Just as it looked as though a pattern had begun to emerge in Belarus, with large-scale protests against a rigged presidential election taking place at weekends while the country’s increasingly desperate authorities neutered leading opposition figures via threats or by arresting and jailing them for minor offences, thousands of students across the country walked out on strike on September 1, traditionally the first day of the new university year.
Many students blockaded themselves in their university buildings, while others marched on the education ministry.
According to Belarusian journalist Franak Viačorka, several students were arrested, apparently at random. Workers at BelAZ, which makes agricultural machinery, the Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ) and many construction workers also downed tools in support of the revolution.
Protests against the official result of the August 9 election, in which incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko implausibly claimed to have won more than 80 per cent of the vote, have now entered their fourth week.
The demands of the protesters include Mr Lukashenko’s immediate resignation and the transfer of power to a coordination council set up by the opposition, a new, free and fair election, the release of all political prisoners, and an end to police violence. At least four people have died and hundreds have been injured by riot police and security forces since the protests began.
On August 31, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia became the first countries to impose sanctions on Belarus following the crackdown on opposition forces that followed the presidential election. The three Baltic nations banned 30 Belarusian officials from entering their countries, including Mr Lukashenko, who Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevičius made a point of calling “the former president of Belarus”.
The Baltics’ move betrays growing frustration at the European Union’s failure to take similar measures.
“We wanted to send a signal to our friends in Europe and outside Europe that we should act properly and immediately,” said the Estonian foreign minister, Urmas Reinsalu.
“We said that we need peaceful dialogue and agreement between the regime and society, but we see that the regime is not ready for that. We see that we need to move forward and to show an example to other countries,” added Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda.
While the EU has rejected the result of the election and has condemned the violent repression of protests, it is still merely “considering” entry bans against a list of 20 Belarusian officials which does not include Mr Lukashenko.
Meanwhile, Belarusian officials have prevented the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Minsk and Mogilev, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, from returning to the country from neighbouring Poland. No reason was given for the decision. The church has repeatedly condemned state-sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters.
At the weekend, ahead of a massive demonstration on August 30, the Belarus authorities also deported foreign journalists and withdrew the accreditation of several others.
The Associated Press news agency said two of its journalists who were covering the protests were deported to Russia, while Germany’s ARD television said two of its Moscow-based journalists also were deported to Russia. The Belarusian Association of Journalists said accreditation was taken away from 17 Belarusians working for international media, including the BBC Russian service and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Government spokesman Anatoly Glaz said the decision to revoke the media accreditations was taken on the recommendation of the country’s counter-terrorism unit.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after by any objective measure winning the election, said the revocation of media accreditations was worrying.
“If true, it is another sign that this regime is morally bankrupt and the only way it will attempt to cling onto power is by fear and intimidation,” she said in a statement.
On Friday, Mrs Tikhanovskaya – whose husband remains a political prisoner in Belarus – will address the United Nations Security Council at the invitation of Estonia, which currently holds the council’s rotating presidency. She is also set to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe next week.
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