Police break up protests after Belarus presidential vote
Phalanxes of Belarusian police in full riot gear violently dispersed thousands of demonstrators who poured into the streets to challenge the early count from Sunday’s presidential election, which indicated that the longtime authoritarian leader had won a sixth term by a landslide.
Hundreds of people were detained, according to a leading rights group.
The brutal crackdown that began late Sunday and lasted through the night followed a tense campaign that saw massive rallies against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet nation with an iron hand for 26 years.
Election officials declared that early returns show 65-year-old Lukashenko winning with more than 80% of the vote, while the main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a former English teacher and political novice, had about 8%.
Tsikhanouskaya rejected the official claims, saying, “I will believe my own eyes — the majority was for us.”
Thousands of her supporters quickly took to the streets of the capital to protest what they saw as official manipulations of the vote. They faced rows of riot police in black uniforms who moved quickly to disperse the demonstrators, firing flash-bang grenades and beating them with truncheons.
After breaking up the crowds, police relentlessly chased smaller groups of protesters across downtown Minsk for several hours.
Several other cities across Belarus saw similar crackdowns on protesters.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said police efforts to restore order were continuing overnight but wouldn’t say how many people had been detained.
Ales Bialiatski of the Viasna human rights group told the Associated Press several hundred were detained and hundreds injured in the police crackdown.
“What has happened is awful,” Tsikhanouskaya told reporters Sunday.
An AP journalist was beaten by police and treated at a hospital. Three journalists from the independent Russian TV station Dozhd were detained after interviewing an opposition figure and were deported.
At Minsk Hospital No. 10, an AP reporter saw a dozen ambulances delivering protesters with fragmentation wounds and cuts from stun grenades and other injuries.
“It was a peaceful protest; we weren’t using force,” said 23-year-old protester Pavel Konoplyanik, who was accompanying a friend who had a plastic grenade fragment stuck in his neck. “No one will believe in the official results of the vote. They have stolen our victory.”
Konoplyanik, whose legs were cut by fragments from police grenades, said he doesn’t want to leave the country but fears he might have no choice.
Tensions had been rising for weeks ahead of Sunday’s vote. Two prominent challengers were denied places on the ballot, but Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a jailed opposition blogger, managed to unite opposition groups and draw tens of thousands to her campaign rallies, tapping growing anger over a stagnant economy and fatigue with Lukashenko’s autocratic rule.
Lukashenko was defiant as he voted earlier in the day, warning that the opposition would meet a tough response.
“If you provoke, you will get the same answer,” he said. “Do you want to try to overthrow the government, break something, wound, offend, and expect me or someone to kneel in front of you and kiss them and the sand onto which you wandered? This will not happen.”
Mindful of Belarus’ long history of violent crackdowns on dissent — protesters were beaten after the 2010 election, and six rival candidates were arrested, three of whom were imprisoned for years — Tsikhanouskaya called for calm earlier Sunday.
“I hope that everything will be peaceful and that the police will not use force,” she said after voting.
After the polls closed, about 1,000 protesters gathered near the obelisk honoring Minsk as a World War II “hero city,” where police beat some with truncheons and used flash-bang grenades to try to disperse the crowd. Some of the protesters later tried to build barricades with trash containers, but police quickly broke them up.
Tsikhanouskaya emerged as Lukashenko’s main opponent after two other aspirants were denied places on the ballot. Viktor Babariko, head of a major Russia-owned bank, was jailed for charges he called political, and Valery Tsepkalo, an entrepreneur and former ambassador to the United States, fled to Russia after warnings that he would be arrested and his children taken away.
Tsepkalo’s wife, Veronika, became a top member of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign, but she, too, has left the country, fearing for her safety, campaign spokeswoman Anna Krasulina said. Over the weekend, eight members of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign staff were arrested.
Some voters were defiant in the face of Lukashenko’s vow not to tolerate protests.
“There is no more fear. Belarusians will not be silent and will protest loudly,” 24-year-old Tatiana Protasevich said Sunday at a Minsk polling site.
As polls opened, the country’s central elections commission said more than 40% of the electorate had cast ballots in early voting, a figure likely to heighten concerns about the potential for manipulation.
“For five nights, nobody has guarded the ballot boxes, which gives the authorities a wide field for maneuverings,” Veronika Tsepkalo told the Associated Press on Sunday, a few hours before leaving Belarus.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose assessments of elections are widely regarded as authoritative, was not invited to send observers.
Tsikhanouskaya had crisscrossed the country, tapping into public frustration with Lukashenko’s swaggering response to the pandemic and the country’s stagnating Soviet-style economy.
Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people, has reported more than 68,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and 580 deaths, but critics have accused authorities of manipulating the figures to downplay the death toll.
Lukashenko has dismissed the virus as “psychosis” and declined to order restrictions to block its spread. He announced last month that he had been infected but had no symptoms and recovered quickly, allegedly thanks to doing sports. He has defended his handling of the outbreak, saying that a lockdown would have doomed the nation’s already weak economy.
Belarus has sustained a severe economic blow after its leading exports customer, Russia, went into a pandemic-induced recession and other foreign markets shrank. Before the coronavirus, the country’s state-controlled economy had been stalled for years, stoking public frustration.
Yet for some voters, Lukashenko’s long, hard-line rule was a plus.
“He is an experienced politician, not a housewife who appeared out of nowhere and muddied the waters,” retiree Igor Rozhov said Sunday. “We need a strong hand that will not allow riots.”
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