belarus protests
September 8, 2020

In his first sit-down interview since anti-government protests swept the nation, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made a slight concession, The Guardian reports — the so-called "last dictator in Europe," who has held his post for 26 years, acknowledged he "may have sat in the president's chair a little too long." But, other than that, he denied responsibility for the unrest, instead pointing a conspiratorial finger at the United States, and reiterated that he does not plan on stepping down.

Lukashenko reportedly told members of the Russian media — whom The Guardian notes did not appear to subject the ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin to tough questioning — that he believes Washington is orchestrating the protests via the messaging app Telegram from centers in Poland and the Czech Republic, using the situation as a dry run, more or less, for a similar operation in Russia for the future.

The claims are unsubstantiated and dismissive of Belarus' growing, internal, and organic opposition movement that is seeking change from the autocratic regime in Minsk, although Lukashenko accused what he described as a class of "young bourgeois" in Belarus who "want power" of stirring up trouble, as well. Read more at The Guardian, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and RT. Tim O'Donnell

August 18, 2020

Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing the role of mediator between European leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron and embattled Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whom protesters have called on to step down after 26 years in power. As things stand, it seems like Putin is hedging toward a diplomatic solution, rather than unequivocally backing his old ally.

Putin spoke with Merkel, Macron, and Charles Michel, the president of the European Council on the phone Tuesday. Each side had some conditions for the other — Merkel told Putin that Lukashenko must refrain from violence against protesters, release political detainees, and engage with the opposition, while Putin warned that European interference in internal Belarusian affairs was unacceptable. But still, the discussions suggest there's some semblance of diplomatic plan under way, and Putin seems willing to participate; he reportedly followed up those conversations with another with Lukashenko.

Putin's apparent interest in the multilateral dialogue lends credence to the theory that he's not willing to let the situation turn bloody for Lukashenko's sake. That said, not everyone is thrilled about Moscow's role in the talks, even if it ultimately leads to a peaceful solution. Tim O'Donnell

August 17, 2020

Belarus hosted separate and unequal rallies Sunday, with opponents of long-term President Alexander Lukashenko holding their biggest protest yet in Minsk, the capital, while a much smaller crowd gathered to hear Lukashenko vow to hold on to power and warn of foreign interference. The protesters say Lukashenko rigged the Aug. 8 presidential election — in which, according to the Central Election Commission, he won 80.1 percent of the vote, versus 10.1 percent for opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after criticizing the results, released a video Monday saying she is "ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader during this period," until new elections are held. She encouraged police and security forces to switch allegiance from the beleaguered Lukashenko, saying they would be forgiven for any brutalities committed on his orders. About 6,700 people have been arrested in the post-election protests, and many say they were tortured or threatened with rape and other crimes while detained.

With Lukashenko refusing to engage with protesters and seeking military assistance from Moscow, opposition leaders have called for escalating strikes. Workers at state-run factories walked off the job last week, and some police have come out in support of the protesters. State TV employees appear to have joined the strikes on Monday, with empty anchor desks replacing the morning news.

The government says about 65,000 people turned out to hear Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years. AFP puts the number closer to 10,000, and some of the attendees were reportedly state workers forced to attend. The anti-Lukashenko protest drew about 220,000 people according to independent media outlet Tut.by. Peter Weber

August 16, 2020

Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered to assist his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko militarily if necessary as the latter faces mounting anti-government protests, the Kremlin said Sunday.

While the traditionally staunch allies are in a more precarious place than usual because of Lukashenko's recent aversion to deepening political and economic ties with Moscow, Putin reportedly is at least telling Lukashenko he's prepared to intervene on his behalf because he fears a revolution spilling over into Russia. Per BBC, Russian television broadcasts are drawing parallels between the Belarus demonstrations and Ukraine's Euromaidan protests in 2014, which preceded Russia's invasion of Crimea.

But while some analysts have laid out possibilities for why Putin may follow through, others have pointed out that the situation in Belarus is not actually similar to Ukraine and Putin will most likely hold back. Indeed, even though Russian TV is backing Lukashenko publicly, news sites are reportedly criticizing the embattled Belarusian leader, who may be losing his grasp over the rest of the government.

Back in 2014, Ukraine was choosing between East and West, and Russia was determined not to lose influence over the country. Russia also wants to keep Belarus in its orbit, but that's not really what these protests are about, BBC's Steve Rosenberg notes. While Lukashenko's ties to Russia have certainly played a role in his ability to maintain power for 26 years, the protests are specifically directed at Minsk, not Moscow, so Putin may decide he won't to risk an invasion for Lukashenko's sake. Tim O'Donnell

August 15, 2020

Belarus' embattled President Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday appealed to his long-time ally Russian President Vladimir Putin as protesters continue to call for his resignation following his recent disputed election victory, which the opposition alleges he rigged.

Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years, but the so-called "last dictator in Europe" is facing one of his strongest challenges yet, as tens of thousands of people remain in the streets, CEOs in the country's up-and-coming information technology sector threaten to leave, and even some riot police put down their shields and embrace demonstrators.

He said it is necessary to contact Putin because the protests are "not a threat to just Belarus anymore." The appeal comes at a rare point of uncertainty in the two countries' relationship, Reuters notes. Lukashenko has recently balked at deepening economic and political ties with Moscow, fearing a breach of Minsk's sovereignty. Russia, in turn, had scaled back subsidies propping up Lukashenko's government, but it seems Putin and Lukashenko are on the same page when it comes to the demonstrations.

Meanwhile, the opposition is re-emerging after Lukashenko cracked down on potential challengers, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against him in last week's election. Tikhanovskaya left the country for Lithuania this week for safety reasons, but resurfaced on social media Friday and said she is ready to enter talks with Lukashenko, mediated by international partners. Read more at Reuters and NPR. Tim O'Donnell

August 12, 2020

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly likes to take credit for developing Belarus' "booming" information technology sector, although it was reportedly really championed by an opposition candidate, Valery Tsepkalo, who was disqualified from running and fled the country at the end of July. Fast forward a few weeks, and it appears Lukashenko may have incidentally boxed himself in by claiming responsibility.

The so-called "last dictator in Europe" is trying to squash protests that have ignited throughout the country following his disputed election victory against challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is now in Lithuania. Belarusian law enforcement authorities have been shown violently apprehending protesters, and the government cut off internet access to disrupt communication. But on Wednesday, more than 300 CEOs of IT companies and investors signed a letter demanding a new election as well as an end to state-sponsored violence. Otherwise, they claimed, they'll head elsewhere.

It's unclear if all those demands would be met by Minsk, but there's seemingly reason to believe the warning could at least force Lukashenko's hand in some capacity, given how he seems to be aware of the industry's importance to the country, which is already dealing with hefty amounts of emigration. Tim O'Donnell

August 11, 2020

In an attempt to disrupt nationwide protests following this week's disputed election, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko cut off internet across the country, forcing demonstrators to use VPNs and proxies to get online and share whatever news they can, The Guardian reports.

Katsiaryna Shmatina, a political analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, called the move "unprecedented" and said that while the internet has been blocked in the past in Belarus, the current ban has been longer and more aggressive than in previous years.

The European Union, meanwhile, is prepared to take action — likely meaning sanctions — against Minsk, noting the elections were neither "free nor fair" and describing the actions taken against protesters as violent and unjustified.

Several other European countries, including Ireland, Lithuania (where Lukashenko's challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is staying for safety reasons), and the other Nordic and Baltic states have spoken out against Lukashenko's response. Read more at The Guardian. Tim O'Donnell

August 11, 2020

For the second night in a row, protesters who believe Belarus' presidential election was rigged took to the streets of Minsk, with thousands of people participating in Monday's demonstration.

In response, riot police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades at the crowd, BBC News reports. Officials said one protester was killed when the explosive device they were carrying went off in their hands. This comes as Lithuania's Minister of Foreign Affairs tweeted early Tuesday that opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has fled to Lithuania, where she is now "safe."

On Sunday, the government said President Alexander Lukashenko, an authoritarian leader who has held power since 1994 and is known as "Europe's last dictator," won the presidential election with 80 percent of the vote. No outside observers were allowed to monitor the election, and the internet was down for much of the day, which opposition leaders claim was done on purpose so it was hard to share evidence of election fraud.

In years past, Lukashenko has not had any serious challengers, but this time, there was a popular opposition candidate: Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher. The government says Tikhanovskaya only received 9.9 percent of the vote, but she said on Monday she was the true winner, as the results announced by the Central Election Commission "do not correspond to reality and completely contradict common sense." Catherine Garcia

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