The authorities threatened to use live ammunition, but the Belarusians took to the streets all the same. They were tens of thousands to march Sunday against President Alexander Lukashenko. For the city of Minsk alone, the police have made more than 200 arrests.
This protest action is the first of any scale since the ultimatum set for Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, by the leading figure of the opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a refugee in Lithuania. The latter gave the president until October 25 to withdraw, otherwise it will call on the country to take to the streets and a general strike.
A message that already seems to reorient the protest movement. Unlike previous rallies, the demonstrators chose Sunday not to march in the center of Minsk but on an artery south of the capital, where many factories are located. They chanted “Strike! And anti-Lukashenko and anti-police slogans.
The 66-year-old president, under unprecedented pressure since the controversial presidential election on August 9, has so far shown no intention of complying with the demands of his detractors – quite the contrary. All Belarusian opposition figures are currently detained or in exile abroad.
On Sunday, the demonstration in Minsk was violently suppressed by the police, who used water cannons and stun grenades against the crowd and arrested hundreds of people. This intervention was the most brutal in weeks.
“We can’t go back anymore”
On Monday, the Interior Ministry warned that the police would not hesitate to use live ammunition “if necessary”, which would constitute a serious escalation of the crisis. The head of the KGB, Ivan Tertel, for his part assured Saturday to be aware of an “imminent provocation” in preparation in order to “destabilize” the country.
In this Sunday’s parade, a protester, Angela Krassovskaïa, said she was not afraid. “We can’t back down any longer. If they start shooting, then there will be even more people in the streets, ”she said. Another demonstrator, retired Maria Petrovich, believed that “the level of violence perpetrated by the authorities is unprecedented”. She said she was ready to continue until the departure of Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian police had already fired live ammunition in early August, during the first demonstrations repressed by force in Brest, in the south of the country. A protester had then died of his injuries. Since the start of the protest, the crackdown has left at least 3 dead and dozens injured.
“Express our demands peacefully”
In his ultimatum set for October 25, the opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa demanded, in addition to the resignation of Alexander Loukachenko, the end of police pressure and the release of all “political prisoners”. In another message broadcast on Sunday, she called on her fellow citizens to “continue to express our demands in a peaceful and resolute manner”.
“We will not stop until every political prisoner has been released, the security forces have started to protect their people, and the law and fair elections return to Belarus.”
Apart from the big demonstration last Sunday, other smaller gatherings have been put down by the police this week. On Monday, police dispersed a protest by retirees with tear gas and stun grenades, marching in red and white opposition through the streets of Minsk. Saturday, during the traditional demonstration of women and that of students, 58 people including journalists were arrested, according to the authorities.
Hundreds of demonstrators, leaders of political movements, labor organizations and journalists have been arrested since the protests began. While Alexander Lukashenko enjoys the support of Moscow, he is under threat of sanctions from the European Union, which rejected the results of the August 9 election and which has already sanctioned 40 regime officials, including the Minister of the Interior and his deputy.