Belarus’ authoritarian leader said on Monday that the opposition was plotting a coup in the run-up to last year’s presidential elections that triggered a month-long wave of massive protests demanding his resignation.
President Alexander Lukashenko held his annual press conference on the first anniversary of the vote that granted him a sixth term, but it was denounced by the opposition and the West as rigged.
In his opening remarks, Lukashenko defended the elections and accused the opposition of preparing a coup.
“At that time we carried out the preparation for the elections and the elections themselves in conditions of full transparency and democratization of political life,” Lukashenko said. “The difference was just that some were preparing for fair elections, and others asked to hit the authorities, for a coup.”
Belarus was rocked by months of protests sparked by Lukashenko’s re-election, the largest of which drew 200,000 people. The Belarusian authorities responded to the protests with a relentless crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police. The main opposition figures have been imprisoned or forced to leave the country.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, has denounced his opponents as foreign puppets and has accused the United States and its allies of plotting to overthrow his government.
Authorities have stepped up their crackdown on dissent in recent months, targeting News Logics journalists and democracy activists with raids and arrests and sometimes going to extremes such as diverting a plane to the capital Minsk and arresting a dissident in board.
Pressure on dissidents has sparked international outrage, and the United States and the European Union have slapped Belarus with sanctions targeting senior government officials and key sectors of the country’s economy.
In response to the sanctions, Lukashenko has said that his country will not try to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the EU. Lithuania in recent months has faced a wave of immigrants, mostly Iraqis, and has blamed the Lukashenko government.
On Monday, the president also threatened to stop cooperating with the United States in fighting the smuggling of radioactive materials if sanctions pressure continues.
“Who needs some dirty explosives for the European Union?” Lukashenko said, citing the surge in migrants as an example of failed Western pressure. “We are not blackmailing, we are not threatening, we are forced to react,” he said.
Last week, Belarus again attracted international attention. At the Tokyo Games, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter accused the country’s officials of trying to put her on a plane back to Belarus after she publicly criticized her team’s management at the games. Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board the plane and sought refuge in Poland.
In her first comment on the incident, Lukashenko accused her of being a foreign puppet, saying that “she would not have done it herself if she had not been manipulated.”
Around the same time, a Belarusian activist who led a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution was found hanged in Kiev with his allies claiming that the Belarusian authorities were behind his death.
Lukashenko on Monday played down these accusations and demanded that Ukraine investigate the death of Vitaly Shishov. “It needs to be resolved. But if you have accused us, (put) facts on the table. Facts on the table! “, He said.
Associated Press journalist Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed.