Minsk, Belarus —' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday that his country had fought off a foreign "blitzkrieg," in a defiant address to loyalists following months of . The strongman had promised to unveil reforms at the people's assembly in the capital Minsk, but his opening address to a packed auditorium of delegates in military and official uniforms instead focused on belittling attempts to overthrow his government.
"The blitzkrieg did not succeed. We held on to our country," Lukashenko said, using language especially resonant in a country that suffered huge losses at the hands of German forces in World War II.
"Despite the tensions in society artificially created by external forces, we survived," Lukashenko said. "We have to resist at all costs. And 2021, this year, will be decisive."
Belarus's opposition, whose leaders have either been jailed or forced into exile in neighboring EU countries, have dismissed the two-day All-Belarusian People's Assembly as a piece of political theater.
Lukashenko, often referred to as "Europe's last dictator," last year faced the most serious threat to his rule since coming to power in the ex-Soviet country in 1994. Tens of thousands took the streets across the country to demand his resignation after he claimed to have won a sixth presidential term in August elections that opponents said were rigged.
The United States and the European Union also criticized the election as neither free nor fair and urged the Belarusian leader to engage in talks with the opposition, which he declined to do.
Instead, the authorities unleashed a violent crackdown on protesters, detaining thousands, many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.
Lukashenko held onto power in part thanks to the backing of his ally and, who extended a $1.5 billion loan to the Belarusian and continued close military cooperation with him during the protests.
Lukashenko in November promised to change the constitution to calm the protests, just weeks after he was shown during a demonstration brandishing a Kalashnikov assault rifle and referring to protesters as rats.
The opposition dismissed Lukashenko's talk about constitutional reform as an attempt to win time and assuage the protesters' anger. Putin hailed it as a "timely and reasonable" move that would help "reach a new level in the development of the political system."
At the assembly, which brought together 2,700 representatives, mainly from state-backed sectors, Lukashenko rebuffed the opposition's calls and appeared to push back a promised timeline for the constitutional changes.
"We must closely consider issues of social development... think about the possibility of adjusting the basic law," Lukashenko told delegates.
He did say later that he believed the position of the presidency has accrued too much power in Belarus, and he promised to push ahead with constitutional reforms, which he said could be ready for a vote in 2022.
"The pride of one person"
On the eve of the assembly, the Nexta Telegram channel, which mobilized and coordinated demonstrators over the months of rallies, called for fresh demonstrations.
"This is a gathering of unfortunate Lukashenko supporters who were rounded up for one purpose — to amuse the pride of one person," Nexta's administrators wrote, encouraging residents of Minsk to take to the streets.
Belarus police promised to "suppress" any illegal activities and warned of potential road closures in the capital, officially due to expected heavy snowfall.
Lukashenko has held constitutional referendums twice before, both times pushing through changes that strengthened the presidency. In 1996 he gave himself greater power to appoint judges, including the chair of the Constitutional Court. A second referendum in 2004 allowed him to serve three terms instead of two.
The All-Belarusian People's Assembly is typically convened by Lukashenko during his presidential campaigns to give his candidacy a semblance of popular support. But he opted last year to instead visit police and military units ahead of the vote.
As tens of thousands turned out for rallies in Minsk every weekend through the autumn, reaching up to more than 100,000 at their peak in a country of some 10 million, those security forces were vital in ensuring Lukashenko maintained his grip on power.
In a, riot police detained thousands of demonstrators, many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.
The European Union slapped sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies and EU diplomats met in Minsk on Sunday with the relatives of the Belarusians who died during the protests.
In comments to AFP, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis of EU-member Lithuania, which has sheltered exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and several hundred other activists, dismissed the assembly as an "attempt to imitate dialogue."
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