Lukashenko ups the ante with armed troops in second night of protests in Belarus

Lukashenko ups the ante with armed troops in second night of protests in Belarus
Belarusian president ups the ante by deploying armed troops on the streets of Minsk and other towns in the second night of protests
By Ben Aris in Berlin, Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius August 11, 2020

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko upped the ante against the growing crowds of protesters who were out for a second night on August 10 by deploying elite troops armed with rifles and live rounds.

One man was killed during a clash at the Pushkinskaya metro in central Minsk, according to the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior in the early evening as the demonstrators quickly clashed with police. The Interior Ministry claims that he died after an "explosive device" that he was intending to throw at police went off in his hand.

There were also reports of protesters hitting back, throwing Molotov cocktails and fireworks at the troops that were attempting to lock the centre of the city down.

Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who independent polls say won a crushing victory over Lukashenko in the elections, fled across the border to Lithuania fearing she would be arrested as the demonstrations become increasingly violent.

The Ministry of the Interior deployed its elite Almaz forces, according to local protesters. Other reports claimed that the Alfa “Spetznaz” were also deployed, which are another elite force under the control of the KGB.

Other reports said that plainclothes policemen were driving around the capital in Yandex taxis randomly lobbying flashbangs and stun grenades at pedestrians in an effort to intimidate the crowds.

The clashes with the police began almost immediately. “People in uniform opened fire against the crowd of protesters outside Korona Mall in Minsk. Nasha Niva reporter Natalia Lubnevskaya has been shot in the leg. Rubber bullets,” Tadeusz Giczan tweeted, a Belarusian PhD candidate at University College London School of Slavonic & East European Studies.

The protestors claimed victory in the second night of demonstrations on August 10 following the controversial presidential elections as thousands of people took to the streets overwhelming the police by a sheer force of numbers.

In an echo of Ukraine’s Maidan protests, the crowd build barricades near the Universam Riga department store only for police to dismantle them. The crowd responded by rebuilding them again, at least three times according to reports.

Fighting was reported across the country as the police took yesterday’s brutality up a level. After their initial successes on the first day of protests where the crowds overwhelmed the police in several towns and parts of Minsk, clearly the authorities wanted to send a message.

But the protestors responded in kind. In another video, demonstrators had isolated a small group of riot police and chased them down the road, hurling expletives at the obviously scared men. Other reports say some police took off their helmets and joined the protests, refusing to use force against the protestors. 

In Minsk, the epicentre of protests moved from Stela in central Minsk yesterday to the Pushkinskaya metro station a few blocks away. Thousands of protesters assembled there, where police tried to disperse them with grenades and rubber bullets. However, the protesters were trying to spread out, gathering in at least five locations in the hope spreading the riot police forces thinner.

“Belarus is still protesting, thousands of people are outside all over the country despite the brutalities of police. Gas, rubber bullets, flashbang grenades are widely used; dozens arrested. People who couldn't get to Minsk centre are building barricades at Puskinskaja metro,” tweeted Viacorka.

In a more worrying development social media showed some police forces that appear to be wearing the tricolour of Russian force, but the presence of Russian police was not confirmed and remains unlikely. Analysts agree that Russia is most likely to do nothing and leave Lukashenko to his fate. The normally quiet town of Minsk has been rocked by the biggest protests since independence; indepedent media outlet Belsat made a compialtation of the action from the footage from the night of August 10. 

Getting ready for battle

As the sun went down over Minsk on August 10 thousands of people made their way into the centre of city to face another night of clashes with the brutal riot police.

Protests against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who blatantly fixed the vote in the presidential elections the night before, moved into their second day as opposition leaders refused to accept the result.

The Central Election Commission (CEC) announced the official results that gave Lukashenko a final tally of 80.23% of the votes cast in the election, with opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya coming second with 9.90%, according to preliminary results published by Lidia Yermoshina, head of the Belarusian Election Commission. Against All scored 6.02% and none of the other candidates won more than 2%. The voter turnout at the presidential election is reported at 84.23%.

However, commissioners at a reported 20 polling stations refused to follow state orders to fix the vote and published the actual voting tallies at their stations, yielding results that were almost the mirror image of the official results. The rebel polling stations reported that Tikhanovskaya received three to four-times more votes than Lukashenko and took at least 60% of the total vote – enough for a clear win in the first round.

Tikhanovskaya’s spokeswoman for the electoral headquarters, Anna Krasulina, told TASS the opposition team has launched a legal case and has demanded the votes to be recounted, or “if that is impossible the votes to be annulled and fresh free and fair elections be organised.”

"The results of the election announced by Yermoshina should be declared void," Krasulina said. "Due to the violations of the legislation that occurred during the vote count, a recount of votes is needed with the information being checked. In case the recount is impossible to conduct, the election at some polling stations should be considered void based on Article 79 of the electoral code," she added.

Opposition social media channels called on the people to meet at the Minsk Hero City obelisk again, where crowds gathered the night before, at 7pm. Police shut off the internet for a second night, but protesters reported they had found ways around the block out using various services and began to converge on the square.

Police once again shut off the city centre and closed metro stations there to make moving around the city as hard as possible. Opposition channels advised residents to meet at their local metro stations and make their way to the obelisk on foot “from as many directions as possible.” Drivers blocked many roads by stopping in the middle of the road and getting out of their cars to block the main ring road.

“Police in Minsk fix traffic jams the same way they fix protests – by beating cars with batons,” tweeted Giczan.

Outside Minsk several regional towns were also put under lockdown by police after protests spread across the country the previous night and police lost control of several towns after they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of protests.

Police were taking no chances on the second night and locked down provincial cities, which have developed into a strong protest network.

“Mass arrests and lockdowns are reported from Brest, Hrodna, Lida. Lukashenka has declared war [on] the whole country,” Sergej Sumlenny tweeted, a Belarusian that heads the office of Germany’s Heinrich-Boell Foundation in Kyiv.

The protestors knew full well that they were likely going into battle and faced detention, beatings and maybe even death. Tikhanovskaya herself said she would not participate in the protests in order not to cause a provocation for the police.

Casualties 

One person was also killed during the street battles on August 9, according to representative of the Viasna human rights centre Valentin Stefanovich, when a police truck drove through a crowd and the man clung to the front of the truck before falling under its wheels.

“Yes, there is information of one casualty. This happened as a result of special transport colliding with the participants of the protest. Three people were seriously injured, one died as a result of head injury,” Stefanovich said. The death has not been confirmed by independent sources.

A second man was shot in the chest under unclear circumstances and is gravely ill in hospital. Another 3,000 protesters were detained as riot police moved in to clear them away, according to the Interior Ministry Spokesperson Olga Chemodanova, cited by TASS. Another 50 protestors and 39 policemen were injured in the fighting. One man had his foot partially blown off by a stun grenade.

During a press conference on August 10 Svetlana Tikhanovskaya condemned the brutal crackdown on post-election peaceful protests the previous day.

“We have witnessed the authorities trying to hold their positions by force,” she said.

According to her, Sunday’s actions are nothing but utterly disproportionate use of force, and a crime.

“The leaders have [become] estranged from the people, they do not hear us. I do not see any reason why I should be arrested. And I am not going to leave the country,” Tikhanovskaya stressed.

She also called on the protesters who had been victims of police abuse on August 9 to contact the united headquarters, promising to help them. Lukashenko’s rival expressed the hope that special forces would not resort to tough measures if protests continued.

The presidential hopeful and her associates have appealed to the Interior Ministry and the presidential administration, asking them to stop violence against peaceful protesters.

"About 3,000 people were detained across the country, including 1,000 in Minsk and over 2,000 in other regions," Chemodanova said.

A small crowd formed outside Minsk’s main prison the following day as relatives came looking for missing family members.

Lukashenko’s lies

Lukashenko has been trying to blame outside forces for the unrest. Following reports that his private jet left the country for Turkey on August 9, the president quashed rumours that he had fled by turning up a biotechnological agriculture holding on August 10 in front of TV cameras.

After meeting with Sergei Lebedev, Chairman of the CIS Executive Committee, CIS Executive Secretary, Head of the CIS observer mission, Lukashenko said: “I know the assessments of your mission and I will be very happy to hear your comments, suggestions that you had, if any, during the election campaign. But you saw that we wanted to give people a holiday, and they really responded.”

The CIS observer mission was the only international body to observe the elections and gave them a clean bill of health.

Lukashenko went on to say the election was held with a record turnout, people came to the polling stations with their families and children. In his opinion, after the announcement of the final results the turnout figures may be even higher.

“Frankly speaking, I’m touched when I see parents come with little kids. You see, it’s a holiday. Somebody wanted to ruin this holiday. We saw them – they lit up even brighter that night. We recorded (you know, as a former intelligence officer) calls from abroad. There were calls from Poland, Great Britain and the Czech Republic. They controlled our, forgive my language, sheep: they don’t understand what they’re doing and they’re already being controlled,” he was quoted by state Belarusian media.

The president has constantly claimed that outsiders were hacking Belarus’ internet and that was why the service was so bad. He also said that people from Britain, Poland and Czechia had participated in the street fighting.

Earlier he had claimed that Poland and Russia were interfering in the elections, drawing a sharp rebuke from Moscow. Since then he has also claimed the US and NATO were trying to undermine Belarus’ sovereignty by fomenting unrest in the country.

To further muddy the waters, KGB chairman Valery Vakulchik said that after the elections in Belarus his service had prevented an attempted assassination attempt against Tikhanovskaya.

Factory workers walk out for democracy

The opposition called for a second night of demonstrations on August 10 and then for a general strike to start at noon on August 11.

Union leaders had already threatened to call strikes if the election was fixed before the vote was held and now they are following through on their threat.

Several workshops at the country’s largest steel plant Belarus Steel Works (BMZ) already laid down tools during the day on August 10, according to the Belarusian news outlet TUT.by.

“Workers in Zhlobin held a 2-hour meeting with the director. Tomorrow a representative of the striking committee will visit all the workshops collecting signatures under the letter in which the workers don't recognise the declared result and demand new fair election,” Giczan tweeted.

The plant employs around 11,000 people and is one of the five largest companies in Belarus in terms of output.

The workers went back to work a few hours after the partial suspension, opting to send a letter to Minsk urging to hold fair elections, Russia’s Dozhd television channel reported. Their employer was reported to have vowed not to punish or fire them.

According to the news site, police wagons and buses with riot police arrived at the factory shortly afterwards. The company’s management denied there was a strike but the Telegram channel Nexta Live confirmed a strike had begun. Sources told the Russian state-controlled news agency Sputnik that at least two of the plant’s units have stopped production: the pipe-rolling and cable workshops. 

Workers at other large state-owned enterprises have also threatened to walk out on August 11 after they had gathered signatures for a petition to be presented to management.

International condemnation

Governments around the world started issuing notes of condemnation against the violence and expressions of “concern” – a term that annoyed protestors during the EuroMaidan protests in 2014 for the overuse of the word at each new outrage that was never backed up with concrete action.

From Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged Minsk "to ensure that the votes in yesterday's election are counted and published accurately."

"Fundamental rights in Belarus must be respected," the former German defence minister tweeted. "Harassment and violent repression of peaceful protesters has no place in Europe."

Other European politicians went further and called for fresh sanctions on Belarus and the officials that were organising the anti-protest police actions. However, sanctions have not been adopted, or even debated, as official EU policy yet.

The Polish MEP Robert Biedroń, who chairs the European parliament’s Belarus delegation, said the EU needed to rethink its policy towards Belarus’s president of 26 years. “We should introduce sanctions on Belarusian officials responsible for grave violations of human rights and fundamental rights,” he said, as cited by the Guardian. “There must be a price that Lukashenko is paying for his violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Without this price paid by Lukashenko, nothing will change in Belarus.”

In 2016 the EU lifted most sanctions against the Lukashenko regime, citing “significant, even if limited” steps in the right direction, following the release of some political prisoners.

The US also condemned the use of "brutal force" by police against pro-democracy demonstrators in Belarus. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack criticised the "severe beating" of protesters in Minsk during the clashes on August 9. He said the incident is another in a long series of repressive acts by Belarusian authorities against citizens.

“We are deeply concerned by the Belarus presidential election. Severe restrictions on ballot access for candidates, prohibition of local independent observers at polling stations, and intimidation of the opposition candidates, and the detention of peaceful protest[ers] and journalists have marred the process, and we urge the Belarusian government to respect the right to peaceful assembl[y] and to refrain from the use of force,” the statement said.

The US also lifted some sanctions on Minsk and recently re-started diplomatic relations as it attempted to drive a wedge in between Minsk and Moscow following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014. The Trump administration decided to re-open the US embassy in Minsk and appointed an ambassador in April after it standing empty for over a decade.

While other authoritarian regimes official congratulated Lukashenko on his “victory”, including China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy was more cautious in his statements. He said it was “clear that not everyone agrees with the preliminary election results” and called on the authorities to show restraint.

Zelenskiy is in a difficult position, as Belarus and Ukraine are actually quiet close and despite Lukashenko’s reputation as “Europe’s last dictator” he gets on well with Ukraine, as the two are major trade partners and share a very similar past. Moreover, Lukashenko is Ukrainian’s most popular foreign leader, according to a poll last February, just beating German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the top slot.

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