Belarus opposition cries foul as Lukashenko convenes "People's Assembly"

KYIV (Reuters) - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko launched a “People’s Assembly” of 2,700 delegates on Thursday that promised constitutional reforms at a referendum next year but opponents see as a sham to help him keep power.

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Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994 but has faced street protests since a presidential election last August that the opposition says was rigged to enable him to win.

Mass arrests and a crackdown on the protests prompted new Western sanctions but Lukashenko has remained president, thanks to diplomatic and financial support from Russia, which sees the former Soviet republic as a buffer state against NATO.

Lukashenko, who denies electoral fraud, spoke to a packed hall in front of the slogan “Belarus: a test of endurance”. Local media footage showed police vans waiting outside in case of unrest.

“It was a mutiny. The blitzkrieg failed. We saved our country. For now,” Lukashenko, who has accused the West of sponsoring the protests, said in a televised speech.

“The assistance of the Russian Federation was of the utmost importance for us,” he said. “As long as we and Russia stand back to back, no one will bring us to our knees.”

Lukashenko, 66, said his office wielded too much power and promised to prepare a referendum on constitutional reforms that would be put to a vote early next year.

He said he would only step down provided there was “peace and order in the country,” no protests and no revolutionary activities.

Most of the delegates attending the two-day assembly are pro-government local deputies and officials who were elected at closed sessions.

“Lukashenko is gathering loyalists at the so-called All Belarusian People’s Assembly to legitimise (the) usurper in the eyes of the people,” said Franak Viacorka, an advisor to exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. “Because Lukashenko understands that he lost people’s support, and he is still clinging on to power by all possible means.”

Protests are still simmering, and political analyst Artyom Shraibman said the political crisis was not over for Lukashenko.

“Dissatisfaction with the authorities has not gone anywhere,” Shraibman said.

Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Michael Perry, Timothy Heritage and Toby Chopra