Be­laru­sian op­po­si­tion leader calls for strike

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY IS­ABELLE KHUR­SHUDYAN is­abelle.khur­shudyan@wash­

MOSCOW — On the fi­nal day of what Be­larus’s op­po­si­tion has called the “Peo­ple’s Ul­ti­ma­tum” — a de­mand that Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Lukashenko re­sign or face a na­tion­wide strike — tens of thou­sands of pro­test­ers marched in Minsk on Sun­day be­fore po­lice cracked down with stun grenades.

The ul­ti­ma­tum was is­sued two weeks ago by the main op­po­si­tion can­di­date in the Aug. 9 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in an at­tempt to gain an edge in the stale­mate with Lukashenko's gov­ern­ment since the dis­puted vote. Lukashenko, who has ruled Be­larus since 1994, claimed vic­tory with about 80 per­cent of the vote — a re­sult that many West­ern lead­ers have agreed was the prod­uct of elec­toral fraud.

Svet­lana Tikhanovsk­aya, the main chal­lenger, de­manded that Lukashenko re­sign by Mon­day to make way for a new elec­tion, end po­lice vi­o­lence against pro­test­ers and re­lease all po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers.

“To­day at 23:59, the term of the Peo­ple’s Ul­ti­ma­tum will ex­pire, and if the de­mands are not met, the Be­laru­sians will start a na­tional strike,” Tikhanovsk­aya, who has been in self-ex­ile in Lithua­nia since Au­gust, said in a state­ment Sun­day.

Lukashenko has given no in­di­ca­tion that he is amenable to Tikhanovsk­aya’s terms, and it’s un­clear whether Be­laru­sians will heed her call for a strike. While many work­ers at ma­jor sta­te­owned fac­to­ries and other en­ter­prises went on strike in the first week af­ter the elec­tion, those stop­pages were short-lived be­cause of threats that those em­ploy­ees would lose their jobs per­ma­nently.

But au­thor­i­ties pre­pared for mass demon­stra­tions on Sun­day. They closed 12 sub­way sta­tions in Minsk and shut down mobile In­ter­net ser­vices.

Riot po­lice did not ini­tially dis­perse the large crowd in the cap­i­tal, which was es­ti­mated to ri­val the more than 200,000 who took to the streets on the first week­end of post-elec­tion protests. The crack­down came af­ter night­fall. Videos on so­cial me­dia showed po­lice fir­ing on pro­test­ers, fol­lowed by what ap­peared to be stun-grenade blasts.

Se­cu­rity forces used tear gas in the west­ern town of Lida, ac­cord­ing to the Rus­sian news agency RIA, which quoted the lo­cal in­te­rior min­istry.

“It looks like wartime in my coun­try,” Hanna Li­ubakova, a Minsk-based jour­nal­ist, said on Twit­ter.

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo spoke with Lukashenko by phone on Satur­day — the first con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the two since the elec­tion. Pom­peo “called for the full re­lease and im­me­di­ate de­par­ture from Be­larus of wrong­fully de­tained U.S. cit­i­zen Vi­tali Shk­liarov and reaf­firmed U.S. sup­port for the demo­cratic as­pi­ra­tions of the peo­ple of Be­larus,” a State De­part­ment spokesper­son said in a state­ment to Reuters.

Shk­liarov, who has ad­vised pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in the United States, Rus­sia and Ukraine, was re­leased un­der house ar­rest last week.

Lukashenko told Pom­peo that Be­larus and Rus­sia were ready to re­spond jointly to ex­ter­nal threats, ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian news agen­cies quot­ing Be­laru­sian state me­dia. Lukashenko has turned east for a life­line from Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. In late Au­gust, Putin said on Rus­sian state tele­vi­sion that a re­serve mil­i­tary con­tin­gent was ready to in­ter­vene on Lukashenko’s be­half if protests got “out of con­trol,” cit­ing loot­ing as an ex­am­ple.

Lukashenko has re­peat­edly ac­cused West­ern coun­tries of med­dling in Be­laru­sian af­fairs, al­leg­ing that for­eign ac­tors in­sti­gated the protests to force his ouster. The United States, the Euro­pean Union, Bri­tain and Canada have im­posed sanc­tions against sev­eral high-rank­ing of­fi­cials in Be­larus ac­cused of fraud and hu­man rights abuses in the af­ter­math of the elec­tion.

The Euro­pean Par­lia­ment on Thurs­day awarded the Sakharov Prize, its high­est hu­man rights recog­ni­tion, to the Be­laru­sian op­po­si­tion move­ment.

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