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Day After Mass Protests, Belarus Arrests Opposition Activists

2020-08-24 19:12:02

MINSK, Belarus — Security forces in Belarus on Monday arrested two of the last high-profile opposition figures not already in jail for protesting against the country’s authoritarian president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. The arrests came as a senior United States diplomat met with the embattled president’s most prominent opponent, who fled the country under duress earlier this month.

In the first publicly acknowledged high-level contact between the U.S. government and the Belarusian opposition, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun met in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Mr. Lukashenko’s main rival in the disputed presidential election on Aug. 9 that triggered mass protests.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya claimed victory in the election. Mr. Lukashenko, pointing to official results that his opponents and European leaders called fraudulent, insists he won by a landslide. She fled to Lithuania a week ago after security agents in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, detained her and forced her to make a video urging people not to protest the election result.

The dangers that awaited her had she stayed in Belarus were evident on Monday, when riot police officers seized Olga Kovalkova, an ally of Ms. Tikhanovskaya, and Sergei Dylevsky, a strike leader at a tractor factory in Minsk.

Both were seized in front of the Minsk Tractor Works, a vast, Soviet-era plant whose workers, long viewed as loyal supporters of the government, last week threatened to go on strike unless Mr. Lukashenko stepped down.

Moscow and Washington each insist they have no dog in the fight and just want the Belarusian people to settle their own affairs peacefully, while also accusing each other of meddling.

Just minutes before the meeting in Lithuania between the American official and Ms. Tikhanovskaya, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, told journalists in Moscow that President Vladimir V. Putin considered all foreign interference in Belarus “inadmissible” and wanted it to stop.

“These are the forces currently trying to put direct and indirect pressure on the events in Belarus. Such element exists, and regretfully, this cannot be ignored,” Mr. Peskov said.

“Whoever offers to build a wall between Belarus and Russia will be the last politician in Belarus,” said Pavel P. Latushko, a former member of Mr. Lukashenko’s government, now a member of the council’s presidium.

Speaking in Lithuania after his meeting with Ms. Tikhanovskaya, Mr. Biegun, the deputy secretary of state, avoided endorsing the opposition’s claim that Mr. Lukashenko lost the election, but described Ms. Tikhanovskaya as “very impressive,” saying, “I can see why she is so popular in her country.”

Mr. Biegun, who is scheduled to travel to Moscow on Tuesday to discuss Belarus with Russian officials, said the United States, “cannot and will not decide the course of events in Belarus,” adding that, “there is an outcome here that can be acceptable to everyone.”

This new approach appears to have support from Russia, where state-controlled television has featured a series of Belarus experts who have blamed Mr. Lukashenko’s heavy-handed repression for a surge in the number of protesters and voiced hope that he would continue what one called “his more rational” policy of arresting protest leaders but not lashing out wildly.

But fear that mass arrests and brutal beatings could quickly return hangs over the loosely-organized protest movement, amplified by Mr. Lukashenko’s often hysterical statements and insults. He last week denounced protesters as “wild Nazis” and “tricksters,” and on Saturday he called them “rats.”

Ivan Nechepurenko reported from Minsk and Andrew Higgins from Moscow.


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