First night of peaceful protests as Lukashenko regime begins to crumble

First night of peaceful protests as Lukashenko regime begins to crumble
A woman hugging an interior ministry soldier on Independence Square in central Minsk after he laid down his shield in support of the protestors.
By Ben Aris in Berlin August 15, 2020

Tens of thousands of people gathered on Independence Square, where the main government offices are located in central Minsk, in the first night of peaceful protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's falsification of the recent presidential election results.

Streets throughout Belarus were filled with protesters celebrating their victory over the police and security forces who were almost entirely absent from the picture on the night of August 14 after dishing out four days of vicious beatings.

Where the regime had been ripping down red and white curtains from the windows of apartment blocks as they looked too much like the national flag only a few days ago, on August 14 building-high flags appeared hung from the side of apartment blocks and crowds carried the same flag, hundreds of metres long, during marches. 

A party atmosphere reigned, with the honking of car horns and demonstrators making the hand signs of the opposition: the heart, the fist and the V of victory. However, Nigel Gould-Davies, the UK ambassador to Belarus from 2007 to 2009, warned in a podcast with bne IntelliNews that the president has now been backed into a corner and the only option left open to him is to impose martial law and put the army on the street.

The EU, meanwhile, held an August 14 emergency meeting in Brussels. It officially refused to recognise the results of the August 9 election that was widely believed to have been won by former English teacher Svetlana Tikhanovskaya by a landslide.

The EU also voted unanimously to impose targeted personal sanctions on Lukashenko and other members of his administration that organised the election falsification and subsequent police brutality against demonstrators. The move will further delegitimise Lukashenko's attempt to hold on to power.

The protests in Belarus are now more or less continuous. The streets of towns and villages across the entire country are filled with people carrying the national flag, wearing the white ribbons that are the sign of the opposition and demonstrating against the regime without interference from the police.

And there are more and more signs that the authorities' control over the situation is crumbling.

The evening got off to a nervous start as eyewitnesses reported a convoy of some 40 military trucks driving through Minsk on their way to Independence Square, the scene of large street battles on previous days. However, shortly afterwards, the trucks left without deploying their soldiers, leaving the crowd in peace.

There has been a notable de-escalation in tensions in the lasts 24 hours after the deputy interior minister visited detention centres and apologised to all those that had been arrested “by accident.” More than 1,000 detainees from the official 6,700 that had been arrested were released on the morning of August 14 and the minister promised the rest would be released shortly.

There was a growing confidence amongst the protesters after the internet was turned back on, with the protesting part of the population now in no doubt that they are in the absolute majority. One businessman in Minsk told bne IntelliNews: “There is a sense of history in the making. People are happy and determined. They are now bringing their children to the protests.”

The detainees coming out of the prisons added to previous reports of torture and inhumane treatment by prison guards in tearful testimonies. That only strengthened the resolve of the protesters to see their campaign through. More shocking pictures emerged of injuries sustained during detentions.

Protesters have taken to sitting on the ground in the public spaces they occupy in order to stop provocateurs starting fights with the police. They chant “Every day.”

Lukashenko seems short of options. The president went on national TV and blamed the protests on agents sent from a bizarre potpourri of countries, including Russia, Ukraine and Czechia and even Russian anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny was mentioned.

“Do not go out to the streets now. They use you and our children as cannon fodder! Many people came here from Poland, Netherlands, Ukraine, Open Russia, Navalny, and so on. The aggression has already begun against the country,” the president said.

State TV also carried reports of the arrest of one “opposition leader”, purporting to show his “protest kit” that included photos with a NATO flag, Polish secret service ID cards, gas masks, a military uniform, a green monster latex mask, piles of dollars and a wallet containing a card of Stephen Bandera, the famous Ukrainian nationalist that co-operated with the Nazis in WWII and is now associated with Ukraine’s far right movement.

 

Lukashenko seems to have badly miscalculated. His comments and the state TV reports are aimed at an audience stuck at home who don't know any better. In normal times, these tactics would work and are the basis of his KGB-enforced regime. But with almost the entire population out on the streets and well-informed by the torrent of independent reporting on social media, people know full well that the comments and reports are lies and paranoid fantasies.

Tikhanovskaya stands in stark contrast to Lukashenko's raw power politics of repression. Her appeal and the source of her almost universal support was her campaign goal: “If I win, the first thing I will do is quit and hold fresh elections.”

Nothing coming out of the state apparatus is believable. The Lukashenko regime is well known for its coercion and in a prominent example, head of the Central Election Commission (CEC) Lidya Yermoshina confirmed that a video released by nominal victor Tikhanovskaya, in which she called on the people to respect the official result of the election and end the protests, was actually shot in her office, confirming a speculative article from this publication earlier in the week that followed the release of the footage.

Surprisingly to some, the Russian press has also been following the election story closely, putting out reports that overwhelmingly condemn Lukashenko.

“Its no longer a question of if Lukashenko will go but when. Where are the 80% who apparently voted for Lukashenko? There is not even one pathetic picket of Lukashenko supporters. His constituency is simply the OMON [riot police] … There have been eight former heads of ex-USSR states that have faced criminal charges that have even been jailed. Will Lukashenko be the ninth?” speculated Moskovsky Komsomolets, a leading Russian daily, as reported by the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg in a round-up of Russian press reporting on the protests.

As bne IntelliNews has reported, the Russian Foreign Ministry also seemed to take a step back from Lukashenko a day earlier, when it released a statement saying that the Russian people supported their brothers the Belarusian people.

The balance seems to have been tipped by a general strike on August 13 where workers at most of the leading state-owned enterprises came out in support of Tikhanovskaya. A video clip of a worker derailing the factory manager’s speech about how Lukashenko won the election by shouting: “Stand up if you voted for Tikhanovskaya!” went viral and became the template. Since this demonstration of defiance, every effort to placate workers by officials has been met with this challenge.

In another example of the popular mood, enraged workers of Belshina, a large state-owned tyre-maker in the country's seventh-largest city of Babruisk (218,000 inhabitants), shouted down the management with cries of “We were deceived!” and demanded the resignation of Lukashenko.

At Minsk Tractor Factory (tractors are probably the most famous of all Belarus’ export products), the prime minister met with workers:

“Honestly, do you believe in these elections?” workers asked the PM, Roman Golovchenko.

“I voted, I can answer for my vote,” he responded.

“You believe that Lukashenko got 80%?” the workers asked him.

“Yes,” replied Golovchenko.

“Then there's nothing to ask, nothing to talk about,” the workers replied.

 

At most meetings with management, workers have refused to engage unless a member of the press was invited to be present. It has been the substantial reporting of Belarus’ fledgling free press that has helped fuel the widespread protests.

Reports continue to come in of police and soldiers going over to the side of the protesters.

"Lukashenko has just lost control of the town of Lida (pop. 100.000). The town's entire police force appears to have joined the protests," tweeted Thomas van Linge, who has been following the protests closely.

Across the country, soldiers and police have mingled with the crowds, throwing their uniforms into bins. In the small Shchuchin district in Grodno region, the local police captain went across to the protest lines and told the demonstrators: "The police are with the people!"

Amongst the most dramatic scenes was that of a small group of interior ministry troops on Independence Square laying down their shields in support of the crowds. They were then smothered with hugs and kisses by onlookers thanking them for their support.

Tikhanovskaya sent Lukashenko a message from her refuge in Vilnius saying that she was ready to open talks on forming a transitional government. So far Lukashenko has not responded.

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