Ever since it was announced that Lukashenko had amassed 80 percent of the vote during Belarus’s August 8 polls, thereby extending his 26-year hold on power, election observers, including those in the U.S. and the E.U., have been vocal in questioning whether or not the contest had been free and fair.
By Sunday, thronging crowds had turned out in Minsk to demand that Lukashenko — a Soviet-style strongman who has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" — resign from his post. In addition to their massive size, the protests have been distinguished by brutal police violence, with human rights groups alleging violence against hundreds of demonstrators.
Now, as an imminent strike takes hold of the entire country, many are wondering what exactly is going on in Belarus, how it started, and what will happen next.
How did the Belarus protests start?
Although the protests began peacefully, videos and photos show increasingly grizzly clashes between civilians and security forces. According to reports, some 6,700 people were detained amid the chaos, hundreds more injured, and at least two people have been killed thus far.
The state violence, originally meant to quell the demonstrations, has only further galvanized protestors, and has now sparked calls for a general strike among the country’s state-owned companies and factories.
During a visit to the state-owned MZKT military vehicles factory on Monday, which had been planned as an outing to prove Lukashenko’s enduring popularity among the factory workers that comprise the backbone of Belarus’s economy, the president was instead met with cries of “Resign!” and “liar!” from the assembled crowd. “You are talking about unfair elections and want to hold fair ones,” Lukashenko told the workers present at the address. “My answer to you is: we held elections, and as long as you don’t kill me, there won’t be any other elections.”
How could workers change the Belarus protests?
The dissent among factory workers is the clearest evidence yet that Lukashenko’s support is in free fall, since Belarus’s working class has made up his base for more than two and a half decades. A general strike among workers could also help to turn up the momentum in what have so far been sustained and massive protests, especially when considering that workers at oil refineries, fabric manufacturers and even state television reporters are among those threatening to withhold their labor until Lukashenko steps down.
One detained factory worker, who declined to give his full name out of concern for his safety, told the Financial Times that prison guards had asked protesters, “You wanted regime change and democracy? Here you go!” before forcing them to do 100 squats, subsequently beating those who failed to comply. “The first to be arrested were the luckiest, because they didn’t hit them so badly,” the man, identified only as “Yaroslav,” said. “With every passing night the people they brought were treated worse. Two or three people might beat them, one guy even got hit in the face with a truncheon.”
In a video message released on Monday, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader in who fled to Lithuania last week amid contested reports that she had only managed to secure 10% of the vote, claimed victory in the election and said that she was ready to become the country’s “national leader.”
“I am ready to take on the responsibility and serve in this period as a national leader so that the country calms down, returns to a normal rhythm, so that we free all political prisoners in the shortest possible period and prepare … for new presidential elections,” Tikhanovskaya said. She also appealed to the country’s police, calling upon them to “come over to the side of the people.”
What is Alexander Lukashenko saying about the Belarus protests?
Lukashenko has continued to grip onto his power throughout the protests, telling demonstrators that he will not back down unless they "kill" him. In a leaked video, he told workers, “Don’t worry, I won’t beat you, it’s not in my interests...But if one of you provokes me, I’ll deal with it cruelly. Be a man. There’s a whole crowd of you here and I’m only all alone. Put your phone down!”
Lukashenko, while refusing to concede, has called upon Russian President Vladimir Putin to come to his aid, but as his grasp on power becomes shakier by the day, it seems less and less likely that Russia will abide by the request. Meanwhile, E.U. sanctions appear to be looming.
“The violence against peaceful protesters in Belarus is appalling,” U.K. foreign secretary Dominic Raab tweeted on Monday. “The U.K. does not accept the results of this fraudulent presidential election & calls for an urgent investigation through @OSCE into its serious flaws & the grisly repression that followed.”