17.08.2020 Europe

Belarus protesters hold 'historic' rally as Lukashenko vows to stay on

By David Coffey with RFI
LISTEN AUG 17, 2020

Tens of thousands of Belarusian opposition supporters gathered for the largest protest rally in recent history in Minsk as President Alexander Lukashenko continues to reject calls to step down.

Crowds of protesters marched through the streets to the central Independence Square on Sunday, with an an estimated turnout of around 100,000 people, a scale of protest not seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Columns of demonstrators raised victory signs and held flowers and balloons as protesters gathered in Independence Square, the focus of peaceful demonstrations in recent days.

Darya Kukhta, 39, a mother of six, told journalists "We believe that a new Belarus is beginning. I'm very happy to be seeing this with my own eyes."

Demonstrators held placards with slogans such as "You can't wash off the blood" and "Lukashenko must answer for the torture and dead".

Popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had called for a weekend of protests after leaving for neighbouring Lithuania following the disputed election, which gave Lukashenko 80% of the vote.

Speaking in a video address on Monday, Tikhanovskaya she was ready to lead Belarus and called for the creation of a legal framework to ensure a new fair election could be held.

She also urged security and law enforcement officers to switch sides from President Alexander Lukashenko's government, saying their past behaviour would be forgiven if they did so now.

Demonstrations across the country and abroad

Other major towns and cities in the ex-Soviet country of nine million also saw large rallies, local media reported.

More and more Belarusians have taken to the streets over the last week to condemn Lukashenko's disputed victory and a subsequent violent crackdown by riot police and abuse of detainees.

Unusually, tightly controlled state television news aired a short item on the "alternative protest" in Minsk, while not showing anti-Lukashenko slogans.

Outside Belarus, hundreds of Czechs and Belarusians, some holding the traditional red and white Belarusian flag and portraits of Tikhanovskaya, gathered in Prague's historic centre Sunday in support of the protests.

There were also smaller shows of support reported in Romania and Poland

Lukashenko calls for Belarusians to defend their country, not him

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, is facing an unprecedented challenge to his leadership.

 The 65-year-old strongman held a rare campaign-style rally on Independence Square before the opposition protest. 

He told flag-waving supporters: "I called you here not to defend me... but for the first time in a quarter-century, to defend your country and its independence."

"The elections were valid," Lukashenko said in a sometimes emotional speech.

"We won't give away the country!" he vowed.
Kremlin ready to help
With pressure growing from the street and abroad after EU leaders agreed to draw up a list of targets for a new round of sanctions, Lukashenko has reached out to Russia, Belarus's closest ally. 

Moscow said Sunday it was ready to provide military help if needed.

The Kremlin said that in a call with Lukashenko, President Vladimir Putin had expressed Russia's "readiness to provide the needed assistance" including "if necessary" through the CSTO military alliance between six ex-Soviet states.

Since the beginning of the protests last week, some 6;700 people have been arrested, hundreds wounded and two people dead. 

Call for mass strikes               
The opposition has called for a general strike from Monday after hundreds of workers at state-run factories downed tools on Friday in a first sign that Lukashenko's traditional support base was turning against him.

Tikhanovskaya has announced the creation of a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, asking foreign governments to "help us in organising a dialogue with Belarusian authorities".

She demanded the authorities release all detainees, remove security forces from the streets and open criminal cases against those who ordered the crackdown.

She has said she will organise new elections if Lukashenko steps down.

(With Wires)

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