(CN) — The crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Belarus is once again turning violent as security forces increasingly attack demonstrators and masked men carry off opposition figures.
With massive demonstrations expected this weekend, however, the crackdown has done little to weaken the monthlong protests. In the capital of Minsk, recent Sundays have seen more than 100,000 people take to the streets in what are being described as the country's biggest demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Still, it is far from clear how the standoff between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the popular uprising will end. Lukashenko seems determined for now to hold onto power through repression and with the help of the Kremlin.
Russian support for Lukashenko is growing. On Monday, Lukashenko is expected to meet Russian Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia. Political experts believe Lukashenko will be forced to accept even greater integration into Russia in exchange for Russian support.
The uprising in Belarus exploded after Lukashenko, a man often described as Europe's last dictator, was declared the victor in presidential elections on Aug. 9 with 80% of the vote. The elections are widely believed to have been rigged. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994.
Protests broke out immediately following the election and were met with brutal repression from the state. Videos showing truncheon-wielding police beat protesters continue to surface.
More than 6,000 people were arrested, and United Nations experts say they have received reports of 450 cases of torture and ill-treatment against protesters.
Rather than quelching the movement, however, Lukashenko's initial crackdown has given more momentum to both the protests and strikes in state-run factories and enterprises. Belarusian security forces subsequently backed away from using violence, but in recent days the use of violence and large-scale arrests seems to have returned.
On Monday, Maria Kolesnikova, an opposition leader, was whisked away in a minivan by masked men in plain clothes and detained. She reportedly tore up her passport when Belarusian agents tried to force her into exile in Ukraine. She is being held in a prison, though she has not been heard from.
Belarusian authorities allege Kolesnikova and others who formed a council to demand new elections were attempting to stage a coup. The only person on the seven-person presidium of council who has not been arrested is Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel winner for literature and the country's most prominent public figure.
Fearing arrest, Alexievich has turned to the media and Europe for help. She has been giving interviews and European diplomats from embassies in Minsk are staying at her Minsk home. Alexievich said security agents repeatedly called her telephone and rang her doorbell.
This week, the Nobel author posted a statement on the Belarusian website of PEN, an international literary society, accusing the state of kidnapping her fellow council members.
“Everyone is either in jail or thrown abroad,” she said. “First, our country was kidnapped, the best of us are being kidnapped.”
The council remains in existence and hundreds of new people are volunteering to take part in it, she says. Now, though, council members' names are being kept secret to prevent their arrests, she said in interviews.
In her statement, she said, “the country revolted,” and she rejected charges that the council was “preparing a coup.”
“We wanted to prevent a split in our country,” she said. “We wanted a dialogue to begin in society. Lukashenko says he will not speak to the street, and the street is hundreds of thousands of people who go out every Sunday and every day. This is not a street. This is the people.”
The crackdown seems to be gradually getting more brutal and sweeping. About 630 people were arrested last Sunday, and police have begun to arrest more women, who have played a crucial role in the uprising and carry out spectacular peaceful demonstrations, often marching by the hundreds and holding up flowers in their hands. Three women — Kolesnikova and two others who fled Belarus — waged popular presidential campaigns against Lukashenko.