The opponents of ‘Europe’s last dictator’ are trying to avoid loss of life and focusing new energy on labor strikes.
Two weeks have passed since the presidential election in Belarus, the results of which are disputed by the opposition. Despite the large turnout for Sunday" protests, there are signs that the movement against longstanding leader Alexander Lukashenko may be gradually dying down.
Proclaimed president of Belarus for a sixth time, Lukashenko is busy attempting to regain the initiative with the help of alternative pro-government demonstrations among his supporters — along with grim warnings that order would be restored in the country.
One particular incident may show what Lukashenko has in mind. On Saturday, 28-year-old Nikita Krivtsov was found hung in a stretch of forest on the outskirts of Minsk. The young man had disappeared on August 12 in the midst of violent clashes taking place between police and protesters in Minsk, and search teams had been looking for him ever since.
"A number of internet resources hastened to link the disappearance and death of the man with the events taking place in the country, which is not true," said the Investigative Committee of Belarus in a statement, adding that "the young man was not brought to administrative responsibility for participating in unauthorized mass events."
You're going to be dealing not with the police, but with the army.
On the website Telegram, the Maya Kraina Belarus (My Land Belarus) account distributed a video in which a man with an unusual hairstyle, beard and tattoos resembling Krivtsov approaches a line of riot police and unfurls a white-and-red flag.
It was in this febrile climate that police made announcements about "impending provocations' and the lawlessness of street protests. Preparing for the worst-case scenario, they began to assemble army and prison trucks, water cannons and trailers loaded with barbed wire in the center of Minsk.
According to the official version of events, the military had entered the city to carry out public orders given by Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin, who had promised to protect the city's World War II monuments from harm by protesters. "We cannot calmly look on as demonstrations take place in these sacred places under flags under which fascists organized mass killings of Belarusians, Russians, Jews and representatives of other nationalities," he declared. "I warn you categorically: if order and tranquility is violated in these places you'll be dealing not with the police but with the army."
The white-and-red flag, to which Khrenin was referring, was indeed used by collaborators and anti-Soviet Belarusian nationalists during World War II, though it was the state flag of Belarus from 1991 to 1995.
Besides scare tactics, the authorities also took "preventative measures." Lukashenko's recent visit to the western Belarus city of Grodno, which has recently become almost as important a hotbed of protest as Minsk, is a case in point. It is the only city in the country where local and regional officials have emerged to meet with protesters, and municipal authorities have created a Grodno Public Accord Council for dialogue with the opposition. Its location on the Polish border also makes Grodno a difficult city to manage, with Poles making up 20% of the local population.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko — Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/ZUMA
In his speech to the citizens of Grodno, Lukashenko made it clear that any demands from the opposition were groundless, and "order in the country" must be imposed in the coming days. "As I have just said: Saturday and Sunday are for reflection. From Monday onward nobody should be offended. Those in power must be in power," he declared.
Lukashenko also framed ongoing strikes as an initiative organized by private business, aimed at suppressing rivals in the state sector. "I ask of the governor, the chairmen of the executive committees: if anyone doesn't want to work, don't force them, there's no need. But if an enterprise isn't operating, from Monday the gates will be locked, we'll shut them down, people will cool off, and we'll work out who to invite back to this enterprise," said Lukashenko.
Meanwhile, the opposition's Coordination Council has already set out its key political demand — a return to the 1994 constitution. "We are in favor of a nationwide referendum on this issue," said former diplomat and culture minister Pavel Latushko, who is part of the organization's presidium, speaking at the protests on Sunday.
In comments to Kommersant, Latushko explained that the main legal norm that attracts the opposition is the "limitation on the terms of the powers of the head of state." According to the 1994 constitution, a president of Belarus cannot be elected more than twice.
Protest will take other forms: industrial slowdowns, open or covert sabotage, disregard of orders.
Another member of the presidium, Maxim Znak, has noted that in the upcoming days the Supreme Court of Belarus must either accept for consideration or reject the complaint filed by the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on the recognition of the results of the presidential elections as invalid.
"Looking at the elections in court is the only civilized means of working things out in the current situation. Refusal to accept the complaint for consideration would be a final denial of judicial protection to the presidential candidate and an abandonment of the legal avenue," wrote Znak in a Facebook post. "I continue to believe in the possibility of a juridical resolution of the crisis."
The leader of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Workers' Unions Alexander Yaroshuk, who is organizing strike movement in the Coordination Council, told Kommersant that despite "extreme pressure," he was coordinating work on the formation of national and local strike committees.
While Yaroshuk recognizes that "blackmail and threats undoubtedly work on people," the union leader doubts that the protests will die away completely. "Most likely, the protest will take other forms: industrial slowdowns, open or covert sabotage, disregard of orders, but as we go on there will be an upsurge in the strike movement," he said. "There is no turning back. The process will not stall until Lukashenko leaves."