Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko struck a note of defiance on Monday on the first anniversary of an election which opponents said was rigged so that he could extend his long rule.
Lukashenko told a news conference he had won the presidential election fairly on Aug. 9 last year, and that he was protecting his country against a violent uprising.
“Today Belarus is in the focus of the attention of the whole world,” he said. Last year, some people “were preparing for a fair election, while others were calling … for a coup d’état.”
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in 2020 in the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s rule since he first became president in 1994.
He has clung to power, and unleashed a crackdown during which his main opponents gave been jailed or have moved abroad. The opposition says there are more than 600 political prisoners in jail. Protests inside Belarus have simmered down.
At loggerheads with Western countries that imposed sanctions on his government, Lukashenko has stayed in power thanks to support and financial backing from traditional ally Russia, which sees Belarus as a buffer state against NATO and the EU.
Belarus was thrust into the international spotlight again last week after Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to obey team orders to go home from the Tokyo Olympics and sought refuge in Poland.
Lukashenko has also tussled with the European Union since Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair flight flying over Belarus to land in the capital, Minsk, in May and arrested a dissident Belarusian journalist who was on board.
Separately, EU neighbours Lithuania and Poland have accused the government in Minsk of trying to engineer a migrant crisis on the Belarusian border in retaliation for EU sanctions.
Lukashenko says Lithuania and Poland are to blame.
Tens of thousands of people have been detained in Lukashenko’s crackdown, described by a senior United Nations human rights official as a “human rights crisis”.
Belarusians living abroad held rallies against Lukashenko on Sunday in European capitals including Kyiv, London, Warsaw and Vilnius.
“One year ago today, the right to freely elect their leader was taken away from the people of #Belarus. The EU stands firmly with you and will continue to do so,” European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs EU summits, said in a tweet.