© Reuters. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko holds a news conference in Minsk, Belarus August 9, 2021. Maxim Guchek/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS
By Natalia Zinets, William James and Elizabeth Piper
KYIV/LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A defiant President Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday a Belarusian sprinter defected at the Olympic Games only because she had been “manipulated” by outside forces and shrugged off a coordinated barrage of new Western sanctions.
At an hours-long news conference on the anniversary of an election which opponents said was rigged so that he could win, Lukashenko denied being a dictator and said he had defended Belarus against opponents plotting a coup.
As he spoke in his presidential palace in Minsk, Britain, Canada and the United States announced coordinated sanctions targeting the Belarusian economy and its financial sector, including exports of oil products and potash, which is used in fertilisers and is Belarus’ main foreign currency earner.
Lukashenko said Britain would “choke” on its measures and he was ready for talks with the West instead of a sanctions war.
Lukashenko said he had won the presidential election fairly on Aug. 9, 2020 and that some people had been “preparing for a fair election, while others were calling … for a coup d’état.”
Tens of thousands of people joined street protests in 2020 – Lukashenko’s biggest challenge since he became president in 1994. He responded with a crackdown in which many opponents have been arrested or gone into exile. They deny planning a coup.
Dismissing accusations that he is a dictator, he said: “In order to dictate – I am a completely sane person – you need to have the appropriate resources. I have never dictated anything to anyone and I am not going to.”
Belarus has again been in the international spotlight since sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya fled to Warsaw last week following a dispute with her coaches in which she said an order came from “high up” to send her home from Tokyo.
“She wouldn’t do it herself, she was manipulated. It was from Japan, from Tokyo, that she contacted her buddies in Poland and they told her – literally – when you come to the airport, run to a Japanese police officer and shout that those who dropped her off at the airport are KGB agents,” Lukashenko said.
“There was not a single special service agent in Japan.”
Lukashenko, 66, has kept power with political support and financial backing from Russia, which sees Belarus as a buffer state against the NATO military alliance and the European Union.
Belarus would respond if necessary to sanctions pressure but “there is no need to take up the sanction axes and pitchforks,” he said.
Western countries announcing sanctions cited violations of human rights and election fraud. U.S. President Joe Biden decried what he called a “brutal campaign of repression to stifle dissent.”
“…The actions of the Lukashenka regime are an illegitimate effort to hold on to power at any price. It is the responsibility of all those who care about human rights, free and fair elections, and freedom of expression to stand against this oppression,” Biden said.
Biden’s executive order allows the United States to block people doing business with a wide range of Belarusian officials and others involved in activities in the country regarded as corrupt. It also restricts the transfer of their property in the United States and their travel to the country.
The British sanctions also prohibited the purchase of transferable securities and money-market instruments issued by the Belarusian state and state-owned banks. Canada unveiled similar action.
Previous sanctions, including by the EU, have not persuaded Lukashenko to change course.
“While we take it with patience, let’s sit down at the negotiating table and start talking about how to get out of this situation, because we will get bogged down in it with no way back,” Lukashenko said.
Tensions with Western powers hit new heights after Belarus forced a plane to land in Minsk in May and arrested a dissident Belarusian journalist who was on board.
Separately, neighbouring Lithuania and Poland accuse Belarus of trying to engineer a migrant crisis in retaliation for EU sanctions.
Poland reported a record number of migrants had crossed the border from Belarus since Friday, saying they were probably from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lukashenko says Lithuania and Poland are to blame.
He also denied involvement in the death last week of Vitaly Shishov, who led a Kyiv-based organisation that helps Belarusians fleeing persecution. Shishov was found hanged in Kyiv.
Lukashenko’s opponents say there are now more than 600 political prisoners in jail.
“Sanctions are not a silver bullet, but they will help stop the repression,” exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said in Vilnius.