Lukashenka's Pleas To Factory Workers Met With Jeers, Not Cheers
By Michael Scollon August 17, 2020
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka helicoptered in to a firestorm on August 17 in an effort to rally industrial workers following a major show of force by the opposition the night before.
But instead of saving his political skin, he walked away from the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Factory (MZKT) vowing not to hold a repeat of the recent election that gave him a sixth-straight term and resulted in nationwide protests "until you kill me."
Videos of the event showed hundreds of workers on the grounds of the major heavy-duty truck manufacturer drowning out the president's words with heckling, boos, and chants of "Leave!"
Speaking outside the plant just hours after his main rival in the disputed August 9 election, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called for a fresh vote and said she was prepared to lead the country through a transition, Lukashenka took a hard line.
"We held elections already," he told the workers. "There will be no other elections until you kill me."
He slightly modified this position later the same day, saying Belarus could hold a new presidential election after the country adopted a new constitution.
His trip to MZKT was also marred by scenes of confrontation with his audience, including one in which he approaches workers and promises he won't beat them before shouting at one person filming the encounter: " Be a man! There is a crowd of you, and I am alone! Put down your phone!"
The opposition, which says Lukashenka rigged the presidential vote and is demanding he step down, amassed a crowd in the Belarusian capital on August 16 that dwarfed a pro-presidential rally earlier in the day.
Unlike the nightly protests that followed the contentious vote, the August 16 demonstrations were not marred by bloody police crackdowns and mass detentions.
The opposition has called for factory workers, a traditional source of support for the long-serving authoritarian president, to join a general strike -- adding to the instability that has crippled the country's economy in recent months.
Seeking to head off walkouts like those seen at factories around the country earlier, Lukashenka traveled to MZKT and another industrial powerhouse, the Minsk Auto Factory, apparently with an eye toward showing he was willing to compromise.
The independent media outlet Tut.by published a transcript of much of Lukashenka's back and forth with workers in which he indicated he was willing to share power and said that a new constitution, to be approved by a national referendum, was possible.
But things got heated early when workers, dismayed by official election results that had Lukashenka winning with 80 percent of the vote, peppered him with questions, asking how that was possible considering the obvious support for his rival and why no election observers were allowed.
Lukashenka doubled down by asking, "Guys, tell me, how can you falsify 80 percent of the vote?" The crowd answered with a collective scoff.
Asked when his promise of a new constitution would be delivered, Lukashenka insisted he would not be pressured to leave early.
"Yes, I'm not a saint," he said. "You know my toughness. You know that if there was no toughness, there would be no country. But you know what I am willing to do and what I am not. You know that I will not harm your children and that I will not give away the country to anyone."
Soon after, dissatisfied workers began shouting "Leave!" -- a frequent chant by protesters calling for the president's resignation in the wake of the election.
Eventually, the chants drowned out Lukashenka's attempts to respond to accusations that he was lying, forcing him off the podium.
"Thanks, I said everything," he concluded. "Now you can shout 'Leave.'"
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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