Belarus crisis: Lukashenko floats idea of referendum in bid to appease protesters

Belarus’ underfire authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has floated the idea of a constitutional referendum in an apparent bid to appease protesters.

It comes after tens of thousands of demonstrators hit the streets of the capital Minsk at the weekend calling for Lukashenko to resign.

The 66-year-old claimed victory in presidential elections on August 9 that his critics say were rigged in his favour.

On Monday, state news agency BelTA quoted Lukashenko as saying specialists, including supreme court judges, were working on a revision of the law.

“I would like these changes to move our society forward,” said Lukashenko. “We will insist on these changes and propose such changes to our people.”

But details of the reforms remain vague.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and is the country’s only ever president, acknowledged the country’s “somewhat authoritarian system”.

As the meeting went ahead on Monday, Lukashenko said experts were discussing changes, including more independent courts. But, he added, this was not needed because “the most independent court is in Belarus”.

The leader added, however, that the system should work “without being tied to a personality, including Lukashenko”.

He insisted “those who yell about changes” were in a minority.

It came as authorities jailed the organiser of a strike at a top industrial plant. Anatoly Bokun, who leads the strike committee at Belaruskali, a huge potash factory in Soligorsk, was detained by police on Monday and handed a 15-day jail sentence on charges of organizing an unsanctioned protest. The factory, which accounts for a fifth of the world’s potash fertilizer output, is the nation’s top cash earner.

Both the US and the EU have criticised the August 9 election that extended Lukashenko’s rule as neither free nor fair and urged Belarusian authorities to talk with the opposition — calls that Lukashenko rejected.

EU foreign ministers agreed last week to prepare a sanctions list of up to 20 senior Belarus officials suspected of election fraud and the crackdown on protesters.

On Monday, the EU’s Baltic members — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — slapped their own travel sanctions on 30 top Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko.

Belarus’ foreign ministry spokesman, Anatoly Glaz, warned that Minsk would retaliate. Last week, Lukashenko threatened to respond to the sanctions by redirecting the flow of Belarusian imports via Lithuanian ports and blocking the transit of European cargo across Belarusian territory.

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