Protesters flooded onto the streets of Minsk, the capital city of Belarus, on Aug. 16 in the largest show of opposition to the validity of the results of an election held a week earlier and won by the nation’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, who rejects any possibility of a do-over.
About 200,000 people attended the protest amid a surprising lack of police, who are notorious for violently suppressing dissent in a nation ruled with an iron fist by its first and only president. Thousands of protesters have been detained and two killed since the security forces cracked down on demonstrations following the election on Aug. 9.
Protesters who were later released showed bruises they said were due to police beatings; some protesters carried pictures of loved ones they said had been beaten so badly that they couldn’t attend.
Lukashenko, the only member of the Belarusian Parliament to vote against the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, attended a much smaller rally held by supporters on Aug. 16, telling the crowd that “the motherland is in danger” and that Belarus would “will perish as a state” if the election is rerun.
Amid the daily protests, the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin promised to assist Lukashenko, if needed, in accordance with a collective military pact.
Opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya claimed she won the election with 60 to 70 percent of the vote. She has since fled to Lithuania and formed a council to coordinate a peaceful transition of power. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius referred to Lukashenko as the “former president” in a Twitter message on Aug. 5.
Lukashenko holds virtually unlimited power over the government apparatus in Belarus. The lower house of the country’s Parliament doesn’t have a single seat held by an opposition party. Lukashenko appoints the members of the upper house and nearly all judges.
Lukashenko’s domestic, economic, and foreign policies are similar to socialist and communist dictatorships. A former director of a collective farm and member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko has backed state ownership of key industries.
Belarus has retained a vast amount of Soviet symbolism even as other former republics, including Ukraine, have actively rejected and shed it. It has no free press and no free and fair elections. Lukashenko’s repression of opponents have earned him the title of Europe’s “last dictator” among European and Western officials.
The protest in Minsk was peaceful and celebratory. People chanted “long live Belarus” and “we won’t forget or forgive.” They waved the red-and-white flags used in Belarus after the 1991 break from the Soviet Union, which Lukashenko replaced with the communist-era banner shortly after taking power.
“We all want Lukashenko to step down,” Alexei, a 31-year-old protester, said. “For now, we are asking, but we will get sick of asking.”
Maria Kolesnikova, referring to Lukashenko as “the former president,” said he should quit, and appealed to state officials to abandon him.
“This is your final chance to overcome your fear,” she said. “We were all scared, too. Join us and we will support you.”
Alla Georgievna, 68, an attendee of the smaller rally of supporters where Lukashenko spoke, said she still supports the president.
“I don’t understand why everyone has risen up against him. We get our pensions and salaries on time thanks to him,” she said.
“Now, everybody is against Lukashenko, and the president needs our support. Everybody suddenly has forgotten the good things he has done—there’s order in the country, we don’t have war or hunger,” said supporter Tamara Yurshevich, a 35-year-old lawyer.
At the rally, Lukashenko, who has previously alleged that foreign powers are conspiring against him, said that NATO tanks and airplanes were within 15 minutes of the nation’s border. NATO said that while it’s closely monitoring the situation in Belarus, there’s no military build-up at the country’s western border.
The protesters say the election was rigged, while Lukashenko stands by the official figures that showed him winning, with more than 80 percent of the vote. Internet polls conducted prior to the election showed a starkly different picture, with the authoritarian leader getting less than 7 percent of the vote in five surveys.
“Severe restrictions on ballot access for candidates, prohibition of local independent observers at polling stations, intimidation tactics employed against opposition candidates, and the detentions of peaceful protesters and journalists marred the process,” Pompeo said.
Despite Putin’s offer of military assistance to quell the unrest, the relationship between Russia and Belarus has become increasingly strained since the start of the year. In January, Lukashenko accused Putin of trying to make Belarus a part of Russia. In July, Belarus arrested 33 Russian military contractors and Lukashenko accused Moscow of trying to send in 200 fighters ahead of the election to destabilize Belarus.
The recent developments suggest that Russia, which has already executed a successful geopolitical land grab in Ukraine, may be guided by ulterior motives in offering help.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.