The Daily Telegraph
Thousands call for end to Lukashenko’s reign
Hundreds of thousands of people filled the centre of the Belarusian capital of Minsk yesterday, demanding an end to the reign of Alexander Lukashenko in the largest political rally the country has ever seen. Crowds poured into the streets, despite an earlier public appearance by the president warning of a more ferocious crackdown on protesters. Outside the headquarters of the KGB, hundreds held up the opposition flag in a show of defiance.
HUNDREDS of thousands of people filled the city centre of the Belarusian capital of Minsk yesterday, demanding an end to the reign of Alexander Lukashenko in the largest political rally the country has ever seen.
Dressed in white and chanting “Go Away!”, crowds poured into the streets despite an earlier public appearance by the president warning of a still more ferocious crackdown on protesters.
“The dam has burst,” protester Andrei Grinberg told The Daily Telegraph. “People were unhappy before, but it’s only now that they’ve had the courage to come out and see that everyone is against him,” he said, referring to Mr Lukashenko, who has empowered the secret services, sidelined the opposition and censored the media in a 26year reign made possible by removing constitutional checks on power.
Outside the headquarters of the KGB, hundreds of demonstrators held up the opposition’s red and white flag in a rare show of defiance. None of the scenes in the capital were relayed on state television news broadcasts, which last night did not mention the protests.
Mr Lukashenko’s landslide victory on August 9 was widely condemned as fraudulent, with reports of election officials disposing of bags of votes for the opposition. The position of the 65-yearold former collective farm boss came under further pressure in the following days as blue-collar workers, who form the core of his support, staged walkouts and threatened industrial action unless a new election was called.
In apparent desperation, Mr Lukashenko called a rally for supporters, mostly consisting of state-paid workers who were bussed in from all over the country, and vowed to fight on.
“Someone wants me to give away our country,” a visibly distressed Mr Lukashenko shouted out to the crowd of about 20,000 people yesterday. “Even when I’m dead, I’m not going to give the country away.”
He warned of a foreign invasion and sought to portray the opposition movement as in hock to Western powers.
“Look out of the window: tanks and jets are at the ready 15 minutes away from our border. Nato troops are clanking by our gate,” Mr Lukashenko said to the crowd in Independence Square.
While some Belarusian senior officials have sought to ease tensions, Mr Lukashenko called the opposition “scum” and “rats”.
When tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators took to the streets of Minsk in the immediate aftermath of the election, riot police responded
‘People were unhappy before, but it’s only now that they’ve the courage to come out and see that everyone is against him’
with shocking violence, throwing stun grenades at passers-by and firing rubber bullets at protesters. Horrifying stories of torture among the 7,000 detained protesters in Belarusian jails triggered even larger protests.
The violence has wiped out what little support Mr Lukashenko did have, Yelena Seliverstova said. “With his actions he showed that he stands against the entire nation,” Ms Seliverstova, 49, said. “We do not recognise this government. He won’t leave. The only thing we can do is to come out in protest and not go to work tomorrow.”
Mr Lukashenko’s rally revealed cracks even among his traditional base. An army veteran invited onstage stunned the crowd by accusing officials of rigging the results, and lashing out at police for their treatment of detainees and violence on the streets. “You cannot turn your back on people,” he said to a mix of jeers and applause. The Kremlin, a key ally, has been tight-lipped on whether it will intervene to prop up Mr Lukashenko. Russian state media has described protests as peaceful, but is also promoting the idea that foreign forces are seeking to destabilise Belarus.
“Everyone is thinking about what happens next,” Mr Grinberg, the 23year old protester said. “When workers go on strike on Monday, we will know for sure.”