Belarus president says he would be open to handing over power after referendum

Embattled Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday said he would be willing to relinquish power after a new election if a constitutional referendum called for it as protesters continued to call for him to step down.

Lukashenko, who has held power for more than 25 years, said he would not follow through on the offer while under pressure from protesters, according to Reuters. He made the comments after Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader who left Belarus after Lukashenko was declared the winner of the recent election, said she was prepared to assume leadership of the country and called on security and police to switch sides.

“We’ll put the changes to a referendum, and I’ll hand over my constitutional powers,” Lukashenko said, according to the official Belta news agency. “But not under pressure or because of the street. Yes, I’m not a saint. You know my harsh side. I’m not eternal. But if you drag down the first president you’ll drag down neighboring countries and all the rest.”

Tsikhanouskay said she was ready to act as the “national leader.”

“I am ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader during this period,” she said, according to the news service.

Tsikhanouskaya also called for the development of a legal framework for a new presidential election. Official results stated Lukashenko was reelected with 80 percent of the vote.

The elections, as well as the police response to the demonstrations, have prompted international condemnation, including from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The crackdown on protests has reportedly injured hundreds of people.

However, other U.S. and European Union officials have claimed Lukashenko’s rule prevents a power vacuum that Russian President Vladimir Putin could exploit.

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“The possibility of Russian military intervention if Lukashenko is removed or can’t restore order is VERY real,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted last week. Russia has offered the country military assistance to put down the demonstrations.