Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday launched a so-called people”s assembly that he says will discuss political reforms in the country.
His critics have denounced the move as a sham.
Lukashenko, in power for more than 26 years and dubbed Europe’s last dictator by his critics, told the 2,700-delegate people’s assembly that they would be able to draft constitutional reforms.
He announced that a promised set of changes to the constitution would be delayed to the end of the year and be submitted to a referendum in 2022.
“I am in favour of constitutional reform,” he said.
“But we must do everything slowly (…), society must be ready for it,” he added, calling on the people’s assembly to “reflect” on possible amendments.
Lukashenko has held two constitutional referendums since coming to power in 1994, both times pushing through changes that strengthened his presidency.
The opposition has criticised the initiative for being filled with party apparatchiks.
Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tskikhanouskaya, said: “Lukashenko is gathering loyalists at the so-called All Belarusian People’s Assembly to legitimise usurper in the eyes of the people”.
The Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called it “a sham”. “We call on Alexander Lukashenko to hold an open democratic dialogue with the people of Belarus, release political prisoners, stop repression of civil society, and organise free and fair elections without delay,” it said.
The country of 9.5 million has been rocked by mass demonstrations since a presidential election last August in which Lukashenko claimed victory with 80 per cent of the vote. The opposition and Western countries have dismissed the ballot as rigged and denounced the subsequent violent repression of the protest movement.
Police have used stun grenades, tear gas and truncheons to disperse the rallies — the largest of which attracted 200,000 people.
According to human rights advocates, more than 30,000 people have been detained since the protests began, and thousands of them were brutally beaten.
Tsikhanouskaya said on Thursday that “there are 246 political prisoners in Belarus now” including academics.
On the protest, Lukashenko told the assembly that he had defeated a “blitzkrieg” engineered by “very powerful forces” from abroad.
He did not elaborate on who these foreign forces are — he has previously blamed the West — but said the country “must stand up to them no matter what, and this year will be decisive”.
He also spoke in passing about his eventual departure from office.
“One day you will elect another Lukashenko, or someone else,” he said. “As heroic as I am, the time will come” to leave.
He said he “understands” that the country will “need a new generation in power”.
But his departure, he said, will only be possible “if there is no protest, no attempt to overthrow the authorities”.
The Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Linas Linkevicius, reacted to Lukashenko’s speech and claims of foreign interference, writing on Twitter: “The outgoing leader encourages himself and announces that he has won a ‘Western-inspired blitzkrieg’.”
“For him hard to believe that it was not the West but Belarus who lost the patience, people fighting for six months and do not intend to quit until will be free,” he added.
Watch the report in the video player above.