Belarus’s authoritarian leader has denied that his government unleashed harsh repression of dissent after his re-election a year ago triggered a months-long wave of mass protests.
President Alexander Lukashenko also promised to step down “very soon” but would not say when exactly.
His main challenger in that election, meanwhile, reminded the international community that Belarus still needs its support.
Mr Lukashenko held his annual press conference on the one-year anniversary of the vote that handed him a sixth term in office but was denounced by the opposition and the West as rigged.
In his opening remarks, the president defended the election and accused the opposition of preparing a coup.
“We back then carried out preparation for the election and the election itself in the conditions of total transparency and democratisation of political life,” Mr Lukashenko said.
“The difference was only that some were preparing for a fair election, and others who called for bashing the authorities (were preparing) for a coup.”
Belarus was shaken by months of protests triggered by Mr Lukashenko’s re-election, the largest of which drew up to 200,000 people.
Belarusian authorities responded to the protests with a relentless crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
Leading opposition figures have been jailed or forced to leave the country.
Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 27 years, has denounced his opponents as foreign stooges and accused the US and its allies of plotting to overthrow his government.
He has vaguely promised to step down after Belarus adopts a new constitution but kept quiet about when it might happen.
On Monday, Mr Lukashenko said it would happen “very soon”.
The authorities have ramped up their crackdown on dissent in recent months, targeting independent journalists and democracy activists with raids and arrests and sometimes going to extremes such as diverting a plane to the capital Minsk and arresting a dissident aboard.
The leader of Belarus, however, argued on Monday that “there have been no repressions in my country, and there never will be any repressions”.
Mr Lukashenko added: “To unleash repressions in Belarus is (the same as) to shoot myself. I know it well and I will never cross that line.”
The pressure on dissent has elicited international outrage, and the United States and European Union have slapped Belarus with sanctions that target top government officials and key sectors of the country’s economy.
In response to the sanctions, Mr Lukashenko has said his country will not try to stem a flow of illegal migrants to the EU.
Lithuania in recent months has faced a surge of mostly Iraqi migrants it has blamed on Mr Lukashenko’s government.
On Monday, the president also threatened to stop co-operating with the US in the fight against smuggling of radioactive materials if the sanctions pressure continues.
“Who needs some dirty explosives going to the European Union?” Mr Lukashenko said, citing the surge of migrants as an example of Western pressure backfiring.
“We’re not blackmailing, we’re not threatening, we’re forced to react,” he said.
Last week, Belarus once again drew international attention.
At the Tokyo Games, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter accused the country’s officials of trying to put her on a plane back to Belarus after she publicly criticised the management of her team at the Games.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board the plane and instead sought refuge in Poland.
In his first comment on the incident, Mr Lukashenko accused her of being a foreign stooge, saying that “she wouldn’t have done it herself if she hadn’t been manipulated”.
Around the same time, a Belarusian activist who ran a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution was found hanged in Kyiv, with his allies alleging that Belarus’s authorities were behind his death.
Mr Lukashenko on Monday brushed off these accusations and demanded that Ukraine investigate Vitaly Shishov’s death.
“It needs to be figured out. But if you’ve accused us, (put) facts on the table. Facts on the table!” he said.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Mr Lukashenko’s top challenger in last year’s election who left Belarus under government pressure and is now in exile in Lithuania, said that “the regime” in Minsk had turned into a “terrorist one” and urged Western nations to impose more sanctions on Belarus.
“We expect that the US, Britain and Canada will announce co-ordinated sanctions against the regime shortly,” she said during a joint briefing with Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis in Vilnius, adding that her team is working on “bringing closer an international tribunal over the regime’s crimes”.
Mr Landsbergis said “the pressure on the Belarussian regime must not be eased”, adding that the international community should not recognise any international agreements signed by “illegal president” Mr Lukashenko.
The UK on Monday announced tightening economic sanctions against Belarus.
The measures target trade with Belarusian state-owned companies, government finance and aviation, including a ban on British firms providing technical assistance to Mr Lukashenko’s fleet of luxury aircraft, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said on Monday.
Other Western officials marked the anniversary of the election with messages of support for the people of Belarus.
European Council president Charles Michel tweeted that the EU “stands firmly” with Belarus and “will continue to do so”.
Leaders of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly’s human rights committee expressed concerns “over the deteriorating situation in the country” and urged “immediate steps to end the human rights crisis”.