Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus, said on Monday he would be ready to hold new elections and hand over power after a constitutional referendum, an attempt to pacify mass protests and strikes that pose the biggest challenge yet to his rule.
He made the offer, which he insisted would not be delivered on while he was under pressure from protesters, after exiled opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she was willing to lead the country.
In a sign of his growing vulnerability, Lukashenko faced heckling and chants of “step down” during a speech to workers at one of the large state-run factories that are the pride of his Soviet-style economic model and core support base.
He faces the threat of European Union sanctions after a bloody crackdown on protests following what demonstrators say was his rigged re-election victory last week. He cites official results that gave him just over 80% of the vote.
Officials in Washington and the EU want Russia not to meddle in what President Donald Trump called a “terrible situation”, after Moscow told Lukashenko it was ready to provide military help against an external threat.
Russia is watching closely as Belarus hosts pipelines that carry Russian energy exports to the West and is viewed by Moscow as a buffer zone against NATO. Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke twice this weekend.
A burly former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko used blunt language while speaking to workers on Monday.
“We’ve held elections,” he said. “Until you’ve killed me there won’t be any new elections.” But he offered to change the constitution, an apparent concession that seems unlikely to satisfy protesters who say it’s something he has spoken about before.
“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,” Lukashenko said, in remarks quoted by the official Belta news agency.
Speaking in a video address from Lithuania, opposition politician Tsikhanouskaya urged security and law enforcement officers to switch sides.
“I am ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader during this period,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
The first leader of independent Belarus Stanislav Shushkevich revealed the military and Lukashenko’s inner circle could stay loyal and were “handsomely paid”.