Russia said it was prepared to provide security support to Alexander Lukashenko, as tens of thousands of opponents of the Belarusian strongman took to the streets for an eighth day, calling for him to step down.
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had spoken to his Belarusian counterpart taking into account “pressure exerted on [Belarus] from the outside”, and had offered to provide assistance “if necessary” through a collective security pact of former Soviet states.
The Kremlin’s backing came as Mr Lukashenko delivered a defiant speech to a rally of his supporters in the Belarusian capital Minsk, in which he accused Nato of massing on the country’s western border, and insisted that he would not rerun last week’s presidential election.
“If someone wants to give away the country, even when I am dead, I will not allow it,” he said, according to the state-run news agency, Belta. “Remember: I have never betrayed you and I never will betray you.”
However, Mr Lukashenko’s rally was overshadowed by a huge opposition gathering around the Stela second world war monument in Minsk, where thousands of protesters rallied chanting “Leave! Leave!”, amid a cacophony of blaring car horns.
The eastern European nation has endured a tumultuous week since Mr Lukashenko claimed a landslide election victory, and then unleashed a savage crackdown on Belarusians who took to the streets to protest that the vote was rigged.
The clampdown, during which at least two people died, hundreds were injured and nearly 7,000 detained, amid a widespread internet blackout, initially seemed to quell the protests.
But as details began to emerge of how detainees had been beaten and tortured, protests gathered steam again on Thursday, and have mushroomed into the most serious challenge that the former collective-farm boss has faced since he took power in 1994.
“I don’t remember anything like this since 1994 or even 1991. In 2010, there were protests, but they were just 12,000 or 15,000 people and they were just from the opposition. But today it is not just the opposition — it is the people, who simply want changes,” said Eugen from Minsk.
“And we hope, and do everything, that these changes happen. I hope that Lukashenko will be strong enough to say ‘OK, new free and fair elections’ or he will simply go away — anywhere. But he is afraid because if he leaves, then he will be in court in The Hague.”
As well as the rally in Minsk, expected by organisers to be one of the biggest demonstrations in Belarus’s independent history, protests against Mr Lukashenko took place in cities across the country.
“Absolutely everyone come out! The time has come!” opposition organisers urged on the Nexta Telegram channel, adding that their demands were the departure of Mr Lukashenko, the immediate release of political prisoners and those detained this week, and that those responsible for the violence be held to account.
Organisers have also urged participants to be peaceful and warned them to beware of provocations.
In recent days, there have been signs of cracks in Belarus establishment. Several high-profile presenters have resigned from state TV. On Saturday, the independent Nasha Niva website posted a video in which the Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia, Igor Leshchenya, expressed his “solidarity” with protesters.
Strikes have also spread through Belarus’s state-owned companies, which were traditionally the bedrock of Mr Lukashenko’s support.
Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled Belarus last week under pressure from the security services, is setting up a co-ordination council to work towards a transfer of power. Her allies are trying to persuade the EU to recognise her as president.
Amid the mounting pressure, Mr Lukashenko issued a desperate plea to the Kremlin for support on Saturday, warning that the protests that have swept Belarus this week threatened the stability of Russia as well.