MINSK -- Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka says fresh presidential elections are possible if changes are made to the constitution, a sharp turn from his previous statements as thousands of workers went on strike and participated in mass protests over election results many have called "rigged."
In response to exiled opposition politician Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya saying she was ready to lead the country, Lukashenka on August 17 flatly rejected another vote, but later in the day indicated that after ruling for 26 years, he was willing to look at sharing power, though not under pressure from street protests.
In a sign of his growing vulnerability, the 65-year-old leader was heckled and jeered at during a speech to workers at a major state-run tractor factory that was once considered a shining example of his economic model and the bedrock of his base.
State television channel STV later reported that three people were arrested after Lukashenka left the plant, accused of "coordinating" the jeering.
"We need to adopt a new constitution. You must adopt it in a referendum, and under the new constitution, you could hold if you like both parliamentary elections and a presidential one, as well as elections of local authorities," Lukashenka said in comments, some of which were aired by the Belarus-24 television channel.
His concession to look at constitutional changes to allow for some form of power sharing was one of the starkest signs yet of how intense the pressure has become on Lukashenka after results from an August 9 election gave him just over 80 percent of the vote, a figure that immediately prompted accusations at home and abroad of rigged balloting.
Lukashenka's speech to workers at the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant came just hours after Tsikhanouskaya called for a new vote, saying she was ready to "act as a national leader."
In a video address posted on YouTube late on August 16, Tsikhanouskaya, who left for neighboring Lithuania after the disputed election gave Lukashenka a sixth consecutive term in office a week earlier, called for the creation of a legal framework to ensure a new fair election could be held:
The 37-year-old political novice who ran after other potential candidates, including her husband, were jailed, also said that the past behavior of security and law enforcement officers would be forgiven if they switched sides from Lukashenka's government.
"I am ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader in order for the country to calm down and enter the normal rhythm," Tsikhanouskaya said in the video.
A week of mass protests and strikes has posed the biggest challenge to Lukashenka's rule, with workers from state factories staging walkouts and some police, state media employees, and a sitting ambassador coming out in support of the protesters.
As sunset approached Minsk on August 17, thousands had once again gathered for a ninth day of demonstrations. Between 5,000 and 7,000 people came to a pretrial detention center on Volodarsky Street where many protesters are being detained, before moving to another detention center in Akrestsin Lane.
Some 7,000 people have been detained by police across the country in a postelection crackdown, with hundreds injured and at least two killed. Hundreds of people subsequently released spoke of brutal beatings they suffered in detention.
The opposition called for a general strike on August 17, three days after hundreds of workers at state-run factories downed tools in a sign that Lukashenka's traditional support base was turning against him.
The call was heeded by workers at the BelAZ plant in the city of Zhodzina, near Minsk, who vowed to begin an indefinite strike unless their list of demands is drawn up by a trade union committee and submitted to management. Among the demands that have been voiced are the resignation of Lukashenka and a new election.
Employees of the Naftan petrochemical complex and Belaruskali, one of the world's largest producers of potash fertilizers, followed suit by walking out and making similar demands.
On August 16, huge crowds gathered in Minsk in the biggest outpouring yet of opposition to Lukashenka's rule.
Some reports said at least 100,000 protesters assembled near the city's Victory Park. RFE/RL was unable to independently verify the crowd size.
Protesters waved the red-and-white flag used by the opposition as they called for Lukashenka to resign and the release of political prisoners.
The rally competed with a large pro-Lukashenka demonstration that began two hours earlier about 2 kilometers away.
Lukashenka told that crowd, which the Interior Ministry estimated at 65,000 people, that NATO tanks and planes had been deployed 15 minutes from the Belarusian border. A NATO spokesperson later denied any troop buildup in Eastern Europe.
The Belarusian president also said that "one cannot rig 80 percent" of the vote.
He vowed to never give in to those demanding he step down and hold a repeat election, saying, "If someone wants to surrender the country, I will not allow that, even when I am dead."
Lukashenka addressed the crowd after the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had told Lukashenka in a telephone call that Russia was ready to provide aid under the terms of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) if need be, and claimed Belarus was facing unspecified external pressure.
With three of its member countries bordering on Belarus, European Union leaders are set to discuss the crisis at an emergency meeting on August 19 in Brussels.
"The people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader," European Council President Charles Michel wrote on Twitter. "Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed."
Last week, EU foreign ministers agreed to begin preparing sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for election fraud and police violence.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius on August 17 said that Russian military help in Belarus would constitute "an invasion.”
"There are no reasons for military support from Russia, and no legal or other grounds for it. It would constitute an invasion into the country and would destroy the last traces of its independence," he told reporters.
German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz warned against Russia becoming involved.
"Military interference in other states is not acceptable at all and breaks all the rules we have set ourselves under international law,” he said in an interview with the Bild newspaper.
The European Union said it will hold emergency talks on August 19 to discuss the crisis, while U.S. President Donald Trump said Washington was closely watching the "terrible" situation as it evolves.
"It's terrible. That's a terrible situation, Belarus. We'll be following it very closely," Trump said on August 17.