MINSK (Reuters) - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko called on Tuesday for changes to the constitution that would prevent an opposition movement that rose up against him in mass street protests last year from taking power, the state news agency Belta reported.
President since 1994, Lukashenko has touted constitutional reform as a way out of the political crisis following a disputed election in August 2020. But his opponents have denounced such change as a sham exercise to keep the veteran leader in office.
Backed by Russia, Lukashenko unleashed a violent crackdown to disperse the protests, in which tens of thousands of people were detained. His government portrayed the demonstrators as foreign-backed criminals bent on a violent uprising.
"After last year, we understand that they cannot be allowed to power. Because it is not only we who will be liquidated," Lukashenko was quoted by Belta as saying.
"Therefore, the new constitution should take into account these nuances," he said at a meeting with officials.
He did not specify what specific changes were planned to the constitution, but repeated that a referendum on them should take place no later than February.
After the meeting, the head of the constitutional court, Petr Miklashevich, said the new constitution proposed redistributing powers between the president, government and parliament.
He said the new constitution was also meant to give legal status to a "People's Assembly" that Lukashenko launched this year amid criticism from the opposition.
Russia, which helped Lukashenko weather the protests and Western sanctions, has also pushed for constitutional reform in Belarus.
Lukashenko has previously suggested he would step down once a new constitution is adopted.
Last Friday the United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said more than 650 people were believed to be imprisoned in Belarus for their beliefs and that there had been no genuine investigations of police brutality and mistreatment.
Belarus rejected her report as being full of "unfounded statements and false accusations".
(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones)