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Belarus Protests: What You Need to Know

2020-08-14 07:06:10
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After the longtime president of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, claimed 80 percent of the vote on Sunday in what many Western governments said was a sham election, protesters across the country have been met with a fierce police crackdown as the government tries to maintain its grip on power.

Three nights of violent clashes, which included the spraying of tear gas by the police and thousands of arrests, gave way to smaller demonstrations on Wednesday, as some protesters became fearful of police violence. But other protesters turned more aggressive, at times throwing stones at officers.

A political crisis continues in Belarus, an Eastern European nation of 9.5 million people, with many opponents of Mr. Lukashenko insisting they will fight on. Thousands of protesters are believed to have been detained, and videos of civilians being beaten by the police continue to emerge, potentially further galvanizing public anger.

Here are the basics on the events leading up to the protests and what happened in the bloody showdowns.

Mr. Lukashenko, who has often been called “Europe’s last dictator,” was first elected in 1994 in what outside observers believed was a fair and free election, but every election since then has been disputed. In 2006, he boasted that he publicly lowered his share of the vote — 93.5 percent — to 86 percent because the original number seemed too high.

It is difficult to gauge the popularity of Mr. Lukashenko because independent polling is mostly illegal and government polls are typically kept secret. Observers believe he generally enjoyed wide support until recently, with a faltering economy and mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic among the main sources of discontent.

But they never doubted that he would be declared the winner of the election as he controls the electoral system.

Svetlana G. Tikhanovskaya emerged as Mr. Lukashenko’s main election rival after several other opposition leaders were jailed or exiled. They included her husband, Sergei, a blogger who was considered among the top opposition candidates before he was jailed.

It was clear Mr. Lukashenko was in peril even before the election. Tens of thousands of people participated in rallies to support Ms. Tikhanovskaya last week, the largest antigovernment demonstrations in decades.

The authorities arrested 33 Russians accused of being mercenaries sent to disrupt the election in July, and Mr. Lukashenko claimed other saboteurs were targeting Belarus.

“A hybrid war is going on against Belarus, and we should expect dirty tricks from any side,” he told security officials in Minsk, the capital.

International election observers, who have said in past years that the elections were neither free nor fair but were allowed to monitor them, were barred on Sunday.

The announcement that Mr. Lukashenko had won an overwhelming 80 percent of the vote on Sunday was met with protests across the country, most notably in Minsk. For three nights, beginning on the night of the election, the police aggressively crushed the largely peaceful demonstrations with tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and batons.


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