Advertisement

Protesters keep up their defiance against ‘Europe’s last dictator’

About 200 women march in solidarity in Minsk, Belarus
About 200 women march in Minsk, Belarus, in solidarity with protesters injured in the latest rallies against the results of the country’s presidential election.
(Associated Press)

Hundreds of people were back on the streets of Belarus’ capital Thursday morning in a show of solidarity with protests against an election many say was rigged to extend the rule of the man often called “Europe’s last dictator.”

In several areas of Minsk, hundreds of women formed long “lines of solidarity,” carrying flowers and portraits of their loved ones detained during protests. The human chains grew quickly, and by early afternoon filled the main central squares and avenues. Motorists blared horns in support.

Thousands of people have rallied across Belarus since Sunday, demanding a recount of the ballot that gave President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in a landslide victory with 80% of the vote, while his top opposition challenger received only 10%. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 26 years.

Police have moved aggressively to break up the protests with batons, stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. Some 6,700 people have been detained this week, according to the Interior Ministry. Lukashenko’s main political opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a schoolteacher who ran in her opposition blogger husband’s place after he was jailed, has fled to Lithuania in fear of her safety.

Advertisement

“Belarusians have seen the villainous face of this government. I argued with my husband and voted for Lukashenko. And this is what I got in the end — I can’t find my relatives in prisons,” said Valentina Chailytko, 49, whose husband and son were detained during protests Sunday. She still can’t find any information on their whereabouts.

One protester died Monday in Minsk, and scores were injured. Authorities confirmed that one more man died in a hospital in the city of Gomel, southeastern Belarus, after being detained by police, but the circumstances of his death weren’t immediately clear.

The Lithuanian foreign minister says the leading opposition candidate in Belarus’ presidential election fled her country and is ‘safe’ in Lithuania.

The protests appeared to take a more peaceful turn on Wednesday, as hundreds of women all over Belarus started taking to streets with flowers, formed human chains in solidarity with the demonstrators and called for an end to the crackdown on the rallies. For a while, all-female “lines of solidarity” stood unchallenged by police, which then dispersed some of them without violence. The peaceful demonstrations resumed Thursday.

Advertisement

The crackdown on protesters has drawn harsh criticism in the West.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the 27-nation bloc would review its relations with Belarus and consider “measures against those responsible for the observed violence, unjustified arrests and falsification of election results.”

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said the election in Belarus wasn’t “free and fair” and urged the government to refrain from violence against peaceful protesters.

Advertisement

Lukashenko derided the political opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters and vowed to continue taking a tough position on protests. “The core of these so-called protesters are people with a criminal past and [those who are] currently unemployed,” the state-run Belta news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying at a meeting with security officials Wednesday.

Belarus’ Investigative Committee has launched a criminal probe into mass rioting — a charge that carries lengthy prison terms.

This year the economic damage caused by the coronavirus and the president’s swaggering response to the pandemic, which he airily dismissed as “psychosis,” has fueled broad anger, helping swell the opposition ranks and prompting the Belarusian leader to unleash a renewed crackdown on dissent.

Protesters on Thursday said they were undeterred. “We’re not afraid, there’s no fear,” Alla Pronich, 38, said.

Advertisement

“To audacious rigging [of the election], to violence, to flash-bang grenades the authorities use, we respond with solidarity and a peaceful protest,” Pronich said. “It is all we have.”


Advertisement