News & Analysis

Belarus opposition leader issues president with an ultimatum: Resign or face a general strike

In her most overtly political statement yet, the Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on October 13 that she will call a nationwide strike unless President Alexander Lukashenko announces his resignation, halts violence and releases all political prisoners by October 25.

“If our demands are not met by then, the whole country will be out on the streets, peacefully,” said Mrs Tikhanovskaya, who is in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The statement represents a marked change in tone from Mrs Tikhanovskaya, who has until now called for peaceful protests but not widespread civic disobedience or industrial action.

At the weekend the Belarusian authorities allowed Mrs Tikhanovskaya to speak to her jailed husband, YouTuber Sergei Tikhanovsky, who advised his wife she should get “tougher” with the authorities.

It was also reported that Mr Tikhanovsky met with Mr Lukashenko, who was later pictured speaking with other jailed opposition leaders in what some analysts have speculated was an offer to free them in exchange for their backing of his modest proposals to change the country’s constitution; changes that would nevertheless allow him to stay in office. He appears to have failed.

“We have said several times that we are ready for dialogue and negotiations. But holding talks behind bars is not dialogue,” said Mrs Tikhanovskaya.

Key to Mrs Tikhanovskaya’s new strategy will be getting the large state-owned enterprises in Belarus to back her call for a general strike. In the days immediately after the rigged election on August 9, there were walkouts at some major industrial plants, including BelAZ, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of trucks, and Naftan, the country’s only oil refinery, but the Belarusian authorities quickly replaced senior managers deemed disloyal and the strikes became far more sporadic as workers toed the line, fearing for their jobs.

Mrs Tikhanovskaya, however, who almost certainly won the August election, appears confident that she now has their full support.

“On October 26, all enterprises will begin a strike, all roads will be blocked, state-owned stores will no longer have any sales,” she said.

Mrs Tikhanovskaya’s new approach follows two days and nights which saw the most violent repression of peaceful protesters since August. Hundreds of people were detained on October 11, and many were subsequently beaten while in police custody. The following day, riot police – who have now been cleared by the interior ministry to use live ammunition – broke up a march of senior citizens with tear gas. Until now, Belarus’s elderly had been thought to be Mr Lukashenko’s one remaining bastion of support outside of the security services and state apparatus, their generous pensions enough to keep them onside. Even they now appear to have had enough.

In another blow to Mr Lukashenko’s authority, European Union foreign ministers finally agreed on October 12 to sanction him – along with other senior officials – over what they said was a rigged election and worsening police violence against protesters.

Mr Lukashenko was not on an earlier EU sanctions list agreed on October 2 that targeted 40 Belarusian officials, but the bloc now says his refusal to consider new elections as a way out of the crisis leaves it with no choice.

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