MINSK - Alyaksandr Lukashenka has opened a Soviet-style "All-Belarusian People's Assembly" to discuss reforms and the country's development for the next five years, including possible amendments to the constitution, in an apparent move to survive ongoing mass protests against his rule, which the authoritarian ruler has blamed on the West.
Lukashenka, 66, who has run the country since 1994, opened the assembly’s two-day session on February 11 saying that a foreign "blitzkrieg" on Belarus had failed.
"A color revolution in Belarus was impossible. That is why, by getting support from certain domestic forces, [foreign nations] attempted to organize not a color revolution, but a mutiny on the principle of a blitzkrieg. The blitzkrieg failed. We have managed to hold our country. For now...We must hold on no matter what. And this year, 2021, will be the decisive year," Lukashenka said, addressing some 2,700 delegates to the assembly, mainly pro-government officials and people selected by the authorities.
Lukashenka's opponents have dismissed the assembly as a sham exercise to help him to cling to power after he claimed victory in an election last year that the opposition leaders and the West has said was rigged.
The U.S. Embassy in Belarus issued a statement on February 11 saying that the assembly was a not real dialogue with people.
The assembly "is neither genuine nor inclusive of Belarusian views and therefore does not address the country’s ongoing political crisis. The government has jailed Belarusian protest leaders, activists, and dissidents -- often on falsified charges -- and forcibly exiled others. The political prisoners, those in exile, and the estimated 30,000 others arrested since August 2020 deserve the right to a voice in determining their country’s future through a genuine, inclusive dialogue -- as well as through free and fair elections," the U.S. Embassy statement said.
"The OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism Report provides a clear, specific road map to inclusiveness," the statement said, citing a paper issued by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"The United States urges the regime to accept the OSCE Chairmanship’s offer to facilitate a genuine, inclusive national dialogue," it added.
Opposition and public outrage over what was widely seen as a rigged vote in the August 9 election has sparked continuous protests since, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets with demands that Lukashenka step down and new elections be held.
Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands, including dozens of journalists who covered the rallies, and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country.
Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used by security officials against some of those detained.
Lukashenka has denied any wrongdoing with regard to the election and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on stepping down and holding new elections.
The European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have slapped him and senior Belarusian officials with sanctions in response to the "falsification" of the vote and postelection crackdown.