The president of Belarus has denounced the the six months of protests against his rule as a foreign-directed “rebellion” and vowed to resist the pressure.
Speaking to 2,700 participants of the All-Belarus People’s Assembly, Alexander Lukashenko said “very powerful forces” abroad were behind the demonstrations.
Mr Lukashenko did not elaborate, but over the past several months he has repeatedly accused the West of fomenting the protests.
“We must stand up to them no matter what, and this year will be decisive,” he said.
Mr Lukashenko convened the gathering to discuss plans for the country’s development, but the opposition has denounced it as an attempt to shore up his rule and soothe public anger with vague promises of reforms.
Mass protests have gripped the ex-Soviet nation of nine-and-a-half-million people since official results from the August 9 presidential election gave Mr Lukashenko a landslide victory.
The main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and her supporters have dismissed the result as rigged, and some poll workers have also described manipulations of the vote.
Authorities have cracked down hard on the largely peaceful demonstrations, the biggest of which attracted up to 200,000 people.
Police have used stun grenades, tear gas and truncheons to disperse the rallies.
According to human rights advocates, more than 30,000 people have been detained since the protests began, thousands of whom were beaten.
The opposition has urged Belarusians to take to the streets to protest against Thursday’s gathering.
Mr Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for more than 26 years, relentlessly stifling dissent and relying on cheap energy and other subsidies from his main ally, Russia.
Speaking on Thursday, he thanked Moscow for its support in the face of protests, but reaffirmed that the union agreement between the two countries should not limit Belarus’s independence.
The United States and the European Union have responded to the vote manipulations and the crackdown on protests by introducing sanctions against Belarusian officials.
Mr Lukashenko accused the West of harbouring aggressive intentions, but at the same time urged it to restore political ties and economic co-operation.