Belarus’ leader vows to crush protests, claiming a landslide election victory

By Ivan Nechepurenko and Anton Troianovski

The embattled president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, on Monday claimed a landslide victory in elections over the weekend and vowed to crush protests that have presented the biggest popular challenge he has faced in his 26 years of authoritarian rule.

Police clashed with largely peaceful protesters across the Eastern European country Sunday night, hours after the national vote, which the opposition dismissed as blatantly rigged.

Lukashenko appeared determined to cling to power and ignore protesters’ demands that he resign. On Monday, he boasted of a record turnout in the election, and official preliminary counts gave him more than 80% of the vote.

He insisted that the protests were being directed from abroad by people seeking to replicate the 2014 Ukraine uprising that began at Kyiv’s central Maidan square.

“We will not allow the country to be torn apart,” Lukashenko said in comments carried by Belarus’ state news agency, Belta. “As I have warned, there will be no Maidan, no matter how much anyone wants one. People need to quiet down and calm down.”

His comments came in the wake of a violent crackdown on protesters after the polls closed. Stun grenades and rubber bullets were directed at the crowd in the capital, Minsk, on Sunday night. A police truck drove into a group of demonstrators and left people bloodied on the streets. And masked riot police officers roamed the city and could be seen making arrests that appeared to be arbitrary.

Authorities said that 1,000 people had been detained in Minsk and another 2,000 elsewhere in the country. More than 50 citizens, as well as 39 police officers, were injured in the clashes, officials said.

A Belarus human-rights group, Vesna, said one protester had died after being run over by the police truck, according to Russia’s Tass state news agency, though Belarus’ Health Ministry said that there had been no deaths.

On the Telegram messaging network, the protesters’ prime means of communication, one of the most popular accounts in Belarus called for renewed demonstrations Monday evening and for a nationwide strike Tuesday. The internet, which was largely shut down in Belarus on Sunday, appeared to remain down in much of the country Monday.

“The dictator has started a war,” read the message on the Telegram account, Nexta, urging people to go to hardware stores to stock up on protective equipment and to prepare first-aid kits.

In recent weeks, Belarus — a former Soviet republic between Russia and Poland — has experienced its biggest surge in public discontent since Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, first won the presidency in 1994.

The coronavirus pandemic — the seriousness of which Lukashenko consistently played down — exacerbated popular anger over years of political and economic stagnation. A rift between Lukashenko and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a key ally for Belarus, has threatened the economy, with Russia increasingly reluctant to bankroll Belarus through cut-price oil deals.

“I am just tired of all the lies. Every word he says is a lie,” Galina M. Remizova, 68, a retiree, said of Lukashenko in an interview near the protests Sunday night while masked riot police officers patrolled nearby. “He is just like a husband who is not loved anymore.”

Lukashenko’s principal challenger in Sunday’s election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said at a news conference Monday that she believed the official results were false and that she had in fact won, according to Tass.

“We are for peaceful change,” Tikhanovskaya said. “The measures that the authorities used were disproportionate.”

Putin appeared prepared to continue his support for Lukashenko, despite the rift between the two, which widened late last month when Belarus arrested 33 Russians whom it accused of being mercenaries sent to disrupt the election. The Russian president issued a terse statement Monday congratulating Lukashenko on his reelection.

“I expect that your official duties will foster the further development of mutually beneficial Russian-Belarusian relations in all spheres,” Putin said, which he said were in the “fundamental interests of the brotherly peoples of Russia and Belarus.”

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