MOSCOW – Uncertainly hovered over Belarus on Friday as thousands continued to protest against President Alexander Lukashenko, disputing his claims of a landslide victory during Sunday’s elections, marred by voter fraud and a police crackdown against unarmed demonstrators.
Indeed, while the past 36 hours witnessed fewer arrests than the days following the vote, there were a flurry of developments suggesting resistance to Lukashenko’s rule was spreading.
Across the country, thousands of Belarusian women and medical workers gathered along roadways holding hands to demand an end to the violence — a tactic that seemed to neutralize police who previously had gone after demonstrators with startling aggression.
Key factories across the country announced they were entering work stoppages until Lukashenko had resigned — in several cases rejecting entreaties to return to work from plant directors loyal to the government.
Рабочие на БЕЛАЗе кричат «Уходи», «Жыве Беларусь». pic.twitter.com/82CWHCckBT
— TUT.BY (@tutby) August 13, 2020
Meanwhile, seemingly everywhere, Belarusian drivers honked their horns in what has become a ritual form of expressing disgust with the longtime Belarusian ruler.
Svetlana Alexievich, the country’s Nobel laureate in literature, also publicly called on Lukashenko to step down before he plunged the nation into civil war.
“You just want power and your desire will end up with blood,” she said in an interview with VOA partner Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
On Friday, Lukashenko addressed rumors — never substantiated — he had indeed vacated the presidency.
“For starters, I’m still alive and in the country,” said Lukashenko as he began a meeting focused on the work stoppages.
The political standoff stems from an August 9 presidential vote in which Lukashenko claimed 80% of the vote — an astounding result given the election was supposed to have been the most serious challenge to his 26-year rule.
His primary challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — a schoolteacher who only entered the race after her husband was barred from the election and arrested — had electrified huge crowds in the run-up to the vote.
Joined by the wives of two other banned candidates, they rallied the country around a simple promise: to hold real elections within six months of winning the presidency.
But Tikhanovskaya received less than 10% of the vote — with widespread evidence of vote-rigging triggering protests.
After initially insisting she would contest the results to the state election commission, she fled the country Tuesday hinting at threats to her family.
Yet she reappeared again in a video released Friday from exile in Lithuania.
“Belarussians no longer want to live with the previous ruler. No one believes in his victory,” said Tikhanovskaya.
“We need to stop the violence on the streets of Belarusian cities. I call on the authorities to stop this and enter into dialogue.”
Since Sunday, authorities report near 7,000 arrests, hundreds of injuries, and two reported deaths resulting from clashes between demonstrators and police.
Activists report some 1,500 people have gone missing.
State torture documented
Late Thursday, hundreds of prisoners, maybe close to 1,000 according to some reports, were released from Minsk’s central Okrestina prison bearing grim accounts of torture at the hands of police.
“They beat them like animals. There was a sea of blood,” said one woman, as she exited the facility in a widely shared video.
Many broke into tears upon being reunited with family members waiting outside the prison walls.
Nikita Telizhenko, a journalist for Russia’s znak.com news service, described his own dark odyssey inside the prison in graphic detail.
“People were lying on the floor like a living carpet, and we had to walk right over them,” wrote Telizhenko.
“‘Everyone on the floor face down,'” they yelled at us. And I understood there was nowhere to lie, all around me lay people in pools of blood,” Telizhenko wrote.
Social media channels were flooded with images of police violence from the past few days.
There were videos of masked security firing rubber bullets at seemingly innocent passersby. Other clips showed groups of OMON troops descending on unarmed protesters with kicks and truncheons. And everywhere on social media, users shared photos of dark bruises received at the hands of police.
“I’ve never seen bruises like this in my life,” said Anton Gashinsky, a lawyer who visited the prison, in an interview with VOA.
The head of Belarus’s Interior Ministry, Yuri Karayev, later apologized to those “accidentally” swept up by the police.
“Provocateurs are making it so that the people hate us,” said Karayev.
“But the majority of the population doesn’t support the protests,” he added.
Foreign Ministers from the European Union were set to meet Friday to discuss the possibility of sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested the U.S. may join allies in introducing penalties against the government in Minsk.
Meanwhile, Russia reiterated its support for Lukashenko — essentially doubling down on an earlier decision by President Vladimir Putin to join China among major powers congratulating Lukashenko on his reelection to a 6th term in office.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a statement saying it was concerned about “unprecedented pressure” by foreign states to interfere in the internal affairs of Belarus “with the goal of dividing society and destabilizing the situation.”
The Kremlin gesture came despite thorny relations between nominal allies over issues such as Lukashenko’s response to the coronavirus, gas prices, and a long-stalled creation of a supra-state union between the two countries.
Most recently, Moscow and Minsk clashed over the arrest of 33 alleged Russian mercenaries that Lukashenko said were intent on disrupting the election.
The Russians remain in prison on criminal charges of coordinating with the opposition to foment mass unrest.