Students lead Belarus protest after Lukashenko refuses to quit
Opposition had told strongman to step down or face mass strikes.
MINSK — Students led a protest Monday against Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who ignored opposition calls to step down on Sunday.
Two weeks ago, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya gave the authoritarian leader until Sunday night to leave his post, threatening to unleash nationwide strikes if he didn’t go. She also called for the end of violence and releasing of political prisoners.
Instead, there was an escalation of violence by law enforcement on Sunday evening, with riot police using stun grenades and rubber bullets against opposition supporters.
According to the nation’s Interior Ministry, more than 500 protesters were detained in Minsk and other major Belarusian cities on Sunday.
On Monday morning, dozens of students flocked to the main building of the Belarusian State Linguistic University, the nation’s main source of translators and interpreters.
A group of students held up a hand-made banner with the three demands to Lukashenko set out by Tikhanovskaya, who was forced to flee to neighboring Lithuania after the August 9 presidential election.
“As such, student actions bring no particular harm [to the regime], we will not oust the dictator. However, we demonstrate our solidarity [with workers],” Ivan Turchenko, 20, a student at the university’s English language school, told POLITICO.
He added that such actions also demonstrate students’ solidarity with doctors and medical personnel, as well as with those members of law enforcement who left the service in protest.
“We demand that the president, who did not win [the August election], should put an end to his rule instead of staying in power after he appointed himself to his post,” Maria (who refused to provide her surname), 17, a student at the English language school, said.
According to official results, Lukashenko won 80 percent during the election, while Tikhanovskaya polled at around 10 percent. The opposition and political experts consider the election to have been rigged.
According to a survey published by Chatham House, only 20.6 percent of respondents said they voted for Lukashenko, while 52.2 percent cast their vote for his opponent, and 13.7 percent refused to say how they voted.
“It seems extremely likely that Tikhanovskaya received either more than half of all votes — which would imply her victory during a single round of voting — or at least won enough support to necessitate a second round,” said Ryhor Astapenia, the author of the poll and a Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy fellow. The survey was conducted in late September among almost 900 Belarusians.
Despite the students’ anger, street protests were much less visible on Monday compared to the immediate aftermath of the election, when thousands of residents crowded the downtown area, protesting against the brutality of law enforcement. At least three people died during the August protests, hundreds were beaten and thousands arrested.
In Minsk, some cafés and shops were closed on Monday, both downtown and in the suburbs. There also were social media reports about attempts to start strikes at some major state-owned plants, including fertilizer producer Grodno Azot based near the border with Poland.
However, it was not immediately clear how robust those strikes could be, given the expected pressure from government officials and the police.
Meanwhile, the government’s media office reported on Monday that all major industrial companies were operating normally.
“Strikes at state-owned enterprises is a tool of economic pressure, while strikes at private companies is a manifestation of solidarity between everyone, and this is just as important,” Tikhanovskaya said in a statement.