Belarusian security forces arrested hundreds of people amid brutal clashes with protesters on Wednesday night, as thousands took to the streets in anger after the secretive inauguration of strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Thousands of protesters joined spontaneous demonstrations in cities across Belarus, fired up by news that the autocratic leader had quietly been sworn into his sixth term in power without public notice, in a ceremony attended only by loyalists. The demonstrators, many of them carrying red-and-white opposition flags, formed human chains, blocked streets, and taunted what they saw as Lukashenko’s lack of legitimacy.
“If you have 80 percent, why are you afraid of us?” read one protester’s sign, referring to the share of the vote Lukashenko claims he won in last month’s disputed presidential election.
Belarus’s Interior Ministry said police detained more than 360 people at the protests. Rights group Viasna accused them of using brutal tactics, including beating detainees with truncheons, resulting in head injuries and a number of hospitalisations. Riot police used water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades against demonstrators, and violently attacked vehicles blocking the road, the group said.
Footage showed riot police pinning protesters to the ground and using batons against crowds, leaving their targets with bleeding head injuries. One widely circulated video appeared to show a protester running from a group of riot police before narrowly making his escape in a taxi that mounted the pavement to leave the scene.
Since the vote on the 9th of August, which the opposition says was rigged, Lukashenko — who has ruled the former Soviet republic for 26 years — has faced mass protests calling for him to go. While the largest demonstrations have been held on Sundays, protesters took to the streets in large numbers Wednesday in response to an opposition call to mobilise, after news broke that Lukashenko had been sworn in amid secrecy.
Opposition figure Pavel Latushko, who described the ceremony as a “thieves’ meeting,” called for immediate protests, while Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s exiled presidential rival said the “secret inauguration [was] an attempt to seize power.”
Belarus expert Eleanor Bindman, a senior lecturer in politics at Manchester Metropolitan University, told VICE News that public anger over the underhanded inauguration would add fresh momentum to the protest movement — not that it was at risk of running out of steam.
“It shows that large numbers of protesters are willing and able to mobilise at very short notice, despite the likelihood of being arrested or beaten,” she said, adding that the violent response by security forces could result in an even bigger turnout on Sunday.
“To me, that indicates the continuing strength and determination of the protest movement.”
As smaller protests continued on Thursday, the European Union said that it did not recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus, and was reviewing its relations with the country. The EU is a major donor to Belarus, and has been urged by Tikhanovskaya to redirect its funding to the country away from the Lukashenko regime’s coffers, to support hospitals and organisations helping the Belarusian people.
“This ‘inauguration’ directly contradicts the will of large parts of the Belarusian population, as expressed in numerous, unprecedented and peaceful protests since the elections, and serves to only further deepen the political crisis in Belarus,” the bloc’s 27 member states said in a statement.
The EU has agreed to sanction Belarusian officials responsible for rigging the election results and orchestrating the subsequent crackdown on protesters.
But progress to agree on the legal text of the sanctions was blocked by Cyprus on Monday, which vetoed the move in protest at the EU’s failure to take action against Turkey over its drilling in the eastern Mediterranean.
Bindman said Cyprus’s blocking of the sanctions over an unrelated issue was “frustrating,” as there was widespread support for the move within the EU.
“It is a useful symbolic tool,” she said. “A collective action on sanctions by the EU would be really important and something that Belarusian opposition leaders very much want.”