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Belarus Protests Eclipse Rally in Defense of Defiant Leader

2020-08-16 20:23:36

MINSK, Belarus — Minutes after President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus vowed to stand firm against protesters he reviled as “rats,” “trash” and “bandits,” antigovernment demonstrators staged their biggest protest yet on Sunday to oppose a fraud-tainted presidential election a week earlier.

Tens of thousands of protesters — some estimates put their number at well over 200,000 — turned out in the center of Minsk, the capital, dwarfing a rally of Mr. Lukashenko’s supporters earlier in the day.

It appeared to be the largest protest in the history of Belarus, a former Soviet republic that Mr. Lukashenko has led since 1994.

As the crowd gathered around a Soviet-era obelisk on Victors Avenue, many chanted for Mr. Lukashenko to leave and waved the traditional white and red flag, which became a symbol of the opposition after the president replaced it with a more Soviet-looking national flag soon after coming to power.

“These events united everybody,” said Olga V. Golovanova, an economist. “We have woken up to the fact that we want to be free, we want to he human,” she added. “The government believed that they are gods and we are nothing.”

The mass protest on Sunday suggested that Mr. Lukashenko, who claimed a landslide re-election victory with 80 percent of the vote on Aug. 9, had failed in his efforts to intimidate opponents through a frenzy of police violence and increasingly strident warnings that the unrest could open the way for military action by NATO.

Mr. Lukashenko seems to have calculated that he can best secure Russian help against his domestic opponents by ginning up a fake military crisis on the border. The Belarusian Defense Ministry said on Sunday that it would hold military exercises near its western border from Monday through Thursday.

In a sign of growing disenchantment among even government employees, the Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia, Igor Leshchenya, posted a video on YouTube on Sunday expressing support for the protesters. “Like all Belarusians,” he said, “I am shocked by accounts of torture and beating against my fellow citizens.”

Even state-run factories — once solid bastions of support for Mr. Lukashenko — have tilted toward the opposition, with strikes gathering steam late last week at a number of state-owned industrial enterprises, including a tractor factory in Minsk.

The pro-government rally on Sunday only highlighted Mr. Lukashenko’s shrinking base of support. Many attendees had to be bused in from towns and villages outside the capital. But they included people who voiced genuine support for the president, or at least his promise to keep the country safe from outside aggression.

“The West doesn’t need us,” said Olga N. Mokhnach, 43, a music instructor. For all of Belarus’s economic and other problems, she said, “we are not in the same dire situation as Ukraine,” which toppled its own president in 2014 and is now mired in a grinding war with Russian-armed separatists.

Standing with her husband, Vladimir, 52, Mrs. Mokhnach said that Belarusian society had largely cracked along generational lines. She said the couple’s two children — ages 14 and 16 — had turned against her and her husband politically.

“We shout at each other every evening,” Mrs. Mokhnach said.


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