Belarus Ruler Calls Congress of Supporters Amid Protest Gridlock

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, facing the biggest protests of his 26-year rule, will gather a convention of his supporters in February in an effort to break the gridlock that has paralyzed his country’s political life since August.

A two-day Belarusian People’s Congress will start Feb. 11, state-owned news agency Belta reported Monday, citing Lukashenko at a meeting with officials in Minsk.

Lukashenko has faced mass protests since he claimed to win an Aug. 9 election in a landslide that his opponents say was rigged. The European Union and the U.S. have not recognized the results, pushing the authorities to seek support from Russia, which sees Belarus as a critical buffer against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“For Lukashenko, the congress is necessary for two reasons: to refresh his own legitimacy by confirming his political victory and the political order in the country and to introduce constitutional changes,” Pavel Usov, director of the Warsaw-based Center for Political Analysis and Prognosis, said by phone.

Lukashenko has ignored the protesters’ demands that he step down and labeled them part of a Western plot. The opposition, led by Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, estimates that more than 30,000 people have been detained since the contested vote. Of those who are still being held, Minsk-based human rights center Viasna says 167 are political prisoners.

The EU has hit local officials, including Lukashenko, with sanctions in response to the crackdown. Russia, which is Belarus’ closest ally, has provided economic support while calling for political reform.

Lukashenko held a similar congress in 1996 during his first term as president, laying the ground for a referendum that cemented his rule and stripped power from other branches of government. The goal now may be to put forward new constitutional amendments while suppressing protests, according to Usov.

“One thing’s for sure, Lukashenko will not resign,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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