Moscow — Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko said he would consider a referendum on constitutional changes Monday after thousands of people across the country went on strike, calling for his resignation. Major factories, mines, and broadcasters were left empty as people skipped work and crowds gathered on the streets to demand the president step down.
Monday marked the ninth consecutive day of mass protests over the official results of the Aug. 9 presidential election that demonstrators say was rigged Lukashenko said he would only consider the changes if protests stopped.
"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," he told a crowd at a tractor factory in Minsk, where hundreds of demonstrators chanted "Resign!", according to the Belta news agency. Lukashenko, who has held power for 26 years, said another election could take place only after a referendum.
"I'm not a saint. You know my harsh side. I'm not eternal. But if you drag down the first president, you'll drag down neighboring countries and all the rest," he said.
"We held elections already. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections," he said, according to the local news site, Tut.by media.
One state-run Belarusian television channel, where workers were participating in the walk-outs, broadcast a shot of its empty studio with pop music playing in the background. Other stations played reruns as a prominent member of the opposition, Maria Kolesnikova, called for a crowd of protesting employees that had gathered outside to report the facts.
"I know how scared you are," she said, according to a video posted online. "Those who are here now, you are heroes."
"Fate put me on the front line."
Early on Monday, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania shortly after the election, posted a video online saying she was ready to lead the country.
"I didn't want to be a politician, but fate put me on the front line in the fight against lawlessness and injustice," she said.
Tikhanovskaya, who entered the race for president only because her husband, who had originally planned on running, was barred from standing, is a former teacher and self-described stay-at-home mother. She unified the Belarussian opposition to Lukashenko and generated tremendous support, drawing tens of thousands to her campaign rallies. Though official results indicate she only won about 10% of this month's vote, her supporters insist she was the true election winner.
"We all want out of the endless cycle that's trapped us for the past 26 years," Tikhanovskaya said in the video posted Monday. "I'm ready to take responsibility and act as national leader during this period so the country can calm down and begin a normal rhythm, and so we can release all political prisoners and prepare the legislative framework and necessary conditions to organize new presidential elections."
Over the weekend, Lukashenko reportedly held two phone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, after which the Kremlin said in a brief statement that Russia was willing to provide assistance to Belarus "to resolve the challenges."
"The world has watched with horror"
The United Kingdom on Monday joined a chorus of countries that have rejected the official results of Belarus' election and called for an investigation into the vote and the ensuing crackdown on protesters.
"The world has watched with horror at the violence used by the Belarusian authorities to suppress the peaceful protests that followed this fraudulent Presidential election," U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.
"We urgently need an independent investigation through the OSCE into the flaws that rendered the election unfair, as well as the grisly repression that followed. The UK will work with our international partners to sanction those responsible, and hold the Belarusian authorities to account," he said.
President Donald Trump said Monday that the U.S. government would be following the "terrible situation" in Belarus "very closely."
The European Union met last Friday to discuss imposing sanctions on Belarus over the election, which EU officials called "neither free nor fair."
"We've no right now to squander the creative energy, the positive social changes, and the determination we've gained and can use to change our country," Tikhanovskaya said Monday. "The whole world is watching us with admiration and hope and the readiness to help both the country and each of us. Our strength is in our faith in ourselves and in each other."