A week ago, the 26-year reign of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was granted another term and even on the night of elections, the Belarusian public was aware of the electoral fraud that is about to happen. Even then, people took to the streets to voice their concerns about the future of their country.
A whole week on, the protests are still raging and there have been reports of escalating violence and a lot of disturbing videos floating around the internet, and even in the mainstream media.
On Sunday, “March for Freedom” in the center of the capital came amid growing anger over alleged poll-rigging and police violence at protests that followed.
Meanwhile, in an address to a smaller crowd of several thousand, Lukashenko called his opponents “rats”.
He called on his supporters to defend their country and sovereignty.
The rival demonstrations were taking place after Russia agreed to offer security assistance in the case of external military threats to Belarus. It came to light that Lukashenko had spoken to President Vladimir Putin twice over the weekend.
The long-time Belarus leader also raised his concerns over NATO military exercises taking place in neighboring Poland and Lithuania and launched into a tirade against the Western military alliance.
NATO rejected allegations of a build-up in the region despite sending four battle groups led by Britain, Canada, Germany, and the US to the Baltic countries after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.
The uprising in Belarus exploded after Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in last Sunday’s election, the result of which has been denounced amid broad allegations of vote-rigging.
The Central Election Commission says Lukashenko won 80.1% of the vote, and the main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya 10.12%.
But Tikhanovskaya insists that if the votes were properly counted, it would’ve shown her victory with results ranging from 60% to 70%.
Is Russia Going To Respond In Belarus?
Russian TV news bulletins have been likening the Belarus 2020 situation and the one in Ukraine in 2014.
Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution was a catalyst to Moscow sending in its special operations forces to annex Crimea and Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Is Russia going to do the same thing they did with Ukraine?
In theory, such move would appear counter-productive. The opposition movement in Belarus is not anti-Russia/pro-Europe – it is anti-Lukashenko. If Russia were to send in troops to shore up the Belarusian leader, it risks alienating the Belarusian people and creating anti-Moscow sentiment.
It’s safe to say that Moscow is determined to keep Belarus within what it sees as Russia’s sphere of influence. Their ultimate goal is deeper integration with its neighbor – a fully-fledged union state, something that could still be achieved through political leverage.
What is happening in Minsk?
Local media reports suggest that around 31,000 people took part in the pro-government rally, though the Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed that the number was closer to 65,000.
Speaking to his followers, Lukashenko proclaimed that he did not like rallies and did not need anyone to come to his aid. He said it was not his fault that he had to ask for their help. Rejecting calls for a re-run of the presidential election he said Belarus would “die as a state” if that happened.
“You came here so that for the first time in a quarter-century you could defend your country, your independence, your wives, sisters, and children,” he said.
He added that the opposition would “crawl like rats out of a hole” if they were not suppressed this time.
“This will be the beginning of your end – you will go down on your knees like in Ukraine and other countries and pray, God knows to whom.”
There were reports of state sector workers being forced to attend or face the threat of losing their jobs. For days, workers at state-run factories have staged walkouts and many have joined street marches against the president.
As the president spoke, around 220,000 of anti-Lukashenko protesters gathered near the Stela Minsk Hero City World War Two memorial in central Minsk.
They had answered a call for weekend rallies from Tikhanovskaya. The opposition leader had gone into exile in Lithuania after she registered a complaint with electoral authorities and spent seven hours in detention.
Maria Kolesnikova, a former member of Tikhanovskaya’s team, addressed the crowds.
“You are incredible, I love you”, she said, before appealing to officials, security officials, and judges.
“Guys, this is the last chance. Take the side of the good and the people. We are in the majority. We are power.”
Supporters also turned out in other cities. The mayor of Brest was booed by protesters when he tried to speak to crowds. In Gomel, demonstrators removed the official flag of Belarus from the city’s flagpole and replaced it with the red and white flag of the opposition.