Belarus opposition held a massive rally in the capital Minsk, two weeks after a debated election gave President Lukashenko another term in office.
Reports suggest that tens of thousands filled the central square in spite of a heavy police presence.
The protesters say that Alexander Lukashenko stole the election and want him to resign and call for a new election.
Meanwhile, the president has sworn to defeat the rebellion and pinned the dissent on unnamed “foreign-backed revolutionaries”.
In the past two weeks, the protests were met with heavy police response in which at least four people were killed, and there are accusations of police using live munition. Several demonstrators allege they had been tortured in prisons.
According to official results, Lukashenko, the Belarus leader for the past 26 years – won more than 80% of the vote in the August 9 election and opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya 10%.
There were no independent observers and the opposition alleges massive vote rigging. Some evidence to back this up include several big loads of election papers found scattered across Belarus in an obvious attempt to hide the actual results.
Tikhanovskaya, who was forced to escape to neighboring Lithuania the day after the election, vowed to “stand till the end” in the protests. As a reminder, her campaign manager was arrested a few days before the election and she fled the country on the eve of the election fearing her own safety.
The Events In Minsk
Tens of thousands of people – from the elderly to those with small children – filled the Independence Square on Sunday. Many were carrying the opposition’s red and white flags, and chanted “freedom” and anti-government slogans.
Pro-opposition media say 100,000 people took part. State television put the crowd at 20,000. Independent reports suggest that neither number is true, but admit that there are likely 80,000 or more people taking part in these demonstrations.
After gathering in the square, some demonstrators moved towards the “Hero City” war memorial and the presidential palace. They were blocked by a security cordon before dispersing.
Similar demonstrations were held in other Belarusian cities. Meanwhile in Lithuania, thousands of people – including President Gitanas Nausėda – formed a human chain from the capital Vilnius to the Belarusian border in solidarity with those protesting in Minsk. The Lithuanian support has been universal and unified, with all former presidents of the country taking part in the supporting demonstration.
More human chains were planned in the Estonian capital Tallinn and in Prague in the Czech Republic.
This weekend’s gathering in Minsk follows the country’s biggest protest in modern history last Sunday when hundreds of thousands filled the streets. Strike action in key factories across Belarus is also keeping up the pressure on the president. This specific information is particularly interesting given the last week’s reports of factory directors physically locking the workers inside so they couldn’t join the demonstration.
What Is President Lukashenko’s Reaction?
State television released a video showing Lukashenko arriving at the presidential palace by helicopter, wearing a flak jacket and carrying an automatic weapon. Another video showed both Lukashenko and his 15-year-old son in armor, carrying automatic weapons as they walked in the vicinity of the presidential palace surrounded by guards.
The 65-year-old president insists he won the election fairly and has ruled holding another poll. On Saturday he accused Nato of “trying to topple the authorities” and install a new president in Minsk.
Lukashenko said he was moving troops to the country’s western borders to counter a NATO build-up in Poland and Lithuania, and vowed to “defend the territorial integrity of our country”.
“They are rocking the situation inside our country, trying to topple the authorities,” Mr Lukashenko said, adding that he had ordered his security chiefs to “take the toughest measures to defend the territorial integrity of our country”.
Nato said it posed “no threat to Belarus or any other country” and had “no military build-up in the region”.
“Our posture is strictly defensive,” it said.
“The regime is trying to divert attention from Belarus’s internal problems at any cost with totally baseless statements about imaginary external threats,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told AFP news agency.
A Polish presidency official called the suggestion that Poland planned any border destabilisation “regime propaganda” by the Belarusians, which was “sad and surprising”.
“Poland… has no such intention,” the official added.
Lukashenko has also accused an opposition council – set up by Tikhanovskaya to organize peaceful transition – of trying to seize power. Two of its members were questioned by police on Friday.
Another worrying and tension rising moment came last week when Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to help Belarus in case of a foreign invasion. Although this may seem like an ally speaking favorably, it is concerning that Russian state media have already begun comparing the Belarus situation to that of Ukraine in 2014.