After taking a break during the freezing winter months, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has called for the mass protests against incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko to restart on March 25, RFE/RF reported on February 26.
Tikhanovskaya said in a post on her Telegram channel on February 22 that Lukashenko has "not just caused a terrible crisis in Belarus, but has become the main threat to the country's independence."
"[Lukashenka] is trying to sell Belarus piece by piece in exchange for loans and support," Tikhanovskaya said as cited by RFE/RL.
Lukashenko was in Russia on the same day meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to talk about the deeper integration between the two countries and presumably to ask for more financial aid. Russia has already provided Belarus with $1.5bn worth of debt relief, $500mn in cash in December and another $500mn loan is due to be disbursed this year to shore up Belarus’ finances.
March 25 is known as Dzen Voli (Freedom Day) in Belarus to honour the anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic, which existed for less than a year in 1918.
"I call on all the Belarusians to begin getting ready for that day now – to mobilise the protest spirit, create safety groups, to plan returning to the streets of your cities. Because the only force that can prevent our country's being sold out is the Belarusian people," Tikhanovskaya said.
Belarus has been wracked by mass protests for the last six months following the disputed August 9 presidential elections that were massively falsified and returned Lukashenko to office with a landslide victory, according to the official results. Independent observers believe that Tikhanovskaya was the actual winner in the election but the ballot papers were burnt by the Central Election Commission (CEC), so the result is impossible to verify. The opposition has been calling for Lukashenko to step down and fresh elections to be held.
Tikhanovskaya is currently in self-imposed exile in Lithuania with her children, where she fled shortly after the elections, as she was threatened by the authorities and feared for the safety of her children and her own life.
The weekend protests last summer regularly saw some 100,000 and more citizens take to the streets, but as the winter weather came in with sub-zero temperatures the crowd size dwindled. At the same time, the police took advantage of the smaller and more manageable crowd sizes to step up arrests and repression.
However, protests have continued throughout the winter, but the tactics have changed: citizens gather outside the city increasing the area that needs to be policed, or they organise small local protests in residential areas that can quickly disburse if police arrive on the scene.
Lukashenko, meanwhile, has denied any wrongdoing and refuses to negotiate on stepping down and holding new elections.
The European Union, the United States, Canada and other countries have refused to recognise Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have imposed sanctions on him and three dozen senior Belarusian officials in response to stolen elections and subsequent police brutality.
On February 23, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said the EU may impose further sanctions on Belarus after a Belarusian court jailed two Belarusian journalists from Belsat, a Poland-based satellite television station focusing on Belarus, for two years on charges of orchestrating protests against Lukashenko. Katsiaryna Andreyeva, 27, and Darya Chultsova, 23, were detained in November after they reported live from a rally against the death of an anti-government protester.
The opposition remains under pressure and nearly all the members of the opposition’s representative Coordinating Council have now fled the country. The one member of the council still in the country is in jail. Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova was charged with plotting a coup and setting up an extremist group that could see her serve decades in prison, it was reported on February 12.