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On ninth day of protests, striking workers call on Belarus president to resign

Workers protest against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko
Workers with handmade posters reading “Go away!” march toward the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, where Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addressed employees Monday.
(Dmitri Lovetsky / Associated Press)

Several thousand factory workers took to the streets of Minsk and hundreds of demonstrators besieged the state television headquarters Monday, raising the pressure on authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to step down after 26 years in office.

On the ninth straight day of protests against the official results of the Aug. 9 presidential vote handing him a sixth term, Lukashenko flew by helicopter to a factory in the capital in a bid to rally support but was heckled by workers chanting, “Go away!” Facing the angry crowd, the 65-year-old Lukashenko dismissed calls to step down.

“I will never cave in to pressure,” Lukashenko told the workers. “Some of you might have got the impression that the government no longer exists, that it has tumbled down. The government will never collapse — you know me well.

Lukashenko said the country could have a new presidential election, but only after approving an amended version of its constitution — an apparent bid to buy some time amid the growing political crisis. The ongoing protests are the most serious challenge that Lukashenko — often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — has faced during his iron-fisted rule of the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million.

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As he spoke, more than 5,000 striking workers from the Minsk Tractor Works plant marched down the streets of Minsk, Belarus’ capital, demanding that Lukashenko cede his post to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leading opposition candidate.

The official results of the Aug. 9 election gave Lukashenko 80% of the votes and Tsikhanouskaya only 10%, but the opposition contends that the vote was rigged.

“Lukashenko is a former president — he needs to go,” Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the protest at the Minsk Tractor Works plant, said Monday. “Sveta [Tsikhanouskaya] is our president, legitimate and elected by the people.”

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Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, entered the race after her husband, an opposition blogger, was jailed. She managed to galvanize nationwide support, drawing tens of thousands to her campaign rallies. She left the country for Lithuania last week, a move her campaign said was made under duress.

Dylevsky voiced concern that Lukashenko’s calls to Russian President Vladimir Putin could herald an attempt by Moscow to send in troops to prop up Lukashenko. “We don’t want that, and we won’t let that happen,” Dylevsky said.

Lukashenko spoke twice with Putin over the weekend and reported that the Russian leader said Moscow stood ready to provide support in the face of what Lukashenko described as foreign aggression.

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Lithuania also warned of worrying signs that Russia might be planning to use the situation to take over Belarus.

Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent Minsk-based political analyst, said that the Kremlin is likely considering propping up Lukashenko in exchange for a closer union between Belarus and Russia, which Lukashenko has resisted in the past.

“Russian understands Lukashenko’s weakness and is preparing its own scenario, which could envisage a deep integration in exchange for military help,” Klaskovsky said.

Belarusian authorities initially tried to suppress the protests against the election result, detaining almost 7,000 people in the first days of the protests. Police moved aggressively, using stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, injuring scores of people.

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Belarus has released more than 2,000 people detained during big protests against the reelection of longtime autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko.

However, as protests grew and the harsh crackdown drew criticism in the West, law enforcement refrained from interfering with the crowds and appeared all but absent during a rally Sunday that attracted some 200,000 people.

In Brussels, European Council President Charles Michel scheduled an emergency summit of EU leaders on Wednesday to discuss the handling of the election and the crackdown on protesters. The 27 EU countries’ foreign ministers have said that the elections were neither free nor fair and that they refuse to accept the official result. They have tasked officials with drawing up a list of people who could face sanctions over their role in the crackdown on demonstrators.

“The people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader,” Michel said in a tweet. “Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed.”

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Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement Monday that she was ready to facilitate a rerun of the disputed election.

The authoritarian president of Belarus has rejected a prospective law against domestic violence as Western “nonsense,” saying that physical punishment could be “useful” in raising children.

“I’m ready,” she said, “to take on the responsibility and act as a national leader in order for the country to calm down, return to its normal rhythm, in order for us to free all the political prisoners and prepare legislation and conditions for organizing new presidential elections.”

Lukashenko bristled at the idea of talks with the opposition, insisting that his government was the only legitimate one, and rejected the idea of repeating the election at a rally in his support Sunday. The embattled president told a crowd of 50,000 that the country would “perish as a state” otherwise, and denounced the protesters as stooges of foreign forces.

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Lukashenko visited another tractor plant Monday and dismissed the strikes as insignificant. “So, 150 [people] at some factory, even 200, don’t make a difference,” the president was quoted as saying by the state Belta news agency.

Thousands of workers from several other plants in the meantime gathered outside, shouting: “We’re not sheep, we’re people” and “Strike!”

Maria Kolesnikova, Tsikhanouskaya’s top associate, attended the gathering and said that only Lukashenko’s resignation would “calm the nation down.”


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