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Facing a furious nation, Belarus’s Lukashenko says he would rather be killed than agree to new elections

Under increasing pressure, and facing strikes at state-owned companies and mass street protests across Belarus, Lukashenko vowed Monday that he would have to be killed before he bent to demands for new elections, saying this would only destroy the car and tractor plants.

“You are talking about unfair elections and want to have fair elections?” Lukashenko asked the crowd of workers at the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant, who shouted, “Yes,” in response. “I am answering your question. We held elections. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections.”

The president said that he would never cede to public pressure but conceded that he would be willing to share power under a new Constitution.

“We cannot put the Constitution into the hands of god knows who because there would be trouble in that case,” he told workers at the tractor plant, state news agency BelTA reported. Lukashenko said he was willing to redistribute presidential powers under constitutional changes, “but that won’t happen under pressure or through street protests.”

The protests were triggered by the official result, giving Lukashenko 80.1 percent of the vote compared with 10.1 percent for his rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The mass unrest has also been fueled by violence against peaceful protesters by riot police.

The strikes at state-owned factories indicate the crumbling of bedrock support from Lukashenko’s traditional base. Even workers at Belteleradiocompany, state TV and radio, walked off their jobs demanding the resignation of the head of the Central Elections Commission, the release of political prisoners, and new free and fair elections.

Strikes were reported at the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant, one of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of potash fertilizer, Belaruskalii, the Minsk Automobile Plant, and the Belarusian Metallurgical Plant. Workers at Belarusian oil company Naftan and the Mozyr Refinery were also on strike.

“They poisoned people with social networks,” Lukashenko said Monday, referring to his opponents. “And some of them have the opinion, ‘That’s it, there is no power, power has fallen.’ Power will never fall. You know me. And we will deal with them,” Lukashenko said in comments reported on BelTA.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994 through flawed elections, disregarding constitutional term limits, jailing critics and election rivals, and harsh crackdowns on protests. But the depth of anger over the Aug. 9 elections result has put the Belarusian leader under more pressure than before, prompting him to turn to Russia claiming the country is facing threats from external enemies and seeking guarantees of support.

There has been increasing tension in recent years between the allies over Moscow’s pressure to fulfill an agreed union between the countries, which Lukashenko has been stalling. But Lukashenko’s desperate appeals to Russian President Vladimir Putin over the weekend underscore the fact that Russia remains Belarus’s most important partner.

The Belarus prosecutor general said Monday that 122 people arrested during the protests were being held in isolation cells, and the Belarus Investigative Committee, responsible for investigating major crimes, said 600 people had filed complaints over beatings while they were held in detention.

Speaking to workers at the tractor plant, Lukashenko said the strikes were having no impact and most Belarus factories were still operating. In a bid to show he retained support, the president visited the Minsk Automobile Factory after he visited the tractor plant.

“Well, 150 or 200 people don’t make a difference,” he said referring to the strikes. “Whoever does not want to work and wants to leave, please, the gates are open,” he said at the tractor plant as workers chanted “Go away!”

“You can keep on shouting,” he said as workers chanted and heckled. “You are working people, you have always supported the president.”

Answering questions afterward, Lukashenko, sweating through his shirt and wiping his brow, said no laws were broken during the election.

The Internet in Belarus faced new interruptions Monday, in an apparent effort by authorities to stymie protests organized through social media. Like Hong Kong’s demonstrations, the protests in Belarus have been spontaneous and leaderless, with Telegram channels and social media playing a key role.

Tikhanovskaya stood for election after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger and presidential candidate, was jailed. She united his campaign with those of two other candidates, former banker Viktor Babariko, who was jailed, and businessman Valery Tsepkalo, who was barred from running in the election and fled the country fearing arrest. Tikhanovskaya sent her children out of the country before the vote and fled to Lithuania after the election following her effort to lodge a formal challenge against the election result at the Central Elections Commission.

Abuses by riot police were revealed when arrested prisoners were released from police cells in the past week. Graphic images of their injuries and bruises circulated on social media, only deepening the anger against the regime.

Vlad Sokolovsky, a popular DJ, was jailed for 10 days for a cheeky stunt three days before the vote at a pro-government rally, when he and another DJ broadcast the iconic Soviet-era song “Change” by musician Viktor Tsoi, that has become the Belarus opposition anthem. He told local independent media Monday that he was placed in an isolation cell and punched twice by Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Barsukov.

He said Barsukov came to his cell and said, “Did you turn on the music? Do you want change? So many people took to the streets, and there is so much blood because of you. Well, get ready, you will sit in jail for 10 years.”

Tikhanovskaya said in a video address Monday she was ready to be acting president in Belarus so that political prisoners could be released and new elections could be organized.

“I am ready to assume the responsibility and to act as the national leader during this period so that the country calms down and gets into the normal rhythm, and so that we release all political prisoners and rapidly prepare a legislative foundation and conditions for organizing a new presidential election — a real, fair, and transparent election to be unconditionally accepted by the international community,” Tikhanovskaya said.

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