Nearly three months after the disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko to his sixth-term in government, Belarusian protestors are still swarming the streets, demanding the resignation of a leader often deemed “Europe’s last dictator.” Factory workers, business owners, and students went on strike Monday, October 26th after Lukashenko ignored a midnight deadline to resign.
On October 13th, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya claimed that Belarus had “had enough” after two months of political crisis, violence, and lawlessness. She called for violence against protesters to stop, and for Lukashenko to resign by October 25th, threatening him with a national strike if the demands were not met. The majority of the country’s opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country, including Tsikhanouskaya, who is currently in Lithuania. While the protests have not yet led to what can be called a nation-wide strike, her demands have re-energised the protests, which have thus far occurred every week since the 9th of August.
Lukashenko’s oppressive response to the demonstrations has led to the arrest, beating, and torture of over 20,000 peaceful protesters since August. His rhetoric has become increasingly violent, culminating in comments October 6th threatening to leave protesters “with no hands.” Lukashenko has also characterised the protestors as waging “a terrorist war” against the government, accusing the largely peaceful demonstrators of becoming radicalised.
Nevertheless, the protestors, a diverse crowd ranging from students to pensioners, continue to demonstrate peacefully. Students have stood outside universities, clapping and chanting, despite presidential orders calling for their suspension. Similarly, hundreds of women marched through the streets of Minsk the weekend of November 7th, chanting “fair elections” and “freedom” as they carried red-and-white flags and banners – a symbol of the opposition that has been banned by the authorities. The demonstrators’ commitment to peace in the face of such oppression is commendable.
Alexander Yaroshuk, leader of the Congress of Democratic Unions, asserted that, while a nationwide strike has not yet materialised, the economic stagnation may incite unrest in the following months, which “could transform isolated hotbeds into the flames of a real strike.” Some international observers have also stood in solidarity with the protestors, with the United Nations human rights investigator for Belarus commenting that the government should “stop repressing its own people.” Similarly, the European Union has characterised the demonstrations as peaceful, with officials agreeing to impose sanctions against Lukashenko.
Although the current protests can’t be described as a fully-fledged national strike, they have shaken Lukashenko’s confidence. Lukashenko has not yet resigned, but has closed his borders with Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. The government has claimed this move is due to the “epidemiological situation.” However, many, including Tsikhanouskaya’s adviser Franak Viačorka, have said that that this reflects the President’s nervousness over the yet-unquelled protests. This seems especially likely, given the government’s previous accusations that its neighbours are trying to destabilise the country.
While it is unclear whether the current protests will develop into a national strike, or bring the country to a halt, the demonstrations currently appear resilient. Protestors are reluctant to cease until Lukashenko is willing to negotiate. Viačorka has said that the opposition will continue pushing for the creation of parallel structures of power, and will not stand down until Lukashenko is willing to talk and negotiate peacefully. More protests are expected to ensue throughout November.
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