Belarus opposition prepares mass strikes after Lukashenko ignores deadline to quit

WION Web Team Minsk, Belarus Oct 26, 2020, 12.28 PM(IST) Oct 26, 2020, 12.42 PM(IST)

People attend an opposition rally to reject the Belarusian presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus  Photograph:( Reuters )

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Lukashenko's refusal to quit after 26 years in power will test whether the opposition has the mass support it needs to bring enterprises across the country of 9.5 million people to a halt

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko defied an ultimatum to surrender power by midnight on Sunday, challenging his opponents to make good on their threat to paralyse the country with a national strike.

Eleven weeks after a disputed presidential election, the crisis in the former Soviet republic entered a new phase with the expiry of the "People's Ultimatum" set by opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Lukashenko's refusal to quit after 26 years in power will test whether the opposition has the mass support it needs to bring enterprises across the country of 9.5 million people to a halt.

Tikhanovskaya, a 38-year-old political newcomer, fled Belarus after claiming victory in an August presidential election that Lukashenko, 66, himself claimed to have carried for a sixth term. She has been rallying support from European leaders and calling for new elections.

During a visit to Copenhagen on Friday to meet Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod she called for a repeat ballot "as soon as possible", and in a separate statements said a date for the vote must be decided by the end of the year.

Also see: We come in peace: Belarusian women dressed in white protest against corrupt leadership

Yet she also conceded that it was unclear how many Belarusians would answer the call for a general strike Monday, with many people anxious about government intimidation and dismissal from positions at state-run enterprises. 

Lukashenko has scoffed at the calls, asking "Who will feed the kids?" if workers at state-owned enterprises go on strike.

Tsikhanouskaya on Sunday called for the strike to go ahead after police forces loyal to Lukashenko fired stun grenades and detained scores of people in a clampdown on protests by tens of thousands in Minsk and elsewhere.

"The regime once again showed Belarusians that force is the only thing it is capable of," she wrote in a statement. "That's why tomorrow, October 26, a national strike will begin."

The standoff is being closely watched by neighbouring Russia and by Western governments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has no desire to see another leader toppled by protests in a former Soviet state, as happened in Ukraine in 2014 and in Kyrgyzstan earlier this month. He too has faced street demonstrations at various times, including for the past three months in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk.

Since the crisis began, Moscow has backed Lukashenko with a $1.5 billion loan and increased security cooperation, including a series of joint military exercises and a visit last week by the head of Russia's foreign intelligence agency.

Security lockdown

Lukashenko, 66, claimed victory in the August 9 election with an official vote share of more than 80 per cent, but the opposition accused him of vote-rigging on a massive scale.

He has responded to mass street protests by arresting around 15,000 people, though most have since been released, and jailing opposition leaders or forcing them to leave the country.

A UN human rights investigator said last month that thousands of people had been "savagely beaten" and there were more than 500 reports of torture, which the authorities deny.

The United States, European Union, Britain, and Canada have imposed travel bans and asset freezes against a string of officials accused of election fraud and human rights abuses.

Tsikhanouskaya presented her ultimatum on Oct. 13 after the government said police would be authorised to use combat weapons against protesters if needed.

Three days later, a senior police official repeated the threat.

"We will of course humanely use weapons against them, including firearms, and we will remove the most dangerous ones from the streets," said Nikolai Karpenkov, head of the police unit in charge of fighting organised crime.

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