(CN) — Belarus is again being rocked by violence, with masked black-clad security forces attacking peaceful protesters on Sunday with truncheons, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons.
Viasna, a Belarusian human rights group, reports that about 600 people were detained in Minsk, the capital, and other cities.
Videos posted on Nexta, a social media Telegram channel that serves as the opposition’s main means of communication, shows security forces violently running at crowds of protesters in a rain-drenched Minsk and tackling demonstrators to the ground, striking them with truncheons and chasing people.
In some instances, protesters struck back at security forces too, including a group trying to stop a man from being dragged into a black minivan. Injured protesters were seen with bandaged heads. On Sunday, about 30 journalists reportedly were among those detained.
The crackdown continued on Monday with security forces seeking to break up a pensioners’ march. Also Monday, Gennady Kazakevich, the chief of criminal police, threatened protesters with the use of lethal weapons. He claimed the protests are dwindling and are made up of unruly individuals using stones, bottles, knives and shivs against police.
“Such events have nothing to do with civic protests. We face not simple aggression, but groups of militants, radicals, anarchists, rowdy football fans,” he said in a video message, according to the Belarusian Telegraph Agency, a state-run news service.
In reality, the protests have been mostly peaceful and drawn a wide range of people and ages, according to most media accounts, experts and watchdog groups. Many of the protests have featured women clad in white and red, the national colors of pre-Soviet Belarus adopted by the opposition, and holding aloft flowers.
Belarusian authorities accuse outside forces of trying to foment a pro-democratic “color revolution” to topple Lukashenko and install a pro-Western government.
Sunday’s violence was described as a return to the kind of brutal tactics security forces used against protesters in the immediate aftermath of allegedly rigged Aug. 9 presidential elections in which Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner with 80% of the vote.
The 66-year-old authoritarian has run Belarus for 26 years by jailing opposition leaders, repressing independent media, consolidating power around himself and maintaining a Soviet-style police apparatus. The Belarusian intelligence service even retains its Soviet-era name, the State Security Committee, or KGB, and its symbols.
The violence on Sunday came a day after Lukashenko was seen meeting with opposition leaders jailed at a prison in Minsk run by the KGB. State-run media provided clips from the four-and-half-hour meeting and Lukashenko met with the opposition to discuss constitutional changes.
One possible solution to the crisis is for Belarusians to institute constitutional changes that could allow it to move away from the authoritarianism of Lukashenko to a more parliamentary system.
Lukashenko has said he is interested in such changes and Russian President Vladimir Putin has said constitutional reforms are “logical, timely and expedient.” Putin is backing Lukashenko. Russia is a key player in the future of Belarus because of its historic ties to Belarus and because of the deep links between the two nations.
“A controlled transition of the political leadership would be welcome in the Kremlin, which would like to avoid a popular overthrow of an increasingly illegitimate authoritarian leader – likely followed by a period of political instability – at its doorstep,” said Andrius Tursa, an Eastern Europe expert at Teneo, a London-based political risk firm, in a recent briefing note. “At the same time, the drafting of the new constitution might allow Moscow to shape the country’s new institutional setting, potentially linking the country closer to Russia.”
But during his meeting with the opposition, Lukashenko talked down the need for constitutional changes.
“We shouldn’t just focus on the constitution, I am trying to convince not only your supporters but the whole of society that one needs to look at things more broadly,” Lukashenko said, according to a brief clip provided by state media. He added: “You can’t rewrite the constitution on the street.”
The opposition leaders he met with included Viktar Babaryka, a former banker who was challenging Lukashenko for the presidency before he was imprisoned. Also at the oval table with Lukashenko was Sergei Tikhanovsky, an anti-corruption blogger and husband of the leading opposition figure, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Tikhanovskaya ran in the election against Lukashenko after her husband was imprisoned. She fled Belarus after the vote, saying she feared for her life. She has been meeting European Union leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and traveling in Europe to build support for the insurrection.
The opposition is calling on Lukashenko to resign and it wants new elections. Saturday’s encounter with opposition figures was cast by Belarusian authorities as proof that Lukashenko is willing to meet with the opposition, but his opponents dismissed the strange meeting as stagecraft.
“He wants to look like the kind leader so that the elderly in front of the television think he’s really ready for dialogue with the opposition,” one male protester told Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster, during Sunday’s protests.
Another woman told the German broadcaster: “He’s just a terrorist talking to his hostages and he’s trying to sell that to us as negotiations.”
Opposition leaders cast Lukashenko’s readiness to meet his imprisoned opponents as a sign of weakness.
After the meeting, Tikhanovskaya said Lukashenko was at least acknowledging “the existence of political prisoners whom he used to call criminals.”
She added: “You can’t have dialogue in a prison cell.” She has called for political prisoners to be freed. Also on Saturday, Tikhanovskaya said she was allowed to talk with her husband for the first time in four months.
Paval Latushka, a former Belarusian diplomat who is now part of the opposition, said on social media that the meeting “showed we are on the right track” because Lukashenko was “forced to sit down for talks with those he himself put behind bars.”
But on Sunday, with the brutality exerted by security forces against protesters, Lukashenko seemed to want to send the message that he is not buckling to demands to resign.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers said they condemned the violence against protesters and said they were ready to add Lukashenko to a list of 40 high-level Belarusian officials that the EU slapped sanctions on.
“As before, there are arrests of peace-loving demonstrators. That’s why we need to consider how things continue there,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, calling on the EU to immediately impose sanctions on Lukashenko. “The Lukashenko regime continues to exercise violence, we still see arrests of peaceful demonstrators.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.