The Edition


Belarus leader seeks Putin's help as pressure builds

15 August 2020, MVT 22:46
A protester holds a sign reading "Stop Killing Belarus" during a demonstration on the contested elections in Belarus in Berlin, on August 15, 2020. - The opposition in Belarus keeps up the pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko with a fresh demonstration in Minsk on August 15, as the strongman reached out to Russia in an apparent plea for help. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)
15 August 2020, MVT 22:46

The opposition in Belarus kept up the pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko with a new demonstration in Minsk on Saturday, while the strongman sought the support of his main ally, Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Thousands of opposition supporters gathered near a metro station in the capital where a demonstrator died during this week's police crackdown on protests against Lukashenko's claim to have won re-election last Sunday.

With the opposition gaining momentum after days of demonstrations, Lukashenko's main election challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had called on supporters to rally again over the weekend.

Demonstrators heaped flowers at the spot where Alexander Taraikovsky, 34, died on Monday. The crowd chanted "Thank you!" and raised victory signs while police kept a low profile.

Many held up photographs of protesters beaten during the crackdown while one man stood in his underwear revealing the purple bruises on his thighs, buttocks and back.

Hundreds of mourners also attended the dead protester's funeral, including poet and former opposition candidate for president Vladimir Neklyayev, who told AFP: "This cannot be forgiven".

- 'I'm really afraid' -

Facing the biggest challenge to his rule since taking power in 1994, Lukashenko called in Moscow's help and spoke on the phone with Putin, after warning there was "a threat not only to Belarus".

The Kremlin said the leaders concluded the "problems" in Belarus would be "resolved soon" and the countries' ties strengthened.

While Lukashenko periodically plays Moscow off against the neighbouring EU, Russia is Belarus's closest ally and the countries have formed a "union state" linking their economies and militaries.

Opposition protesters criticised Lukashenko for seeking Moscow's aid and said they feared a Russian intervention.

"It's obvious that our president can't deal with his own people any more, he's seeking help in the east," said Alexei Linich, a 27-year-old programmer.

"If Russia intervenes, that would be the worst. I'm really afraid of this," said Olga Nesteruk, a landscape designer.

- 'Will not give up the country' -

Meeting military chiefs, Lukashenko ruled out foreign mediation between him and the protesters.

"We will not give up the country to anyone," state news agency Belta quoted him as saying.

"We don't need any foreign governments, any intermediaries."

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday urged Lukashenko to "engage with civil society" while visiting Poland, which has offered to act as a mediator.

The opposition is planning a major show of force on Sunday with a "March for Freedom" through the streets of central Minsk.

Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice who ran after other opposition candidates including her husband were jailed, accuses Lukashenko of rigging the vote and has demanded he step down so new elections can be held.

The 65-year-old has ruled the ex-Soviet country with an iron grip and claims to have won the election with 80 percent of the vote.

Tikhanovskaya left the country on Tuesday for neighbouring Lithuania, with her allies saying she came under official pressure, but on Friday she re-emerged with the call for a weekend of "peaceful mass gatherings" in cities across the country.

She is also demanding authorities be held to account for the crackdown, which saw police use rubber bullets, stun grenades and, in at least one case, live rounds to disperse protesters, with at least 6,700 people detained and hundreds injured.

Officials have confirmed two deaths in the unrest, including Taraikovsky who they say died when an explosive device went off in his hand during a protest, and another man who died in custody after being arrested in the southeastern city of Gomel.

- Call for 'free and fair' vote -

On Friday authorities began releasing hundreds of those arrested and many emerged from detention with horrific accounts of beatings and torture.

In some of the biggest demonstrations yet, thousands marched in Minsk on Friday to denounce the police violence and demand Lukashenko step down.

Large groups of workers from huge tractor and automobile factories downed tools for the first time and marched to the central square, chanting for Lukashenko to "Leave!" and "Long live Belarus!"

European Union ministers agreed Friday to draw up a list of targets in Belarus for a new round of sanctions in response to the post-election crackdown.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde said in a tweet that the "EU will now initiate a process of sanctions against those responsible for the violence, arrests and fraud in connection with the election".

The leaders of the three ex-Soviet Baltic states -- Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia -- on Saturday condemned the crackdown and called for a new vote.

In a statement the three countries' prime ministers urged Minsk "to conduct free and fair presidential elections in a transparent way".

Lukashenko has dismissed the demonstrators as foreign-controlled "sheep" and "people with a criminal past who are now unemployed", repeatedly accusing foreign governments of plotting his downfall.

Tikhanovskaya on Friday announced the creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to "help us in organising a dialogue with Belarusian authorities".

She demanded the authorities release all detainees, remove security forces from the streets and open criminal cases against those who ordered the crackdown.

Minsk, Belarus | AFP