55, a machine operator at the plant, said she went on strike after the police brutally crushed rallies after election night in Minsk. Many of her colleagues were afraid to go out and had to spend nights at the factory, she said. Some workers had relatives who were beaten up.

“My son is 23 years old. Every night, I am afraid whether he will come back home from work or not,” said Ms. Kovalchuk, who noted that she had worked in factories her whole career and still had three years to go before retirement.

In a speech to factory workers, Mr. Lukashenko said the police had used force against violent protesters. The crowd chanted: “Shame!”

Ivan Nechepurenko reported from Minsk. Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow.

Source link