Alyaksandr Lukashenka struck a largely combative, uncompromising tone as he addressed nearly 3,000 loyalists gathered in Minsk for what had been billed as a two-day congress representing all of Belarus.
Confronted with months of protests calling for him to step down after some 26 years in power, Lukashenka had said he would quit only after changes to the constitution were made.
We must stand up to them no matter what, and this year will be decisive."-- Alyaksandr Lukashenka
The venue to discuss those amendments, the 66-year-old Lukashenka said, would be the All-Belarus People's Assembly in the capital, Minsk, on February 11-12.
However, as he spoke to some 2,700 delegates nominated by labor collectives in sync with state-controlled unions loyal to Lukashenka, the Belarusian strongman slammed the six months of protests against his rule as a foreign-directed "rebellion."
"We must stand up to them no matter what, and this year will be decisive," he said to the audience in a hall decked out with a huge banner bearing the red-and-green colors of the official state flag that read: "Unity, Development, Independence."
Belarus was thrown into crisis after it became clear that Lukashenka would be declared the winner of the country's tightly controlled August 9 presidential election despite a strong showing by opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has said she won.
The ensuing mass protests resulted in the arrests of thousands of peaceful demonstrators, documented beatings on the streets and in detention, and opposition leaders either locked up or forced to flee the country. Lukashenka is not recognized as the legitimate leader of Belarus by the European Union or the United States, and each has slapped sanctions on him and senior members of his government for falsifying the vote and for the repression of peaceful protests.
Ahead of Lukashenka's two-day congress of loyalists, the country's political opposition predicted that he would exploit what it called the "illegitimate" event to prop up his rule and offer vague promises in an effort to quell public anger.
"First of all, we need to be clear what this gathering is: This is an unconstitutional event that is not enshrined in the constitution of the Republic of Belarus," Paval Latushka, a former career Belarusian diplomat until he switched to the opposition in September, told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "The decision to hold it was made by an illegitimate [leader]. Any decision made at the meeting will be implemented by the same illegitimate government on the orders of the illegitimate [leader]. So, this is, in fact, a meeting of the illegitimate with the illegitimate about illegitimacy."
The U.S. Embassy in Belarus, meanwhile, said in a February 11 statement that the gathering was "neither genuine nor inclusive of Belarusian views and therefore does not address the country's ongoing political crisis."
Lukashenka, in power since 1994, took the opportunity to admit, vaguely, that he would step down someday.
"The time will come and other people will come," he said on the first day of the congress. He said a set of constitutional changes would be drafted later this year and put to a nationwide vote in early 2022.
The opposition had urged Belarusians to take to the streets to protest the assembly. Police were out in force in Minsk, surrounding the building where the gathering was taking place, but dozens of protesters on February 11 formed "solidarity chains" in other parts of Minsk, waving the opposition's red-and-white flags and chanting "Stop dictatorship!" and "Go away!" to demand Lukashenka's resignation.
The early days of the protests saw as many as 100,000 people flood the streets of Minsk, but demonstrations have dwindled in size in the past few months.
Latushka put that down to various factors, including the crackdown on demonstrators and the COVID-19 pandemic that Lukashenka dismissed as "mass psychosis" last year while defying calls by the World Health Organization and others to institute lockdown measures.
"Let's be realistic. First of all, it's difficult to image that such large-scale protests -- with hundreds of thousands, even millions -- could continue in one country, as was the case here in August, September, and even October," Latushka said.
"We repeated it often but it needs to be said again, that more than 32,000 people have been arrested and detained for more than four months," Latushka added.
"How many more were fired, lost their jobs, were forced to flee abroad, no one knows. Ukraine provided data that some 75,000 Belarusians have fled to Ukraine. How many went to Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia? The numbers are in the thousands."
The opposition aims to resume its mass actions on March 25, the anniversary of the 1918 declaration of a short-lived independent Belarus. The day traditionally has seen large opposition demonstrations.
The opposition, which is being led by Tsikhanouskaya from Lithuania after coming under pressure by Belarusian officials, is in "stasis," argues Ryhor Astapenia, a fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
Astapenia puts this down to three reasons: One, Lukashenka has managed to keep the ruling class united; two, the democratic movement has failed to galvanize all segments of society opposed to Lukashenka's rule; and three, international actors accept the status quo, fearing any harder action will only push Lukashenka deeper into the arms of Russia.
Astapenia cites a recent January poll by Chatham House of nearly 1,000 urban dwellers in Belarus that found 37 percent fully support the protest movement and the demands of its leaders. But another 45 percent are not as aligned with the movement, nor have they risked taking to the streets in protest. This group is fed up with Lukashenka but does not see the current protest leaders as representing their interests and are unsure who they would vote for in the future.
Opting to ignore the opposition's demands and dealing with them mercilessly, Lukashenka has suffered an "irreversible" blow to his "domestic and international legitimacy," explained Arseny Sivitsky, director of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies.
Lukashenka has long oscillated between Russia and West but now finds his political survival dependent more than ever on the Kremlin, Sivitsky added in e-mailed comments to RFE/RL.
At the Minsk meeting on February 11, Lukashenka said the West had incited the protests in Belarus as a "bridgehead" against Russia.
"It's deadly dangerous for Russia to lose Belarus," Lukashenka said, adding that the two countries are planning massive joint military drills for later this year.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka ramps up pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown against protesters and the opposition following an August 2020 election widely considered fraudulent.
He thanked Moscow for its support in the face of the protests but reaffirmed that the union agreement between the two countries shouldn't limit Belarus's independence.
Lukashenka has long repelled Kremlin efforts to deepen integration under a union treaty signed in 1999.
In December 2019, Lukashenka balked at the last moment at signing dozens of so-called "road maps" spelling out specific measures to attain closer ties with Moscow, including a single currency. The Kremlin responded by first halting, then lowering, energy deliveries to Belarus, the key to keeping the struggling Belarusian economy afloat.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, said on February 1 that further integration under the union treaty would be beneficial to both sides, but "only after the situation in Belarus has normalized."
"The Belarusian economy is completely oriented to the Russian economy. That means that most of their goods are shipped here," Medvedev, a former prime minister, said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered Lukashenka $1.5 billion in state credit and has vowed military support, including a special police force, if the unrest called for it.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Lukashenka in Minsk in November that Putin was eager to see constitutional reforms enacted in Belarus.
"We, of course, have an interest in the situation being calm, stable, and we think that beginning the constitutional reform initiated by the country's leadership would contribute to this," Lavrov said.
Lavrov told Lukashenka that Moscow was not in contact with the Belarusian opposition and accused the West of meddling in Belarus.
In another sign that Lukashenka is further aligning Belarus with Russia, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alyaksandr Novak said in January that some Belarusian refined oil products would likely be shipped in 2021 through Russian ports in Primorsk, St. Petersburg, and Ust-Luga, shifting away from ports in Lithuania, which has imposed sanctions against the Lukashenka government.
The Kremlin is rumored to be planning a meeting between Putin and Lukashenka in the near future, noted Sivitsky, adding that Lukashenka's current confidence on display at his Minsk congress may prove ephemeral.
"If the Kremlin does not provide Lukashenka with a new package of financial aid, an economic crisis becomes inevitable," Sivitsky explained. "That will definitely provoke a new round in the political crisis, accompanied by a new wave of protests engaging new segments of Belarusian society."