MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Workers heckled and jeered President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday as he visited a factory and strikes grew across Belarus, raising the pressure on the authoritarian leader to step down after 26 years in power.
On the ninth straight day of mass protests over the official results of the Aug. 9 presidential election that demonstrators say was rigged, Lukashenko flew by helicopter to a factory in the capital of Minsk to rally support, but he was met by angry workers chanting, “Go away!”
He told the workers: “I will never cave in to pressure.”
Lukashenko said the country could have a new presidential election, but only after approving an amended version of its constitution — an apparent bid to buy some time amid the growing political crisis.
He told the factory workers that those who intend to strike could leave if they want, but he added that the protests are ruining the economy and said the country would collapse if he steps down.
“Some of you might have got the impression that the government no longer exists, that it has tumbled down. The government will never collapse, you know me well," the 65-year-old former state farm director shouted.
As he spoke, over 5,000 striking workers from the Minsk Tractor Plant marched down the streets of the city, joining an increasing number of state-controlled factories across the nation of 9.5 million in walking off the job.
Miners at the huge potash factory in Soligorsk also said they were joining the strike. The giant Belaruskali factory that accounts for a fifth of the world's potash fertilizer output is the nation's top cash earner.
The strikes follow a brutal dispersal of peaceful, post-election demonstrations last week with rubber bullets, tear gas, clubs and stun grenades. At least 7,000 were detained by riot police, with many complaining they were beaten mercilessly. One protester was killed and hundreds were wounded.
The workers want Lukashenko to give way to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leading opposition candidate in the election.
“Lukashenko is a former president. He needs to go,” said Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the protest at the Minsk Tractor Plant, adding that Tsikhanouskaya is "our president, legitimate and elected by the people.”
Dylevsky voiced concern that the iron-fisted leader's weekend telephone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin could herald an attempt by the country's giant eastern neighbor to send in troops to prop up Lukashenko.
“We don't want that, and we won't let that happen,” he said.
Lukashenko spoke twice with Putin over the weekend and reported the Russian leader told him Moscow stands ready to provide support in the face of what he described as foreign aggression. He claimed that NATO nations are beefing up military forces on the border with Belarus — a claim the alliance rejected.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reaffirmed Monday that the alliance has no military buildup in the region. “We remain vigilant, strictly defensive, and ready to deter any aggression against NATO allies,” he said.
Lithuanian officials pointed at a military exercise Belarus abruptly launched near the borders of Lithuania and Poland on Monday and warned about worrying signs that Russia might be planning to use the situation to take over Belarus.
“If they consider just incorporating the country in a simple way, the consequences would be unpredictable," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said.
Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent Minsk-based political analyst, said the conversations with Putin may reflect the Kremlin mulling support for Lukashenko in exchange for his consent for a closer union between the two nations, which the Belarusian leader has resisted in the past.