(CN) — Belarus is headed toward a critical juncture in the 11-week protest against the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko after the leader of the opposition called for a general strike on Monday.
Belarusian reports on social media showed large numbers of students, workers at state-run factories, pensioners and others joining the strike on Monday, posing a new challenge to the regime of Lukashenko.
By Monday evening, it remained uncertain how long the strike will last and whether it will weaken Lukashenko’s grip on power or that of the opposition in the event the strike proves to draw only modest support.
Two weeks ago, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader who fled into exile in Lithuania, issued an ultimatum for Lukashenko to resign by Sunday or face a national strike that would include blocked roads, a boycott of state-run stores and services and walkouts by workers.
The longtime president, often dubbed Europe’s last dictator, dismissed the opposition’s demands. He reportedly scoffed and said that if state workers go on strike, “Who will feed the kids?”
On Sunday, more than 100,000 protesters gathered in Minsk, the capital, to demand Lukashenko step down. Viasna, a Belarusian human rights group, said more than 500 people were detained at about 20 protests across Belarus. More than 15,000 people have been arrested since the protests began.
Sunday’s demonstrations, which security forces sought to dispel with the use of stun grenades, rubber bullets and mass arrests, were among the largest since Belarus was thrown into chaos following Aug. 9 elections that saw Lukashenko reelected in a landslide. The elections are widely believed to have been rigged to extend Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
The European Union and other Western powers have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on Belarusian officials accused of vote-fixing and ordering a brutal crackdown on mass protests.
State media denied that Monday’s strike had picked up much support and said state-run enterprises were “operating in normal mode.”
“The enterprises have not stopped working despite statements to the contrary made by some Telegram channels,” the Belarusian Telegraph Agency, a state-run news agency, reported.
Andrei Strunevsky, a member of the National Assembly of Belarus, told the Belarusian Telegraph Agency that ultimatums issued by the opposition “can produce nothing good.”
“It is necessary to work, start negotiations, amend the Constitution, and deal with the tasks at hand,” he said, referring to the government’s purported willingness to negotiate with the opposition. “Two sides can always find a consensus, can reach an agreement if they are willing to meet each other halfway. An ultimatum can produce nothing good.”
He claimed going on strike would only hurt Belarus economically by allowing competitors outside the country to get ahead. He added that the strike had no effect on state enterprises.
But reports on social media and from European news services depicted a different reality. Nexta, a channel on the Telegram messaging app used by the opposition, showed workers striking at Grodno Azot, a major fertilizer maker, as well as students and pensioners gathering in large numbers to protest and reported that train workers were striking too.
Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Tikhanovskaya, said on Twitter that strikes took place at 40 state enterprises, 10 universities and hundreds of private organizations. He said miners, doctors, teachers, students, artists and transport workers were among those participating.
Black-clad, masked security forces were seen clashing with protesters on Monday and making arrests. The strike may lead to an intensification of the crackdown on protesters. Opposition figures have been jailed and forced to flee the country. Lukashenko’s regime also has closed independent media and curtailed the internet to shut out opposition voices.
Western powers and Russia are urging Lukashenko to make concessions and bring the crisis to an end. Under pressure from both inside Belarus and outside, Lukashenko has promised to look at constitutional changes and he met with imprisoned opposition figures. But he has not released political prisoners nor opened a dialogue with the opposition, which is calling for new presidential elections and a transfer of power.
On Monday, Tikhanovskaya said the strike was proving that Belarusians want change.
“Belarusians are determined to end the dictatorship,” she said on Twitter Monday.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.