KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – On Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of the Belarusian capital, demanding the resignation of the country’s authoritarian leader, who won his sixth term in a fraudulent election.
According to the Viasna human rights center, more than 50,000 people took part in the rally in Minsk. Protesters carried banners ridiculing President Alexander Lukashenko, who had ruled the country for 26 years, and chanted “Go away!”
Mass protests shook Belarus after the August 9 presidential election, which brought Lukashenko victory with 80% of the vote. Its main contender, Svitlana Tsikhanovska, received 10%. She and her supporters declined to acknowledge the results, saying the vote was rigged.
Authorities tried to quell the riots with mass detentions and police, dispersing the crowds with truncheons, stun guns and water cannons. On Monday, the country’s interior ministry threatened to use firearms against protesters, “if necessary,” saying the rallies “became organized and extremely radical.” However, the protests continue despite the repression.
“This is the first march since the authorities threatened to use firearms. But even this did not stop the protest, which is transformed into various forms, but does not subside, “said Viasna leader Ales Bialiatski.
Tikhanovskaya, who is currently in exile in Lithuania after leaving the country for fear for her safety, threatened to declare a nationwide strike on Tuesday if Lukashenko did not announce his resignation, release political prisoners and stop repression against protesters.
“If our demands are not met by October 25, the whole country will take to the streets peacefully,” Tsikhanovskaya said. “On October 26, a nationwide strike will begin, all roads will be blocked, and sales in state-owned stores will fall.”
Protesters marched on one of Minsk’s main avenues on Sunday, where factories and factories are located, and chanted “Strike!” and “Workers with People.”
The city center was blocked by water cannons and armored vehicles, and dozens of military trucks were spotted on the streets. Several metro stations were closed and mobile Internet did not work in the march area.
“Lukashenko understands that if it weren’t for all these artificial obstacles, the whole of Minsk would come out (gather),” said Valery Karbalevich, an independent political scientist in Minsk.
“Despite the threats of firearms and intimidation by the KGB (Belarusian State Security Committee), people are taking to the streets – the protests are not fading, and this indicates that the political crisis in Belarus is in full swing,” Karbalevich said.
In a statement Sunday, Tsykhanovskaya called on Belarusians to continue peaceful protests.
“Let’s continue to express our demands peacefully and persistently – it is yielding results,” she said, adding that the authorities had fired Ilya Salei, a lawyer for Tsikhanovskaya’s top colleague Maria Kolesnikova.
Last month, Kolesnikov was jailed on charges of undermining state security, which could lead to five years in prison if convicted. Salei was also detained in September on the same charges.
In addition to Minsk, Sunday’s protests took place in several major cities, including Brest, Grodno, Gomel and Vitebsk. Dozens of demonstrators were detained across the country: the list of detained demonstrators released by the Viasna Center on Sunday night included more than 150 names.