Belarus president hunkers down as crowds demand he leave

By Anton Troianovski

Tens of thousands of people marched on the palace of President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus on Sunday, demanding he resign, as large-scale protests against the longtime, authoritarian leader entered their fourth week.

The crowd appeared to be at least as large as those of the previous two Sundays, when estimates put the protesters’ numbers at more than 100,000. The demonstrators deployed an angry, acerbic wit but virtually no violence, and for the third weekend in a row, authorities refrained from widespread use of force or mass detentions.

The large turnout indicated that the explosion of popular fury against Lukashenko that began with the Aug. 9 presidential election is nowhere close to abating. He claimed a landslide victory that is widely believed to have been falsified and responded to the mass demonstrations that followed with a violent crackdown.

Belarus, like Ukraine, is a strategically located former Soviet republic, wedged between Russia and the former eastern bloc nations that have become democracies and joined NATO and the European Union. Lukashenko, who turned 66 on Sunday, has led Belarus since 1994, aligning himself with Russia while building a government tougher on political dissent than any other in Europe.

On Sunday, protesters marched through the main streets of Minsk, the capital, past a war monument encircled by razor wire and camouflage-clad soldiers and toward the Independence Palace, one of Lukashenko’s residences. At the palace, the protesters stopped when they were met by an imposing line of riot police officers that was backed by at least three military-armored personnel carriers.

They chanted, “Go away!” in the direction of the palace. Since it was his birthday, there was also: “Lukashenko, come out! We will congratulate you!”

Lukashenko did not come out, but his press secretary released a photograph of him in a white T-shirt and black bulletproof vest in front of the palace, clutching a rifle.

Police said more than 100 people had been detained in Minsk, but protesters felt safety in numbers in the city streets amid the sea of white-and-red national flags used by the opposition. One group staged a mock funeral procession for Lukashenko, complete with a makeshift coffin; another carried a huge cloth figure of a cockroach, one of the nicknames that Belarusians have given to their president.

“People have gotten tired of everything and stopped being afraid,” Karina Romanovskaya, a 37-year-old protester who works in retail, said shortly after a column of riot police officers marched by to chants of “Shame!”

“I am proud to live in such a wonderful country,” she said.

But a path to unseating Lukashenko, who insists the West is fomenting the demonstrations, remains far from clear. He faced a backlash after mass beatings and the detention of thousands of protesters in the days after the election and is now avoiding scenes of violent repression that could discredit him further.

Instead, he appears determined to wait out the protests, detaining activists and expelling foreign journalists while touting the backing of his most important ally, President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Putin recently said that Russian law enforcement officers were prepared to come to Lukashenko’s defense should the situation in Belarus spin “out of control.”

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said that the accreditation of 19 journalists had been revoked, the Reuters news agency reported Sunday. They included a video journalist and a photographer from Reuters, as well as journalists from the BBC and the French news agency Agence France-Presse, the news organizations said.

Lukashenko’s political opponents have stressed that they are not trying to loosen ties between Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people, and Russia. They are all too aware of what happened after a popular uprising toppled a pro-Moscow president of Ukraine in 2014. Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Many of Lukashenko’s prominent critics have been jailed or forced into exile, including protest leaders and three men who had planned to run against him. His leading opponent in the election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said she had won, but fled the country.

The protests have been largely led by women, and thousands of women marched against Lukashenko in Minsk on Saturday, setting the stage for Sunday’s demonstration. At one point, the women pushed through a line of riot police officers, video footage showed, who hesitated to use force against them.

On Sunday, one of the few protest leaders who is still free and in Belarus, Maria Kolesnikova, walked up to the masked riot officers guarding the presidential palace and flashed a heart sign with her hands, a symbol of the protests.

“Take care of yourselves, guys,” she told the police, in a scene recorded on video and posted on social media. “We will save you. We’re with you until the end.”

She then turned with a megaphone to the protesters and urged them to remain peaceful.

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