Lukashenko warns opponents as protests swell across Belarus

EU eyes sanctions on regime officials after brutal crackdown on dissent

Belarusians demonstrated in Dublin on Thursday, bringing attention to the ongoing government crackdown in their country following the controversial re-election of Alexander Lukashenko. Video: John Cassidy

 

Belarus faces a tense weekend after protests and strikes against autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko swelled and he urged people to leave the streets, warning that they were being used as “cannon fodder” by malign foreign forces.

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, meanwhile, called for a weekend of nationwide rallies to condemn the conduct of last Sunday’s presidential election and subsequent police violence against protesters, as the EU moved towards imposing sanctions on officials involved in the disputed vote and brutal crackdown.

A growing wave of strike action and public criticism from current and former police and military officers has undermined Mr Lukashenko’s authority, and left him looking increasingly isolated and out of touch after 26 years in power.

“We need to stop the violence on the streets of Belarusian cities. I call on the authorities to stop it and begin dialogue,” said Ms Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania on Tuesday due to what her aides said were threats from the authorities.

“I ask mayors of all cities, on August 15th and 16th, to act as organisers of mass, peaceful gatherings in each city or town,” added the former teacher, who entered politics reluctantly after her husband, a popular opposition blogger, was jailed in May.

‘Bloodbath’

Ms Tikhanovskaya (37) said Belarusians would never accept election results that gave Mr Lukashenko an unlikely 80 per cent of votes, and would “never want to live with the previous government again” having seen the authorities “turn the public’s peaceful protests into a bloodbath”.

She also announced the creation of a “co-ordination council for ensuring the transfer of power”, and urged Mr Lukashenko’s regime to enter talks with the opposition, while calling upon the security forces “not to obey illegal orders”.

Mr Lukashenko refuses to bow to protests that he claims are orchestrated from abroad, however, and he warned the nation on Friday: “Don’t go out into the streets these days. You have to understand that you and our kids are used as cannon fodder . . . Aggression has been launched against the country.”

The violence shown by riot police towards unarmed protesters and bystanders has shocked Belarusians, as have photos of injuries suffered at police hands and accounts of former detainees who have given consistent accounts of beatings and other abuse suffered in jail.

Surge of anger

Those accounts and images, shared on social media when restrictions on internet access have allowed, fuelled an unprecedented surge of anger towards Mr Lukashenko from people who have formed the core of his support, including industrial workers, state media staff and members of the security services.

Interior minister Yuri Karayev apologised on Thursday evening to people who had been caught up in the protests and badly treated by the police, and officials said most detainees would soon be released.

Such signs of contrition are rare from Mr Lukashenko’s regime, but they failed to quell people’s outrage at what Amnesty International called “a campaign of widespread torture and other ill-treatment by the Belarusian authorities, who are intent on crushing peaceful protests by any means”.

After an emergency conference call on Friday, EU foreign ministers agreed that the bloc should compile a list of Belarusian officials who should face sanctions, news agencies reported.

Russia announced, meanwhile, that 32 of its citizens had returned from Belarus after being detained there and accused of being mercenaries plotting terrorist acts around election time.