Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday rejected calls for new elections and called on his supporters to defend the country, while at the same time tens of thousands of demonstrators marched against power in Minsk.
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“Go!” Chanted the protesters to the head of state, parading along Independence Avenue during a “March for freedom”, noted an AFP journalist.
Carrying flowers, dressed in white, the demonstrators marched amid songs and car horns towards the monument erected in memory of the victims of World War II. The protesters carried at arm’s length a gigantic white and red flag, the colors of the opposition.
A few minutes before the start of this march, Mr. Lukashenko, in power for 26 years, made a surprise appearance not far from there, on Independence Square, in front of several thousand of his supporters.
“Dear friends, I called you here not so that you defend me, but because, for the first time in a quarter of a century, you can defend your country and its independence”, he launched, under the ovations.
The Belarusian president, 65, reacted to the opposition’s desire to organize a new presidential election, after that of August 9 which gave him the winner, but which raised accusations of massive fraud.
“If we do that, we’ll go into a spin and we’ll never come back,” he predicted, facing his supporters waving the official red and green flag, inherited from the Soviet period.
Speaking from a platform, surrounded by bodyguards, Alexander Lukashenko denounced the desire, according to him, to impose on the country “a government from abroad”. Beside him stood his youngest son, Nikolai Lukashenko, sometimes presented as his potential successor.
Alexander Lukashenko’s presidential victory was seen as largely rigged, as the mobilization in favor of an unexpected rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, 37, inflamed Belarus ahead of the vote. The latter is now in exile in Lithuania.
Members of the elite rallied to the protest: journalists from public television, usually under the orders of power, researchers and businessmen, but also a former Minister of Culture, Pavel Latouchko.
In a video, the Belarusian ambassador stationed in Slovakia, Igor Lechtchenia, said he was “shocked by the testimonies of torture and beatings”.
Opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa, who calls for the organization of fair elections and the release of political prisoners, announced the creation of a committee to organize the transfer of power.
After Sunday’s election, the first four evenings of protests were quelled by riot forces, leaving at least two dead and dozens injured. Tributes to the protesters killed were held this weekend in Minsk and Gomel.
Since Thursday, in reaction to the violence, the mobilization has spread: human chains and opposition rallies have sprung up all over the country, while iconic factory workers have launched solidarity actions.
These large demonstrations took place without arrests, the Belarusian authorities having given signs of retreat after Western protests, and announced the release of more than 2,000 of the 6,700 people arrested.
Fear of Russian “help”
Under pressure, the Belarusian president on Saturday raised the specter of a Russian intervention, affirming that his counterpart Vladimir Putin had assured him, during a telephone interview, of his “help” to preserve the security of Belarus, a former Soviet republic .
On Sunday, the Kremlin said it was ready to provide military assistance, if needed, under the union treaty between the two countries, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) made up of six former Soviet republics .
The Belarusian leader said he was facing a “color revolution” – the name given to several uprisings in the former USSR over the past 20 years – with “elements of external interference”.
Protesters fear the possibility of Russian intervention, raised by Lukashenko. “If Russia intervenes, it will be even worse,” Olga Nesterouk, a protester, told AFP.
The European Union for its part ordered sanctions against Belarusian officials linked to electoral fraud and repression.
Released protesters told AFP of the atrocious conditions of detention. Deprived of water, beaten or burnt with cigarettes, they were imprisoned by the dozen in cells intended for four or six.
Minsk has received the support of Moscow, a historic ally, despite recurring tensions between the two countries. The Belarusian head of state had notably accused Russia of wanting to make his country a vassal.
Alexander Lukashenko rejected “all foreign mediation”, referring to a mediation plan proposed by Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.