Belarussian opposition ‘ready for long fight’ to oust Lukashenko

Autocratic leader of 26 years claims foreign forces are behind post-election protests

Protests have broken out in Minsk and other Belarus cities as strongman president Alexander Lukashenko looked set to win a sixth term in an election which his opponents say was rigged in his favour. Video: Reuters

 

Opponents of Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko have said they are ready for a long struggle to remove him from power, after a presidential election that they allege was rigged sparked violent clashes between protesters and police.

Officials said about 3,000 people were detained during demonstrations in several cities and towns across Belarus on Sunday night, and about 50 protesters and 39 police officers were hurt during fighting in the capital, Minsk, and elsewhere.

Protests resumed on Monday evening, and some activists called for a general strike to start on Tuesday, despite warnings from Mr Lukashenko that he would not tolerate any challenge from the streets to the continuation of his 26-year rule.

Amid allegations of massive fraud, official results gave him an unlikely 80 per cent of votes and a mere 10 per cent to his main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former English teacher who reluctantly entered politics after her husband – a popular opposition blogger – was jailed in May.

Her call for the release of political prisoners and for free and fair elections has tapped into widespread frustration over the country’s political and economic stagnation and anger at Mr Lukashenko’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which he dismissed as a “psychosis”. As a result, Ms Tikhanovskaya’s rallies became the biggest opposition protests in Belarus for many years.

“The authorities are not listening to us. They are totally cut off from the people,” Ms Tikhanovskaya (37) said on Monday, when her camp lodged a formal complaint over the election.

“We witnessed yesterday how the authorities are using violent methods to try to hold on to their positions – no matter how much we appealed to them and asked them not to give illegal orders or use violence against citizens,” she said of the police use of batons, tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets and flash grenades.

Her ally Maria Kolesnikova, the former campaign manager of another opposition figure who was recently jailed, said their team was “ready for long-term protests and the reaction of society to what is happening now”.

“We understand that nothing is ending now, neither the protests nor the violence we saw yesterday. Everything is just beginning,” she said.

‘No Maidan’

Mr Lukashenko (65) was defiant, however, in pledging to retain power, maintain order and face down protests that he blamed on foreign “puppet masters” manipulating young Belarusians, whom he described as “sheep”.

“I warned you: there will be no Maidan, no matter how much somebody might want it,” he said, referring to the huge protests centred on Kiev’s Maidan square in 2013-14 that ultimately ousted Ukraine’s then Russian-backed leader.

Mr Lukashenko has accused foreign powers to the east and west of trying to destabilise Belarus, and on Monday he said unnamed non-state actors from several countries – including Russia, Britain, Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic – were meddling in his nation’s affairs. He also blamed severe internet disruption in Belarus on a cyber attack from abroad.

“They are continuing to press, continuing to demand: get people out on the streets and conduct talks with the authorities about the voluntary handover of power,” he said of the foreign hands that he claims are guiding the opposition movement.

His relations with traditional ally Moscow have soured recently as the Kremlin has pushed for deeper integration with Belarus through their so-called union state, which would inevitably be dominated by the Kremlin.

Belarusian special forces last month detained 33 Russian mercenaries near Minsk for allegedly planning violence around the election.

Russia denies involvement in any plot and its president Vladimir Putin congratulated Mr Lukashenko on his election result, saying he hoped for “closer co-operation within the union state” and stronger political, economic and military relations with Belarus.