‘All we want is a new, free and fair election’ Belarus opposition leader tells MEPs

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, by any objective measure the winner of a presidential election in Belarus on August 9, has told a special session of the of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs that her country has “woken up”.

In a speech delivered via video link from exile in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, the figurehead of the Belarusian opposition urged MEPs to continue their support for what she called Belarus’ “democratic revolution.”

She was referring to the ongoing protests in Belarus against August 9’s rigged election, an election that the incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko, implausibly claims to have won with more than 80 per cent of the vote.

On August 23, the largest protest yet against the dictatorial rule of Mr Lukashenko drew more than 200,000 people to the centre of Minsk. Events took a surreal and sinister turn when the president, who has in recent days suggested that a renewed bout of brutal repression against protesters and opposition figures, appeared in public wearing a flak jacket and carrying an automatic rifle.

“We are the majority now. This is a democratic revolution. This is the striving of the people for free and fair elections, for liberty and democracy. The Belarusian people deserve better. Europe deserves better,” said Mrs Tikhanovskaya, whose husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, remains a political prisoner in Belarus.

“It is our aim to achieve a new, free and fair election through dialogue,” Tikhanovskaya added, reaffirming the Belarusian opposition’s commitment to peaceful protest. She also said that the opposition was ready to negotiate with the authorities at any time, and that she was open to international mediators facilitating dialogue.

“Unfortunately, the authorities have responded with threats and intimidation,” said Mrs Tikhanovskaya.

Indeed, there is no sign that Mr Lukashenko is even remotely ready to talk.

On August 24, there were more arrests of peaceful protesters, as well as of two key figures who form part of Mrs Tikhanovskaya’s coordination council, set up last week specifically to negotiate a peaceful handover of power to a transitional administration that would be tasked with organising free and fair elections.

Police detained Sergei Dylevsky, a factory worker who has become a prominent strike leader at the Minsk Tractor Works, and Olga Kovalkova, part of the team who ran Mrs Tikhanovskaya’s campaign.

The council also includes the 72-year-old Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, who – while probably protected from arrest by her international profile – has nevertheless been summonsed for questioning by prosecutors who have opened a criminal case against the council, claiming that its formation amounts to an “illegal attempt to seize power”, something the chairman of the Belarusian Constitutional Court, Pyotr Miklashevich, has also suggested.

“The creation of the council, which has set itself the goal of reviewing the presidential election in Belarus in a manner not determined by the constitution and electoral legislation, is unconstitutional. We draw your attention to the fact that all citizens and subjects of public and political relations must comply with the regime of constitutional legality,” said Mr Miklashevich on August 25.

Mr Lukashenko last week vowed to take “adequate measures” against the council, and has since ordered the Belarusian army into full combat readiness, raising the prospect that the military may be used to crackdown on the street protests.

The country’s defence ministry said in a statement that reservists were being mobilised as parts of the military were placed on high alert in what was described as the third stage of “checking the army’s readiness”.

“The third stage of the comprehensive inspection of the armed forces’ combat readiness began on August 24 at the behest of the defense minister of Belarus and is led by the chief of the General Staff. The inspection will involve putting certain military units in the highest degree of combat readiness with a call-up of reservists,” said the ministry in a statement.

The Belarusian military has reportedly been conducting a large-scale tactical exercise in the Grodno region, near the border with Lithuania and where the protest movement is particularly strong.

Mr Lukashenko’s shows of bravado in recent days could, however, mean that Belarus is closer to overthrowing him than many realise, says Slawomir Sierakowski, senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“Lukashenko’s displays of strength now convey weakness. And the more ridiculous he looks, the harder it is becoming for even devoted supporters to follow him.”

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