Belarus’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has warned that protesters challenging the official vote results extending his 26-year rule will face a tough crackdown, deriding the opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters.
Dozens were injured and thousands detained hours after Sunday’s vote, when police broke up mostly young protesters with tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades and beat them with truncheons. Rights activists said one person died after being run over by a police truck, which the authorities denied.
Election officials said Mr Lukashenko won a sixth term in office with 80% of the vote, while opposition challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya got 10%. She dismissed the official results as a sham and submitted a formal request for a recount to the Central Election Commission.
On Monday evening, scattered groups of opposition supporters began gathering in central Minsk, chanting “Freedom!” and “Long live Belarus!” Heavy police contingents deployed to block central squares and roads.
The police crackdown drew criticism from European capitals and is likely to complicate Mr Lukashenko’s efforts to mend ties with the West amid tensions with his main ally and sponsor, Russia.
But the president, whose iron-fisted rule since 1994 has fuelled growing discontent in the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million, warned that he would not hesitate to use force again to disperse the opposition demonstrations.
He argued that the protesters met a due response overnight after injuring 25 police officers and attempting to take control of official buildings in several Belarusian cities, adding: “We will not allow them to tear the country apart.”
The 65-year-old former state farm director said the opposition was being directed from Poland and the Czech Republic, adding that some groups in Ukraine and Russia could also have been behind the protests.
“They are directing the (opposition) headquarters where those sheep don’t understand what they want from them,” he said.
Czech foreign minister Tomas Petricek dismissed his claim, saying his country has not organised any protests.
The Interior Ministry said 89 people were injured during the protests, including 39 law enforcement officers, and about 3,000 people were detained, 1,000 of them in Minsk. It insisted that no one was killed during the protests and called reports about a fatality “an absolute fake”.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher without any prior political experience, entered the race after her husband, an opposition blogger who had hoped to run for president, was arrested in May.
She has managed to unite fractured opposition groups and draw tens of thousands to her campaign rallies — the largest opposition demonstrations since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
“We don’t agree with (election results), we have absolutely opposite information,” Ms Tsikhanouskaya told the Associated Press. “We have official protocols from many poll stations, where the number of votes in my favour are many more times than for another candidate.”
Coronavirus-induced economic damage and Mr Lukashenko’s swaggering response to the pandemic, which he airily dismissed as “psychosis”, has fuelled broad anger, helping swell the opposition ranks. The post-election protest, in which young demonstrators confronted police, marked a previously unseen level of violence.
Internet and mobile networks went down after polls closed as authorities tried to make it more difficult for protesters to co-ordinate.
The European Union condemned the police crackdown and called for an immediate release of all those detained.
In a joint statement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and the EU commissioner responsible for relations with Europe’s close neighbours, Oliver Varhelyi, said “the election night was marred with disproportionate and unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters”.
“The Belarusian authorities must ensure that the fundamental right of peaceful assembly is respected,” they said.
Belarus’s EU and Nato neighbours Poland and Lithuania also issued strong rebukes. Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki called on EU leaders to convene an extraordinary summit to support the Belarusian people’s democratic aspirations.
The UK Foreign Office also urged Belarusian authorities to “refrain from further acts of violence following the seriously flawed presidential elections” and warned that ”the attempts by Belarusian authorities to suppress protests are completely unacceptable”.