Alexander Lukashenko’s grip on power in Belarus took a further hit on Monday, as workers heckled him during a visit to a factory on the outskirts of Minsk and several hundred employees of state television, a key part of the government propaganda machine, went on strike.
The country’s vast factories are the backbone of its neo-Soviet economy, and Lukashenko’s visit to the state-owned MZKT military vehicles factory on Monday morning was meant to show the Belarusian president retaining the support of the working class, a day after the biggest rally in the country’s recent history against his rule.
Instead, leaked video and audio from his speech to selected workers at the factory showed him being met with shouts of “Resign!” Lukashenko looked shaken but carried on speaking, as people yelled “Liar!”
In a defiant speech, the president said he would not consider a rerun of last week’s tainted elections.
“You are talking about unfair elections and want to hold fair ones,” he told the crowd, which yelled “Yes!” in response. “My answer to you is: we held elections, and as long as you don’t kill me, there won’t be any other elections.”
As a concession, Lukashenko repeated an offer to amend the constitution to reduce his presidential powers, but added that he would not enter that process “under pressure or through the street”.
His main thrust was to justify his authoritarian rule and the police brutality of the past week, saying he was defending the country from chaos. “Yes, I am not a saint,” he said. “You know that I am harsh. You know that without my harshness, there would be no country.”
Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for 26 years, has suggested the protests against him are organised and funded by shadowy foreign forces, and has asked the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to intervene.
“I see a Russian military intervention in Belarus [as] a complete and utter disaster, and strongly hope that it will be avoided,” said Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
The Kremlin has said Moscow is ready to provide help in accordance with a collective military pact if necessary, but Putin has stopped short of offering support or an endorsement of Lukashenko. It is possible, given Lukashenko’s shaky grip on power, that Putin may try to control the transition rather than intervene directly.
On Monday, workers at factories across the country went on strike, hoping to add to the pressure of daily protests and force the president out of office.
“For 26 years we were scared of the authorities, but now the events of the past week have made people realise we have to speak out,” said Sergei Dylevsky, one of the members of the strike committee at the Minsk Tractor Factory. Of the roughly 14,000 employees at the factory, 4,000 had joined the strike, he said: they would come to work to each day to mark their presence, but would not work until fresh elections are called.
Miners at a potash factory in Soligorsk, a huge plant that accounts for a fifth of the world’s potash fertiliser, also joined the strike, and there were similar reports from plants across the country.
The strike has also spread to state television, where so far about 300 of the 2,000 employees have said they will not work until new elections are called and they are able to work without censorship. There was an ongoing battle for control of the station on Monday, with some editorial concessions made but the channel essentially still broadcasting a pro-Lukashenko line, and riot police inside the building guarding it from the hundreds of protesters who had gathered outside.
The insurrectionary mood flared in the aftermath of the contested presidential election last Sunday, in which Lukashenko declared victory and then launched a violent police crackdown against protesters, during which there were more than 6,700 arrests and widespread reports of violence and torture by riot police. The protests grew throughout last week, culminating in a huge rally on Sunday, the largest in the country’s history. Demonstrators have vowed to protest every evening until Lukashenko leaves.
In a video statement on Monday, the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania in the aftermath of the vote, said she was ready to become the country’s “national leader”, claiming victory in last week’s presidential elections and calling on police to “come over to the side of the people”.
Tikhanovskaya’s husband remains in jail in Belarus. Officially she only won 10% of the vote to Lukashenko’s 80%, but few people in Belarus or beyond believe the vote was fair.
She said in the statement: “I am ready to take on the responsibility and serve in this period as a national leader so that the country calms down, returns to a normal rhythm, so that we free all political prisoners in the shortest possible period and prepare … for new presidential elections.”
A number of western countries have strongly criticised Lukashenko, and the EU is drawing up new sanctions against the country. On Monday, the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, tweeted: “The violence against peaceful protesters in Belarus is appalling. The UK does not accept the results of this fraudulent presidential election and calls for an urgent investigation through @OSCE into its serious flaws & the grisly repression that followed.”
On Monday, the interior ministry said just 122 of those arrested were still in prison, while the health ministry said 158 people remain hospitalised with injuries sustained in the crackdown.