(CN) — Belarus saw a new round of violence on Sunday after security forces broke up peaceful protests in the capital Minsk honoring a 31-year-old man reportedly beaten to death by police earlier in the week.
Sunday marked the 14th weekend in a row of protests in Minsk since allegedly rigged Aug. 9 presidential elections awarded longtime Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko another term in office. Lukashenko has refused to hold new elections and he’s rebuffing calls for his departure.
The mass protests in Belarus against Lukashenko, a holdover from communist rule, may be a sign of a widening pro-democracy and pro-European Union movement in eastern Europe.
On Sunday, voters in Moldova, a nation of 3.3 million people wedged between Romania and Ukraine, chose Maia Sandu as their next president. Her victory over Igor Dodon, the incumbent backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, was hailed by EU leaders eager for Moldova to have closer ties with the bloc.
Meanwhile, in Russia discontent may be taking root too with Putin’s popularity waning to around 59% between April and June, his lowest rating ever. Weeks of protests also broke out against his government in Khabarovsk, a region of Siberia. But Putin’s popularity has climbed back to about 70%, according to the Levada-Center, an independent Russian pollster.
On Sunday in Belarus, scores of black-clad security forces were seen on videos shared widely on social media shooting stun grenades and violently arresting people gathered at the Square of Change in Minsk, where a memorial was set up to honor Roman Bondarenko, an artist.
Bondarenko died in a hospital Thursday after he was allegedly beaten by plain-clothed security agents in Minsk on Wednesday. Witnesses say he got into a scuffle in the Square of Change with men in plain clothes who were trying to remove red and white ribbons, the colors on Belarus’ old pre-Soviet national flag and adopted by the opposition. The flag’s display has been restricted under Lukashenko, who accuses those displaying it of harboring sympathies for Nazi Germany. Under Nazi occupation of Belarus, the white-and-red flag was flown.
Belarusian authorities deny any involvement in Bondarenko’s death and say he got into a fight with civilians. Videos that apparently show the moments he was beaten and taken away offer a different version of events. In the videos, he is seen carried away by three men in masks who appear to hail to a white van.
After his death, the EU said it was looking at expanding its sanctions on Belarus.
Viasna, a Belarusian human rights group, reported that at least 1,127 people were detained on Sunday across the country. About two dozen journalists were among those arrested, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
More than 25,000 people have been arrested since the protests began and more than 120 people are imprisoned on political grounds, Viasna said.
Riot police broke up protesters who’d formed a human chain around a makeshift memorial to Bondarenko at the Square of Change, which lies in a Minsk neighborhood where he lived. Police also pursued protesters who’d hidden in apartments and other places in the neighborhood, according to news reports and human rights activists.
In one video, police were filmed beating at least two protesters inside a supermarket and pushing away others who apparently tried to intervene. There were reports that police were going door to door during the night to find protesters given shelter in the neighborhood.
Police and city sanitation workers destroyed a memorial dedicated to Bondarenko and the insurgency, according to Viasna. The group said detainees were treated harshly while in custody and that at least 20 people were hospitalized after they were released. There have been numerous allegations of the use of torture by security forces against protesters.
After Bondarenko’s death, EU officials warned that they are ready to impose more sanctions on Belarusian officials. It has imposed asset freezes and travel restrictions on numerous top Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko.
Lukashenko has rejected calls from the opposition to resign and accused the opposition of seeking to foment discord in Belarus for nefarious purposes. He accuses Western and even Russian forces of seeking to destabilize the nation.
“I will not give up [on the presidential powers] all of a sudden. I’m just going to leave this post when time is up. Why ‘all of a sudden’? All of a sudden is dangerous,” Lukashenko said, according to the Belarusian Telegraph Agency, a state-run news service.
He has promised to make changes to the constitution and allow Belarusians to vote for their leader at upcoming elections. But he is refusing to step down “under pressure” and says Belarus will fall prey to outside forces unless he is its president.
“Everyone understood that I was not going anywhere. I will not run away,” he said Monday, according to state media. “I have nothing but Belarus. I’m holding on to her.”
Lukashenko accused the opposition of turning the election into a protest movement to bring him down and help Western powers seize control of Belarus and send in NATO troops. He portrayed himself as the savior of Belarus.
“They wanted to break the state system and turn Belarus into another direction,” he said. “You have to understand – they sought neither a new election nor justice …. What would have happened if there were not me? No one could have preserved this country. It would have been torn apart.”
In recent days, protesters and opposition leaders have begun to call for him to be prosecuted.
On Twitter, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called for the creation of a “people’s tribunal” and the arrest of Lukashenko and others inside his regime. She called on Belarusians to collect evidence against Lukashenko and to prepare for a rally on Dec. 20 to announce a “national prosecution” against the regime.
“Unless we, the people of Belarus, do not bring the criminals in our country to justice, no one will,” she said.
She ran against Lukashenko in the presidential elections and tallied the second most votes but fled to Lithuania after the vote. Other opposition figures are in prison or fled Belarus too.
Tikhanovskaya added that she was working to get other nations to declare Lukashenko and his regime a “terrorist group” that could be prosecuted under international laws.
She is also calling on EU nations and others to impose economic sanctions against Belarus and on the United Nations to help those wounded and persecuted in Belarus.
Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and he has enjoyed a lot of popularity during much of that time. But in recent years the economy has faltered and Belarusians have become more disillusioned with his authoritarian rule. After the coronavirus outbreak, Lukashenko downplayed its seriousness and that too helped spark the popular unrest enveloping Belarus.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.