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Belarus Factory Workers Walk Out, Joining Mass Protests Calling For President To Quit

Striking workers participate in anti-government protests on Monday in Minsk, Belarus.
Misha Friedman
Getty Images
Striking workers participate in anti-government protests on Monday in Minsk, Belarus.

The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, vowed Monday to cling tightly to power as many factory workers walked off their jobs and joined with hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters demanding his immediate resignation.

Lukashenko, who had flown by helicopter to a factory in Minsk in hopes of rallying support, was instead met with chants of "Leave!"

Speaking to workers, he vowed to "never cave in to pressure."

"The government will never collapse," he said, adding that he had no intention of stepping down. "There will be no new election until you kill me."

Lukashenko, visibly angry, told the assembled workers, "Thank you, I have said everything. You can shout 'Leave,' " before walking away from the microphone, according to The Moscow Times.

Even so, the embattled leader, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 26 years, hinted at a possible long-term solution to the impasse — offering to change the constitution.

"We'll put the changes to a referendum, and I'll hand over my constitutional powers. But not under pressure or because of the street," Lukashenko said, in remarks quoted by the official Belta news agency, according to Reuters.

On Aug. 9, Lukashenko claimed 80% of the vote against Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leading opposition candidate, in an election widely seen as rigged in his favor.

The vote sparked widespread protests.

As Lukashenko spoke at the factory, more than 5,000 workers from the Minsk Tractor Plant marched down the city's streets calling for him to resign.

Speaking to The Associated Press, Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the protest, described Lukashenko as "a former president."

"He needs to go," Dylevsky said, adding that Tsikhanouskaya is "our president, legitimate and elected by the people."

On Sunday, in a potentially ominous sign, a statement from the Kremlin said Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin had spoken by phone and that Putin had promised to stand ready to help his Belarusian counterpart in accordance with a collective military pact between the two countries.

The statement reiterated earlier comments from the Kremlin that "external forces" and not internal dissent were driving the unrest in Belarus.

Speaking to NPR's Morning Edition, activist Hanna Yahorava said she and others were concerned about the possibility of Moscow's intervention.

"We are all worrying about it, because we don't want any Russian assistance," she said, adding, "We are peaceful protesters."

Some 7,000 people have been arrested since the protests began and at least two have died. Videos of beatings and torture in jails at the hands of security forces have gone viral on social media.

Yahorava said 200,000 people were protesting in Minsk alone and that sweeping arrests by uniformed security forces more than a week ago had given way to what appeared to be arrests by unidentified, plainclothes agents.

The strike by factory workers comes amid a campaign by a group called Women in White who have turned out on the streets to protest the violent crackdown and call for the release of loved ones detained by police.

The women, dressed in white and often carrying flowers, began appearing last week in Minsk but have since spread abroad to Germany, Poland, Belgium, Ukraine and Russia.

NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.