MINSK – The embattled president of Belarus tried to put on a show of strength Sunday, holding a rally with tens of thousands of supporters and rejecting any possibility of repeating the vote that gave him a sixth term. But opponents countered with a far larger demonstration that attracted as many as 200,000 people.
Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic of 9.5 million since 1994, lashed out at the West and declared to his crowd that the country would “perish as a state” if the election were rerun.
About 50,000 people listened to Lukashenko in a square near the main government building in the capital of Minsk. But as he spoke, throngs of supporters streamed to their own rally about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) away. It was the eighth straight day of anti-government demonstrations.
During 26 years in office, Lukashenko has repressed opposition figures and independent news media. But this year, protesters fed up with the country’s declining living standards and Lukashenko’s dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic have posed the biggest challenge to his rule.
The 65-year-old president claimed Sunday that Western powers were gathering military units in countries along Belarus’ western borders and denounced suggestions by some Western nations that Belarus should repeat the Aug. 9 presidential vote, which opposition supporters say gave Lukashenko a victory only through massive fraud. Official results say he received 80% of the vote.
“If we follow their lead (and rerun the election), we will perish as a state,” Lukashenko declared, a day after saying he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed that Russia would send unspecified security assistance to the former Soviet republic if Lukashenko asked for it.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu dismissed the president's claim about troops gathering, tweeting that there is no NATO buildup in the region.
“NATO’s multinational presence in the eastern part of the Alliance is not a threat to any country,” Lungescu said. "It’s strictly defensive, proportionate & designed to prevent conflict & preserve peace.”