11 days of post-election protests in Belarus; Lukashenka orders Interior Ministry to control unrest

Special to WorldTribune.com

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

MINSK — Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has instructed the Interior Ministry to prevent unrest in the country and tighten border controls to keep purported foreign influences from fomenting instability in the face of an 11th day of street protests and strikes over a controversial presidential election.

“There should be no more riots in Minsk. People are tired. People demand peace and quiet,” Lukashenka said on Aug. 19, according to the BelTA state news agency.

People attend an opposition demonstration to protest against presidential election results in Minsk on August 18. / Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

“I instruct the State Border Committee, we see this from the discussion, to strengthen the protection of the state border along the entire perimeter in order to prevent militants, weapons, ammunition, and money from other countries from entering Belarus to finance the riots. We see that this money is coming.”

Lukashenka’s comments came as opposition figure Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on European leaders to “support the awakening” of her country and respect the choice of the Belarusian people amid widespread anger over a controversial presidential election.

Tsikhanouskaya made the calls in a video address to the European Council as EU leaders began an emergency meeting on August 19 to discuss the situation in Belarus.

“Our message is clear. Violence has to stop and a peaceful and inclusive dialogue has to be launched. The leadership of Belarus must reflect the will of the people,” European Council President Charles Michel tweeted on August 19 as the gathering got under way via videoconference.

“The people of Belarus have the right to a result that accurately reflects their vote. The EU, including the Netherlands, can’t accept the results of these elections,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tweeted on Aug. 19.

In a joint statement, the presidents of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — known as the Visegrad Four — called on Belarusian authorities to “open the way for a political solution, and to abide by the fundamental human rights and freedoms while refraining from the use of violence against the peaceful demonstrators.”

In a veiled reference to neighboring Russia, the four leaders urged “foreign actors to refrain from actions that would undermine Belarus’ independence and sovereignty.”

Official results from the August 9 election gave Lukashenka, in power since 1994, just over 80 percent of the vote, a figure that prompted allegations of vote-rigging.

Tsikhanouskaya, who drew tens of thousands of people to her campaign rallies, claims to have actually received between 60 and 70 percent of the vote.

As opposition leaders on Aug. 18 formed a coordinating council to organize a transfer of power, Lukashenka described the move as an attempt to stage a coup.

And during a meeting of Belarus’s Security Council, Lukashenka urged Western leaders to focus on problems in their own countries, state news agency BelTA reported.

“The leaders of Western states offer us talks, negotiations. And at the same time they keep pushing their own agenda,” the 65-year-old leader said.

In her video address, Tsikhanouskaya, who left for neighboring Lithuania after the vote, called on EU leaders “not to recognize these fraudulent elections,” adding that Lukashenka “has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world.”

Speaking in English, she also denounced a postelection crackdown, saying: “People who came out to defend their votes on the streets of their cities all across Belarus were brutally beaten, imprisoned, and tortured by the regime desperately clinging on to power.”

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused foreign powers of using the crisis in Belarus to interfere in the country and push their geopolitical agendas, Russian news agencies reported on Aug. 19.

“This is about geopolitics, the fight for the post-Soviet space,” Lavrov said.

Michel of the European Council spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Aug. 18, expressing concern about election irregularities and a crackdown against protesters. The two discussed the best way to encourage intra-Belarusian dialogue for a peaceful end to the crisis, a European diplomat told RFE/RL.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron also spoke with Putin in separate calls on Aug. 18.

According to her press service, Merkel told Putin that the Belarusian authorities should refrain from violence against peaceful demonstrators and release political prisoners. She also said Lukashenka should hold talks with opposition groups.

The Kremlin said in a readout of the call that Russia hopes the situation will return to normal but warned about outside interference.

“The Russian side emphasized that any outside attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the country, which would lead to a further escalation of the crisis, was unacceptable,” the Kremlin said.

Lukashenka spoke with Putin twice over the weekend, stating afterward that the Russian leader promised him security assistance if Belarus needs it. Russia has close economic and military ties with Belarus.

Lukashenka described the coordinating council announced on Aug. 18 as an attempt to seize power. He said he viewed it “unambiguously” as “an attempt at a coup, with all ensuing consequences,” speaking during his meeting with the Belarusian Security Council.

Artyom Vazhenkov was suspected of planning “mass unrest,” but was released with no charges filed on Aug. 15.

The scale of the domestic and international backlash appears to have caught Lukashenka off guard as he finds himself in the precarious position of facing international isolation and sustained street and industrial protests.

The coordinating council met for the first time on Aug. 18, saying it represents the people and seeks to negotiate a peaceful transition of power “without political goals or a program.”

Olga Kovalkova, a representative for Tsikhanouskaya, said at a press conference establishing the coordinating council that she expected Tsikhanouskaya would soon return to Minsk to act as a guarantor in a negotiated transition of power.

Some of the key events that have followed the contested reelection of longtime Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

“We are operating solely through legal means,” Kovalkova said. “The situation is critical. The authorities have no choice but to come to dialogue. The situation will only get worse.”

Tsikhanouskaya, who claims to have won the Aug. 9 election, said in an earlier online video that she was prepared to temporarily take over the leadership.

“I am ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader in order for the country to calm down and enter the normal rhythm,” Tsikhanouskaya said in the video.

The 37-year-old political novice who ran after other potential candidates, including her husband, were jailed or exiled, left Belarus for Lithuania after the election amid reports that she and her family were threatened by authorities.

Nearly 7,000 people were detained, hundreds were injured, and at least two people died in a crackdown on protesters. Some of those who have been released since have complained of beatings and terrible conditions while in detention.

The repression only emboldened the opposition as employees at several state-controlled companies have left their factories to join thousands in the streets demanding Lukashenka step down.

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