On Sunday, demonstrators in Minsk protested the results of the Belarusian presidential election before they had even been announced – and were met with what critics have called “unacceptable state violence”.
President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for 26 years, and commentators and opposition politicians warned that Sunday’s election results would be falsified by the man who has been dubbed the “last dictator in Europe”.
Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election was Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who decided to run after her husband – a YouTuber who released videos criticising the president – was jailed and disqualified from the race, along with other candidates. Despite having no political experience, the former teacher’s rallies have attracted huge crowds in recent weeks.
On Sunday evening, an official exit poll showed that Lukashenko had won his sixth presidential term, with 79.7 percent of the vote. Convinced that the election had been rigged, protesters took to the streets to demand his resignation, telling VICE News that they hope for change.
"I am not sure that [change] will come now, but at least we are showing Lukashenko that he is not liked anymore," said one protester, who did not want to give his name. Another demonstrator, Dmitry, echoed this sentiment: "We don’t want him anymore. It is clear, and he is scared.”
Ahead of Sunday’s election, Lukashenko had warned that "the response [to opposition demonstrations] would be instant”. True to his word, Belarusian riot police were quickly sent in to disperse the crowds. As demonstrators ran from the protest site, uniformed and plain clothes officers gave chase, detaining people and hitting them if they resisted.
At one point, a group of demonstrators stopped to block the road, before police stormed out of a bus towards them. The protesters, led by a bare-chested man, pushed officers back, circling and attacking two riot police. One of the officers was left hardly able to stand, while several demonstrators were badly injured.
Before long, two military trucks carrying camouflaged soldiers pulled up. Two stun grenades were thrown, lighting up the street and triggering several car alarms.
The photographer and I ran up some stairs to a parallel street as another grenade exploded, shaking nearby windows. From there, we could hear the cries of people being attacked by baton-wielding riot police. We stayed put temporarily, concerned for our own safety, as journalists had been arrested during a pre-election crackdown by the authorities.
Internet outages had hit the country throughout Sunday – something the Belarusian government blamed on forces “abroad [aiming] to incite discontent among our population”. With no access to proper information, word-of-mouth rumours made their way around the protest.
At one point, I heard that the chief of police in Minsk had stepped down, then that police in the cities of Lida and Pinsk had laid down their weapons. Buoyed by these unsubstantiated – and untrue – rumours, demonstrators started chanting, “Go home!” at the riot police.
One woman parked her car near the police line, opened the doors and started blasting “We Want Changes” by the Soviet rock musician Viktor Tsoi – a song that has become an anthem of the opposition.
In response, police started shooting rubber bullets at the demonstrators. After this, I witnessed dozens of protesters being taken to hospital in ambulances, a number of them bleeding heavily.
The human rights group Viasna said that one protester had died after being struck by a police vehicle driving through the demonstration. Belarus’ Interior Ministry has denied that anyone was killed, but did say that 3,000 people had been detained and that investigations would be launched into “mass disturbances”.
On Monday, in a joint statement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, said the election was “marred with disproportionate and unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters”, and called for “the immediate release of all detained during last night”.
On Sunday, before the internet went down, it didn’t take long for reports of falsified votes to circulate on several Telegram channels. A video from one polling station shows a woman climbing from a second-floor window, holding bags of what are assumed to be ballot papers. Authorities have said the official had to climb out of the window after getting stuck in the room.
On Monday, the Belarusian central electoral commission announced the election results: 80.2 percent of the vote for Lukashenko, and just 9.9 percent for Tikhanovskaya, despite the recent swell of popular support.
The results are widely seen as absurd, and have been rejected by the opposition, with Tikhanovskaya saying, “Just look at what’s happening at the polling stations. The government is using force to stay in power.”
Another round of protests is scheduled to take place in Minsk on Monday night.
VICE News is obscuring the names of the journalists who filed this report until they are safely out of Belarus.