Belarus’ president has made a dramatic show of defiance against the massive protests demanding his resignation, toting a rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest as he strode off a helicopter that landed at his residence while demonstrators massed nearby.
On the 15th day of the largest and most determined protests ever in independent Belarus, a crowd of about 200,000 rallied against President Alexander Lukashenko in a square in Minsk, the capital. They then marched to another rally and approached the Independence Palace, the president’s working residence.
Video from the state news agency Belta showed a government helicopter landing on the grounds and Lukashenko getting off holding what appeared to be a Kalashnikov-type automatic rifle. No ammunition clip was visible in the weapon, suggesting that Lukashenko, who cultivates an aura of machismo, aimed only to make a show of aggression.
Solidarity for protests
Meanwhile in Lithuania, people stood in a 35,000-strong human chain stretching 34 km (21 miles) from central Vilnius to the Belarus border on Sunday to show support for protesters in Belarus and opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has taken refuge in the country.
“More than anyone else, you can understand Belarusians, because not so long ago you went through the same as we do now,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a pre-recorded address.
She did not attend due to security concerns, her team said.
Tsikhanouskaya was the main opposition candidate in the August 9 election, which opponents say was rigged.
The streets of Belarus’ capital were again packed with protesters on Sunday. Demonstrators amassed in central Minsk after opposition leaders called for a huge rally to demand the resignation of Lukashenko.
Europe’s longest-serving leader, Alexander Lukashenko, dispatched his notorious riot police to disperse spontaneous rallies that erupted after he claimed a sixth presidential term.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators draped in the red-and-white flags of the opposition flooded Independence Square and marched through the capital chanting “freedom” and “we will not forget, we will not forgive” as passing cars honked in support.
“We have just two demands: fair elections and stop the violence,” 32-year-old Igor said.
Officials issued a warning to Belarusians against participating in “illegal demonstrations” and local news outlets published videos on social media showing water cannon and riot police with shields moving towards Independence Square.
The defence ministry said it would intervene to protect “sacred” World War II memorials and several metro stations in Minsk were closed.
Opposition-leaning media and Telegram channels reported that more than 100,000 protesters had convened for the second Sunday in a row and an AFP journalist said smaller demonstrations erupted in provincial cities.
“Lukashenko wants everyone to leave and live like it was. But it won’t be like it used to be,” said Nikita, a 28-year-old protester.
Solidarity rallies were also due in neighbouring Lithuania, where demonstrators planned to form a human chain from Vilnius to the Belarus border, three decades after residents of the Baltic states joined hands and linked their capital cities in a mass protest against Soviet rule.
The EU has rejected the results of the presidential elections and this week promised to sanction Belarusians responsible for ballot fraud and a police crackdown that saw nearly 7,000 arrested and sparked gruesome allegations of torture and abuse in police custody.
Lukashenko has brushed aside the unprecedented calls to stand down, dismissed the possibility of holding a new vote and instructed his security services to quell unrest and secure the borders.
His judiciary opened a criminal investigation into the opposition’s Coordination Council that seeks new elections and the peaceful transition of power, after he said opponents wanted to “seize power”.
The former collective farm boss ordered his army into full combat readiness during an army inspection on Saturday near the border with the EU and warned about NATO troop “stirrings” in Europe.
“The Fatherland is now in danger. We cannot joke,” Lukashenko said. Lithuania’s president Gitanas Nauseda in turn said Lukashenko was trying to “divert attention” from unrest at home and NATO dismissed the claims as baseless.
The unlikely leader of Belarus’s opposition, 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, fled to Vilnius fearing reprisals for claiming victory in the elections and mounting the greatest challenge to Lukashenko over his 26-year rule.
In an interview with AFP ahead of the demonstrations, she urged protesters to continue to exert pressure on the authorities saying it was “important to continue to be united in the struggle for the rights”.
The authorities have to understand “we are not a protest movement … we are a majority and we will not step away. We are not afraid of them any more,” Tikhanovskaya told AFP.
Opponents of Europe’s longest serving leader have organised strikes and the largest protests in the ex-Soviet country’s recent history rejecting his re-election and demanding that he stand down, with more than 100,000 people turning out in Minsk alone last weekend.
Yet fewer workers at state-run factories, usually a bastion of support for Lukashenko, have continued to strike, with activists citing pressure from the authorities.
The 65-year-old president of Belarus has threatened to shutter production lines where workers have put down their tools beginning on Monday.
Staff at state-run media outlets have also staged walkouts and Lukashenko admitted this week that journalists from Russia had been flown in to replace them.
His powerful ally, Russia, has warned European leaders against interfering in Belarus and the Kremlin has said it would intervene in the post-election unrest if necessary.
Russia and Belarus are members of a military alliance of former Soviet countries and Lukashenko said on Saturday he had warned Russia about the situation in its ex-Soviet neighbour.
Lithuania’s foreign ministry announced Saturday that US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun will visit Lithuania and Russia next week for talks on the election fallout.
Lukashenko’ military inspection this weekend inspection came ahead of large-scale military exercises planned in the Grodno region on the border with the European Union between August 28 and 31.