The Irish Times view on protests against Belarus’s Lukashenko: Demonstrators sense tide has turned

The emboldened opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko senses, rightly or wrongly, that the tide is turning against the country’s dictator

Speaking in a video address from Lithuania, Belarusian opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya calls for the creation of a legal mechanism to ensure that a new, fair presidential election can be held. Video: Reuters

 

The march by 200,000 people in Minsk, as well as tens of thousands in other cities across Belarus, reportedly had a festive air. The emboldened opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko senses, rightly or wrongly, that the tide is turning against the country’s dictator, and on Monday many thousands were expected to back calls to extend a wave of factory strikes into a general strike. The fear of Lukashenko is dissipating.

The autocrat... vowed to stand firm against protesters he reviled as 'rats', 'trash', and 'bandits'

Only a week ago, a group of clapping people on a pavement would have been violently dispersed by the riot police, with arrests of over 6,700 and widespread torture reported. On Sunday the police were nowhere to be seen.

Lukashenko supporters also demonstrated in small numbers in the capital. The autocrat, who has ruled for the past 26 years, vowed to stand firm against protesters he reviled as “rats”, “trash”, and “bandits”. He rejected calls for a new election and accused Nato of massing troops on his country’s border.

Speaking from exile in Lithuania, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called on Belarus’s security apparatus to abandon Lukashenko. She has announced the creation of a coordination council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to “help us in organising a dialogue with Belarusian authorities”. She said she would organise new elections if Lukashenko stepped down and free political prisoners.

Whether Putin, who has increasingly tired of Lukashenko’s u-turns and periodic flirtations with the West, wants him to survive, is an open question

Increasingly fearful, Lukashenko has appealed for help to Vladimir Putin whose response has been ambiguous. Belarus’s state news agency claims Putin promised that, if needed, “comprehensive assistance will be provided to ensure the security of the Republic of Belarus” but the Kremlin’s account offered no concrete support or even endorsement of Lukashenko. The agency seemed to imply that assistance was confined to supposed external threats and treaty obligations to defend Belarus, and might not include security assistance against domestic threats like protesters.

Whether Putin, who has increasingly tired of Lukashenko’s u-turns and periodic flirtations with the West, wants him to survive, is an open question. His calculation may well be that Lukashenko is already past his sell-by date and will have to be replaced. And that the cause of preserving Russian influence on a new government will be better served if Moscow is not seen to have been Lukashenko’s last prop.

An assessment that a new government would lean heavily to the west may well, however, make the huge political price of intervention to prop up Lukashenko be deemed worth paying.

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