- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2020

The leader of the Belarus’ opposition said Monday that the pro-democracy movement in her nation will not subside until the former Soviet republic’s longtime authoritarian strongman, Alexander Lukashenko, steps down from the presidency.

“The Belarusian people will not stop until Lukashenko resigns,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya — a figure some outside observers say was the legitimate winner of an August election against Mr. Lukashenko, told a Washington think tank.

“The protest mood is so strong that even the brutal beatings and the torture are not able to destroy them,” Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya said at a virtual forum webcast by the Atlantic Council. “There is no way back. … Lukashenko must go.”

Her comments come amid mounting speculation over the fate of Mr. Lukashenko’s hold on power in Minsk, where clashes between protesters and security forces have carried on for months while the U.S., the European Union and nearby Russia vow for influence.

Hundreds of protesters were arrested in recent days in Minsk, where Mr. Lukashenko made headlines recently by saying he would be open to leaving the presidency he’s held for more than 26 years if Belarus adopts a new constitution.

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, who ran for president against Mr. Lukashenko after the jailing of her husband, Sergei, a popular opposition blogger, says she believes Mr. Lukashenko is biding time in the hope the protest movement will blow over.

“I don’t think that Lukashenko will step down voluntarily. This is a hypocritical statement on behalf of the man who consolidated authoritarian power back in the 1990s after he conducted an unconstitutional referendum,” she said Monday. “He practically gave himself unlimited powers. So by talking about the new constitution, Lukashenko intends to buy himself time to justify his staying in power.”

“Historically, it has been quite a typical strategy for authoritarian leaders who are reluctant to give up on power,” she added. “There is no trust in Lukashenko’s promises about the constitution and new elections. All his promises are fake and the Belarusian people know this.”

“Belarusians are prepared to protest for as long as it is necessary,” Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya said. “I’m sure that we will reach the main goal to conduct new presidential elections.”

Mr. Lukashenko has long held power in the tense space between post-Soviet Moscow and the West, and the current situation in Belarus has presented a challenge for Washington. The Trump administration, which had sought positive relations with Mr. Lukashenko in recent years, has not called for his ouster since the disputed election, but has expressed solidarity with the opposition movement.

Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun told the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in a virtual forum on Dec. 3 that the Lukashenko government “must release political prisoners, journalists, and all those unjustly detained,” and engaged in “meaningful dialogue” with the opposition.

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