Belarusians have risen up in a “peaceful revolution”, their exiled opposition leader said as authorities in the isolated ex-Soviet country crack down on protesters calling for new elections.
Demonstrators flooded the streets of Belarus demanding the resignation of authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko since he claimed a sixth term in disputed elections this month.
The 65-year-old president, often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”, dispatched his security services to disperse protesters following his claim to have won 80 percent of the vote, in a response condemned by rights groups and EU leaders.
Leading opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said in her address to the European Parliament that the country was witnessing its largest demonstrations in recent history following the vote.
“Belarus has woken up. We are not the opposition any more. We are a majority now. A peaceful revolution is taking place,” she said speaking in English via video link.
Tikhanovskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania after claiming victory in the August 9 ballot that went ahead without independent observers and was rejected by EU leaders for being neither free nor fair.
“Belarus is in turmoil and crisis,” Tikhanovskaya said. “Peaceful protesters are being illegally detained, imprisoned and beaten. This is taking place in the middle of Europe.”
– Attempts to ‘seize power’ –
Several members of the opposition’s Coordination Council that is seeking new elections have been arrested or summoned for questioning after Lukashenko accused them of attempting to “seize power”.
Nobel Prize-winning writer and outspoken Lukashenko-critic, Svetlana Alexievich was named a member of the presidium and has been called in for questioning as a witness by investigators on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Pavel Latushko, a former diplomat now a member of the Council, was questioned as a witness in the probe for more than three hours, he said, adding he had signed a non-disclosure agreement about the session.
The opposition on Monday said that two of the presidium’s members, tractor plant worker Sergei Dylevsky and Tikhanovskaya aide Olga Kovalkova, were detained for organising illegal strikes.
After downing their tools in large numbers, employees at state-owned enterprises — usually a bastion of loyal Lukashenko’s supporters — have continued to strike on a smaller scale under pressure from the authorities, activists have said.
Teachers were also called on to the streets on Tuesday near the education ministry after Lukashenko said this week that those who participated in mass post-election protests should be fired and “must not be in schools”.
– Historic protests –
Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old English teacher, drew huge crowds to campaign rallies ahead of the vote that she was allowed to contest after her husband was jailed and barred from running.
More than 100,000 people have flooded the streets of Minsk for two weekends in a row in historic protests against Lukashenko’s re-election.
The police said on Tuesday they had opened three criminal cases after thousands of demonstrators gathered on Independence Square in Minsk on Monday for a 16th consecutive day of protests over the elections and police violence.
The EU has promised to impose sanctions on Belarusians responsible for allegedly fixing the vote and dispersing protesters.
Tikhanovskaya said Tuesday the mass protest movement in Belarus was not for or against Russia or Europe, describing the demonstrations instead as a “democratic revolution”.
During a visit this week to European countries, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun met Tikhanovskaya in Lithuania, condemned the violent police crackdown and said the people of Belarus should be allowed to “determine their own future”.