(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.
On Thursday, Lithuania became the first country to recognize one of those women, 38-year-old Svetlana Tchounkiskaya, as the legitimate winner of the presidential election. Tchounkiskaya fled to Lithuania immediately after the election fearing arrest.
Reports say most of those detained in the first wave of violence were men. Though this appears to remain the case, security forces are reportedly detaining more women now. There have been reports that women protesters have saved men from being arrested at protests by coming to their side and holding onto them.
“I thought the authorities have some limits and female rallies would continue. No, yesterday and today, women were brutally detained,” Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist, said on Twitter in describing protests this week.
Pressure is building on Lukashenko from the European Union to stop the crackdown and step down. Besides Lithuania recognizing Tchounkiskaya as Belarus’ president, the EU is drawing up sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime, financially supporting pro-democracy groups and demanding Belarus allow outside investigators conduct probes into the brutal crackdown and allegations of torture. This week, former European Council President Donald Tusk, a Polish politician, said he will nominate Tchounkiskaya and her imprisoned husband, a blogger who was jailed after he announced he wanted to run for the presidency, for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Poland and three other Eastern European nations on Friday said they want to offer Belarusians easy access to visas. Poland is also inviting Belarusian technology firms to move to Poland. In recent years Belarus has seen a burgeoning technology sector, but many believe Lukashenko’s actions may drive these companies away.
Lukashenko and his regime have suggested they are willing to make changes. In an interview this week with Russian media, Lukashenko even hinted that he knows he may not govern one day. But the regime also says it will not enter into dialogue with the opposition while there are protests.
“The prevailing political situation in Belarus is to evolve. We understand that it has not kept up with the times,” said Andrei Savinykh, a leader in the National Assembly of Belarus, during a teleconference with European parliamentarians on Tuesday. The meeting was held by the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, a human rights and legal body. Belarus is seeking to become a member of the council.
Savinykh said Belarus is prepared to work on changes but that “the dialogue cannot take place under pressure from street guerrilla violence.”
Contrary to his statement, the demonstrations in Belarus have been largely peaceful, though violence erupted in the immediate wake of the Aug. 9 election. The use of tear gas, stun grenades and truncheons by police has been blamed for sparking the violence.
Savinykh also charged that opposition figures used the presidential election to “intensify social tension,” and that the election was fraught with “disinformation and psychological manipulation.” He accused outside forces of fomenting unrest in Belarus as well.
The wide differences between the EU and Russia were apparent during the Council of Europe teleconference.
Alekasander Pociej, a Polish senator, said the Belarusian regime reminded him of Poland under communist rule when elections were rigged and information manipulated. He said that had the elections been held properly “the outcome would have been different.”
He said Belarus’ statements about “outside interference” are “leading us into a very dangerous situation in Europe.”
Other parliamentarians from EU countries called for investigations into allegations of torture and violations of human rights, charged the election was rigged, and said Lukashenko must step down.
But Russian parliamentarians saw it very differently, suggesting the United States and the EU are seeking to overthrow Lukashenko. They also claimed there was no evidence the Belarusian election was rigged.
Alexei Kondratyev, a Russian politician, claimed Tchounkiskaya’s vote tally in the presidential election of 10% was accurate and that she cannot “claim to speak for millions” of Belarusians. He said the protests are violent and noted that more than 100 Belarusian police officers have been injured by protesters. He attacked the EU for seeking to steer events in Belarus.
Leonid Slutsky, a member of the Russian parliament, the Duma, dismissed allegations that Russia is seeking to interfere in Belarus.
“There is no basis for that,” he said.
Petr Tolstoy, another Russian politician, said “the solution must be found within Belarus and come from the Belarusians.”
Sergei Kislyak, a former Russian ambassador to the U.S., accused
Tchounkiskaya of seeking to oust Lukashenko with the help of foreign powers.
“Do they have any right to represent the people of Belarus from outside the country?” Kislyak said. “These people are mostly interested in gaining support from other countries to put pressure on their own country.”
He added: “Let’s not forget the rights of those who voted for Lukashenko.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.