Why Is Belarus Protesting? Lukashenko Says 'Until You Kill Me, There Will Be No New Elections'

Embattled Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has told protesters that he will not allow new elections, despite mass demonstrations calling on the strongman to step down amid allegations of vote-rigging in the contest held earlier this month.

Lukashenko claims to have won 80 percent of the vote in the August 9 presidential election. He defeated challenger and former schoolteacher Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, who has since fled to Lithuania fearing for her safety.

Lukashenko, 65, is known as "Europe's last dictator," having retained power for nearly three decades. He took control of the newly independent country shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But this latest election—which he claims secured him a sixth term in office—has galvanized Belarusian voters, bringing tens of thousands of people into the streets despite a brutal response from police.

More than 6,700 people have so far been arrested, and many of those released have reported being tortured while in detention. At least two people have been killed, though a United Nations special rapporteur has warned the true death toll could be higher.

Workers in state-run factories have joined protesters on the streets, refusing to return to work until Lukashenko allows full and fair elections. On Monday, Lukashenko visited the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant in the capital city to speak to workers, but was met with heckling and eventually stormed off stage.

Despite the evident popular anger, Lukashenko stubbornly stuck to his script and said no new elections would be held. "You will not live to see the day I do anything under pressure," he said, according to the Russian state-backed Tass news agency.

"There will be no re-election," he added, claiming that the country's industries would be "destroyed in half a year" if he left office.

"You speak about unfair elections and want fair ones?" the president asked. "I have an answer for you. We had the elections," he continued.

"Until you kill me, there will be no new elections," Lukashenko said, according to BBC producer Will Vernon. The president then told the crowd: "Thank you. I've said everything. You may continue shouting 'resign.'" Workers could be heard heckling Lukashenko as he left the stage.

Lukashenko has been unable to subdue the protests, and on Sunday tens of thousands of people turned out in Minsk for what organizers claimed was Belarus' largest-ever demonstration. Tikhanovskaya has said she is prepared to act as interim leader and take power while new elections are organized.

Lukashenko, meanwhile, has been appealing to Russian President Vladimir Putin for support, warning his long-time ally that his defeat could also pose a threat to the Kremlin. Lukashenko said Saturday that Putin had offered "comprehensive help" under the terms of a collective security agreement between Russia and former Soviet states.

The Kremlin said Sunday it was prepared to provide military backing to Lukashenko's regime, suggesting "external pressure" was behind the unrest. The Kremlin said it would provide assistance "if necessary" under the collective security pact.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus, election, protests, workers, factory
Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko speaks with a worker as he visits the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, in Minsk, on August 17, 2020. NIKOLAY PETROV/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images/Getty