The opposition in Belarus has called for a general strike, after tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the capital Minsk for the biggest rally in the country’s recent history, a further sign that the regime of dictator Alexander Lukashenko is fast losing control. Early on the leader of the opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaya issued a video statement in which she said she was “ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader during this [transitional] period”.
“I have no illusions about my political career, I did not want to be a politician, but fate decided that I was on the front line of confrontation with arbitrariness and injustice. Fate and you, who believed in me, gave me strength,” said Mrs Tikhanovskaya. “We must release all political prisoners and prepare as soon as possible the legal framework and conditions for the organisation of new presidential elections. Real, fair and true elections that will be accepted by the world community.”
Mr Lukashenko still claims to have won last weekend’s presidential election, with an implausible 80 per cent of the vote. Mrs Tikhanovskaya, currently in exile in Lithuania and whose husband remains in prison in Belarus, insists she won. A look at the rallies held by the two on August 16 suggests she is right.
The first, in support of Mr Lukashenko, was a stage-managed affair that brought together just a few thousand people, most of whom had been bussed from the few state-owned factories in the country not yet backing the country’s peaceful revolution.
The second, attended by hundreds of thousands of people and held both in the capital and in other cities across Belarus was a joyous display of freedom from people no longer fearful of violent repression. There were few security forces present, and those who were in attendance appeared more concerned with keeping traffic moving than making the widespread arrests that marked the first three days of the protests that have followed a rigged election held on August 9. However, reports of seemingly random, illegal detentions emerged from other parts of Minsk, carried out by security forces in plain clothes.
Mr Lukashenko gave a short address to those who had gathered to support him, bizarrely claiming that only he can save Belarus from NATO. In an openly racist statement he said that NATO troops, “black or yellow of skin and blond of hair” would enter the country if he were no longer in power, and vowed never to “give this country away, even when dead.” He added that a rerun of the disputed election would “destroy” the country.
He asked the small crowd if they wanted reforms. “No”, was the half-hearted reply from the crowd, which waved the red and green Belarus flag, as well as communist party banners. Flags of the Russia-backed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine were also visible. The official account of his speech, issued by his press office, included 42 mentions of “applause” and “thunderous applause”.
It was the white and red flag of independent Belarus that was again prominent at the opposition rally, where Maria Kolesnikova, the only senior member of Mrs Tikhanovskaya’s team who remains in Belarus, made her first public appearance since the election. It was the first time that Tikhanovskaya has associated herself with the protests, and comes amid reports that she is set to declare herself the rightful president of Belarus. At least one EU member state, Lithuania, has suggested that it will recognise her as such.
On Friday, at an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers, Mr Lukashenko was threatened with sanctions if he did not release political prisoners and agree to dialogue with the opposition. The EU also made it clear that it did not consider the result of the August 9 election legitimate.
Mr Lukashenko appears to be clinging on to power in little no more than name alone, and it is no longer clear what parts of the state apparatus he still controls. The security forces no longer seem willing to keep him in office by force, state-run TV has been beset with resignations and most state-owned companies are on strike. The country’s miners are set to join the industrial action today. The stance of the army, still ostensibly behind the dictator and due to begin exercises close to the Lithuanian border this week, could be pivotal. Cadets from a military academy in Minsk joined the opposition protest on Sunday.
On August 16, the Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia Igor Leshchenya said that he no longer recognised Lukashenko as a legitimate president.
“I stand in solidarity with those who came out on the streets of Belarusian cities with peaceful marches so that their voice could be heard,” he said in a video. He said one of his daughter’s classmates had been badly beaten by police, and compared the events of the past week with the actions of Joseph Stalin’s NKVD, the secret police that tortured and executed hundreds of thousands of people in the 1930s.
Sergei Rumas, prime minister of Belarus until he was sacked by Lukashenko in June, has also sided with the opposition, saying in statement posted on Instagram that the right to peaceful protest was enshrined in the Belarusian constitution.
Left with few allies at home, Lukashenko has turned to Russia for support, holding two telephone conversations with Vladimir Putin, one on Friday and another on Saturday.
In a statement, the Kremlin said Moscow stood ready to provide help in accordance with a collective military pact. It also said Belarus was under “external pressure”, without naming the source.
“There is lots to worry about,” says Nigel Gould-Davies, a former UK ambassador to Belarus. “The question is not whether but how Russia will get involved.”
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