Belarus Protests Extend Into Third Night Despite Harsh Crackdown
(Bloomberg) -- Protesters challenging President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim to a landslide victory in Sunday’s elections took to the streets defying riot police for the third straight evening Tuesday, even after the main opposition candidate fled the country under pressure.
Backers of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who said alternative counts showed she won the vote, called for supporters to continue demonstrations nonviolently, despite increasingly harsh crackdowns by the authorities that left at least one dead Monday night and more than 5,000 detained.
Protesters blocked traffic, honked horns and marched in the capital Minsk and other cities, though in smaller numbers than the previous two nights, news agencies reported. Riot police using rubber bullets, flash grenades and truncheons made numerous detentions. Opposition calls for a general strike led to scattered walkouts, according to local reports. Internet access was severely restricted in major cities.
Lukashenko, 65, vowed to extend the crackdown and secure the continuation of his 26-year rule. U.S. and European Union leaders denounced the harsh measures and alleged vote fraud, but the strongman’s backers in Russia and China congratulated him on his victory.
Yields on Belarus debt due in 2031 rose for a fourth straight session, adding 10 basis points to 7.04%, the highest this month.
Opposition groups united behind Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former teacher, when other challengers were either jailed or kept off the ballot. The stay-at-home mother, who ran after her husband Sergei, a political blogger, was jailed and barred from the race, as recently as early Monday said she had no plans to leave the country.
But later that day she was detained for hours after submitting a formal challenge to the results to the Central Election Commission in Minsk and recorded two brief video messages.
“God forbid you face the choice that I did, so people, take care of yourselves. No life is worth what’s happening now. Children are the most important thing in our lives,” she said in one posted on her husband’s YouTube channel, looking haggard and emotional. Officials said she is in Lithuania, with her children.
In the second video, carried by Belarussian official media, she appeared to read from a script and called on supporters to end their protests.
“No sensible person can believe that the statements in the Tikhanovskaya videos were made of free will,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda wrote in Facebook. “This is further evidence of the kinds of methods the regime uses to break the people’s and the nation’s spirit.”
Tikhanovskaya was subjected to “some pressure” by authorities while in detention, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said Tuesday.
“Svetlana had no choice” but to leave the country with several of her staff detained, campaign ally Olga Kovalkova told the Tut.By online news channel.
Veronika Tsepkalo, another opposition leader and Tikhanovskaya ally, left Belarus fearing arrest and is in Russia, RIA reported this week.
Tikhanovskaya’s election allies called on the government to begin dialog on a peaceful transfer of power and said they would continue the fight to have the election results annulled. They appealed to supporters and the authorities to use nonviolent means.
Tikhanovskaya’s departure isn’t likely to halt the campaign against Lukashenko, said Joerg Forbrig, director for Central and Eastern Europe at the Berlin-based German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“The government is hoping that by removing such a symbolic opposition figure from the country, this will take the pressure off,” he said. “But it won’t have an impact because the protests aren’t led or organized by her.”
The Belarusian president dismissed the opposition as “sheep” who were being directed from abroad, including from neighboring Poland, the U.K. and the Czech Republic, state news service Belta reported. He blamed foreign powers for disrupting Internet access.
While the crisis increases Moscow’s bargaining power over Lukashenko, Russia is also anxious to preserve the Belarusian regime, said Andrey Kortunov, director of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council.
“Russia will try to wring some concessions out of him but it will also provide all necessary support to Lukashenko,” Kortunov said.
(The first name of opposition leader Tsepkalo was corrected in an earlier version of this article.)
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